Well, the actual title was “For Archives, Where Does True Innovation Lie?” Below is the text of the closing plenary address I gave at the 2016 Association of Canadian Archivists meeting in Montreal a few weeks ago. I’m presenting my working copy of the text, written as a talk, so don’t go to town criticizing my grammar. (I like to put commas in as visual cues to pause, for example.) The page references in parentheses are to the Susskind book, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts. I thought it brought up some interesting ideas and was worth sharing. Enjoy!
Well, I was hoping to have gotten the problem with the comments feature on the blog fixed before I posted this, but, what the hell. Here’s the text of my talk from the 8th Annual International Seminar and Symposium in Vancouver last week, sponsored by the ACA@UBC student organization. The topic of this year’s symposium was “Preserving Liquid Communication,” hence my focus on the relationship between past archival silences and social media. Please don’t beat me up for giving a high level gloss on the complicated topic of why archival silences exist. I only had 25 minutes for this, and I wanted to make sure the students in the audience had at least some kind of context for the term. I promise I’ll do a much better job in my forthcoming best-selling book. Anyway, now that I’ve apologized ahead of time, here’s the talk, which I think makes some quite valid points. My thanks again to the ACA@UBC students for inviting me to participate.
Gaps in the Past and Gaps in the Future: Archival Silences and Social Media
As my biographical information says, I started out this phase of my career as an archivist writing a blog, and although I’ve written many other things, I am still more comfortable expressing myself in a more informal way than most speakers at a symposium of this kind. This virtual warning label for my talk may be particularly relevant given my topic. In the articles I’ve read about archival silences, there is a definite tendency to consider them in a rather weighty and theory-heavy manner. As I’ve said, I don’t think I’m at my best when I attempt to emulate that manner, and additionally, the people who have addressed this issue in those articles have done an excellent job with it. So, I will leave a more formal discussion of archival silences to those with an academic bent, and give you my own current perspective, which I think you will find relevant to this symposium’s theme.
Archival silences are, as probably most of you know, instances in which people or events, are not fully represented, or represented at all, in archival collections or “the archive” writ large. Historically, both public and private archives were created to document the dominant historical narrative. In North America, that meant white people. Usually rich white people. And even more often rich white men. As they say, history is written by the victors, and archives, generally thought to be the treasure houses from which history is written, were stocked with the kinds of records that would allow the history of the victors to be told. So it’s not surprising materials created by or accurately representing the point of view of marginalized people were historically not included in the archives created by and for the powerful. And those archives created to support the operational needs of organizations such as governments, businesses, and churches, included records related to marginalized people only inasmuch as they touched on the organizations’ business needs.
In addition, as others have noted, in many cases these people were either denied the means of creating records of their own or it was not part of their culture to transmit information in the kinds of forms recognized by the creators of archives. And, of course, their living conditions were often not conducive to preserving documentation in any quantity.
These are the kinds of politically and culturally motivated silences that are most often discussed. But, of course, there are many other reasons records don’t make it into archival collections. In bureaucratic organizations there can be a breakdown in the recordkeeping system that results in documentation not being created, maintained or preserved. Natural and manmade disasters, like fires, floods, earthquakes, and wars, often destroy large volumes of records.
After materials are transferred from their creators to archival custody, casual or deliberate cultural bias can come into play again, as archivists themselves may be responsible for discarding records they consider either worthless or damaging. And once in the archives, another kind of silence begins to appear. This kind of silence is created—again sometimes deliberately, sometimes not—by neglect or ignorance. Materials held by an archives may be described in only a cursory way, or not described at all. The presence of marginalized voices in those records may not be noted or even recognized. The archivists may not be able to read the language used or recognize the importance of how information was being conveyed. So, while, voices may be present to help fill a silence, they may be muted, so to speak, by the institutional barrier created by the archivist between potential users and the records themselves.
If we add to that barrier the impediments to access often imposed in previous generations, such as limiting access to only “qualified” people (whatever that meant), and at times outright prejudice on the part of some archivists, who at times prevented people from accessing records. And before those impediments were even encountered, many interested in learning the history of their own people may have felt unwelcome or intimidated at the thought of entering the hallowed halls of the archives—often a symbol of the power of the dominant culture.
So, given that records may not have been created, or preserved, or survived, or understood, or made easy to find, or made easy to access, it’s no wonder that archival silences exist and have been a topic of discussion for both archivists and scholars alike.
However, to draw upon the gravitas of pop culture, as the character played by Jeff Goldblum in the movie Jurassic Park famously said: “Life finds a way.” Voices find a way to be heard.
By approaching archival silences in this way, I am by no means trying to discount or sweep under the rug the horrific and shameful reasons that all too frequently are their causes. I do not mean to make light of them. But again, there are many other people, infinitely more qualified than I am, who are increasing our understanding of those conditions and effects. What I want to highlight today is how those silences have gotten filled.
All human beings generate documentation (broadly defined) about themselves in some way. Either we create it ourselves or it is created about us to carry out the business and transactions related to our existence within a cultural structure. We communicate with other people for social needs or to share news. Many people choose to document their own experience through written diaries, creative products, or forms of storytelling. And these traces of human existence find a way to survive. There are many examples of this occurring by accident, but for our purposes let’s consider how often throughout history people have made an effort to capture their own experience and then to try to ensure that experience travels forward through time. Collections of family letters, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, oral tradition, paintings, textiles, written accounts, etc., have been preserved and transmitted by individuals and communities as a conscious effort to ensure their stories—often not being captured by the dominant culture and enshrined in archives—survive. We are lucky that often these personal collections have made their way into public collections, and so those voices live on to fill the silences that would otherwise exist in archives.
Because, of course, those archives are products of the time and place of their creation. The archives of the late 19th and early 20th century reflect what their creators felt was important to preserve. Moving into the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, archives and the archival profession changed, reflecting the political and social changes at work in society at large, as well as the emergence of social history—or history that studies the experience of ordinary people rather than just “great men.” An increasing number of repositories became aware of the importance of reviewing their collections to highlight the voices of marginalized people. Archives sought ways to become more engaged with their local communities and become more welcoming of visitors of different backgrounds. Many sought opportunities to collect the kinds of materials and stories they had once ignored. We all—or at least I certainly hope we all—now work as professionals in a world in which archives are actively engaged in trying to ensure no new archival silences are created, and that where silences exist in our understanding of the past, we do what we can to help researchers find the voices that survive to fill the void.
