My #ACA2016 plenary: It’s the end of the archival profession as we know it, and I feel fine

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 ExpertsI thought it brought up some interesting ideas and was worth sharing. Enjoy!

[In addition to thanking everybody who helped bring me to ACA, I observed that my goal as a plenary speaker is to give the audience some provocative ideas to think about, grounded in enough reality so that they can give those ideas serious consideration. I hope I achieved that here.]

In the past three years I edited six books of case studies, highlighting what eventually ended up being called “innovative practices” in archives. When we were originally negotiating about the series, my publisher wanted to call them “best practices,” but I was leery about making that kind of claim, so we settled on “innovative.” It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot these days—including by the organizers of this conference—but, as I noted in the introductions to the books, it seemed clear that while many, if not most, of the case studies incorporated technology in some way, for almost all the use of technology was less important than rethinking how best to fulfill the organization’s mission. In other words, the ideas came first, and the technology second.

It was with that mindset that I submitted the abstract for this plenary, but as Humphrey Bogart said in the film Casablanca, it seems that destiny has taken a hand. My views on the sources of innovation haven’t changed as much as they have been expanded, and all by reading the right book at the right time. Perhaps because I don’t have a job in which I need to focus on the future of one archival repository, I spend time thinking about the future of the whole archival profession. I try to identify large scale trends, and consider how technology, among other things, is affecting the work we do. And as a natural result, I’ve been trying to learn more about how technology and the Internet are affecting other professions. I kept thinking that someone must be writing about this, and lo and behold, a few months ago I found this book: The Future of Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts by British father and son, Richard and Daniel Susskind. Published just last year, it was exactly the book I was looking for, and it’s changed my own thinking about the future of archives, as well as the main thrust of this afternoon’s talk.  It gave me greater insight into trends I’d already seen, what drives innovation, and where the roots of the next phase of innovation lie for our profession. It provided evidence for my anecdotal observations and gut feelings, surfaced new ideas and challenged some old ones.  So, a great inspiration when I needed to write a 45 minute talk about innovation and technology!

Today I’ll be drawing heavily from the Susskind book, but primarily in form of a remix, slicing and dicing their observations and pulling the ones that best illustrate how their argument applies to the archival profession, and how it relates to what we’re doing today and will be doing tomorrow.


In a nutshell, the Susskinds argue that we are currently in the transitional phase between “a print-based industrial society” and a “technology-based Internet society.” (151) We can see around us indications of what that technology-based Internet society will be like, and when it fully arrives, it will be, they claim, radically different and will bring about the end of the professions as we know them today. The professions they focus on in the book are primarily law, medicine, accounting and the like, but their analysis seems applicable to archivists as well. I’ll begin by summarizing some of their observations about how the way we work has changed and will change, review some of the current trends they identify and put them in an archival context and also how address how they can contribute to our own innovation. Then I’ll address some of the possible reactions to thinking about applying their arguments to archives, and then I’ll shift up to a higher level and talk briefly about how I think their work can inform our thinking about the future of our profession.

As we travel this road to our new future, the Susskinds claim that the professions will “undergo two parallel sets of changes. The first will be dominated by automation. Traditional ways of working will be streamlined and optimized through the application of technology. The second will be dominated by innovation. Increasingly capable systems will transform the work of professionals, giving birth to new ways of sharing practical experience. In the long run this second future will prevail, and our professions will be dismantled incrementally.” (271)The real crux of their argument is the focus on what they call “increasingly capable systems.” They write: “The leap we ask of readers is to contemplate the impact of Watson-like technology when it is applied across the professions.” (165) For “Watson-like technology” think about really advanced artificial intelligence applied pervasively across virtually every aspect of our future lives. Innovation, in their view “enables ways of making [professional knowledge] available that simply were not possible (or even imaginable) without the systems in question.” (112)

Perhaps this is a good time to talk about timeframes—which as I recall the Susskinds explicitly do not. And neither will I. Because it’s impossible to predict with any kind of accuracy the pace of technological change and adoption. Their book—and my talk—isn’t about when something will happen, but rather looking at what we know already has happened and is happening, and thinking about the future, based on those observations. So, with that out of the way,back to my summary of their observations.

