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NHPRC Promotes More Product, Less Processing

by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

One of the seldom-told stories at the National Archives is about the work of the 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, statesmen, or civil rights leaders. Or they have a general notion that the commission awards grants for preservation and access projects at state and local government agencies, colleges and universities, and nonprofit organizations. Since it began giving grants in 1964, the NHPRC has awarded $207 million to 4,900 projects in all fifty states and special jurisdictions.

The untold story of the NHPRC is its support for research and development—a national investment in the infrastructure of archives over the past fifty years. Did you know 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 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? The NHPRC also 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.

In June 2012 the NHPRC will launch the Founders Online, an Internet database of all of the documents of six key figures in the creation of the United States: 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 the archivists Mark Greene and David Meissner to undertake a survey of unprocessed twentieth-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 four hundred feet of material per year by processing no lower than the series level.

The NHPRC has gone further 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 the key tenets of MPLP: 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:

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 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 of the United States at his blog at http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus and visit the National Archives Web site at http://www.archives.gov.

About the Archivist

David S. Ferriero is the 10th Archivist of the United States. Prior to his confirmation on November 6, 2009, Ferriero served as the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries.