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.