While professional archivists were changing, the larger world of archives was becoming broader as well. Traditionally disempowered groups—women, gay and transgender people, ethnic and racial minorities, people of faith, for example—became more conscious of the need to capture their own history and felt more empowered to do so. Community archives—with community defined in the broadest sense—became more common. No longer was having their materials accepted by and enshrined in traditional collections the only way to make them available. Grassroots activists often became grassroots archivists, finding their own ways to preserve their history. Over time, some of these collections have made their way into traditional archives, some have become their own more stable and institutionalized organizations of their own, and some remain as they began—local efforts with shoestring budgets and volunteer labor. But all have increased the number of viewpoints from the past that survive, adding more voices to “the archives,” in a larger sense.
So, does that mean that because we now have archival repositories vying to collect materials on hiphop, punk, and go-go culture, comic books, zines, and home movies that we’re all set now? And because people pursuing their own passions—like the Wearing Gay History project (a digital archive of images of LGBT t-shirts from many repositories), and the Leather Archives & Museum (dedicated to documenting leather, kink, and fetish lifestyles) and the Lesbian Herstory Archives (the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities, which contains in its mission statement that it will always remain independent and “housed within the community”), that because collections like these continue to exist and flourish and multiply in addition to our traditional repositories, that everything’s good and archival silences won’t be a problem going forward?
Obviously, not. And while many of the forces that resulted in archival silences in the past are no longer as prevalent as they once were, I will focus on just one that still presents a serious challenge: preservation. Easy access to technology has given people across the world many more opportunities to document themselves, and to share that information with others, than ever before. Social media, or liquid communication, gives people a platform to share information about everyday events, and ones of historic importance as well, and consequently the question of how to best preserve those records has been an issue of archival concern for some time. And, as an important aside, archival silences continuing for—and perhaps increased for—people who don’t have access to social media (or choose to use it) is another critical issue that’s needs to be addressed—but that’s outside the scope of my paper today. In addition, of course, social media is used by governments, businesses and organizations of all kinds, often replacing traditional forms of communication. The challenge is a critical one. If we do not solve it, our generation will leave behind a new kind of archival silence, one based on technology, not social status.
But I am less worried about the Facebook page, YouTube videos and tweets created by Coca-Cola and the United States government not being available in the future than I am about the information shared by those with less influence. While the digital material held on hard drives is at risk, content produced and stored in the cloud, often on commercial sites with no guarantee of longevity, is even more so. And I’m not alone in my concern. This issue is being addressed by archivists all over the world—in theory and in practice. There are hundreds of projects underway to collect the liquid communication of people of all kinds. But the point I’d like to make today is that as a profession, we’re not doing enough. I believe archivists are at another milestone moment. Just as in the 60s and 70s, archivists began to wake up and change their conception of what their professional responsibilities should be, another such call to change should be energizing every single archivist today. Any archivist who looks back on the records of the past and regrets the silences seen there should be taking an active role in making sure we are not passing along similar silences to future generations. “Life finds a way,” it’s true, but with digital and liquid communication, it needs more help. In the final days of the Warsaw ghetto, Jewish people feverishly documented their experiences and their community, and then, when they could see the end was near, they buried their treasure in milk cans. Today we have some of those records, safely preserved for the future. But there will be no milk cans for our social media content. Unless we help make them.
I’d like to propose five specific actions archivists need to take to do our part to help ensure as many voices as possible fill our archives today, and in the future.
First, many important efforts to preserve liquid communication products are being done by scholars, either as part of their own research or because they care about the communities they are documenting. Professional archivists need to reach out to people already doing this kind of work—scholars and “citizen archivists” of all kinds—and collaborate with them, if they choose, to help ensure their collections live on. For academics, some efforts are either grant-based or project-based, undertaken with perhaps insufficient plans for sustainability. We need to serve as expert advisors, and when appropriate, our archives need to provide long-term hosting for these new kinds of digital collections.
Second, archivists can take as a model the work of the American organization Witness (witness.org), which “trains and supports activists and citizens around the world to use video safely, ethically, and effectively to expose human rights abuse and fight for human rights change.” Their slogan is “See it. Film it. Change it.” We should all embrace the slogan: “See it. Document it. Save it.” Not every archivist works in a community that suffers from human rights abuses, but everyone probably does work in a community in which people are engaging in some kind of political or social activity or protest. Capturing and saving what’s being said on social media about what they’re involved with is not the first thing on these people’s minds. That’s where all archivists should step in and, respectfully and responsibly, try to make sure controversial events in our own communities are being documented and saved for the future, either within our collections or by people working outside them.
Third, archivists need to infiltrate professional communities in which people use liquid communication (which at this point would probably be all professional communities) and educate and advocate about the importance of people taking responsibility for preserving their own content. Many of you may follow popular writers, musical artists, and actors on your preferred social media platforms, but someone recently pointed out to me that professional wrestlers use social media extensively to develop their professional personas. And other person on Twitter observed that social media is important for what he called ‘independent’ and ‘underground’ commerce. Lots of comedians, musicians, and writers use it to communicate with and grow their audiences. Our current cultural and intellectual history is being written, in large part, using liquid communication, and it is our responsibility to find ways to get the message out to all kinds of cultural figures that we want to keep what they are doing and work with them to help make it happen.
And in order to make that happen, we need to take an active role advocating with companies that provide social media services so that they provide and promote ways that people can easily export and preserve content. And we can’t become experts and help others unless we actually become experts ourselves. When you download your Facebook data or Twitter “archive” (which it’s possible to do), what do you get? What does it look like? How often should people do this? We should develop handy guides and best practices for how to “archive” accounts for all major social media platforms. We should encourage these platforms to not just provide tools but also encourage people to use them. We should help make a business case for how viewing social media accounts as part of people’s personal archives makes the platforms more valuable to their users.
