Thursday, December 04, 2014

Radicalism in Archives

Question posed for submissions to Archive Journal on "radical archives"
  • Is radical content (e.g., the archives of activist collectives, social movements, or avant-garde artists) best served by practices that eschew archival standards? What are the short- and long-term consequences of such decisions?

This question is one that skirts a central issue of archival work, one that is sometimes addressed and sometimes not, in the ebb and flow of mainstream discourse. Instead of asking questions about radical content eschewing archival standards, we should be asking Whose archival standards? The Eurocentric view of archival standards has long been a (somewhat) debated topic, as we try to fit "round" archival collections into the "square pegs" of our system of arrangement or description.

Archival standards were, for a very long time, amorphous, and by design. In the early days of creating Dublin Core, the debate was heated about what was "necessary" to description and what was optional. All archival collections are unique, the argument ran, so placing global restrictions or requirements on them would be anathema to their nature. This argument has largely fallen by the wayside in the past 20 years, as people have grown comfortable with the idea of standards and best practices and digitization workflows. But we are now faced with a new challenge: archival standards and traditional practices are based entirely on Western European models of governance and structure, and communities which are not "traditional" would like to have their own archives, based on their own needs.

As we learn more and new techniques for streamlining our processes, as the amount of records and information grow ever larger, we're actually blocking ourselves from engaging these other communities. How can one even understand, much less successfully document, a community's structure and flow of information if the community does not fit inside the model of structure and information flow which we have determined is the "default"? 

Obviously the archival community skews white/cis/middle or upper-class. This is not an opinion, by the way, it's a fact of which archivists are well aware. Many people would like to change this, to see more diverse types of people become archivists. I sit on an internship group for SAA which is specifically trying to bring in more diverse applicants for internships. But how welcoming is this profession, really, when everything we do, our entire history, is wrapped around models of information flow and recordkeeping that are divorced from all communities, save the one holding power? How well would a colleague of Native American/Hispanic/African-American/Asian-American descent be heard, in the face of all that assumed knowledge? Chris Rock said in a recent interview that being the only black guy in a room was kind of like being Bill Murray in Lost in Translation--fine, usually, but very lonely and no one understands what you're really saying.

Radical content is not the issue. There is no such thing as "radical content", and if people assume that there is, I think that speaks to a huge mindset problem in archives generally. Communities which are creating radical content should have a real stake in not just "eschewing" archival standards but having a hand in re-tooling those standards so that they better serve ALL communities. Intentionally "othering" everyone who is not the default is the very definition of a flawed system.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Dangers of Nostalgia

I've been thinking a lot on what makes an archives a good one or a bad one. Of course these are totally subjective terms--"good" and "bad"-- but I assume if an archivist steps inside a repository and sees certain things, it throws up a red flag and an institution can get piled into the "bad" category pretty quickly. Some of these things might be.... a really huge backlog, or maybe improper preservation techniques, or you see a silverfish on your sweater.

But to me, the thing that really kills an archives is nostalgia.

Now, many people who are not archivists think that the archival profession is built on a foundation of nostalgia, but I would argue the exact opposite. Archivists have to be ruthless in their rejection of nostalgia. I do not ever, ever keep something because it's got great packaging, or because it "seems really neat." My job as an archivist is to look past the trappings to the information contained therein, and assess it with a cool head. I usually ask these questions of any item coming into the archives:

1) Is this item already being preserved by another institution, or can I safely assume it is being preserved elsewhere?

2) Does this item fit within the scope of my collection? If it does not, what is the exceptional circumstance which is compelling me to keep this item rather than passing it to an institution into whose scope it does fit?

3) Is this a high-information object, or is it duplicating information which can be found elsewhere?

4) Is this an item which I am beholden to keep by law or historical expectation?

See how far down the list "beholden" comes? LAST PLACE. Because in truth, I am beholden to keep very, very little in the grand scheme of archives. But if I am not careful and vigilant, I could end up keeping all kinds of things which are thrust upon me by nostalgia. Special Collections have this problem too: "Oh look how pretty the binding is on this 1874 edition of Alice in Wonderland! We should keep it!"
Should we? If my collection scope is strictly American South in the 20th century, then it doesn't matter how pretty the binding is, it does not fall into any category under which I am entitled to keep it. My job in this case is to find an institution who *does* collect these things and make sure it has a safe home there.

Now, getting back to archives, this same problem applies. "Don't you *want* to keep these 50 posters announcing the President's Convocations at the university over the past 5 years?"  This is the wrong question. The right question is "Do I have the space to keep these 50 posters which offer no new information, but only duplicate exactly the information I already have in my files and in the actual transcriptions and video recordings of these convocations?"

