Archival Backlogs: Tackling the Mountain

Climbers on Mount Garibaldi

I have had the great privilege of starting a municipal archives. With grand intentions and a touch of naiveté, I set out to process everything that came in before acquiring the next fonds or collection. One in, one done, no archival backlogs. This worked, for a time. As word of the new archives spread, the volume of donations and transfers outpaced my ability to process them immediately. Even with the best intentions, I was quickly faced with a backlog.

We all have ’em. We all worry about them. They become our not-so-well-kept archival secret and we end up growing to accept them as a given. Some archives try to ensure that donations of records include the funds required to process them. This is one way of tackling the ever-present resource issue. But not all donations come with funding – most will not. We will never have sufficient resources, but we know that our job is to make records accessible. In response, archivists in institutions large and small have come up with creative ways of tackling the sometimes mountainous backlogs. Sometimes their methods even have catchy titles!


Abandon item-level processing all ye who enter here

Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner first published their “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP) model for archival processing in the American Archivist in 2005 (read the full text here). The article put plainly the fact that archival processing was simply not keeping up with acquisitions. This is not surprising, as arrangement, description, and cataloging are complex processes that require significant time and resources. Their research hypothesis was that “processing projects squander scarce resources because archivists spend too much time on tasks that do not need doing, or at least don’t need doing all the time.” The goal should be to maximize user access to archives.

The authors offered several recommended guidelines:

  • “The physical arrangement of materials…should not take place below the series level.”
  • “Not all series and all files in a collection need to be arranged at the same level of intensity.”
  • “Describe the whole of the materials at a level of detail appropriate to that level of arrangement.”
  • “Always to prefer the acceptable minimum…and make each new situation argue for any additional investment of time and effort.”
  • “Rely on our storage area environmental controls to carry the preservation burden.”

The recommendation that most hit home with me was that “unprocessed collections should be presumed open to researchers.” I struggle with the idea of giving researchers access to material that is not in its perfect archival state. However, Greene and Meissner tell us that “we must stop fretting over what users might think about us if given a dirty, disorganized collection.”  There is more to be gained by providing access at all, than by providing perfectly pristine access.

The authors are the first to admit that their method has flaws. “Is this perfect? Not by any means, but it affords a much better balance of costs and benefits than does our current dedication to detailed arrangement.” What impresses me most about their method is that it dares to challenge the status quo to find reasonable solutions to problems faced by the entire profession. This is no small feat, and I applaud the effort. An assessment conducted by Stephanie H. Crowe and Karen Spilman in 2010 found that MPLP had “been widely accepted in the archival community.”  This assessment surveyed American institutions, but the methodology also gained traction in Canada. The 2011 ACA Conference Call for Submissions specifically mentioned it and articles (albeit, largely written by American archivists) appeared in Archivaria (see for instance Cheryl Oestreicher’s article from Archivaria 76).


Learning to swim in a sea of boxes

There are many examples of large government institutions having to face the extent of their backlogs. Back in 2006, the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States embarked on a processing initiative that examined their reference and processing functions in an effort to address a backlog of two million boxes.  They managed to tackle about 10% of the backlog in the first year of the project by calculating exactly how many staff members were required to perform essential functions and then allocating the rest to tackling the backlog. This method ensured that basic functions continued while progress was made in other areas. You can read more about this initiative here.

Recently, the Government of British Columbia reached an agreement with the Royal BC Museum to address the archival backlog of government records that has been accumulating for more than twenty years. Resources have been allocated to enable the transfer and processing of the existing 33,000 boxes. The agreement also addresses the processing needs of  future records by providing up to $400,000 per year for the next five years, at which time the agreement will be reviewed. The funds have now been earmarked, so it will be up to the RBCM to determine the allocation of these resources in order to process the backlog in a timely manner.


