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Transmissions from the Timothy Leary Papers: MPLP, the New Standard?


During the past several years, the archives profession has been rocked by a paper by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner titled "More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing."[1] Through examining surveys of archival processing practices, Greene and Meissner proposed that switching the emphasis from physical arrangement and preservation practices to intellectual arrangement and description would expedite the processing of most collections. The upshot of their findings was a plea to end backlogs for unprocessed collections. This method (now simply referred to as "MPLP") was immediately embraced by institutions saddled with large backlogs requiring decades, if not centuries to eliminate.

Before MPLP, a typical method for addressing under-processed collections would entail the creation of a lone, collection-level catalog record, possibly accessible through Worldcat. It's a sad attempt in providing access, but can be a lifeline to researchers, alerting them if a potential gold mine exists in the repository world.

Another pre-MPLP strategy would have been to process a collection to the extent possible in order to provide access, then "re-process" at a later time to refine access points and address additional preservation needs. Once available for research, demand might call for re-processing widely used parts of a collection: a sort of supply-and-demand method of processing. Some may find that type of method undemocratic, if you will, ignoring the under-represented, yet equally important areas of research. I will leave that for another post, another time.

Considering the recommendation presented by Greene and Meissner, any collection can be processed in any given amount of time. A processing plan establishing priorities and a timeline is crucial. While my project is not part of a backlog, I have a limited amount of time to process a rather large collection. Given this opportunity, I need to make difficult decisions regarding the priority for standard archival tasks. Removing letters from envelopes? Unfolding documents? Removing rusty paperclips? Ordering the contents within folders? These are the tasks that will need to fall by the wayside.

I have to admit, old habits die hard. I find myself removing a paperclip here and photocopying a newspaper clipping there. I open a folder with oversized material and ponder whether to take the time to separate, unfold and label the item. I hang my head when admitting my compulsion to sort letters in chronological order. I must carry on in the hopes I will have time to return to these tasks.

Repurposed boxes and those awaiting processingRepurposed boxes and those awaiting processing

Here are the stats for the Timothy Leary papers project:

Size: 411 linear feet
1 full-time employee @ 18 months
4+ interns @ 120 hours each

I am far past the halfway point in this project. Panic has not yet set in, but I do lay awake some nights going over what I should have done, or need to do — thankfully I forget the half of it by morning. What is probably best for the project is a happy medium between MPLP and traditional archival processing.

Timothy Leary made a considerable effort organizing his records and enlisted the help of others to help with the arrangement. After his death on May 31, 1996, Leary's remains where shot into space, but his estate still needed a final resting place for his records, even as the organization of his papers continued post-mortem. The problem of the many hands involved with the physical organization of the collection created more inconsistency and inaccuracy. My challenge is to consider the value of his and his colleagues' organization while applying a logical order using standard description to aid researchers in finding what they are seeking.Even Leary himself agonized over how to organize his papersEven Leary himself agonized over how to organize his papersOne of many documents numbered by Leary in his arrangement scheme. As seen in the previous document, #2 corresponds to "notes"One of many documents numbered by Leary in his arrangement scheme. As seen in the previous document, #2 corresponds to "notes"One strategy that takes MPLP into consideration is to target parts of the collection with anticipated high research value and spend more time in the physical arrangement of this material. For example, I will identify loose writings that relate to the development of particular software so the researcher doesn't have to wade through boxes and boxes of dot-matrix print-outs to locate all of the Mind Mirror documentation. Yet, I can't tear apart each page of those accordion printouts… sorry, no time. Or another example may be noting important correspondents within the general correspondence files to alert researchers of dates to consult for letters, from say, Tom Robbins or William Burroughs. But do I have time to comprehensively claim every folder that contains such correspondents? No.

A broad definition of “manuscripts”A broad definition of “manuscripts”Then again, physical arrangement may be as necessary as intellectual arrangement. For example, "important" items throughout the collection were previously pulled to create auction lots that would appeal to potential bidders. These boxes, labeled "gems," served their purpose, but do not need to be maintained. The collection is not described at the item-level, so these materials need to be re-filed with their appropriate records. I could take a strict MPLP approach and simply leave the "gems" alone, but I would be doing a disservice to researchers, staff and anyone else who needs to consult the finding aid. I want to avoid the "re-processing" option. If I take extra time and effort arranging and describing the material now, the reward will be a stable structure that will stand the test of time. In this case, is MPLP a house built of straw or bricks?

Once the collection is open, researchers will still need to dig. Digging will require time, but this is well-rewarded. The "More Product, Less Process" catch-phrase strikes me as the complete opposite of the oft-quoted approach to art creation: it's the process, not the end product is the purpose.[2] In this vein, I will let others enjoy the "process" and truly own their own research work to create their own works of art, be it scholarly papers, documentary films, or personal projects. If they can find what they're looking for within a reasonable amount of time, my work will be done.

[1] "More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing"
Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner
The American Archivist, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Fall - Winter, 2005), pp. 208-263
Published by: Society of American Archivists
Article Stable URL:

[2] "Process Art." Wikipedia. 10 Dec. 2012


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