Archives are not blessed with infinite resources or space, and the fight against nostalgia is one that we probably fight every day, in some form or another. An archives which does not fight against nostalgia, which embraces it instead, is probably not a very good nor useful archives. It will be an archives with a huge backlog or unprocessed material, with more coming in all the time, which has no sense of itself or what community it's supposed to be stewarding. It will try to be all things because it assumes that no one else "cares" about these things as much as it does. All of which are dangerous to an archives' long term health.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Square pegs in round holes

There is really nothing like trying to explain best practices and limitations to lay people to clear your thinking on archival and library processes.

Yesterday I was interviewed by a group of MBA students out of UCLA. They were curious about how archivists and digital librarians approach their large digital projects, including how we create metadata. They are hypothesizing a content (or digital asset) management product which would go through audio or audiovisual materials and pull rich subject metadata out of those objects. Not to toot my own horn, but since I've been working in libraries and then archives and then libraries and then metadata and then archives, I feel like I know quite a bit about how products work or don't work for digital projects of many types.
(I informed them that the QC on the backend would be substantial (especially since you're throwing all these subject terms into a relational database!) and that's something a company would need to be upfront about or no one would touch it.)

But these people were babes in the proverbial woods, seriously. They asked me if I thought it was "important" to be able to get my data out of a proprietary system. HAVE YOU EVER MET A LIBRARIAN BEFORE. Yeah, it's moderately to extremely-goddamn-important to be able to use this data in applications beyond your proprietary system.

But the reason I'm writing about this is because of one thing that we talked about in particular, and it came out of the discussion about flexible metadata. They asked me if I'd like for my DAMS to work directly with an ILS or federated searching agent or union catalog, without my intervention. So I thought about it, because yes, that sounds great to me, but...there is a problem. I almost never put single digital assets into a catalog.

I use ContentDM. It works fine. But like many digital asset management systems, it deals with single objects. On the other hand, the lion's share of my cataloging and sending off to various places happen with collections of items, with descriptions rarely getting down to the granularity of a digital object.

Suddenly the immense problems in digital archives came into focus (and I admit, I kind of laughed hysterically while explaining this to the poor baby MBA students): creating digital records for digital objects bogs us down because our work is designed to ignore single objects.

I know we have a ton of workarounds for this problem--digitizing a whole collection (or most of it), creating finding aids that integrate links to digitized items, etc--but seriously this is such a huge, huge fundamental problem. My traditional archival practices and procedures and ideals, if I am expected to couple them with parallel digital and physical collections, simply don't work very well. If they work at all. No wonder so many archivists are pulling their hair out trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. The square peg fits but only if you take a saw and make the hole a lot bigger.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Story V. The Reality

A fellow archivist and I saw a job ad for the position of assistant archivist at Tiffany & Co. Now, neither of us knows anyone from their corporate or historic archives, nor do we have any idea of how the institution works. But some job ads just grab your imagination!

This is what we imagined:

Everyone is in pencil skirts and fashionable scarves, wool trousers and silk vests, slender and tall. People bring their lunches in custom bento boxes and sit among the trees on the expansive grounds surrounding the buildings. They go to the City on the weekends, just to get brunch and do some shopping. They ride vintage bicycles to work through their small town streets. The women have long hair which they put up with pencils in a fit of pique while studying design drawings. 

Then, we were laughing because of course no archives is truly like that. It's more like THIS:

It's a faceless concrete box with arrow-slit windows in Jersey, there are backlogs of files and drawings everywhere. No one can find the 1936 Fall catalog even though Jeanette said she put it back. Jeanette, by the way, is the worst. She talks about everyone behind their back, has no sense of how to properly enter metadata into a database, but got hired because she speaks French (she's the daughter of a French farmer's daughter and an engineer from Jersey City, something she keeps a secret). 
The coffee is always bad because Jeff, the head of Decorative Arts, refuses to clean the coffee pot properly, citing potential ruination of his vintage cuff links. Jeff has Pomeranians and is generally horrible to everyone. The previous archivist didn't keep proper accession records so everyone has to work backwards from the old records, making it all ten times harder. The subject of electronic records is being "saved" for the new archivist they're hiring.
The one person of note at this institution is Gwendolyn, the head of the jewelry collections, the irrefutable Queen. Her outfits are simple but impeccable; she carries the same vintage Dior handbag every day because it was her grandmother's. She grew up in Boston but studied at the Sorbonne, and gives Jeanette a withering glace every time she starts talking about how superior the French are at everything. Jeff has been trying to get into her good graces for years; he desperately wants to get out of the document archives and into the museum collections. Unfortunately for Jeff, she knows that his "vintage" cuff links are really late-era reproductions. Gwen never talks about people behind their back, but once complimented your scarf, which you knit yourself, and you almost died. 
"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.