But I think we shouldn’t rely exclusively on the corporate providers of social media sites to help people find ways to preserve their own content. Archival organizations and the foundations that support our work should identify areas in which tools are needed and support their development. This is exactly what’s been proposed for the recently funded Documenting the Now project (@documentnow on Twitter) . With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The University of California, Riverside, Washington University in St. Louis, and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities are collaborating to produce “a cloud-ready, open-source application that will be used for collecting tweets and their associated metadata and web content.” The DocNow tool is aimed at supporting scholarly collection, and as stated, will work only with Twitter. But it provides a model of grant-funded technology development that I think should be expanded to provide a wider range of tools, and ones that are geared toward small archives and the general public. (Another of many examples is the Anthologize tool, funded by NEH, and developed by Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Antholgoize pulls content from blogs and makes it suitable for publishing in various preservable formats.)
And—finally and most importantly, every archivist needs to be doing this on their own scale. By which I mean, not every archivist is going to be trying to convince JK Rowling or Margaret Atwood to preserve her tweets for the archive, or lobby with Facebook and Twitter to provide better download options for users—but every community consists of people, organizations, and events that are worthy of being included in the archive. The profession needs to move towards a mindset in which it’s clear that an essential function of every archives, historical society, and special collection to educate the people they serve about the importance of preserving their own digital content—and those of their family members—and help them do it. The “personal papers” of most people today would contain very few actual papers in contrast to their digital output. If the archival profession wants to ensure that the widest possible range of voices fills the archives of the future, this needs to be part of everyone’s mission statement. This may mean doing some soul searching and having difficult conversations about prioritizing our workloads, and it may mean some traditional activities will get put on the back burner. And our professional organizations and the better-funded repositories will need to develop resources for everyone to use to help get the message across.
And so, I’ll close with answering the question I posed in the abstract for this talk. As often happens, I turned in that summary of my talk before I’d actually written it. And when I posed the question, are we perhaps worrying too much about preventing the inevitable, I thought my answer to that question would be “yes.” Based on what I’ve said this morning, I think you can understand that my answer is now that we’re not worrying too much, rather we’re not worrying enough.
Loss is inevitable. “The archive,” in abstract terms, will never contain equal representation of all people across history. But our mission should be that human existence is represented as accurately and completely as possible. And social media—what the conference is calling “liquid communication”—presents a serious threat to our ability to provide the representation of human existence in the early 21st century. Archives can’t preserve it all, nor should be, but if people are to continue to find their own ways to preserve their own voices and stories to fill the archival silences of the future, the archivists of today must step in and step up.
Recently Richard Urban shared a link to the Atlantic article “Why I Am Not A Maker.” The author has the perspective of an educator, but as I was reading it I could not help but think how this also applies to many archivists and librarians, many of whom also do not “make” anything. In what regard does this contribute to our fields being undervalued? The relationship of our fields to many digital humanities projects also came to mind–how often are our skills and contributions marginalized or glossed over in favor of those scholars and technologists who “made” the project? And to what extent are many of the projects we ourselves undertake done so with the very real motivation that we have to “make something” in order to prove our value and the value of our holdings?
Some interesting food for thought?
On October 2, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the joint conference of the Archives & Records Association of New Zealand and the Association of Australian Archivists in Christchurch. About a month later, I was also honored to be the plenary speaker at the annual meeting of the Society of Georgia Archivists in Athens. As I said in my preliminary remarks to both talks, a keynote or plenary speaker should talk about something big, and I took the invitation to come to New Zealand as an opportunity to tackle the biggest thing I could think of: the future of archives. Or at least the future of the archivist in the future of archives. I went PowerPoint-free for this, so posted below is the text of the talk I gave at both conferences, with notes added. (This is actually the text from the talk in Georgia, so it has been adjusted for a U.S. audience.)
Lately in the online places I frequent there has been quite a bit of discussion about questions like “what is an archives?” and “what is an archivist?” and I’ve participated in those discussions, usually as part of exchanges with people involved in digital humanities projects, who tend to use the word “archives” quite liberally. As many of you may have seen, at the 2014 meeting of the Society of American Archivists, the newly formed Committee on Public Awareness set up a table covered with a piece of paper on which people were asked to write their answers to the question “What is an archivist?” This is similar to SAA’s previous efforts to come up with short pithy descriptions of our work such as the contest to come up with the best elevator speech—the winner of which used only 28 words.
But, while I understand and respect what SAA is trying to achieve with activities like these, the larger question of professional identity is more complicated than any simple definition can convey. There are many possible ways of defining an archivist and an archives. Lots of people who may merit the title of archivist—or think they should—aren’t part of our professional organizations. The archival ecosystem has always been a complicated one, and today is more diverse than ever. So rather than trying to draw borders through definitions, I think it’s more useful to consider not what an archivist is, but what an archivist should be. And specifically, what an archivist should be in order to build ourselves a more relevant and thriving profession.
And to do so, we need to consider the relationship between professional archivists and what I’m calling “the archival space.” And that archival space has changed radically, as has everything else, because of the web. If you think about modeling the interactions between archives and others in pre-Internet days and then compare it to the challenges we face today, the difference is clear. During the meeting of the Archives and Records Association of the UK & Ireland a few months ago someone tweeted “The idly curious individual sitting on a train in Utah now has to be factored in to your plans” and added the hashtag “sarcasm.” Well, you know what, yeah, you do need to think about that person and others like them. Because another way of thinking about the evolving archival space is that what that really means is “the world we live in now.”
The world of archives—that is, professionally staffed collections of records and manuscripts in various formats—are just one part, and perhaps a small part, of an archival space that permeates the lives of most people, including the idly curious individual sitting on a train in Utah. And while what I’m calling archival space permeates their lives, “archives” per se almost certainly do not, at least not in ways that they recognize.
In this talk I will first review some of the more relevant characteristics of the evolving archival space, then talk a bit about why I’m discussing this in the context of professional archivists, and then review how I think these two worlds should intersect, and outline a recommended role for professional archivists in this evolving archival space.
So, what are the most prominent aspects of the world we live in now, as they relate to archives? And I’ll try not to belabor these points, as I assume we’re all familiar with the world today.
First, the web gives us unprecedented access to content. People access historical—or at least “old” media content on the web easily and in volume. And they can do it on desktops, laptops, or phones, from virtually anywhere in the world. We have gone from an environment in which access to archival content was difficult and therefore limited to those who had the resources and motivation to access it, to a world in which access is taken for granted—at least for those with access to the web.