Embracing the golden minimum

I would like to highlight a recent effort to eliminate a backlog that is an excellent example of processing to the level that Greene and Meissner call the “golden minimum.” In 2014, the Auditor General drew attention to Library and Archives Canada’s 98,000 box backlog in Chapter 7 of its 2014 report. The recommendation was that “Library and Archives Canada should develop and implement a plan that establishes the approach, resources, budget with cost and efficiency gains estimates, and timelines to eliminate the backlog of government documentary heritage. Results on progress should be measured and reported to management on a regular basis.” LAC agreed with the recommendation and set about to “establish a dedicated task force and approve a plan to eliminate the Government of Canada’s documentary heritage backlog by December 2015.”

iPolitics report on LAC's archival backlogs
Article from iPolitics, November 25th 2014
LAC reported that its archival backlogs were 100% eliminated
LAC announced in December 2015 that the backlog had been 100% eliminated

Having worked at LAC, I knew what a challenging proposition tackling its sizable backlog would be. However, as promised, LAC announced in December 2015, that the backlog had been completely eliminated. I was suitably impressed but wanted to get a sense of how this monumental accomplishment was achieved, how processes have been altered at LAC, and what this means for researchers.


How did they do it? I asked an LAC archivist

Jenna Murdock Smith (Government Records Archivist at LAC) was kind enough to answer a few questions about the process. (Thank you also to LAC archivists Genevieve Morin, Emily MacDonald, and Rebecca Giesbrecht for their contributions to these responses)

Question #1: When the Auditor General’s Report was released, how did LAC respond?

Jenna:  LAC took the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) Report extremely seriously. Even prior to the release of the report, the newly-appointed Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Guy Berthiaume, established two small task forces in September 2014 to look theoretically at the two main issues identified by the report, one of which was the government records backlog. These two groups reported directly to a director general and worked full-time to review the extent of the problem and come up with an approach for tackling the backlog.

The approaches developed by these two task forces were approved by the Librarian and Archivist in October, and a larger dedicated Task Force on Government Records was established in early November. This Task Force had 50 dedicated employees and a three year mandate to accomplish two specific tasks:

  • Provide updated, comprehensive disposition coverage to all government institutions subject to the Library and Archives of Canada Act
  • Eliminate the government records backlog (98,000 containers)

The Task Force was focused specifically on these two goals and all other work touching upon government archives were assigned to other areas (e.g. information management).

Question #2: What sort of methodology was developed to tackle the backlog?  

Jenna: The small Accessioning Task Force that was established in September 2014 explored the problems with our existing approaches to accessioning, and arrangement and description. It identified two main goals: 1) elimination of the backlog; 2) development of process improvements.

The larger Task Force on Government Records promised to eliminate the 98,000 container backlog by December 2015. This was a very ambitious goal and it required us to think critically and strategically about how we could accomplish it. The methodology we used was based on a More Product, Less Process approach, where we attempted to manage risk as effectively as possible. The approach had five major elements:

  • Describe material at the accession level only (i.e. we did not physically process the records unless necessary)
  • Delay any major re-arrangement of fonds
  • Change our approach to accessioning specialized media
  • Eliminate unnecessary processes and organize ourselves to be as efficient as possible
  • Adopt a project management approach, where we track our progress and provide regular updates

Previously, LAC had dedicated specialized media teams (for photo, audio-visual, cartography/architecture, and art) that were responsible for the entirety of all non-textual records and who aimed to fully describe and process material, usually at an item level. This was not a sustainable approach anymore, especially for government records, as there were no longer the resources in place to provide this level of attention. It also was not always ideal from an intellectual perspective, as specialized media archivists did not necessarily have the corporate knowledge of the government institutions creating the material. At the same time, however, most government records archivists did not have experience dealing with specialized media.

When we looked at the backlog, we knew that many of the records were non-textual (indeed, in some cases that was why they had remained in the backlog for so long!). The Task Force adopted an ‘Integrity of the fonds’ approach, where the portfolio archivist responsible for the records created by a particular institution, would be responsible for records of all media. It also included a specialized media team, which, in addition to some portfolio responsibilities, consists of specialized media archivists dedicated to government records and to supporting other government portfolio archivists in navigating specialized media concerns.

