Friday, April 17, 2015

Backlog...More Problems, Less Progress

One of the hardest tasks information professionals face is handling backlogs. This can be archival holdings, digital content, administrative files, artifacts, art work, and much, much more. There are many approaches to tackling the backlog problem, and, at least in the archives community, minimum processing standards, such as, Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner's More Product, Less Process (MPLP) have become, if reluctantly, somewhat standard. Their writings, along with other's advocating minimum processing standards, have become mainstays in the archival community. I'm not going to take a time here to discuss the relative merits of MPLP or any other processes. Rather, I'm going to focus this post on just a few observations regarding how to refine the way one views their backlog.

1. Backlog Permanence

The first problem I've noticed is the false belief that the backlog will ever go away. The backlog will never go away. There will always be new items arriving which take priority. Additionally, changes in staff, volunteers, and institutional focus will drive items forward or backward along the importance scale. So, the best strategy is to accept that a backlog will always exist. Conceding this point will enhance the strategic vision on how best to identify items of key value. This goes hand-n-hand with other strategic decisions which need to be made. Effectively, information professions need to become better strategic planners when it come to addressing the backlog problem. In so doing, we can examine items in the backlog with more rational eyes, and less with our natural reverence for the significance of the item.

2. Resource Allocation

Another difficulty that information professionals and organizations often face is the reluctance to allocate resources in a long-term and managed way. Face the facts--there will never be enough money, people, or resources to create the perfect library, archives, heritage center, records system, etc. Better approaches will define the scope of the issue, then determine the amount of resource that will be allocated to the task. In this way, costs can be defined and staff can be focused on tasks. There is nothing more frustrating then open-ended and variable commitments based on management interests and budgetary constraints. While on its face, open-ended commitments may seem okay, if not positive, the nature of open-ended commitments are too often reliant on factors outside organizational, if not, the personal control of anyone person.

One way to examine the issue might be to address backlog issues as a grant. Each item in the backlog has its own unique set of issues. What these issues are, who can handle those issues, and the cost of addressing those issues are always a part of grant applications. Now, you may or may not be able to address the issue (item) with one grant, but a grant lays down time and monetary markers. Reviewing these markers allows for clearer understandings about the extent of the issues at hand, and the costs that will be associated with further addressing the issue. Moreover, creating "boxes" around backlog items will help define importance. If a project is going to cost $10,000, but resources or resource allocators are only willing to provide $5,000, then something else needs to be done. Additionally, you can start to factor in the cost of doing nothing until someone decides that $10,000 is worth spending. Ultimately, if the item isn't worth "processing" and isn't worth "storing" then you can look to the "cost" of deaccessioning, and we all know the significance of deaccessioning.  

3. Focus

We all face difficulties focusing on tasks. In the information fields there are always competing claims on our focus. We are pulled by personal interests, research requests, and resources just to identify a few. A self-inflicted problem we face is treating the backlog as something that must be addressed in the same way, for all time. We don't need to treat the backlog the same way we treat the future. Sometimes its much more efficient and cost-effective to create "clean data breaks"-- effectively making an executive decision to do something new from this point forward, something we didn't do in the past, and that we're not going to spend time on "fixing the data set." Notice the quasi-statistics language here, which is quite intentional. There are always problems with data sets because they are constantly evolving. Your practices should evolve too. And, in most places, practices do evolve.

One problem I have observed is information professionals trying to evolve their past-practices to met new standards rather then just making a "clean break." Accordingly, this develops mental stress with additional, often unnecessary, administrative rectifications which have little benefit but come at a great cost. Simply stated, the cost-benefit analysis does not add up. Sometimes this accompanies issues with basic record-keeping practices. We must remember to keep basic and sound records-keeping practices in mind as we make decisions.

Just because we have 5, 6, 7, or 10 year-old records does not mean; A) We should, and B) We should add them into a new catalog, spreadsheet, or inventory. Here we need to go back to our "Resource Allocation" considerations:
  •  What are the resources required to accomplish the task? 
  • What could those resources being used here be used for if not on this task?
  • What is the legal, fiscal, or historical value of performing this task?
  • What are the chances that: 
    • Are there any liability or legal issues that need to be addressed?
    • We be able to recover any "data?" 
    • Will there be significantly improve access, practices, and/or information to warrant one method over another method in terms of time and cost?  
    • What additional costs will be associated with "recovery" and/or "modernization?"


Information professionals whether in a library, archives, museum, or records capacity face difficult decisions about addressing backlog issues. After all, it is always easier to accept a gift or donation than it is to explain why you might not want someone's prized possession. Additionally, I think, because information professionals understand the power of information, we often tie ourselves in knots trying to rectify the sins of the past. We, however, can only do so much. Focusing on creating fiscally responsible projects will make us better advocates for our collections, more responsible resource allocators, and mentally sound. Your backlog isn't going away--anytime soon--so be good to yourself and examine it with a more cost-benefit focus.

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