And not only can people access historical content, they want to. Cultural heritage organizations have seen positive results from sharing digitized and born-digital documents, images, audio, and video. Twitter provides evidence of the public’s appetite for archival content. The Twitter account HistoryInPics has over 2 million followers, and HistoricalPics has over 1.7 million. So it’s no wonder that many archivists seem to hear a constant drumbeat to “digitize all the things!” And, of course, access to that digital content is provided via an unprecedented number of channels. So it’s not only that there’s more archival content out there, but what constitutes “out there” is not just the institution’s own website, but also the full range of social media sites, as well as sharing, reposting, and so on people can do from their own accounts and sites.
This also demonstrates that archival content is coming from a diverse range of providers, not just cultural heritage organizations. We have people, organizations and companies digitizing their historical collections and sharing them. And there are countless examples of materials in cultural heritage collections being digitized by citizen historians, scholars, non-profit organizations, and for-profit organizations and then shared in ways that may or may not involve the custodians of those collections. Archives, in a professional sense, are just one source of content among many in the crowded archival space.
This explosion of content has often been accompanied by an erasing of context. When people look at and enjoy archival content, how often are they aware of where it came from? How it was captured? What came before it and after it? People don’t necessarily care about context, and in many cases, why should they? I think we’ve all experienced that people want what they want and they don’t care where it came from. Both the popular Twitter accounts I mentioned—HistoricalPics and HistoryInPics—don’t give any citations or credits for the images they share (or at least don’t do so consistently), and as the numbers show, people don’t seem to mind. The US national archives provides similar material on Twitter via the Today’s Document account, which of course, provides full context for its images. Today’s Document has only about 17,000 followers on Twitter. (Although they do better on Tumblr.) Perhaps it’s just that the account’s name mentions documents rather than pictures that accounts for the disparity, but again, the lack of context in the more popular accounts isn’t discouraging followers. And, as archivists and historians, we know that in many cases context does matter—as does authenticity and reliability.
What is also erased in viewing archival content online is, of course, the context of the physical archives. In many ways accessing materials online is a huge benefit to both users and the archives, but as in most online experiences there are aspects of the physical experience that are not replicated. Viewing the physical materials provides information—for example, smell, as famously recounted in the book The Social Life of Information, which describes a medical historian smelling each document carefully to see if it had the telltale scent of vinegar, which meant that it had been disinfected against the spread of cholera. “By sniffing for the faint traces of vinegar that survived 250 years and noting the date and source of the letters, [the historian] was able to chart the progress of cholera outbreaks.” But, smells aside, working with physical collections can often give a researcher a greater sense of volume, as well as identifying information not included in digitization, such as information on the back of a document, or annotations in different colors. There is also the intangible sense of connection or excitement that many researchers feel when handling original materials, of course. And for many researchers visits to the archives also mean establishing a productive relationship with the archivist, who can serve as an advisor and almost a research partner, at times. This level of one-on-service is no longer possible in some archives due to cuts in staffing, but it is still a hallmark of many of our repositories. In the physical world, the archivist often can help put materials in context for the researcher, but this is less likely in the online world.
Another characteristic of the world we live in now, is that people can and do document their own lives more than ever. Whether it be via the running diary-like function of Facebook status updates and Instagram feeds, or the scrapbook like functions of Pinterest boards or the Facebook timeline, people are creating vast personal archives, whether they think about it that way or not. While there are historical precedents for the modern trend of taking “selfies” everyone one goes, most people in the past didn’t have the technological ease—or peer pressure—to take quite so many pictures of themselves and their lives. While long lovely letters may be increasingly a thing of the past, we now have videos, blog posts, Twitter feeds, and so on. And, I think that along with this rise of somewhat ephemeral self-documentation, we have also seen an increase in people wanting to collect and preserve documentation of their own communities, however those might be defined. More of these kinds of formal and informal “archives” are popping up than ever before–perhaps because as the pace of change increases, people feel that the past is more fragile than it used to be, or that “the past” is no longer as far away as it used to be.
Related to this self-documentation trend is the rise of maker or remix culture, a world in which people have the impulse and the tools to create products for themselves—sometimes based on pre-existing, often archival materials. A particularly fun example of this is the work of Joshua Heineman, who just out of personal interest began taking digitized stereograph images from the New York Public Library’s collections and turning them into animated gifs. “Within a month [of sharing them on his website], there were 70,000 viewers a day pouring over the project, countless links & features, and emails coming in from all over the world.” And the library ended up incorporating the Stereograminator, as it’s now called, as a part of their website. And this kind of success is far from unique. There is an appetite for the raw materials in archives.
The archival space also now has more demands from scholars for archival material in formats they can easily use for their research—which can mean anything from simple digitization to OCR, tagging, and marking up. At the conference in New Zealand, one of the people who spoke the day before I did, Evelyn Wareham observed, “Data is the new black.” Many digital humanities researchers have the capability to transform raw data sets into meaningful results, but often what they want is just that—materials transformed into data they can use.
As I noted, along with this urge to document often comes the urge to collect and “archive,” which has been a human impulse for centuries, of course. But again, I think there is more of a sense of self-awareness in some communities, and a realization that they need to capture their own documentation before it disappears. For example, at this summer’s SAA meeting I attended a session that discussed several projects aimed at capturing documentation about the early days of the AIDS crisis, inspired by the realization that what is part of personal memory for many in the community is now almost forgotten ancient history for new generations. So what has changed, I suspect, is the shortened timeframe for the urge to document and commemorate, in addition to, as with many things in the digital age, scale and capacity for storage and sharing. In addition, I think there is an increased tendency to call collections of things by the name “archives,” which seems to be all the rage lately. (Just as referring to anyone who selects as a curator and any selection activity as curation.)
And so we have all kinds of passionate amateurs, historians, for profit companies, community groups, and organizations assembling collections of original materials and also scanning originals and creating collections of digital surrogates, and calling them archives. The degree to which any of these collections meets the benchmark of what some would call an “archives” is subject to debate, and will vary according to the criteria used. For me, some almost definitely are, and many certainly are not. But what I think, or any archivist thinks is irrelevant. We operate in a landscape in which the word” archive” or “archives” has been adopted to mean virtually any collection of information—usually but not always non-current information.