In order to actually put this into practice, we adopted a ‘Triage, Treat, and Track’ approach, where we identified our specialized media holdings and noted the extent and/or severity of any media-specific issues, arranged for physical treatment (conservation, re-housing, etc.) for any material that required immediate work, and assigned codes in our system to any material that we knew we would have to come back to. This allowed us to be able to find material easily when we had the time and resources to address larger issues while also making our material as accessible as possible.

Question #3: LAC has reported that it has cleared 100% of the backlog. What does this mean in practical terms?

Jenna: Our goal was to make the 98,000 boxes discoverable to Canadians by the end of 2015, which we were able to do. By accessioning all of this material (or removing those that were non-archival), we have also gained a much deeper understanding of our holdings and the issues that we want to focus on in terms of improving accessibility going forward. Practically speaking, the public is able to find and order all of the material, however, it may not be as clearly arranged or described as we would like.

This year, we are going back to those accessions that we tagged to address any issues that were flagged as we worked through the backlog. This means revisiting any arrangement and description issues in existing fonds, improving existing finding aids, and most significantly, dealing with specialized media.

Government textual records at LAC are very rarely physically processed. This would be impossible in practical terms, given the incredible volume of archival material we deal with and the resources at our disposal. Textual records are relatively stable; much more so than other formats, so we have decided to focus our efforts there. We do physically process textual material that has preservation concerns or, in some cases, material that we believe will be heavily consulted by researchers. However, specialized media generally has a much higher need for processing, and archivists are now working on processing the material that was tagged as we worked through the backlog.

As you may have guessed at this point, you cannot be a perfectionist as a government records archivist at LAC! There is a certain amount of risk inherent in the work that we do, since we simply do not have the resources to physically process everything we bring into our collection. We have to think creatively about how we can make the most amount of material accessible

Question #4: Has this permanently changed processes at LAC? How do you see processing happening going forward?

Jenna: The biggest change to our processes has probably been to our approach to specialized media and adopting integrity of the fonds. Having specialized media archivists embedded in the Government Records Branch has helped bridge the gap between what largely used to be two solitudes: specialized media archivists on one side, and government portfolio archivists on the other. We can make appraisal decisions that specialized media-only archivists may not have been comfortable with in the past, as we have the depth of knowledge of our institutions and the overall picture of their records creation as well as more knowledge about specialized media. And portfolio archivists are learning new skills, by figuring out how to process specialized media records.

Many of the changes to our processes involved organizing ourselves differently. We found that the learning process went both ways for government textual archivists and government specialized media archivists. Just as Integrity of the fonds helped government textual archivists become acquainted with processing their own specialized media, being assigned a small amount of government portfolios helped government specialized media archivists become much more familiar with the intricacies and realities of government archives, such as writing disposition authorizations, liaising with government clients, answering ATIP requests, participating in RK days, and re-imagining description for very large amounts of non-textual records.

Going forward, we are working on improving processes related to arrangement and description, which are currently being thought out by a Description Working Group, which was created in the spring. Imagine the largest attic you have ever seen. Countless people have been adding to it for decades. Many corners have boxes that are neatly labelled, while elsewhere loose documents are stacked haphazardly. This is very much like what we are facing in terms of arrangement and description: organizing Canada’s attic! That is the challenge facing the Description Working Group now.


Go forth and tackle the backlog

To eliminate a backlog, there first needs to be the organizational will (and hopefully some additional resources). By focusing its resources into a dedicated Task Force, LAC was able to address its mountainous backlog. The National Archives and Records Administration in the U.S. also took the approach of ensuring there was a dedicated team for the job. While this approach may not be possible for the lone arrangers out there, it may be possible to use a scaled-down approach. Perhaps a dedicated day- Mountain Mondays? Or creating a simplified workflow that might enable a contractor to be hired to help with the backlog? Whatever the method devised, the general principle of an acceptable minimum will serve to constrain any processing project. We must resist the urge to attain processing perfection and be satisfied with sufficient.


Cover image: Franklin W. Hewton and others climb “The Ridge” on Mount Garibaldi (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-Mount-P4)