Another keystone to the Susskinds’ argument is a framework for what they call the “evolution of professional work.” This framework consists of four stages:  craft, standardization, systemization, externalization. Externalization “is the stage at which the practical expertise of human experts is made available to non-specialists on an online basis.” (202) Generally speaking, it’s desirable to move each part of your work as far along the framework as possible—or, as they put it: “Our claim is that for any piece of professional work, it is possible to decompose the work into constituent tasks and allocate each task to the most appropriate boxes [craft, standardization, systemization, externalization]” (198)

I think we can easily relate to this framework of progress in our own profession—the move from every aspect of our work being a “bespoke,” one-off, handcrafted task, to standardization in which we developed checklists, reusable forms, standard procedures, etc, to systemization, in which the work is actually executed by systems, to externalization. As we think about automation and innovation in our field, then, we need to actively pursue this process of, as the Susskinds say, “decomposing” our work into tasks and then figuring out how far down the framework we can push each task, realizing that there will eventually be very few that truly need to remain in realm of “craft,” or even perhaps of standardization.

Another important element of their argument is that:

“There are, in a sense, two new divisions of labor arising in society, both focused on providing alternatives to the traditional professions: the first is a reallocation of effort away from professionals towards different types of people; the second is away from professionals towards a variety of machines.” (215) And, again, this makes sense when you think about the progression of tasks along that framework—as you move from craft to standardization to systemization to externalization, it’s increasingly possible to shift the work from experts or professionals to people with less advanced, or different, skills, as well as to machines.

So, this, then, is the world these authors think will come to dominate us. (And if you are skeptical, as perhaps some of you are, that this will ever really come to pass for archives, don’t worry, I’ll be addressing that in due course.) But I hope that enough of what I have said and will be saying will ring true that you will, as I did, buy into their essential argument. (And I think that you have probably also heard supporting evidence in some sessions over the past few days.) This is already happening.  And I think you’ll recognize that in this selective review of some of the trends and patterns the Susskinds identify in their book. For each I’ll try to demonstrate how it’s applicable to archives and also discuss how we can take further advantage of it to push innovation in our own field.

The first of these trends characterizing what they call “the end of the professional era” is the bypassing of traditional gatekeepers:

“We are already seeing some work being wrested from the hands of traditional professions. Some of the competition is coming from within. We observe professionals from different professions doing each other’s work. They even speak of ‘eating one another’s lunch.’ . . . We also see intra-professional friction, when, for example, nurses take on work that used to be exclusive to doctors, or paralegals are engaged to perform tasks that formerly were the province of lawyers. . . . But the competition is also advancing from outside the traditional boundaries of professions—from new people and institutions. . . . Stepping forward are data scientists, process analysts, knowledge engineers, systems engineers, and many more.” (107)

The Susskinds present this as a negative, and certainly in many cases it is, but if you approach this from the point of view of what’s best for your audiences, collections, and budget, there may be value in embracing this trend. Along with asking “how far along the framework can I push this task?” also ask “would it be better (or cheaper) for someone else to be doing this task?” And I think we’ll also recognize another aspect of this trend, identified by the Susskinds as “practical expertise being made available by recipients of professional work—in effect, sidestepping the gatekeepers.” Recipients of our professional work? Historians, genealogists, researchers of all kinds, sharing online what they’ve learned from working in our archives and with our records? That certainly happens too. And again, if our mission is to assist to getting information out there, as professionals we should be supportive of this “bypassing the gatekeepers” trend, and looking for ways to harness it ourselves (as indeed I think the profession has been for some time). (Participatory archives, anyone?) Related to this, supporting it and inspiring it, is the ways technology and the internet supports the growth of ‘do-it-yourself’ or DIY or maker culture, enable people to create their own collections and archives of digital and digitized materials, share them, and create associated communities.

Related to the bypassing of gatekeepers is the trend the Susskinds term “diversification,”   which “. .  . involves professionals extending their areas of expertise into new disciplines, often those lying next to the ones over which they already have mastery.” (117) Again, we’ve seen this happen as our historian and librarian colleagues seek to extend their areas of professional activity, if sometimes not the accompanying expertise, into the field of archives. In a corporate setting, diversification may allow clients to rely on only one firm for a suite of related needs—“one stop shopping,” if you will. Again, rather than looking at this only as a negative, as others encroaching on our turf, should we not consider this idea ourselves, and examine ways in which we can also extend our areas of expertise into related disciplines? This blurring of professional roles, and the elimination of “bright lines” between professions as people and organizations seek to adjust to a changing playing field is a hallmark of the transition into the end of the professional era.