And it’s not a stretch to imagine that as the usage of “archives” broadens, so too will people’s impressions of who is an “archivist.” Why should that term not apply to anyone who creates or manages a collection that people refer to as an archives? I brought this up in an old blog post some time ago, thinking it was just taking the argument to a ridiculous extreme, but I was proven wrong recently, when, in announcing their new interview series called “Ask the Archivist,” Choice reviews online shared that their first guest in the series would be Ed Ayers—a historian, prominent academic and scholar and creator of the pioneering Valley of the Shadow online resource. A wonderful person, but not an archivist by any measure I know of. But because Valley of the Shadow is considered a digital archive, this prominent publication considered him suitable to kick off their “ask the archivist” series.
So in the evolving archival space, people commonly assume that many different kinds of collections are archives and that people with a wide variety of qualifications and roles may be called archivists.
And, indeed, we have seen many uses of the term “citizen archivist” to refer to people making contributions of varying kinds. In the world of participatory archives, people contribute to descriptions, tag, comment, transcribe, collect, pin, download, print, create, and remix. They can share their findings and products in online forums both supplied by archives, and completely outside those boundaries. They can create their own virtual communities and networks around archival content, just as people who share common interests have always found ways to share their enthusiasm.
But our evolving archival space has some downsides as well. With greater use of and access to online information sharing has come a greater public awareness of the need to pay attention to what happens to the information we share. Discussions about government oversight, security breaches, the right to be forgotten, and the security of information stored in the cloud have all made people and organizations aware of the security and records implications of all this new sharing and communication. Making digitized and born-digital records available online means that information that used to be difficult to access can now be easily captured and shared. The ease with which information can be accessed—legally and illegally— is making people nervous as well as excited, and this is very much part of the new archival space.
As we move to considering the role of the professional archivist in this evolving archival space, it’s necessary to consider what it means to be a professional archivist. The distinction between what I consider a professional archivist and others involved in the archival space is a tricky one, and one with which I’m sure many would take issue. But I believe there is value and a specific role for those who, as professionals, share a common body of knowledge, follow established practices, and conform to an ethical code.
Perhaps one reason why, at least here in the US, creating distinctions between professionals and non-professionals is a source of tension is that the creation of a distinct archival professional is a recent development. And, in fact, today in many smaller organizations volunteers or non-professional staff care for and provide access to historical materials. Knowledge of history and an avocational interest in “stuff” are still seen by many as the only qualifications needed to be, in their eyes, an “archivist.”
In this regard, their perception may be based on the roots of the profession in the United States. Until the early 20th century—and often into the mid-20th century—archival collections were created and cared for by historians and manuscript enthusiasts, who established collections based on their own perceptions of what constituted “history.” The Society of American Archivists was founded in 1936, growing out of a committee of the American Historical Association. The first state archives, Alabama, was created in 1901, and the last—the Vermont State Archives—was not formalized until 2008. The U.S. National Archives was not created until 1934, and did not become an independent agency until 1985. Graduate education programs with a significant archival component were not widely available until the 1980’s, as archival education began to shift from history to library science programs. While it is possible to go through a process to earn the title of Certified Archivist, most archivists do not choose to do so. While today for many a Masters of Library Science degree with a specialization in archives, or a masters in archival studies, is the preferred educational preparation, there isn’t one clear process for becoming a “real” archivist, with some kind of seal of approval. Even the term “professional” archivist is a loaded one, implying as it does, that one is paid for one’s work. After all, I meet the qualifications of a professional, but I am not paid to be archivist by anyone, and many who have no qualifications are, even as I speak, earning paychecks as archivists. So, if you’re trying to look for an easy to way to draw a line and say who is and isn’t a professional archivist, it’s not easy to do.
So why do I bother to raise the issue?
I’m not some kind of archival curmudgeon who wants to chase out all the volunteers, amateurs, historians, librarians, IT people, and digital humanities scholars, and tell them to go play in somebody else’s sandbox. The more people involved in the archival space, the better. The more people collecting, preserving, providing access to, and using materials of historical value, the richer the whole world of archives is. This explosion of interest is a testament to the value of what we do.
So, again, why do I still think it’s important to delineate a role for professional archivists in this wonderful wide open archival space?
One reason is that, as I noted earlier, I think professional archivists are defined by the common body of knowledge we share, the established practices we follow, and the ethical codes we espouse. And I believe that these knowledge, practices, and ethics need to be sustained and promoted in the broader archival space.
But, the second reason I think it’s important to continue to talk about the role of professional archivists is perhaps, not as idealistic. As some of you who follow the online forums of US archivists may have noted, there have been somewhat heated discussions recently about job prospects for students graduating from our many, many educational programs in archives, as well as the role of volunteers and interns in relation to professionals. Part of this discussion has centered on ensuring that employers understand the importance of hiring people with appropriate credentials for jobs as archivists, and that employers pay professionals a salary that recognizes their expertise and knowledge. This would be challenging even in good economic conditions, but today the impact of the economic down turn has triggered anxiety about the future of this next generation of professional archivists (many of whom are saddled with the burden of paying back the loans they had to take out to finance their graduate education).
And there’s an inherent tension between the best interests of the archival profession—which needs to promote our own knowledge and expertise as being something worth recognizing by jobs with professional-level salaries and resources to match—and the best interests of the archival space as a whole—in which we want to recognize the values of all participants and not necessarily raise some up above others. How can we strike a balance between the competing needs to be inclusive and embrace this new environment while still advocating for the continued importance of our profession? What should our role be in the new expanded archival community? How can we define a role for the professional archivist that’s good for the profession and the evolving archival space?
So, how do we do that?
First I’d like to clarify that what I’m describing here is the outward facing aspect of the job of the professional archivist. There are many critical functions of our jobs that I’m not talking about, but that doesn’t mean that I think they’re not also important. However, in many ways I think our profession has sometimes been too internally focused, or at least too focused on a collections-based narrative. Stressing the primary role of archivists as custodians of physical collections leaves out a great deal of what makes us valuable. We should not be—in my opinion—the invisible plumbers and electricians working behind the scenes in the archival space. We are not just handmaidens to historians. We shouldn’t be talking only about what other people do with the archives—we need to make ourselves part of that story.
And so, keeping in mind that the archival space—aka the world we live in now—is one in which most people are creating, sharing, and engaging with content from their own personal archives or from collections supplied by a wide range of sources, and that a range of people are creating and caring for archives of some kind, what should our role as professionals be? I have identified three different roles, each with three aspects supporting it.
