Metadata is a foreign concept? Whaaaat?!? (Part One) – A guest post by Greg Bak

[This is a guest post by Greg Bak, Archival Studies, Department of History, University of Manitoba. ]

Thanks to Kate for agreeing to publish my recent SAA presentation on her blog. In Part One of this guest post I discuss some of the Twitter reaction to my talk; in Part Two I include the slides and speaking notes from my talk.

Okay, so I’m paraphrasing here, but the title of this post summarizes reactions on Twitter to my presentation at SAA 2013 session 701. In the course of my talk I suggested that “Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archives.” Here are a few tweets that followed:

 Brad Houston:
Hmm. Metadata a foreign concept to archivists? Don’t think I agree with that at all. Used all the time, even if the word isn’t #Saa13 #s701 

Kind of getting annoyed by the assumptions made in this preso. Metadata is implicit in most description we do as archivists #Saa13 #s701 

Geof Huth:
How could say this and use the word “folksonomies” in the same presentation?

 Couldn’t figure out how he came to this conclusion. I mean, finding aids (of any kind) are metadata.

Things didn’t get much better when I went on to suggest that metadata, as a concept, is foreign to social media, too:

 Krystal Thomas:
hmm, also not sure I am buying the idea that metadata is foreign to social media though something to think about #s701 #saa13

 Andrew Berger:
Metadata is foreign to social media? #saa13

 Brad Houston:
Metadata is foreign to social media?” Um, I’ve got a spreadsheet of #Saa13 tweets on Google Drive which says otherwise #s701 

Thankfully, a couple of folks picked up the nuances and saved me from myself:

 Mark Matienzo:
From the looks of Twitter my colleagues are seriously misunderstanding Greg Bak’s presentation #saa13

 Sami Norling:
Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archivists (at least at its introduction) #saa13

 Seth Shaw:
“Metadata is foreign to social media”? I don’t buy the argument though I accept the implication: it is all ‘just’ data. #s701 #saa13

Sami Norling perceptively noted the emphasis I put in my oral remarks on archivists’ initial reluctance, in the 1980s and 1990s, to embrace metadata as a concept, while Seth Shaw evaluated my statement in light of the definition of metadata that I used in my paper. Mark Matienzo urged that people not react to my (poor) choice of wording, but take into account the ideas behind the words.

Not that I was using an obscure or idiosyncratic definition of metadata: I defined it as “data about data.” My point was that when defined in this way, the very concept of metadata requires that there be primary data (for example, a digital object or an analog document) and secondary data (data that is outside of, above or apart from the primary data).

My contention is that when the term began to gain currency among archivists in the 1990’s there was an instinctive reaction against it, followed by an attempt to re-frame it into archival terms. Adrian Cunningham, writing in Archival Science in 2001, scoffed that “When most of us first encountered the term metadata, we were probably repelled by yet another debasement of the English language by a bunch of barbarian techno-boffins.”  Cunningham presses on, discussing various definitions of the term before suggesting that “metadata is simply a new term for information that has been around for a very long time, but which now looks a bit different due to the advent of computer technology.” He rounds off his brief discussion with the claim that “archivists are metadata experts – it is just that we tend not to think in those terms,” and lists some examples of what he would consider archival metadata: finding aids, index cards, file covers, file registers and so on.

In my paper I sought to return to the initial wariness of archivists for the concept and re-evaluate this reluctance. What if archival anxiety around “metadata” was triggered not by fear of “debasement of the English language”, but rather from concern for debasement of archival theory?

This is the real issue: in archival theory, the kind of data typically identified as “metadata” is an integral part of the record. It is evidence of relationships among records and records users. It is not “meta” data; it is simply data. It is data that must be acquired and managed as a necessary part of the record. It is the data that makes the difference between a bunch of discrete, solitary items and a fully interrelated set of archival records.

This, moreover, is also how such data is managed within social media applications. Data that describes the use of information resources is not “meta” data, it is simply data: data that enables the weighting of search results, creating tangible differences in rankings, visibility and usefulness.

I am presently writing my SAA presentation for peer-reviewed publication. If you would like to see how I presented these ideas at SAA, my presentation slides and speaking notes will be included in “Part Two” of this post. I welcome any and all feedback, either in this blog’s comments or by sending me an email at


Cunningham A (2001). Six degrees of separation: Australian metadata initiatives and their relationships with international standards. Archival Science 1.3:271-283.


