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.

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