The first role for the professional archivist is to make our collections more usable
We need to contribute to the archival space by giving people what they want. By being good participants in the archival space, and the currency of that space is sharing. So for archivists, that means three things:
- We need to provide access to rich visual resources. People love images. They love to share them and interact with them on social media. They love to do things with them—make them into new creative works, turn them into gifs, pin them onto maps, create comparisons of then and now. Images—both still and in motion—transcend language. People make immediate connections with them. So we need to continue to share digital versions of our visual resources widely and often.
- We need to transform textual materials into usable forms. Computers can’t read handwriting, and neither can a lot of people any more. And even those of us who can may not want to take the time to decipher a document if it’s not critical to our work. Computers can’t do keyword searching on handwritten documents, or documents they can’t easily interpret. We need to make sure our textual materials are made accessible to search engines and people, and we need to make sure that the data contained in those documents is ready to be used by scholars, or anyone, who wants to harvest it, crunch it, analyze it, and do with it what they will with it. (Again, “data is the new black.”)
- We need to make sure our metadata is shareable and shared. Linked open data, interoperable systems, portals, federations, cooperatives, collaborations, everywhere we look it seems we are being encouraged to “free our collections” or at least to free the metadata about those collections and our digitized versions of them. And with good reason. There are lots of ways people can discover our collections in the archival space, and lots of opportunities to collaborate with others to expand that discoverability. There are people who can do wondrous things with our metadata, if we give them the chance, and when metadata from many repositories is pooled together it allows for identification of new relationships among records and, of course, helps aid discovery.
So, as custodians of collections and the information about them our first role should be make our collections more usable.
The second role the professional archivist needs to take on within the context of the archival space is to make our archival institutions more valuable. And, once again, I suggest three ways to make that happen.
- We need to make sure our archival institutions are platforms for meaning-making. Everyone in this room knows that archives are more than just storehouses of old stuff. Archives are sites of learning, identity-building, and personal growth. In other talks at conferences and on my blog I’ve advocated for adopting a new mission for archives. I have articulated that mission as: “To add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past.” Archival institutions can provide value in the archival space by providing not just raw material, in the form of our collections and metadata, but also information, tools, and sites—physical and virtual—to help people understand the collections we hold, and how they relate to their own lives. Archives should be platforms to help people better understand and appreciate the materials we hold, and put those materials into context. We need to give people the tools and knowledge to engage more meaningfully with the past—and therefore with the present as well.
- We also need to promote the idea that our archival institutions are places of permanence. As I’ve said, many others in the archival space are creating collections—personal and organizational, materials they themselves are creating, and collections made up of materials gathered from other sources—and most of the people creating these collections don’t have the capacity to ensure they’re preserved over the long haul. Our archival institutions are in the business of preserving things permanently. One valuable function we can provide is to make sure those in the archival space know that we may be able to offer a permanent home for their materials.
- And finally, in addition to thinking about permanence, we also need to think about fragility and transience. Many archival institutions are already actively engaged in what I have referred to as “collecting the now.” Many citizens of the archival space are doing this as well, but I think there’s a role for our institutions to collect the often ephemeral digital materials that document the world around us today. Whether those events are of global, national, or local significance, or even materials that document the routine daily lives of people in 2014, archival institutions shouldn’t leave it all to others in the archival space to ensure the archival record includes documentation of what’s going on now.
By adding value to people’s lives through increasing their understanding of the past, offering permanence to collections being created now, and documenting the world around us, archival institutions can demonstrate their relevance and importance in the present, as well as being custodians of the past, and we as professionals need to make sure our institutions are doing just that.
The third and final role for professional archivists, and perhaps the one that may prove most challenging for many, is to promote our own value by sharing knowledge.
- Archivists need to serve as visible sources of expertise within the archival space on the areas of our professional knowledge. We are not experts in everything related to our records, goodness knows, but we are experts in our own field. We know about professional practices and standards. We know about preservation. We know about metadata. We know about records management, and the importance of good recordkeeping practices. We should serve as active, not passive, resources for others such as digital humanists and custodians of community, family, and personal archives, and provide information and advice in the archival space in ways that respect the expertise of others while not discounting the value of our own body of knowledge.
- The second aspect of this role may seem similar to the one I just described, but I think it has significant differences. And that is that professional archivists should serve as advocates for our professional body of knowledge and our values. I see a difference between serving as an active resource within the community and taking a more activist role, and serving as a voice for our profession. And by this I mean, essentially getting a place at the table and making ourselves part of the conversations whenever our profession’s viewpoint needs to be considered. This includes being active in a range of possible forums, including debates on public policy, development of digital humanities projects, the founding of new collections or organizations, as well as reaching out to the people who will be the future donors to our collections, such as writers and artists, scholars, scientists, and professionals of all kinds, as well as to the general public. Because as we know, in the future all our donations will probably include, or should include, digital materials. We need to make sure these people know their records are valuable and how to best preserve them for their own use, and perhaps the use of future generations. This function as an advocate is one that is uniquely appropriate to the professional archivist in the archival space.
- And lastly, professional archivists should promote our own value by sharing knowledge of the key differences between archives, libraries, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations. For many within and outside the archival space, all organizations that hold books, information, objects, or just “stuff” look alike. Many users don’t care where their information comes from, or what its original context was, and sometimes that’s probably fine. But I think it’s critical to ensure that when it matters, we make it clear to people (particularly resource allocators) the unique and critical role that archives fulfill in our society and the value of our function as preservers of authenticity, accountability, and context. There is good reason to be excited about many aspects the so-called convergence of galleries, libraries, archives and museums, but I think we need to make sure that doesn’t mean we all end up getting lumped into the same pot, each losing the specialized functions we serve.
This, then is my vision for the professional archivist within, really, the world we live in now: that we make our collections more usable, that we make our institutions more valuable, and that we promote our value by sharing our unique professional knowledge.
I’m sure it’s the case—and I hope it is—that many of you are already actively engaged in fulfilling some or all of those roles. Certainly if the conference organizers had given me another hour or two I could have provided you with example after example of how archivists are currently doing wonderful work in each of those areas. But for all of those examples, and for those of you in the room, I wonder how often it is the case that this work is recognized as being part of the primary or essential work of the archives, rather than just a bonus, or an add-on, or a nice to have. Or in many cases, something that archivists initiate in their spare time. I hope that as our vision of our role as professionals expands to consider how we interact with the whole archival space—not just our traditional users in traditional ways—that the roles I’ve talked about are considered part of our essential functions.
