Prologue Magazine

Working Smarter

“More Product, Less Processing”

Spring 2012, Vol. 44, No. 1

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


One of the seldom-told stories about the National Archives is the work of our National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

Most people, if they have heard of the NHPRC at all, know about its work in supporting historical documentary editions—the papers of American Presidents and other statesmen or civil rights leaders. Or they have a general notion that we award grants for preservation and access projects at state and local government agencies, colleges and universities, and nonprofit organizations.

In fact, since we began giving grants in 1964, the NHPRC has awarded $207 million to 4,900 projects in all 50 states and special jurisdictions.

But the untold story about the NHPRC is its support for research and development—a national investment in the infrastructure of archives over the past 50 years.

Did you know, for example, that the very first grants the NHPRC made were for five manuals on basic archival techniques for beginning-level archivists and small repositories? Did you know that the NHPRC was the very first federal agency to fund electronic records? That it was instrumental in the development of Encoded Archival Description? That it helped in the propagation of XML and metadata for electronic records? That it funded major studies on how historical researchers gain access to sources?

Along the way, the NHPRC founded the Institute for Documentary Editing, now in its third decade, and the Archives Leadership Institute, the first program of its kind to train midcareer archivists and records managers for leadership positions.

This June, the NHPRC will launch the Founders Online, an online database of all of the documents of six key figures in the creation of our nation: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. The NHPRC's mass digitization initiative is helping dozens of archives rapidly digitize and put online major historical records collections.

The list of new tools, strategies, and techniques goes on and on, and the effects on the archives profession have been profound.

For example, the NHPRC funded archivists Mark Greene and David Meissner to undertake a survey of unprocessed 20th-century manuscript collections. Their report, "More Product, Less Processing: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late 20th-Century Collections," appeared in the Fall/Winter 2005 edition of the American Archivist.

The "More Product, Less Processing" (MPLP) protocols encouraged archivists to consider new ways of dealing with unprocessed collections by eliminating item-level processing before making the collections accessible. The authors found that archivists could process an additional 400 feet a year by processing no lower than the series level.

The NHPRC has gone farther than any other major archives funder in embracing MPLP principles. In its funding guidelines, the NHPRC requires that projects guarantee that virtually all of its collections are or will soon be open for research and locatable online. This embodies one of MPLP's key tenets—that repositories should provide a basic, minimum level of access to all their collections before giving intensive attention to a select few.

In the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of the American Archivist, Mark Greene took up the question of the influence of the technique, finding that: While MPLP focused exclusively on processing, its premises can be applied to other aspects of archival administration. Even beyond appraisal, electronic records, conservation, reference, and digitization, the most basic arguments of MPLP can affect the way archivists do their jobs. The goal is to work smarter, not harder; to do things "well enough" rather than "the best way possible" to accomplish more with less (or the same) resources.

In these austere times, doing more with less is a challenge faced by all—including the National Archives. Through the NHPRC, we will continue to interact with our colleagues in the field to find ways to work smarter.

The Commission plays a modest but catalytic role in the ways archivists work smarter—through strategic investments in our cultural heritage and through our research and development for the field as a whole.

Perhaps most important, it complements the mission of the National Archives to preserve and make public the records of the American people.

Join the Archivist at his own blog and visit the National Archives website.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.