A second trend they identify is a shift from a reactive to a proactive approach to professional work. Again, in their words: “Traditional professional work is reactive in nature. The recipient of the service tends to initiate the engagement and then the professional responds.” (107) You get sick, you go see a doctor. The doctor doesn’t call you regularly to ask if you’re sick. This sounds very reminiscent of what we might call “old school” archival work, or that which is done in a more craft-based environment. For me, the way we do reference comes to mind right off the bat as an example of how archives have moved from a reactive to a proactive approach. Rather than just waiting for questions to come in, we try to anticipate what people may want to know about and post online resources so that they can help themselves, and I’m sure you can think of many similar examples. Another way to think about this shift in terms of how we can innovate as archivists is to look for ways in which people don’t know they could benefit from our help until it’s too late. Reading out to potential donors and organizational records creators comes to mind.  We’ve already been innovating by focusing more on upfront communications, outreach, planning, risk management, etc., but we can continue to find ways to make people aware of our services and resources before they even think of looking for them.

Taking this to a more sophisticated level is what the authors refer to as the “embedded knowledge model” in which expert knowledge or rules are embedded in systems and environments so that problems can be avoided before they start . In this model, “Often, indeed, the expertise and its method of delivery will effectively be concealed from those who benefit from its presence.”  (225) The obvious and perhaps most desirable example of this for our field might be incorporating automated records management into systems and platforms, so that not only would users not need to be conscious of it or execute it, but they also would not be able to circumvent it.

This move from a reactive to a proactive approach to accessing information has had a negative effect on the professions that serve an intermediary function.  The example used in the book is travel agents, who were once widely used by many people as intermediaries with hotels, transportation providers, and attractions. The ability—and indeed, the preference—of people to interact easily and directly with many kinds of businesses has resulted in the “disintermediation” of these professionals’ roles. The Susskinds observe that “In response, some innovative professionals are seeking to reintermediate themselves, that is, insert themselves in new places in the supply chain. They are helping in new ways.” (121-122) As intelligent systems are developed that “disintermediate” archivists from our traditional work, such as those that can serve as intermediaries between people and archival materials, supplying services that generate archival descriptions and answer reference queries (Siri for archives?), another area for potential innovation in our field is to consider where and how we could reintermediate ourselves into the creation, management, and use of our holdings? Where else in the information lifecycle could we help in new ways?

Another trend which should resonate with us, I think, is the Susskinds’ discussion of how the Internet has stimulated “latent demand” for professional knowledge and services, which is related in some ways to a more proactive approach.  Latent demand is when people want or would benefit from information or services, but, in the authors’ words “to obtain this today in the traditional form is too costly, confusing, and forbidding.” (133) Sounds like a perfect description of how some people would view actually visiting a physical archives to access information. Too costly, confusing, and forbidding. However, as the Susskinds conclude, when free or low cost online options are available, people use them. For many of us a good example of this is TurboTax. We may have wanted professional help doing our taxes, but we didn’t want to bother with finding and working with an accountant. However, if that knowledge is embedded in an online system we can use from home, we embrace it.  And I think this is also exactly what we’ve seen from putting digital collections online—people use them who would never have sought out archival material before.  But to spur further innovations, can we think of other areas in which we can take advantage of our knowledge and resources to meet latent demand? Pushing out information on “personal digital archiving” and preserving family, community, and organizational records of all kinds seems like another good example, but are there others? What kinds of information do people need or want that we can make easier for them to access?

Although it seems in some ways self-evident, I appreciated that the Susskinds included in their round up of trends the proliferation of different ways of communicating. For us today this means largely social media, and so forth, but the larger point is that embracing new methods needs to become a regular business practice, not an exceptional event. They take a minute to pat themselves on the back for recognizing before many others did that the use of email would become a standard an accepted form of communication for between lawyers and clients, and, of course, the U.S. National Archives was notoriously slow on recognizing the importance of preserving email as a record in its native form. Even though for every Facebook, which emerges as a powerhouse, there will be an unknown number of Second Lifes, which peter out to virtually nothing, we cannot choose to put our heads in the sand and not explore new ways people work, record their lives, want to communicate with us, and access information. With scare resources, it’s a delicate balance to know when to jump in, but continually trying out new things and adapting to the changing landscape of communication needs to be a regular part of all our work.