In our current environment, in which people second-guess their doctors by self-diagnosing on the web, and some people brush aside the knowledge of climate scientists, no profession can assume its expertise will be recognized and rewarded. Almost every day I see evidence online of the work of professional archivists being confused with or subsumed by a host of other populations in the new archival space. It would be alarmist to suggest that our professional survival is at stake however, as the world of archives has expanded we have an opportunity to expand the influence of our profession within it. And I hope that this is a role we all choose to embrace.
 See, for example my contributions to the Journal of Digital Humanities “Archives in Context and as Context” (http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/) and “A Distinction Worth Exploring: ‘Archives’ and ‘Digital Historical Representations’” (http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/3-2/a-distinction-worth-exploring-archives-and-digital-historical-representations/).
 I discussed this issue by comparing the “old” and “new” business models for archives in the talk “The Future of Archives is Participatory: Archives as Platform, or A New Mission for Archives” posted on the blog back in April: http://archivesnext.com/?p=3700.
 As noted, they are more popular on Tumblr, with over 177,000 followers and numerous accolades. They’ve also got a Today’s Document available as an iPhone app, so there are many different outlets for the content.
 John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information. Harvard Business Press, 2002, p. 174.
 Evelyn Wareham is the Information Manager at Statistics New Zealand and spoke on the second panel of the joint ARANZ/ASA conference, “The Value Proposition: Recordkeeping in government ICT strategies.”
 Session 407, “Documenting the Epidemic: Preserving and Making Accessible HIV/AIDS History,” http://www2.archivists.org/2014/schedule#.VGQMwfnF80I
 Ok, I really did think I had written about this, but now I can’t find it so maybe I didn’t after all. This post comes close and maybe in an earlier draft I had gone to the ridiculous extreme: “The problem with the scholar as ‘archivist,’ or is there a problem?” (http://archivesnext.com/?p=2522).
 Here’s the announcement: http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2014/09/choice-reviews-online-launches-new-ask-archivist-feature and here’s the site for the interviews: http://www.choice360.org/ask-archivist/.
 I’m pretty sure it was Terry Baxter who first articulated this or brought it to my attention, at least that’s the way I remember it, and since I am getting old and grizzled (although not as much as Terry), maybe he can remember if he did this just in a private conversation or on his blog or somewhere else. Anyway, it’s a pretty good observation, I think, and I don’t want to take any credit away from Terry, even if I can’t figure out how to cite him properly. If he posts a comment and reminds me, I’ll update this note.
 I’ve looked for a citation to explain the origins, or least to document the usage of this phrase, again without much luck. It’s referenced in several articles, but always seems to be taken for granted. The consensus is that it originated in Canada and that it was, at the time, used proudly by archivists to describe their work. Terry Cook refers to it as being so used until the 1980’s, and he ought to know (Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, p. 170). Again, anyone who wants to correct my ignorance, please enlighten me!
Why this discussion matters: part one
Everyone knows words can be slippery things and language evolves. Words mean different things in different contexts and people adopt and adapt words to suit their own needs. So in some ways, my ongoing effort to discuss the meaning of the word “archive(s)” seems rather like a fool’s errand. But then I see news stories like this one about the failed BBC project that cost the British public 98.4 million pounds:
It added that confusion about the technology and problems with getting the system to work had also been to blame, including “confusion within the BBC about the use of key terms such as ‘archive database’ and ‘digital archive’.”
Last month in Toronto, I gave a talk in which I debated with myself “Everything is an Archive Now: Good Thing or Bad Thing for Archives?” My conclusion was, naturally, that it’s both. One aspect of the downside is that groups who have to work together—like archivists, scholars, and information technology professionals—often mean different things by the same word and may not know that they are talking past each other (often assuming that their meaning is the commonly understood one). I also talked about this a bit in my remarks at the AHA about the problems with historians and archivists not necessarily sharing the same vocabulary when it comes to “digital archives.” Trevor Owens will be posting an excellent piece on The Signal blog about the many meanings for different professionals and I think it will go a long way to starting a discussion about how these meanings relate to each other (UPDATE: Trevor’s post is now up.)
But I want to dig a little deeper into the “archival” meaning of “archives” and how that relates to the various ways in which we see “digital archives” used. In a follow-up post I’ll discuss some other reasons this discussion is one that I keep returning to.
What is an archive or an archives?
In the definition of “archives” in A Glossary of Archives & Records Terminology (2005), Richard Pearce-Moses noted that the word (either “archive” as a noun or “archives”) can refer to:
- a body of materials that is being preserved
- an organization or part of an organization
- a physical place
It is this first sense in which I think we see the term being used in broad sense in the media and in everyday usage. Any collection of stuff that people are keeping can be an archive or an archives. Any place where such stuff is being kept may be referred to as an archives. The organization or group who brought it together and is preserving it may also be called an archives. That all seems reasonable in a broad, common sense way.
And so this extends logically to the usages of “digital archives,” which we see used to mean:
- a body of digital materials that is being preserved
- an organization preserving that digital material
- the place in which the digital material is stored
One interesting twist in the broad usage of “digital archives” is that the emphasis is often not that the digital materials are being preserved, but that they have been gathered together and are being made accessible on the web. Thus, those adopting the term may be thinking more of their “digital archives” as a virtual place in which materials can be accessed or as the organization (even if only an organization of one person) responsible for gathering the materials and making them accessible. But often in “digital archives” it is digital copies of non-digital materials that are being assembled and made available in the “archives” while the original non-digital copies are being preserved (and made accessible) in a variety of physical libraries and archives and by a variety of archival organizations.
Another aspect of this usage may also be that people perceive a key aspect of archives to be selection (or curation) and therefore a group of materials that has been deliberately selected and brought together qualifies as an “archives.” In this sense, it’s really the function of the archives as an organization that selects what materials to add to its holdings that’s being invoked, although perhaps unconsciously by those creating these “digital archives.” (I included some discussion of this in my article “Archives in Context and as Context” in the Journal of Digital Humanities if you’re interested.) And, of course, there are also “digital archives” in which copies of born-digital materials are being preserved as well as being made accessible. As I noted in my AHA talk, the term is applied to a broad range of uses. And very possibly many of those using it have never actually given much thought to in what sense their collection, site or project is an archives. If the moniker seems to fit, why not use it?
