1990 letter

1990 letter

I was recently organizing some of my papers from high school, and I set out to find a letter that had been sent to me by one of my English teachers.  I remembered that she had given a speech at an awards ceremony and later mailed me a copy.  I’ve always been fairly organized in my recordkeeping, so I was able to quickly find this letter.  But I was distressed to find it had been copied on thermal paper and is almost illegible (see scan at right).  By holding the paper up to natural light and using inference to discern a few words that could not be read at all, I was able to reconstruct this letter with some degree of accuracy.  But had I waited another few years, it likely would have been lost entirely.

This type of paper was frequently used in copiers and fax machines in the 1980s and 1990s, and it is still quite common for store receipts.  I can’t find any reliable “life expectancy” for this sort of paper, and obviously environmental factors will play some role, but I know from personal experience that store receipts that use this paper become unreadable in a matter of years.

As an archivist, this concerns me when I consider collections that are processed according to MPLP.  Obviously, the point that Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner made in their 2005 article for The American Archivist is that too many collections sit unprocessed and, therefore, inaccessible to researchers, so it behooves us to carry out some minimal processing for the purpose of providing greater access to archival materials.  This makes a lot of sense to me, but my concern is that this approach may create a greater likelihood that the preservation needs of a collection may not immediately be recognized — and, therefore, may not be recognized until it is too late.

So here’s my latest thought.  There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the potential of crowdsourcing, and even institutions such as NARA use volunteers to help transcribe documents and identify photographs (see the Citizen Archivist Dashboard at http://www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist/).  So why can’t we crowdsource preservation?  MPLP is based on the premise that researchers would rather have full access to minimally processed collections within a shorter period of time instead of fully processed collections after a long period of wait.  If researchers do indeed have a vested interest in these collections, then why can’t we provide them with some minimal training so they can identify preservation concerns for any of the documents that they peruse?  It seems that this could be accomplished fairly easily with the confines of a normal reference interview, and the potential for identifying preservation priorities before the window of opportunity to save them closes would be a win for everyone involved.  Feel free to share if you know of any repositories that are pursuing this idea.