Similarly, the Susskinds note the changes and opportunities wrought by the proliferation of crowdsourcing efforts and widespread online participation—that is, short of using machines, technology allows the use of networks of people, linked by a platform. And again, these people working on a problem may sometimes be professionals, and sometimes not.  The larger point is that the problems these networked people are able to tackle are ones that could just simply not have been done in the past. To take just two non-archives examples. The first, as the Susskinds write: “in 2009 the British Government published online, 700,000 individual documents that related to the expenses of British MPs. In response, the Guardian newspaper built an online platform to host these documents, and asked readers collectively to sift through them, a task too large for any one person alone, and flag those that might be of interest, adding analysis if need be. A community of over 20,000 individuals engaged in what was, in effect, a public audit.” (93-footnote) And the recent example of the Panama Papers, in which journalists from 107 media organizations in 80 countries analyzed 11.5 million documents, with the first results being made available in a little more than a year. In both these example we have people—professionals and non-professionals—carrying out work on a different scale and in a different way than was previously possible. Collaboration—online and in person, with other professionals and the public–will continue to be a means for turning innovative ideas into reality, and the collaborative trend will continue to become more influential in our future.

The next trend not only excites me, but I love the way it was phrased: “Mastery of data.” For professions such as law and medicine, the Susskinds talk about this in terms of both gathering and analyzing data about their own work and using data sets generated by others .  Archivists need to become, if we are not already, masters of data, or to use a less romantic title, data scientists. We need to understand how to apply the tools and techniques of “big data” to data, both big and small, that we generate in the course of our work and that is a part of our holdings.  While certainly not all of us would ever be actually doing the work of creating those tools, or even implementing them, we need to know what is possible and useful so that we can work with others to generate meaningful outputs. The Susskinds note that  “. . . the use of Big Data should identify trends and unearth knowledge that professionals simply had not noted or known of in the past.” (163) I suspect that, just as at one point it was acceptable for an archivist to say “I don’t know anything about computers” but today that seems archaic, someday it will seem absurd for an archivist to say “I don’t know anything about data science.”

So, again, I think we can all recognize trends in the recent history of our profession in these larger trends that the Susskinds have observed affecting professions across the board. In other words, while we may think of ourselves as a narrow, specialized (and special) profession, we are just as subject to the enormous shift from  “a print-based industrial society” to a “technology-based Internet society” as the rest of the professions.  The value for us in this kind of analysis, I believe, is that we should recognize these trends and shifts as something we need to capitalize on and be a part of rather than try to fight against.

I think it’s worth noting that when we talk about innovation or innovative practices, we are often talking about exactly the kinds of trends the Susskinds highlight: automating, standardizing, systemizing, externalizing, which will result in shifting tasks from professionals to paraprofessionals, related professionals, volunteers and crowdsourcees, and increasingly capable machines.  As well as, in the future, using the “embedded knowledge model,” so that tasks are carried out automatically behind the scenes. And, I think the recent history of the profession has also demonstrated innovations arising out of the kinds of changing work patterns the Susskinds discussed, such as efforts to reintermediate ourselves into other parts of the process—identifying where and how we can provide new services and knowledge to capitalize on latent demand, informing the development of these increasingly capable machines, using the tools of data science to understand and help others understand new kinds of data sets, identifying were we can diversify our own profession to take on some of the roles of related professions. We’ve done some of those more than others, of course, but certainly the current image of an innovative archivist is one who is flexible, data-driven, proactive, and not tied to a narrow constricted view of our professional role.


Now, I must, in all honesty, out myself as having once had, as Richard and Daniel Susskind titled a chapter in their book, “Objections and Anxieties.” Mine were based on a mélange of the arguments I’m about to review, with a good healthy dose of fear thrown in for good measure. So I speak from a place of understanding.  It’s reasonable to respond to the vision of the future I’ve described by saying that either this will never happen in archives, or this should never happen in archives. Here’s why those arguments don’t necessarily hold water.