Call for participation for ART Symposium: Disaster Planning for Archives and their Communities (October 7)

I was asked to help spread the word about this call for participation from the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York for their conference, “Disaster Planning for Archives and their Communities,” to be held on October 7 with a deadline of August 1 for submitting a proposal.

If you’d like to participate as a speaker, here’s their list of possible topics:

Case studies and “lessons learned” from Sandy or other disasters

Protecting personal and family records — providing outreach to the general public

Continuity of operations and logistics — how to get back up and running after a disaster

Navigating FEMA and other disaster relief assistance

Preventative care of collections versus post-disaster recovery

Lone arrangers and small shops — how can small archives band together to help one another

Using a disaster to advocate within your organization — making the archive valuable during a disaster

Archivists as volunteers — fostering a culture of giving and creating a network of archivist volunteers

Disaster planning and recovery on a budget

How archives and cultural institutions fit into the larger emergence response picture, especially post-Katrina.

Keeping up morale, resources and volunteer support weeks and months after a disaster

Disaster planning for born-digital and electronic records

Protecting vital records for both the archive and the larger organization

Archiving disaster — how does a significant event like 9/11 change the normal retention of records? what is the role of the archivist? how are records appraised?

Man-made versus natural disasters — the international perspective, especially in areas subject to armed conflict.

Advocating for archives during larger disaster situations when disaster recovery resources and relief are stretched.

They welcome speakers from outside the NYC region. So if you’d like to participate please go to their site for details. Looks like a great event and I hope many people will be able to attend in October.


Guest post: An archivist at THATCamp New Orleans

Thanks, Eira Tansey for this guest post about THATCamp:

One of the perks of living in New Orleans (besides, of course, all the outlets for laissez les bons temps rouler) is the number of conferences coming through town. This brings many opportunities for attending workshops, sessions, and events from outside of the archivist-niche that I normally wouldn’t have the travel funds to access. When the American Historical Association came into town, with a THATCamp during the first day of the conference, I was excited to attend an event that I’d been intrigued by for a long time.

For those who don’t know, THATCamp exists somewhere between a workshop, meetup, roundtable and conference. It is often described as an “unconference.” THAT stands for “The Humanities and Technology.” Going to THATCamp is different than the typical workshop or conference experience, because the schedule is created that day (brief proposals are submitted by participants ahead of time through the specific THATCamp website, e.g. AHA’s THATCamp site). To determine the schedule, each proposer gives brief remarks to the assembled group about their proposal. Following all the proposals, a show of hands is taken to determine interest in scheduling proposals.THATCamp is explicitly non-hierarchical – no one is accorded more or less respect or floor-time based on their professional status.

As with any meeting with multiple sessions, inevitably there are slots with overlapping interesting sessions. THATCamp organizers encourage people to move between sessions if one isn’t holding their attention, and reminded the proposers not to take such actions personally. Moving between sessions has always been my MO at traditional conferences, but it was a relief to hear it so openly embraced in this setting.

The first slot of the day included a discussion on the recently released Ithaka report. Kate has discussed this report before, and I was curious to see what historians had to say about it, given the response generated within the librarian/archivist communities. The turnout for this session was small, but I’d estimate the makeup of the attendees split in half, between librarians/archivists, and historians. As a result, a lot of the discussion centered around library and archival practices, without as much insight into how historians reacted to the report. One of the initial criticisms that came up was the unrealistic expectation that libraries could manage to have more librarians specializing in particular subfields (p. 43). Besides the obvious issue of funding, are librarians and archivists truly obligated to be experts in every possible subfield?

One of the historians noted her frustration with the lack of a centralized location for finding archival sources. The librarians and archivists in the group asked if she had heard of or used ArchiveGrid, and this was new to her. Of course, ArchiveGrid is a fantastic resource but it is only as good as a) archives that can make finding aids available online and b) archives that contribute those finding aids to ArchiveGrid.

A point I brought up was what the problematic phrase “research archivist” (p. 42), based on recommendation #4 to archives:

Historians deeply value the expertise of the research archivist, and archives should ensure that they are devoting adequate resources to engaging actively as interpreters of the collection and important connectors within their subfield. Archivists can play a patron services role in working with historians, and they should be afforded the time and other resources needed to serve researchers in this role. Archives are uniquely positioned to facilitate connections within the community of researchers who use their materials, and should make efforts to support engagement between researchers.

The inevitable question of “When will we have the all-digital archive” came up. In retrospect I have to believe that this wasn’t a serious question, but some of the librarians/archivists in the room pointed out that even if archives were funded at the levels that could even make this conceivable, the massive IP/copyright barriers to “digitizing everything” make it unlikely any time soon.

