A Remembrance: Mark Greene’s Intellectual Contributions to Archives

In 2015, Mark Greene (left) received the Exemplary Service Award from the SAA Council during the annual meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, with Dennis Meissner (right) in attendance.

When Mark Greene died last June, the archival profession lost a leader and colleague whose contributions will not soon be repeated.  Mark was an archivist’s archivist.  It is hardly an exaggeration to say that he lived his profession to the exclusion of most other ordinary activities one could partake. The archival profession was his vocation, his recreation, and his top hobby.  As a result, Mark consumed archives voraciously; there was nothing written in the English language that he did not read, and there was very little written about archives that he did not care about.  And if he cared about it, he eventually wrote about it.  After thirty years in the profession, there are few areas in the archival domain about which he had not written or spoken.  I tried to sum up this impact, if cheekily, in introducing his 2008 SAA presidential address:

Although his heart lies in the area of archival appraisal, he has written and spoken with equal authority on such dispersed topics as privacy and confidentiality, on the administration of business records, on archival program management, on many aspects of college and university archives, on the nature and meaning of records, on service to users, and, of course, on processing and description. Still some years shy of geezerhood, he has already contributed a legacy of twenty-one published articles and book chapters to the professional literature.

And, even more maddening, Mark does none of this at the B-level. . . .  The notable thing about Mark Greene is not that he’s another smart kid in the room, but that he’s the utility fielder among them.  His publications in several of these areas have received awards, have been reprinted in anthologies, or have received other critical distinctions.

Appraisal and selection is, of course, the area of our knowledge base where Mark made the most numerous and the most impactful contributions.  His nine published works (and countless workshops and podium presentations) on appraisal (out of twenty eight articles and book chapters overall) began in 1994 and continued throughout his career.  From early on, Mark carved out some intellectual ground that he held pugnaciously to the end: that the only justification for acquiring and holding archives—indeed, the only meaningful test of value–is use;[1] that the highest value of archival holdings is found in their ability to preserve historical memory and convey meaning;[2] and that active selection and deaccessioning are essential strategic tools in achieving the overarching goal of serving users.[3]

But Mark’s comprehensive interest in the profession led him to think and write with an authoritative voice in numerous other archival sub-domains.  His earliest published writings focused on providing and enhancing user access to archival holdings and, truly, a career-long obsession of Mark’s was facilitating and expanding user access to archives.  He continually argued for, and sought means toward, putting more materials, more quickly, with fewer obstacles into the hands of archival users.  This goal animated his interest in the pursuing research on the mindsets and mechanics of processing that eventually led to “More Product, Less Process” and its utility in addressing non-processing performance problems within archives.[4]  This focus on benefitting users also reached into more controversial areas like privacy and confidentiality, in which Mark could be counted on as a strong voice for prioritizing user access over professional over-cautiousness.[5]

Mark’s writing focus widened throughout his career, eventually embracing archival leadership and administration, the meaning and significance of archives, promotion and outreach, diversity and inclusion and, finally, archives and social justice.[6]  The scope and scale of his engagement with archival thought and practice put him in an advantageous position to, in one way, culminate his efforts by presenting his colleagues with a set of “archival values” which he entreated them to own as an essential set of professional values and principles.  These recommendations, with some enlargement and modification, were adopted by SAA in 2011 as Core Values for Archivists as a companion to the code of ethics.  At the time of his death, Mark was beginning work on a new version of the SAA manual on appraisal and selection, and we will never know how he would approach that topic after thirty years of thought and practice.

So, what caused Mark Greene to think and write so widely, so prolifically, so energetically, and occasionally with so much truculence throughout his career?  In my opinion, Mark possessed a set of personal qualities that energized him, maintained his focus, and shaped his thought and writing:

  • He was passionate in his embrace of ideas and values. If Mark was into something he was in all the way.  This quality was often operationalized in a stubbornness bordering on the pigheaded.  Once convinced of the truth and the importance of something, he led perforce to promoting and defending it, tirelessly and with little inclination to retreat. Most of us to take up research and writing projects simply because the topic is interesting; this was seldom sufficient for Mark. To throw himself into an endeavor, he needed to care deeply about it, or to be angry about it, or to be frustrated that nobody else seemed to care about it.  Once so motivated, he was a bulldog who would research it exhaustively, debate it with colleagues, write with a sense of urgency and certitude, and stand up for it in any public forum at the drop of a hat.  His best writings—on appraisal and selection, on serving users, on privacy and confidentiality, on diversity, on the meaning of archives, and on stewarding resources—all bear witness to this quality and take their strength from it.
  • He inclined toward an almost knee-jerk promotion of the interests of archival users over the interests of other parties. Mark obviously cared about archival principles and standards, about donors, about archival and educational institutions, and about colleagues in various archival roles and functions. But he would almost always take the side of the researcher in any conflict of interests.  The dominant motivation in More Product, Less Process (MPLP) is to increase user access to archives by adjusting any and all archival practice that frustrates that goal. His many writings on appraisal tend to have the user of archives as their touchstone. This also animates his writings on confidentiality and privacy.
  • Mark had a profound desire to teach others, to share his knowledge and his passion and, in doing so, to serve his profession. Mark took great pride in being a mentor, to teaching his appraisal workshops, to addressing student groups. Much of his writing contains a thinly hidden animus to influence and shape the behaviors and convictions of an emerging generation of archivists, to steer them towards the things he valued—serving users, archives as sources of memory and meaning, liberating one’s work behaviors from the burden of unhelpful practices, and to have a passion about archives.

At the end of the day, I believe, these are qualities that drove Mark forward into the archival enterprise and which left all of us the beneficiaries of that energy, passion, and intelligence. Sadly, the end of the day came way too soon for us and our profession.

 

Dennis Meissner

 

[1] For example: “‘The Surest Proof’: The Use of Business Records and Implications for Appraisal,” Archivaria 45 (Spring 1998), 127-69. Online at http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12229/13253. Republished in Rand Jimerson, ed., American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice (Chicago, 2000), 301-44.

 

[2] For example:  “The Power of Meaning: The Mission of Archives in the Postmodern World,” American Archivist 65:1 (2002), 42-55.

 

[3] See, for example:  “What WERE We Thinking? Embracing Reappraisal and Deaccessioning as a Collection Management Tool,” Provenance 20 (2002) 33-49. 2002 David B. Gracy II Award; and, with Todd J. Daniels-Howell, “Documentation with ‘an Attitude’: A Pragmatist’s Guide to the Selection and Acquisition of Modern Business Records,” James M. O’Toole, ed. Records of American Business (SAA, 1997), 161-229. 1998 Waldo Gifford Leland Award (book).

 

[4] See: Dennis Meissner and Mark A. Greene, “More Application while Less Appreciation: The Adopters and Antagonists of MPLP,” Journal of Archival Organization 8:3 (2010), 174-226; and “MPLP: It’s Not Just for Processing Anymore,” American Archivist 73:1 (Spring/Summer 2010), 175-203.

 

[5] See, especially:  “Moderation in Everything, Access in Nothing?: Opinions About Access Restrictions on Private Papers,” Archival Issues 18:1 (1993), 31-41. 1992-93 Margaret Cross Norton Award.

 

[6] “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All That Important?” American Archivist 76:2 (Fall/Winter 2013): 303-35.  Sadly, Greene’s initial foray into this fraught subject invited angry critiques that his passing prevented him from addressing further.

 

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