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Processing Blackness: More Product, Less Process at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center Open Access

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This study explores the interpretation and application of the More Product, Less Process (MPLP) archival processing technique in the face of critical claims that this method of processing archival materials is explicitly neglectful of the physical integrity of the materials and tacitly, the specific narrative histories which they contain, convey, and construct (Greene & Meissner 2010; Crowe & Spilman 2010; Anchor 2013). While professional archival practitioners articulate the predominant critique of MPLP in particularly techno-centric language there are specific, historically and socially contingent motivations for an archivist or processor to either adopt or push back against the MPLP technique, which are often unaddressed. Specifically, in the case of Moorland-Spingarn and the valuable Black materials it houses the processing technique deployed is seen as a direct reflection of the expertise of the archivists working there and their right and ability to control the production of a truthful Black historical narrative within prevailing paradigms of proper archival practice.The archivist deploys his or her technocratic expertise in the moment as a result of his or her archival ideology—a concept elaborated from Paul Manning and Ilana Gershon’s (2014) media ideologies. While archivist Terry Cook (2012) offers four general archival paradigms (evidence, memory, identity, community) which have evolved broadly across history, archival ideologies are subjective and motivate the processing choice of the archivist as a result of the bundling of “archival properties” inherent to each document, environmental circumstances, and the archival paradigm (or paradigms) to which they adhere. This thesis analyzes classic and contemporary literature on archives and documents coupled with a diachronic examination of the evolution of archival theory and practice. A thorough definition of “archival ideologies” allows this analytical device to be used to explore the friction experienced in the archival processing space at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University between processors working with the D.C. Africana Archives Center and the full-time staff of Moorland-Spingarn regarding processing practice. Through the course of ethnographic observations and interviews, however, it becomes clear that the device of archival ideologies does not do the full work to explain the friction experienced at Moorland-Spingarn. Liam Buckley identifies that “much of the analysis of the archive as an object of critique works within an index of modernity that privileges order and regulation, command and control,” (2005: 250). At Moorland-Spingarn the drive to adhere to traditional processing practices which elevate order and control over access and user needs is a subversive act, in that it allows the collections of historically marginalized and “hidden” Black materials held in the repository to achieve the weight of archival truth long bestowed on non-marginalized materials and maintains control of the historical narrative within the repository itself. Although the head archivist’s understanding of institutionalized systems of inequality at Moorland-Spingarn—which have traditionally led Black materials to remain “hidden,”—is a part of her archival ideology, to leave the analysis at this point would be to reify the institutionalized nature of the management and preservation of closely-held artifacts of cultural heritage for traditionally marginalized communities.

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