The proposer of the session raised a point which I think deserves significantly more exploration than we could do justice to in this session: At what point are archivists and librarians collaborators with historians, and at what point are they supporters? In what ways are archivists accorded similar respect and recognition as scholars, and in what ways are they viewed as something akin to helpmates? A few related turns in the discussion included someone asking (paraphrasing) “Where is the incentive for faculty to gain skills that enable them to work more productively with archivists and librarians?” This probably relates back to similar problems within digital humanities (e.g., how can digital humanists use DH projects as evidence for tenure/promotion). Another question was raised regarding whether the Ithaka report would help librarians and archivists get leverage for activities they’re already doing. The librarians and archivists present noted that the distinction that “archivists give you the originals, librarians give you secondary sources” was very artificial.

This was an interesting exploratory discussion, but I have to imagine that the historians who showed up were already interested in the relationships between librarians, archivists and historians. What about the historians who don’t care about those relationships or linkages? (And by extension, how much should that concern archivists?)

I should note that a staff member from (if I recall correctly) the National Endowment for the Humanities was present at this session – NEH helped fund this particular Ithaka report, however more reports will be forthcoming on the changing research practices of other scholars. (I don’t believe the NEH is funding the subsequent reports, but I could be wrong). There was also a session during AHA itself about the report. Unfortunately I was unable to attend that session, but there was a recap and remarks from one of the panel’s speakers. The points raised in these recaps probably deserve their own more developed responses (e.g., if archivists are “decreasingly well positioned to facilitate access to archival materials”, my own gut reaction is that’s due to our funding sources remaining absurdly reduced or stagnant, not because the profession does not want to meet new challenges).

The other sessions I attended during THATCamp including envisioning the teaching spaces of the future, much of which covered the idea that learning is no longer closely aligned with the classroom as setting (clearly, the experience of libraries retooling their spaces as learning commons, workshops, and other active environments has a lot to offer to this discussion), a session on collaborative mapping tools, and a session on programming for historians (in which one of the participants showed off a script he made to identify the box and folder numbers of images he took during archival research).

Attending THATCamp AHA was a great experience – I think it’s critically important for the voices of archivists to be present at conferences such as AHA. Likewise, I think THATCamp is insightful for archivists, since so many digital humanities projects incorporate archival materials. THATCamp is a welcoming atmosphere – regardless of your experience level. I encourage all archivists and librarians to attend a THATCamp. Given how widespread it’s become, there’s probably one coming near you.

**And it probably goes without saying, but the demarcation between “front of house” and “back of house” archivists often and necessarily overlaps. I have a job which ostensibly is that of a primary processing position, but I serve on the reference desk several hours a week, as do all my colleagues. We also have a public services librarian. So, in many archives, often people perform both duties and the line between the two sets of skills can be fuzzy. This points back  to previous points Kate has made that historians would benefit from knowing more about the workflows, hierarchies, and institutional structures of archives-land.

“The SAA Annual Meeting is unwelcoming.” Yes, it can be. Here’s what we can do about it.

For the past few days I’ve been going through the over 1500 comments SAA members submitted when they completed the SAA Member Survey. As you might expect, some familiar themes emerge, and one of them is that SAA as a whole and that the annual meeting in particular isn’t very welcoming of newcomers. I was reading those comments (and these ones) right before I attended the fall MARAC meeting, so I made an effort to try to talk to new people, and I’m glad I did. However, this was a something I actually had to be conscious about because, and I’m being 100% honest with you, I don’t go to meetings with the goal of meeting new people. Sorry, maybe that’s not admirable, but it’s the truth.

Anyone who knows me knows that I know I lot of people and that I seldom get to see any of them in person. For me and I think many others, going to a regional or national meeting is a rare chance to see friends and colleagues and catch up. I treasure my friends, and if I have a choice between spending time with someone I see once a year and talking with someone new, I may be more likely to choose the former than the latter. I don’t think that’s unusual. So, yes, if you go to annual meeting as a newcomer and feel like everyone else is there to see their friends, you’re partly right. Which isn’t to say that I don’t end up meeting new people–I always do, and some of those new people become friends too.

I was lucky. When I attended my first SAA meeting, I was part of group of students who all knew each other and hung out together. But I’ve heard from friends about their first meetings, when they didn’t know anyone and felt lonely and excluded. And that’s not a nice feeling. No one enjoys feeling like that.