But what this broad usage of the term means is that it is often difficult for a user to know whether or not a digital archives also adheres to one additional aspect of the Pearce-Moses’ definition:
- “the professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations”
Archives and digital archives—collections, organizations, and places—that are administered in a manner that adheres to the professional discipline of archives are different than those that do not. (For anyone who”s not familiar with the basic tenets of that professional discipline, I also gave an overview of them in the “Archives in Context and as Context article.) Note I did not say that they were better, but different. It’s arguable whether the word “archives “ was ever commonly understood to be synonymous with a collection, organization, or place administered in adherence to the discipline of archives, and I’m sure evidence can be produced to show the word has always been used in a broader sense. However, I also feel sure that the broadening of the usage we have seen in the digital age has diminished whatever common understanding there was.
So that is the world we live in, as you all know. The world in which archives and digital archives are used to refer to virtually anything, and are sometimes used by people who believe their usage is consistent with professional practice in their field—and it may be—but that usage has nothing to do with adhering to the professional discipline of archives. This means, as I concluded in my remarks in Toronto—that archivists and all related professionals need to be very clear in our communications with each other about what we mean when we talk about “archives.” (And Trevor Owens’s post on The Signal will help facilitate that.) In my personal experience, the burden for initiating that communication falls primarily on archivists. More often than not it is the archivist who must query and probe to determine what a scholar or IT professional means by “archives,” usually in the course of a discussion about what requirements or functionalities an “archives” needs to have. Not every archives or digital archives needs to adhere to the “professional discipline” of archives, but it’s a discipline that has much to offer in this field and one which we as archivists should continue to promote actively and vocally.
I was very honored to have been invited to present as one a group of “Agents Provocateurs” at the Canadian Archives Summit last week. It was an exciting line-up of speakers, as you can see from the program. My remarks, along with those of the other presenters, will be made available by the conference organizers, but I wanted to post them here as well. And I wanted to give some context for them. (I believe “context” may be my word for 2014.)
When I was invited to speak, I was assigned my topic (“The Role of Archives in a Digital Society”) and give a strict time limit of seven minutes. In coming up with my remarks I tried to write something genuinely “provocative” around that theme that could be effectively delivered in seven minutes. My task as I saw it was to give people something that would get them thinking and talking. Here’s what I said:
In case you missed the announcement, this event is taking place this week and several interesting papers from the “Thought Leaders” are available online:
Representatives from l’Association des Archivistes du Quebec (AAQ), the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA), and the Canadian Council of Archives (CCA) as well as Ian E. Wilson, the former Librarian and Archivist of Canada, have planned a special Canadian Archives Summit: Towards a New Blueprint for Canada’s Recorded Memory at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, 8:30 to 5:00, on Friday, January 17, 2014.
The Summit is intended to provide the Canadian archival community an opportunity to consider its future and envision how Canada’s documentary heritage remains a valued part of Canada’s knowledge infrastructure. The Canadian Archives Summit: Towards a New Blueprint for Canada’s Recorded Memory will be a national, interactive discussion.
Just go to event’s main page, scroll down and you can see what’s available online. I was honored to be invited to speak as one of the Agents Provocateurs to give a 7-minute talk on “The Role of Archives in a Digital Society.” I’m writing that talk out and not using PowerPoint, so as soon as the event is over I’ll post my text online, and also point to any other resources that are made available.
I’ve been invited to give a short talk at an event in Canada and in thinking about what I want to say I am nervous that I may perhaps not have an accurate understanding of how things may differ for our archival colleagues to the north. I think I understand the differences in mechanics–about the words we use, the way we describe things, etc. What I’m not sure I have a good grasp on are the differences in what, for lack of a better term I’ve called “archival culture.” In other words, the ways in which archivists relate to each other, to historians, to patrons, to funders, etc. How are archival organizations in Canada viewed and valued by their society? In what key ways is this “archival culture” different from that of the U.S.? Or is it not so different?
I’d appreciate any thoughts or insights to help me from putting a foot wrong in my talk. And, of course, this may generate an interesting conversation that may help others and be of general interest to many. So, please, comment away and share your thoughts on the differences–or lack thereof–between archival culture in the U.S. and Canada.
You may have noticed that things have been a bit quiet here (and on Twitter). So, here’s a update.
It can’t possibly have escaped your attention if you follow this blog that I’m editing a series of four books for Scarecrow press, each a compilation of case studies on an area of archival practice: outreach, reference and access, description, and management. Each book will contain ~12ish case studies, so what I am doing and have been doing is lining those up and reviewing drafts.
In addition to that, like the ambitious/crazy person that I am, I want to add something of value to each book that speaks to the meaning of “innovation” in archives and to the development of “innovation” in that area of practice. Will I actually be able to do that? Who knows. But it’s my goal. My tentative outline now for my introduction is:
- What do we mean when we talk about innovation?
- Is there a history of innovation in archives/spec coll in US?
- What has the development of this area looked like? Have there been past periods of innovation? (Based on analysis of past 40 SAA annual meeting programs & literature review)
- Overview of case studies and why they represent innovation.
As I said, this might not work out, and it certainly might not end up looking anything like that outline! But as you might imagine, if I really do try to explore the development of each of those four areas of practice in any depth, I’m going to have a pretty hectic summer ahead of me. So if you see odd tweets about literature from the past or titles of sessions from SAA annual meetings of the ’70s, ’80’s, ’90’s, 00’s, and 10’s, that’s what that’s about.
Wish me luck! (Oh, and don’t forget to make your donation–applicants are flowing in but donations have slowed . . . )
That’s my appropriation of a question asked on Twitter by Andy Burkhardt, who asked it about libraries and librarians. His tweet was inspired by this article on Fast Company, “The 5 Questions Every Company Should Ask Itself.”
So, friends, what should archives or archivists stop doing? What should we drop? And feel free to elaborate on why, if you’re inspired and have the time. I expect to get a lot of valuable responses from archivists, but if you’re a historian, scholar, or user of archives, I’d like to hear your ideas too. We all know archives are being asked to do more with less and that’s just not possible. So what can we drop? The floor is yours.