Federal Funding Impact Story #10

dennis meissner on NHPRC’s Archival research fellowships program and “more product, less process”

Dennis Meissner

Dennis Meissner is the retired Deputy Director for Programs at the Minnesota Historical Society, a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists, and a past president of SAA. Most of his career has focused on the arrangement, description, and use of archival materials, and he has participated in a number of national and international efforts to develop standards and practices in those areas.  In 2003-2004 he collaborated with Mark Greene on the NHPRC-funded More Product, Less Process research project, which has seen broad adoption within American archives and special collections.

In this special contribution to our Federal Funding Impact Stories series, Mr. Meissner reflects on the importance of federal funding in facilitating the research project that resulted in the seminal article “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” in the fall/winter 2005 issue of The American Archivist.

Granting Agency: National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC)
Grant Program: Archival Research Fellowships Program
Program Fellows: Mark Greene, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming; Dennis Meissner, Minnesota Historical Society
Project Title: More Product, Less Process
Grant Period: 2003-2004
Award Amount: $10,000

Project Description
There is no shortage of archivists and repositories that have benefitted materially and professionally from the largesse and strategic investments made by the NHPRC over the past half century.  My own institution, the Minnesota Historical Society, received microfilming grants beginning in the 1960s and continued to benefit from Commission funding up through the past decade with generous backlog reduction and digitization grants. These are the sort of benefits with which archivists are most familiar.  Although the NHPRC budget has usually been modest, its grants have greatly assisted countless repositories in their efforts to achieve programmatic sustainability, records preservation, and service innovation.

But NHPRC has invested in a variety of other projects over the years, less well known but equally helpful to archivists and their profession.  One of those projects, near and dear to my heart, was the Archival Research Fellowships Program that was active from 2002 through 2005.  The Research Fellowships were set up as a three-year program established with an award of $143,000 to manage a new, non-residential archival research fellowship program. The program was administered by representatives from the Massachusetts Historical Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, and WGBH Educational Foundation.

Members of the three annual cohorts of Fellows (4-6 per year) were each required to conduct research and write about a topic of importance to the archival profession, with proposals concerning electronic records given a somewhat higher priority.  The program resulted in a number of fine projects that advanced archival thinking and produced important publications, perhaps the most widely beneficial of them being Richard Pearce-Moses’s A Glossary of Archival & Records Terminology (SAA, 2005).

The program also funded the year of research that led to the publication of the “More Product, Less Process” article.  So, it is with great fondness and deep gratitude that I think back on the crucial role that NHPRC funding played in making that project a reality for Mark Greene and me.  In short, we would probably not have attempted that significant work without the financial support provided by the Fellows Program and (equally important) without its absolute deadline and firm expectation that we would report out something of merit at the end of a year.  The stipend itself funded an important research trip to D.C. to research historical grant files, my travel to Wyoming so that we could work shoulder to shoulder in early project scoping and writing sessions, and to hire student help in capturing and analyzing a large body of survey data.  The expectation to produce results focused our thinking and forced us to work quickly and energetically toward our goal.  That compressed work and energy could not have happened without our Commission support.

MPLP was made possible by generous NHPRC support through the funding vehicle provided by its Archival Research Fellowships Program, a gift that supported important work by a number of archivists over its brief duration.  This type of strategic investment in archivists and the archival profession is carried on today though the Commission’s support of the Archives Leadership Institute, which is helping a large number of mid-level professionals prepare themselves to become senior leaders in their repositories and in their profession.  I am continually impressed with NHPRC’s ability to strategically plant modest seeds that grow innovation and resilience throughout the U.S. archives community.

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