So what can we do about it? Continue reading ““The SAA Annual Meeting is unwelcoming.” Yes, it can be. Here’s what we can do about it.”

New York Archives Week 2012 Symposium: Archives & Activism

Wish I could go to this. If anyone who can wants to share a summary here on the blog, let me know.

New York Archives Week 2012 Symposium: Archives & Activism

Co-sponsored by the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. and the New School Libraries and Archives
Friday, October 12, 2012
Theresa Lang Community and Student Center
Arnhold Hall, The New School
55 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011

8:30am to 6:00pm

Register at

If archivism was indeed ever exclusively ideologically neutral in its approach to managing historical materials, many archivists have come to see said objectivity as illusory at best. Principal amongst the reasons for this shift in perspective within the archives community is a growing awareness that its custodianship of cultural materials can never be enacted in a manner wholly divorced from interpretation, advocacy, and the ever-present demands of the socially or economically powerful institutions that fund and administer archives.

Despite the extent to which this emergent awareness has affected how archivists approach their responsibilities, there remains a mistrust of the archival world by those most committed to the dismantling of hegemonic structures, particularly amongst activists, on the grounds that traditional institutional frameworks often fail to provide adequate transparency, accountability or sensitivity to the needs of marginalized individuals, communities, and movements.

How far can, and should, archivists go in responding to the concerns of the movements they are attempting to document? Should they be rethinking, even overhauling, traditional archival practice? This symposium addresses a range of issues attendant upon archives’ evolving relationships with activism and social justice. Among these concerns are: ownership, trust, and exclusion; self-documentation by activist communities and participatory archives; and collaborations between activists, archivists, and researchers using emerging technologies. Presenters representing a variety of institutions, initiatives, and activist communities will explore theoretical concerns as well as practice-based approaches to documenting social activism.

This symposium is dedicated to the memory of archivist and historian Michael Nash (1946-2012).

The preliminary schedule for the symposium is now available at

Registration, while required, is free thanks to the generous support of Archives Week by MetLife and the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation.

Please contact if you have questions about this symposium.


Not able to go to Australia? Me neither. Here’s how to follow along with #ICA_2012

The International Council on Archives is holding its annual meeting right now in Brisbane. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not there. But fear not, there are ways to share the archival goodness. First, this site has links to (most) of the speaker’s full papers. Second, if you’re on Twitter (and have stamina) you can follow the #ica_2012 tweets (note the time difference, of course). Third, you can look at my selection of the conference tweets made via Storify.  They’re not in chronological order, but the content is good. That list is labeled “Part 1.” Time permitting I’ll do the same for tweets from tomorrow’s sessions.


Your feedback needed for SAA Annual Meeting Task Force: Two ways you can participate (and for non-SAA members – don’t think this doesn’t apply to you, too)

And with that record-setting long blog post title, I’m passing along two messages (below). If you don’t remember what the Annual Meeting Task Force is about, it’s trying to make the SAA Annual Meeting better for attendees (more affordable, more accessible, more valuable, etc.) and also increase the value for people who can’t physically attend. I would particularly encourage people who haven’t been able to attend meetings but who would like to, or would like to get access to the content of meetings, to give your feedback to the task force. SAA has lots of ways of getting feedback from its members, but not a lot of ways to get feedback from non-members, so if this issue is of interest to you, speak up. And of course, if you’ve attended a lot of meetings and have your own opinions (and I know you do), here’s your chance.

First, here’s an opportunity for a Google+ hangout:


As you may know, the Annual Meeting Task Force is holding an open forum at the meeting in San Diego this coming Thursday. The purpose of the forum is to let everyone know about the research that has been done so far and to get opinions about the Annual Meeting from those in attendance (what you like, what could be dropped, etc.). If you will be at SAA, I encourage you to attend.

Though I am a member of the Task Force, I will not be in San Diego and am considering hosting a Google hangout at the same time (noon PDT/3pm EDT). The forum itself will be “World Cafe style,” so in essence this will be just another table at the cafe. Would you be interested in attending? If so, please let me know by noon on Monday ( It would be great to have a mix of both new and experienced archivists. Depending on the response I get from SNAP, I will also post this to the A&A list.

Safe travels to all who are on their way to San Diego. Have a great time and hopefully I’ll see you next year in New Orleans!

Jennifer Sharp

Second, another call for you to send in feedback if you can’t attend the open forum:

The Annual Meeting Task Force wants to hear what you have to say! Send your thoughts, ideas, and topics to Rachel Vagts—anything related to the SAA Annual Meeting is fair game.

