In this month’s post, newly minted museum archivist Rachel Fellman looks at processing through the lens of tabletop roleplaying games.
As student archivists, I think we are all a little haunted by Greene and Meissner’s classic article “More Product, Less Process.” Underneath its hectoring and realpolitick, underneath its debatable assumption that process in itself isn’t important, there’s a sharp little question: what is the best way to use our time? Given a profession where we’ll always have more work than person-hours available, what’s the best way to make our materials findable and keep them preserved? There’s no real answer to that, only a long wrestling session that goes on until we retire. And the purpose of Greene and Meissner’s essay is to teach us to wrestle.
After we’ve learned that, though, we get a professional job. And we realize it’s not as simple as “processing: minimal or old-school?” Take me, for example. I work at a small museum dedicated to a single artist’s work. Almost every item in the archives is a potential exhibit, and it’s paramount that the curator be able to use the catalogue to design exhibits. As such, we process at the item level, and we scan everything. At the same time, since we have a limited staff and our collections are largely for internal use, we don’t write many finding aids, and we prioritize cataloguing over physically organizing our materials. Also, although we do most standard preservation work, we don’t remove paperclips or staples – we have good climate control, but more to the point, we like things to stay in their original, display-ready condition. We have a lot of photo albums and stapled-together items, and much of that still looks as it did when it arrived.
So what kind of processing is that? It has some aspects of minimal processing – the limited writing, the metal that stays in. But we also do a ton of item-level processing, which is anathema to the minimal philosophy. “Don’t process at the item level” is Greene and Meissner’s real point. All the stuff about paperclips and sleeves is just icing.
I would submit that the moment we take a job with “Archivist” in the title is also the moment we stop doing minimal processing – or maximal processing, or any other kind. Instead, we’re doing what tabletop roleplayers call “min-maxing,” which means optimizing your character’s stats. When you have a limited number of points to dole out to various traits, and you’re creating – say – a wizard, you might take points from their dexterity and add them to their intelligence, leaving them brilliant but clumsy. Which is fine, because a wizard doesn’t need to be an escape artist or a master thief. They’re here to cast Fireball and heal the barbarian.
Minimal processing itself is a form of min-maxing, of course. But it’s not the only form, and I think we can all take a lesson from the tabletop community: a university archives is not a corporate archives or a museum archives, just as a warrior is not a cleric or a rogue. Each one has different needs and uses, and it’s up to the archivist’s judgment to assign their stats and equipment so that they bring the right things to the party. This is common sense, but in my case, I really had to move on from my student job before I could internalize that one archivist’s waste of time is another archivist’s valuable daily labor — whether that’s item-level description, unclipping paperclips, or scanning artwork.