First, this vision of the future clearly assumes that the shift from a print-based (or analog) society to a digital one has been completed, and yet we know that we will doubtless never reach a point at which all analog materials have been digitized. These increasingly capable machines will be of little use if information is not in digital form, right? Well, yes, but—and I think we’ve seen evidence of this as a trend as well—I would argue that in the future that which is not digital will not matter. Of course it will matter to a select group of people (and it will still have value, of course), just as the cuneiform writing on tablets still has value and matters to a small group of scholars. (Although, even people who need to access the nondigital materials will probably, as they do now, want you to scan it and send copies to them.) The key isn’t will everything be digitized, but rather will we have completed the shift from a print-based society to a digital Internet one. As the Susskinds observe, right now, we’re stuck between the two, but I think it’s fruitless to argue that such a shift is not an inevitable one.

A second argument, and one that’s common across professions, is that “a machine can’t do all the parts of my job.” My assessment of the Susskinds response to this is that, yes, for the most part, it can. They spend quite a bit of time exploring people’s anxiety with this issue, observing: “There is a deeper level at which professionals will need to revisit their relationship with technology. To insist that machines should, as it were, know their place, namely in the back office and not on the front line, is to ignore the signals of change. Instead two new forms of relationships need to be developed, and each demands new skills and an open mind. The first is the notion that machines and systems will work alongside tomorrow’s professionals as partners. The challenge here is to allocate tasks, as between human beings and machines, according to their relative strengths. . . . . The second relationship is harder to concede. It is based on frank recognition that some systems will soon be manifestly superior at discharging entire bodies of work that today are undertaken by people—machines, on other words, will replace human beings.” (117) And I think, for many archivists, the idea that a machine would be able to be manifestly superior at reviewing records for PII or potentially restricted information is fine. But when we come to answering reference queries or making appraisal decisions, how willing will we be to trust algorithms? Are these professional tasks not suitable for machines because they require creativity and thought? The Susskinds argue: “What may appear to be non-routine today may in fact be routinizable in the future.” (120)  . . . and “ just because a professional task is non-routinizable, this does not mean that it cannot be performed by a machine—another theme of this book is that machines can undertake some non-routine tasks not by rendering them routine but by tackling them in entirely different ways (for example, using statistics rather than the reasoning that is characteristic of humans). “ (120)

However, even if we accept that machines will be able to do many of the tasks of a professional archivist, I’m sure some would make the case that such tools would be beyond the reach and budgets of   a lot of archival repositories. That these will be the Rolls Royce of systems and most of us will still be on a Ford Fiesta budget.  But, again, technology trends argue otherwise. In the not too distant past, many of the gadgets on the original Star Trek television series seemed impossible, and yet variants of them exist today. And, a bit more recently, in the 1987 movie Wall Street, the character played by Michael Douglas, the one who said “Greed is good,” used a cutting edge cell phone at his beach house, it looked like he was holding a brick in his hand. Driverless cars? It’s all we hear about, it seems. (And self-honking!) The examples are endless.  The point is, are there archives today that don’t have computers or an Internet connection? Possibly yes, probably yes. But how relevant are they if we’re talking about the profession as a whole? Will all archives be able to carry out their routine functions without professionals? Of course—some do that today, depending on how you define “an archive.” But, again, we’re talking about the profession as a whole, the majority, the professional identity. What constitutes a well-run, well-managed archival operation. And, in the future, I argue, that will include the use of any and all easily available technology.

