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. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On Curiosity

I am a very curious person. I like looking up random facts and tucking them away in my mental pockets, to pull them out and study them later. I enjoy microscopes and bits of information and sitting very still in various locations to see what happens when I do that. Curiosity, though, seems to be for the young. If I do a google search on "places for curious people" I inevitably come up with 80% children's museums, 15% adult reenactment websites, and 5% restaurants.

Where is the place for grownups who are curious about things? Some people might argue "graduate school", but I think most people who have attended graduate school know that there is generally very little room for curiosity in graduate school. I try to rope my friends into being curious with me, with usually quite limited success. I have resorted to sort of randomly barraging them with new knowledge while they snack on queso during a sporting event. And the thing is, I have amazing friends who are all quite talented and intelligent and interested in things. Yet, I can count on one hand the number of people I know that are just CURIOUS. And those people are just as fed-up with this situation as I am. Why are children the only ones encouraged to be curious? "Youth is wasted on the young", indeed. Where's my version of a children's museum, filled with science experiments and factoids and water tables? Some people point me to Makerspaces, which....ok? I suppose? but I'm not a builder. I see that these are fellow-curious people, but they want to discuss engineering concepts and solutions to physical problems. Makerspaces are also geared more towards the young, with the idea that curiosity can be commodified into generating engineers.

Another angle I've considered is political issues. Some people like to argue politics, but I do not think that discussing politics is an appropriate outlet for the intellectually curious, if I'm totally honest with myself. I find myself envying the old Royal Society of London (even though it's strictly scientists) for its camaraderie of inquisitiveness. But guess what? It's reserved for the "most eminent" scientists. If you are curious but not capable of successfully navigating the world of peer-reviewed research journals, you need not apply, sir.

 So where do the curious go, once they've grown up? I'm no Peter Pan, I have no desire to return to childhood. I just want to keep my curiosity going, to keep it fresh, to keep looking and learning and exploring knowledge. The internet assures me that I, as an adult, *should* be curious, because it makes me healthier and helps me live longer. As if curiosity can be turned on and off depending on how high my cholesterol is. Do people turn off their curiosity? Do they grow lazy? Have they learned everything already and I'm just lagging behind everyone else?

I bought a magnifying glass the other day. It seemed like a tool I could use. I also keep a tape measure near me in case of measuring opportunities. I keep my smartphone always, for checking Wikipedia or music lyrics or finding etymologies in the OED. I have no idea what drives me to be so curious, but I am and I like it. I just wish more other adults liked it, too.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Future of the Archival Professional

Lots of people are talking about the future of archives, mostly from the point of view of materials and access, and these are indeed very pressing issues. Reinventing the mission of the archives and finding ways to mediate and educate the user will certainly be the greatest challenge in the coming years.  But occasionally scholars are diving into the waters of defining archivists themselves. Richard Cox wrote a bit about what he terms the “generational divide” that archivists are facing. Cox postulated in 2011 that since many managerial archivists today did not grow up in a multiverse of information technologies, while their subordinates are “first-generation digital natives”, this is going to lead to a lot of friction about future paths, if it has not already. New careers and job titles are already flowing out of this new reality: digital archivist, data curator, instructional archivist. Seamus Ross, involved in digital humanities at the University of Toronto, has said that one of the most serious problems in archives today is the lack of collaboration between archivists and IT workers.  The gaps between those two groups are still large, although archivist like to think that they're closing it. Perhaps the "native digital" generation will help close that further, or maybe it's up to who will follow us to close it.
Lawrence Serewicz had an interesting postulation on how the materials we preserve will change: he claimed that in just 20 years, we may be faced with digital collections surpassing paper collections. I don't think he's being too hasty; if my own collections are any indication, some institutions are already at that point. Kate Theimer recently wrote that she envisions the entire mission of archives changing. To put it bluntly, I think this is amazing and I love her idea of explicitly calling archives a place that adds value to people's lives. For me, it ties in with how I want my institution's archives to be: a place where the community comes to find out about itself.

And these changes will necessitate a change in how archivists are created, and how archivists perceive themselves, and how archivists educate themselves and interact with their peers in IT and libraries and museums. As the archivist changes, so too does the archivist’s goals and ambitions. Diversity of experience leads to new definitions of what’s important to collect, the best means of collecting and preserving, and the best way to provide access. The whole plane is shifting under our feet. Embracing these changes is the only way to stay standing. I think that figuring out ways to incorporate the variety of skill sets/experiences of current or new archivists, beyond just their archival training, is a good way to start taking action. As Richard Cox said, we are dealing with generational issues and professional status issues, not just issues of products or process. This would be a small step, to be sure, but if we don't start with what we already have--our own diversity of experience and knowledge of the world, and personal feelings about how we interact with technology and the historical record--I'm not sure that we'll get very far with the other areas, either.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Archival stewardship

