Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Reading Diaries and Blogs

As more and more people transfer their diary writing impulse to the creating and maintaining of their online blogs, one wonders how these digital diaries will be read in the long-term future. The act of creating a blog is intended to generate immediate responses, as I hope for in this very blog I am posting this in, as opposed to the older tradition of diary writing where a diary was intended to be read long after the writer was gone. In a few days, I will be in an archives reading a diary that was closed for twenty-five years after the death of its creator, an access provision dictated as part of the gift of that individual’s papers comprising the diaries. The mere fact of having closed the diaries for so long makes me anticipate that there must be detailed intimate notations on this person’s life and career that will provide additional insights beyond what I learned about in his other papers (mostly correspondence, notes for and drafts of professional essays and other publications, and financial records). Will this blog be around in twenty-five years to be read?

Novelist and essayist Julian Barnes in a recent essay – “The Past Conditional: What Mother Would Have Wanted,” New Yorker (December 25, 2006 & January 1, 2007) – describes this family ritual: “My brother remembers a ritual – never witnessed by me – that he calls the Reading of the Diaries. According to him, Grandma and Grandpa each kept diaries, and in the evenings would sometimes read out loud to each other what they had recorded five years earlier. The entries were apparently of stunning banality but frequent disagreement” (p. 57). I can imagine such diary reading occurring in more than one household, but I wonder if the online quality of blogs will lend themselves to this kind of family event. Or, even that blogs will be around in five, let alone twenty-five, years? While there is a communal aspect of blogging, in that they are publicly posted for reading, there is still a solitary nature about them, as one person reads and perhaps comments on the blog’s newest posting.

In the recent issue of an American archival journal, archivist Nancy Deromedi discusses a variety of issues relating to the personal web sites of university faculty. In her “Personal Faculty Web Sites: Exploring Archival Issues and the Digital Convergence,” Archival Issues 29, no. 1 (2005):9-18, Deromedi considers efforts by the University of Michigan to investigate how these web sites are used and the archival issues they present. Scanning what faculties there do with web sites, Deromedi concludes that they serve as sites to provide information on “academic identity and achievements” and “to convey knowledge through the distribution of teaching and research materials” (p. 11). Recognizing faculty blogs especially as mechanisms enhancing the role of faculty as public intellectuals or scholars, the University of Michigan library, along with the Bentley Library, its archival arm, started a blogging service “designed to include the option for archiving the blog” and giving the option to a faculty member to have a blog appraised by archivists when the blog is inactive (p. 12). This also opens the possibility of documenting more effectively what and how faculties teach in their courses and how this connects to faculty research, an aspect of university archival work that has proved to be particularly challenging to accomplish.

I am not sure how many university and college archives and records management programs focus on faculty blogs and Web sites (Deromedi suggests that faculty papers of any sort continue to be a low priority for these archival programs), but I know that little attention has been paid to these digital recordkeeping systems at my own school. This raises interesting questions regarding the future of my own blog, for example, and it obviously falls to my own resources to maintain it over time in any form. I must admit that my goals for this blog do not include its long-term preservation. I see its main value as serving as an extension of my teaching and as a means to generate additional substantive discussion about scholarly and other discourse on the nature of archives and the archival enterprise; at this early stage it may be premature to assess its value in the larger sense, although the level of conversation seems minimal (similar to other efforts I have been engaged in over the years – maybe the problem is me). As for its long-term value, I suspect that I will ultimately fold my blog postings into published essays and books, maybe a book (or books) on “reading” archives, and I see this as the final archiving of the blog. Perhaps this merely places me among an older traditional generation, but until something else comes along I don’t think I see the blog as anything more than a testing or drafting of ideas about societal and scholarly images of archives.

There is, of course, a personal dimension of my blog. As I write various postings, I often share something of my own life and professional experiences, as well as sharing ideas about research and writing projects. William Zinsser, in his introduction to a collection of essays on memoir writing -- Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998) – suggests that “This is the age of the memoir. Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from the American soil as in the closing decade of the twentieth century. Everyone has a story to tell. And everyone is telling it” (p. 3). In a sense, this blog joins me into this culture. We are so sensitized to this notion of sharing our private thoughts that there have even been new developments in blogging software, allowing us to share our most personal thoughts with the means to control more effectively who have access to the blog. That blogging is already so ingrained in our culture can be seen in that the Economist (November 25, 2005) featured a page long story – “The Universal Diarist” p. 68 -- on Mena Trott and Vox, the new blogging software allowing individuals to determine what aspect of their blog will be private and what part will be public. Blogging, despite how some remain skeptical of it, is probably here to stay, and it may be one of the best means, as well as a serious challenge, for archivists to document a wide range of individual and family activities. I wonder if anyone in the archival community might ultimately want to archive my own blog as being important to professional discourse and development?


At 12:54 AM, Blogger BendiStraw said...

Another example of a "blog" that allows the user to set a level of privacy with each entry is LiveJournal. You can make an entry public, friends-only(accessible only to LiveJournal users who are on a "friends" list), or even private, being readable only to the user. The interesting thing about LJ is that often, entries are written with an intended audience, namely one's group of "friends" who are often LiveJournal users as well. Unlike a blog, there is a sense of community when communicating through LJ. There are even some LiveJournals that are "communities" where members can contribute entries, not just comments.
LiveJournal has a rudimentary backup or archive feature, but as you said, the responsibility of preserving entries lies with the user. Efforts by the U of M to appraise blogs is a step towards solving the problem of preserving blogs, but it must be done at the point of creation...electronic records to not lend themselves to being "discovered" many years later. The ability of an institution or third to access entries that were meant to be private also poses a challenge.

At 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm writing a paper for an ethics class about the Ellsworth vs. Yahoo! case where the father of a Marine that was killed in Iraq took Yahoo! to court in an attempt to get access to his son's e-mail account; citing he wanted to see his son's last written words. Yahoo! refused, citing their Terms of Agreement which state that your account will be terminated and contents destroyed upon death. Yahoo! lost in court, but only provided a CD-ROM vs. simply giving the father his son's password. According to the father, Yahoo! only provided items sent to his son and nothing his son actually wrote. (The previous data was taken from numerous news sources)

What is your opinion of Yahoo!'s policy? Is it unreasonable? Do you agree with the court's decision? Hotmail allows for a successor. While e-mail is not a diary, I thought I'd solicit your thoughts as it seems related to your archival blog.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

I am not an expert on intellectual property, but I lean to the side of supporting Yahoo not providing more than a set of the relevant messages of this individual to his father. I think we are all entitled to some degree of privacy, and I think there is some degree of protection being provided here. I suspect I may waffle in different contexts -- such as a spouse needing a password to access financial and other accounts after the death of a partner -- but even here there needs to be some balance between privacy and the risk of damage to the living. I have always liked the books by Jana Malamud Smith on her father's literary estate and Timothy Garton Ash on the Stasi files for their senstivity in wrestling with such matters -- but these are not legal tracts. Good luck in wrestling with a difficult case.


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