A more compelling argument, perhaps, is not that this won’t happen, but that it shouldn’t happen. That our profession—like all professions—has a tradition and values.  That having people involved in certain processes is necessary because the “human touch” is necessary. That , as Peter noted in the opening plenary, we shouldn’t be entrusting preserving the records of human memory to algorithms. The Susskinds are at their most coldblooded and pragmatic in their response to this kind of defense. Society as a whole—and perhaps most importantly, economic realities—they argue, don’t care about any profession’s tradition or values, and people don’t value the human touch as much as we might think. What matters is delivering an acceptable level of service as freely and broadly as possible. I’m sure having a tailor make a custom suit for a man is a great experience, and I would love to have a specially designed couture gown sewn by talented seamstresses. These are professions with traditions and values, but almost all of us buy our clothes off the rack. If a robot can perform surgery better than a human doctor, and I can get an effective diagnosis at three in the morning from an intelligent system, drawing on all the universe of medical knowledge, why wouldn’t I choose those options?  Many doctors have a truly horrible bedside manner, and have no capacity to deliver bad news in a sensitive way. Meanwhile, in the future machines will be able to consistently simulate and “fake” empathetic human behavior much more effectively than many human doctors can fake it.  Morally, I think, we want to believe we are better off in the hands of our fellow humans, but at times I think we can all admit that’s just not the case. And, more importantly, at what point will those who hold the purse strings stop being willing to pay for it when what appear to be equivalent or even better options are available and at a lower cost?


However, speaking for myself, I don’t live in quite as gloomy world as the Susskinds seem to.  I’d rather talk about the evolution of professions, rather than their end. As beings evolve, they shed characteristics they don’t need any more, and new ones develop.  If it’s survival of the fittest professions, I’m invested in making sure archivists survive.

So, assuming the basic argument that much of the professional work of archivists will no longer require archivists in the future, what’s left for us to take on? How can we continue to provide value that people and organizations will see as unique and worthy of recognition?

I’m excited about this evolution, because for me, what’s left is all the best stuff.  Here’s what I think our profession should be focus on as we transition from our current age to the primarily digital future:

  • Narrative, storytelling, meaning-making, context providing. Most of the archivists I know are already great at this, and we know that it is what resonates most about archives for many people. Will machines ever be able to do this too? Maybe. Maybe not, but if so probably not in the same way we would do it. This is pulling materials out of the sea of undifferentiated “information” and highlighting them, talking about them, connecting them, curating them, telling their story, and maybe coming up with platforms and techniques that enable others to do this more effectively too. Do we think about this today as a primary function of archivists, or are there those among you who think this should be left to the historians, scholars, and museum curators? If so, remember that as we move into the future the lines between the professions will become more blurred. We can bypass gatekeepers too. We can diversify.
  • Outreach and education. More important than ever. Again, will there be algorithms that can identify what picture is most likely to attract whatever the future version of Facebook likes will be? Probably, but people will probably still want to tune into the future equivalent of a podcast to hear someone give a lecture, or participate in new opportunities to learn about history, like virtual reality experiences. And remember that the field of education will just as disrupted as other professions—and there are many good examples of this happening around us now. There will surely be opportunities in this for archives professionals to reintermediate ourselves into education at many levels.
  • And, while it might be an uphill battle to keep talking about concepts like authenticity, integrity and reliability, privacy and accountability in the world of the future, I think archivists will and should keep trying. There will be some aspects of the archival tradition that may be even more relevant in our post-textual age.
  • One new role some may choose to embrace is as historians of obsolete communication forms and practices. Specialists in the history of communication, and of how bureaucracies and systems worked in “the past,” that is, this textual industrial society in its heyday and waning years. Many of us take our understanding of communication forms for granted, and also take for granted that others also know or remember what they are and how they work. We often assume people understand forms like old fashioned memos, letters, and telegrams. Even email will no doubt come to seem archaic, and we can help explain these artifacts and put them in context.
  • We will also, of course, still need to keep identifying new communications platforms and practices, and continue to try to figure out best to use them for outreach, capitalize on latent demand and ensure that their content is appropriately captured for the future.
  • And, as we do today, but more so, I think we’ll be collaborating with citizen archivists, passionate amateurs and communities of enthusiasts, official community archives, organizational archives, whoever, to help ensure preservation of valuable records, help make them accessible, and promote their use. Efforts like these are only going to expand, both for digital materials but also for gathering up the ephemera of the pre-digital era. The archival world will be more of a true network of repositories of all kinds than it is today. Again, the line between different types of information sources will be more blurred.
  • And, related to this function as a collaborator with people preserving their own materials, as well as education and outreach, will be a continuing need to make people aware of how to preserve their own personal, organizational and family output in an age when almost all of that will be born digital. In a post-print age, will more advocacy and outreach be necessary to ensure materials are kept? I think so.
  • In a world with so much digital “noise,” will highlighting archival silences be even more important? Machines and algorithms will be able to identify silences that we may miss, but, with all due respect to our new AI overlords, I think we as humans will still be able to understand some silences that they will miss, and contextualize their findings. We should be working side by side with machines on issues of this kind. And for the foreseeable future, I continue to see a role for us in seeking out and ensuring analog materials are being digitized, and personal recollections are being captured, and added to the universe of accessible knowledge. We will still need to keep pursuing the diversification of the digitized record of the past, as well as helping to put that record in context.
  • Which leads to the area of activism, the subject of an inspiring session yesterday, and one which I don’t have time to do justice right now. But suffice it to say that I think our role in things like documenting the undocumented, surfacing evidence from the past of which people are unaware, and doing what we can to advance social justice, wherever possible, will be an important function for archivists moving forward. As Nicola Vernon, a student tweeting for the McGill ACA student chapter, wrote in response to a session yesterday, and as others have noted in the past: “It is our duty as archivists to remember what society would prefer to forget.”