Rachel is a great person, so I know if you send in your feedback she will take it seriously.

And if you want to see a Google+ Hangout happen, get in touch with Jennifer. I think it might be a good idea to schedule several of these since not everyone will be able to make the scheduled time slot anyway, but let her know that.

So, if you’ve got something to say, here are multiple chances for you: in person, on Google+ and via email. Please take advantage of them.



Spontaneous Scholarships for 2012 SAA Annual Meeting: How to give, how to apply

Ok, this is the official launch! (But thanks to everyone who has sent donations in so far. Early donors are beloved donors.) Here’s the drill, which is essentially the same as it was last year:

What is this about?

We’re giving money to people to fund their registration for the SAA Annual Meeting in San Diego. Rather than pay for travel or lodging for a few people, I’m trying to give a little bit of help to as many people as possible. This is not affiliated with SAA in any way. Your donations are not tax deductible. It’s simple. You send me money. I give it all away within a few weeks to colleagues who need it.  Last year this campaign ran for two weeks and 94 generous people gave scholarships to 26 happy people.  (If you want to read more about how successful last year’s effort was, here’s the summary post.) This year it’s going to be four weeks. I’m not expecting donations from 188 people or to be able to fund 52 people, but I hope we can improve on last year’s numbers.

How you can help

If you want to give, you have several options, outlined below. My preference is for checks because that means PayPal transaction fees aren’t deducted from your donation, but I know it’s easier to click and donate while you’re thinking of it, so by all means, click and donate if that’s easier for you. Here are your options:

  • Pay by check–send me an email at info [@] or leave a comment (for which you must supply an email). I will reply with a mailing address. Or if you are an SAA member, you can look up my address in the member directory.
  • Pay via PayPal–click on the “Donate” button at top right of the sidebar.
  • Pay via credit card–send me an email at info [@] and I’ll send you an invoice using PayPal.

Give as much as you feel you can. Every little bit helps. Don’t feel like whatever you can afford to give isn’t enough. But if you’re fortunate enough to be in a comfortable position, please give generously.

How to put your name in the hat for scholarship

If you need some help funding your SAA Annual Meeting registration, please send a message to info [@] providing your name, and whether you are a student or regular SAA member (note you must be an SAA member to be eligible). Please do so by midnight on Saturday, June 30. On Sunday, July 1 I will draw names out of a hat and notify the lucky people. This will allow you to register by the early-bird deadline of July 6.

That’s all you need to do. It’s on the honor system. Don’t ask unless you need, but if you need, ask. I can’t give money away unless I have people to give it to. Last year there were a number of employed archivists, further along in their careers than you might expect, who asked for help because they needed to go to the meeting but their institutions weren’t funding them. This isn’t just for students and new archivists, it’s for everybody.

Which is why I’m asking you now to give, if you can. And why I’ll keep asking until June 30. Please share this through your own networks. (Goodness knows I will!) And if you need some help, throw your name into the virtual hat!


Links from MAC talk on participatory archives

If you were among the lucky (?) people in the audience today, here, as promised, are the links to the sites I mentioned in my talk. If you are one of the millions of people who were not there, these are the sites I mentioned as examples of participatory archives. I know there are a great many others, so I apologize if  I left out one of your favorites. I’m happy that there is an overabundance of riches when it comes to choosing examples on this topic. (At least examples that meet the criteria I use.) I’ll probably be posting my slides to SlideShare soon, or I may post them here on the blog so I can add the explanatory text that would help make some of them comprehensible. (Here’s a post about the talk I gave on this topic at the 2011 SAA Annual Meeting.)

Here are the links: Continue reading “Links from MAC talk on participatory archives”

Peter Wosh’s thoughts on the “archival divide”: remarks delivered at AHA

To complete my series of posts related to the session “Archivists, Historians, and the Future of Authority in the Archives” held at the recent meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, below are the remarks made by my follow panelist, Peter Wosh. Peter should need no introduction to most readers of this blog, I’m sure. He directs the graduate program in Archives and Public History at New York University, where he has taught since 1994. He is also the chair of SAA’s Publications Board, and the author of the recent book Waldo Gifford Leland and the Origins of the American Archival Profession. As a reminder, each member of the panel for this session was asked to share his or her views on Francis X. Blouin Jr., and William G. Rosenberg’s book Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives.

Continue reading “Peter Wosh’s thoughts on the “archival divide”: remarks delivered at AHA”