One of the things I'm thinking about right now is how we're going to appraise and accession new materials for the archive. Based on the literature I'm reading right now, and the population we're serving, and the constraints on my time, it seems like the traditional archivist-driven models aren't going to work very well here. So instead I'm working on the idea of participatory/crowdsourcing archives, creating flexible delivery options, and providing a metric ton of education to help enable our community to create its own historical record. It's some of the most exciting work I've ever done in archives. Honestly, I'm so excited to get to work every day, because I know that I can build something here that I wouldn't be allowed to build in other places (due to local practice/tradition/inertia/what-have-you).
I was remarking to my boss that I've seen a lot of proposed projects (in the literature) that never got off the ground. In our case, though, it HAS to get off the ground, because there is no plan B. Plan A is the only plan--the old models of an archivist going around telling everyone what's historically useful is simply not going to work here, and won't give us the kind of the archives that I know we need. Since this university's archive will be for the community, and used by the community, we need to build something that comes from the community as well. We need to overlap groups, get the materials from places that information would not normally come from, and because of space considerations, we need the materials to be high-information sources. We cannot afford to take in just anything. Which, again, leads to a vital need for education--our potential donors need to know what the archives can use, and what it cannot use. And then they need to be able to tell us what they're giving us and why they believe it's important.
I know that this project, this idea, is a long-term goal, like 10 years or more in the building. But if we can create a community that has some stake in the success of the archives, and we can position the archivist and archives in a position of stewardship, rather than gatekeeping, I think that it would go a long way towards creating a really useful historical perspective on this place.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

More bad poetry

This is the second haiku I've written about cataloging/metadata, but it was for a report, so I feel like I get a free pass. I apologize in advance.

"A haiku about interdepartmental collaboration", by Me

Building best practice
is communicating well
with cataloging

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Creating the historical record?

There's an interesting truth about my work: I am literally deciding right now what people will believe about this university in the future. There are two distinct stories that could be told: one is that this is the lesser institution to the greater parent university. The one that is not as rigorous, not as prestigious, not as important (and that's not an untrue story, if you measure success in the usual way). The other story is that this is an institution that educates the students who aren't welcome elsewhere. The night student, the minority, the single parent, the non-cis. This second story is a difficult one to flesh out, because it necessitates a shift in thinking about what an important institution is, what achievement is, and what student success looks like. To keep a history that celebrates the non-conformers who make their own way within traditional structures...this is hard. It's worth it, but it's hard. Just finding the historical record for supporting such a narrative is hard enough. Then we must also PROVE its authenticity, because it will never be simply *given* legitimacy. 
I think this is the kind of work that I will find most meaningful as I continue this job. Finding those varied stories and making sure they are preserved. Showing that success can be different than the norm, and still be considered success. I'm not sure that archivists think of themselves as creating institutional identities by their choices, but in this case I think that it's inevitable, whether I were to consciously choose it or not.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Retrofit metadata

Part of my challenge here is to create an archives that will be easy for our students to use and access. Ok, that's actually the entirety of my challenge here. I know that our archives will not be a research archives in the sense of a Harvard or University of Texas. It's simply never going to be that; there are not enough resources and this institution is not focused on prestige acquisitions or on getting off-campus researchers through the doors.

So, my goal is to create an archives that is accessible to the community here, for whatever their needs are. This is a very traditional scope of an archives--be available to your core community--but it's often not achieved or considered unachievable/undesirable by so many institutions that it almost seems simplistic.

Our student body, by and large, consumes its information through the Internet. Most of our circulation is in digital objects (articles, ebooks, etc). So that must be where this archives resides--in amongst the digital resources already being used. In the beginning, I was hopeful that I could get something together like ArchiveSpace or some fancy pants archival management system like that, but now I think I see that it's not really going to be used or useful if I silo our archives in any way.

I told my supervisor that I think the only way to know for sure that our archives will be used in the future is to plan now for keeping our metadata as fluid and format-independent as possible. So when the library changes its systems (and of course it will change its systems at some point!), we are not unprepared for major metadata-revisions. Since our discovery portal does not support EAD (and EAD is its own version of format-dependent), this could mean txt file master finding aids that I can push into MARC or pdf or EAD or whatever I ultimately need. For a small place that does not have a lot of material, maybe it's the best solution I could create. I'm still circling these ideas in my head because there seems to be no good solution, but hopefully the circles are getting smaller and smaller and eventually I'll arrive at the single point.

Monday, January 13, 2014

a haiku

i wrote a haiku about metadata.

Metadata is
not a schema but the heart
of a description

"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.