So, as I said, this excites me because this list of activities is some of the most exciting and important things archivists do. You may have also noticed that many functions on this list are things that in our current environment are often regarded as a bonus, extra, to be done when time permits.

And that’s why I think this little journey into one possible—and certainly very viable, I think—future matters. Because in the “short” term—that is, the foreseeable future, we can work to best take advantage of the conditions as we transition to the digital Internet age. We can understand the forces shaping the way people behave and act accordingly. We can try to understand how to best position ourselves, both as custodians in some ways of the still present but receding print-based industrial world, and as a source of valuable information and expertise in the digital Internet society. We can incorporate this understanding into the way we educate and guide the next generations of professionals. This understanding can inform the way we continue to educate ourselves, and the way we talk about our profession to others.

And what about the long term? The unforeseeable future? When our transition to the digital Internet society is complete? One vision I can see of that future is the evolution of the archival profession into something that has very few connections to what we know today, and in that sense, it will be the end of the profession, as we know it.

And what might that look like? Maybe some kind of “bizzaro” archives world, in which everything we know is turned on its head. Like:

  • The custodial, preservation function of archivists has been handed off to machines, paraprofessionals, and rare book and manuscript specialists.
  • Archivists are valued for being subjective, rather than striving to appear objective.
  • They identify primarily by area of expertise or research, and use archives as a methodology rather its own area of discipline.
  • Their primary functions are research, outreach, education, identifying materials to save, digitize & highlight, as well as coordination across collections.
  • Employment and identification not tied to physical materials or a physical location. New organizational models enable specialists to work across institutions.
  • The distinction between museums, libraries and archives may be almost eroded. Archaic analog books and archival materials are lumped together in the public imagination with museum materials, and the people who specialize in them will be analogous to museum curators.

Let’s make this more real by looking at a possible example: a person in the future who is expert in, let’s say, the history of the documentation of dance. She may be based in association with one traditional collection with strengths in that area, such as the NYPL’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division, but she works with dance-related collections across many digital repositories. She generates new scholarship, and assists researchers in understanding and accessing resources across digital and analog repositories. She collaborates with collectors and community archives to preserve analog and digital materials, promotes and prioritizes analog materials for digitization, is active on whatever communication platforms exist, and works with contemporary dance companies to preserve their documentation.

Notice I’m not calling this person an archivist. because at some point along the transition to a digital culture, many in what was once the archival profession decided to rebrand themselves, dropping the title that was so strongly linked to a dusty and irrelevant past. Her title could be something like information historian or meaning maker or memory keeper, or something we can’t even imagine yet. Separated from the responsibility of physical custodian of the records, she is free to concentrate on promoting their value and their use, and ensuring future records are valued, kept, and used as well.

I intended to end this talk with a quote from William Gibson, but Peter already used it in his opening plenary.  So instead, inspired by this vision of a transformed archival profession, I’ll just say: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this opportunity to explore a positive future of the end of the archival profession as much as I have. Thank you!



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2 thoughts on “My #ACA2016 plenary: It’s the end of the archival profession as we know it, and I feel fine”

  1. Thanks so much for posting this Kate! I was just about to contact you and ask for some of the texts you cited in your presentation in Montreal. I’m working on a little project of my own and “meaning maker” is what I am contemplating calling myself in my bio.

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