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.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Everything is Miscellaneous


Archivists and other records professionals devote considerable attention to ordering stuff. They seek to understand the original order of records. They create order via finding aids to the records they administer. They attempt to provide orderly reference and access services in their repositories. Some even contend that individuals who are prone to list making and agendas in their personal lives are reflecting the characteristics of natural-born archivists.

David Weinberger, in his Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (New York: Times Books, 2007), suggests that perhaps this kind of emphasis on order may be becoming irrelevant in our digital era. Reviewing our historical preoccupation with order, especially emphasizing how professionals such as natural history scientists and librarians have developed cataloguing and classification systems, Weinberger seeks to demonstrate that now we can achieve new means of using information and evidence from the artifacts around us. Weinberger considers three orders of order – first, how we physically organize things ourselves, such as sorting laundry or arranging silverware; second, how we create catalogs with fixed or controlled points of reference placed from above; and, third, where we capture things digitally in any miscellaneous fashion and enable unlimited relationships to develop – and seeks to understand how the latter unbuttons us from the limitations of the first two orders.

Weinberger wants to demonstrate the advantages of the third notion of order, an order that moves us from a preoccupation with the physical manifestations of knowledge to the digital aspects whereby we can shape it in unlimited ways to our advantage. He writes, “The gap between how we access information and how the computer accesses it is at the heart of the revolution in knowledge. Because computers store information in ways that have nothing to do with how we want it presented to us, we are freed from having to organize the original information the way we eventually want to get at it” (p. 99). Throughout his book, Weinberger makes comparisons between conventional ways of ordering information and what we can do in the digital realm. For example, he sees library catalogs as a second order method: “Card catalogs enable us to navigate the library by giving us only a narrow slit to look through. The digital world, on the other hand, has never met a piece of information it didn’t like – and couldn’t put to work” (p. 119).

As a consequence of what Weinberger is considering, there is considerable discussion about the role of experts. He suggests that professionals, such as librarians and editors of reference works, may be sounding “hysterical” because the “change they’re facing from the miscellaneous is deep and real. Authorities have long filtered and organized information for us, protecting us from what isn’t worth our time and helping us find what we need to give our beliefs a sturdy foundation. But with the miscellaneous, it’s all available to us, unfiltered” (p. 132). Weinberger plays with the differences between encyclopedias and wikipedia, for example, weighing advantages and disadvantages of both approaches. Typical of such popular discourses on the digital era, Weinberger sometimes seems to overstate the case, such as: “In a miscellaneous world, an Oz-like authority that speaks in a single voice with unshakable confidence is a blowhard. Authority now comes from enabling us inescapably fallible creatures to explore the differences among us, together” (p. 143).

Some professionals like archivists and their cousins’ librarians may worry about the implications of what pundits like Weinberger hove to say about the new digital era of information access and knowledge building. How can we deal with the authenticity or reliability of certain kinds of information (or, as I prefer, evidence) if we just scramble everything out there and let everyone become the expert? Some are questioning the elevation of amateurs to the same plateau as professionals, such as Andrew Keen in his The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture (New York: Doubleday/Currency, 2007). Andrew Keen attacks the idea of the rise of the amateur in the Internet era, seeing the failure of experts and the failure of newspapers, magazines, and every organization and professional with some stake in the maintenance of societal and cultural values. Keen argues, with our fixation on amateurs forming our news and all other information, that we are getting “superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis shrill opinion rather than considered judgment” (p. 16). Keen opposes the elevation of the amateur, fearing that the “voice of a high school kid has equal value to that of an Ivy League scholar or a trained professional” (p. 42).

To make his point, Keen considers the difference between the professional journalist and all those amateurs building news site on the Web: “When an article runs under the banner of a respected newspaper, we know that it has been weighed by a team of seasoned editors with years of training, assigned to a qualified reporter, researched, fact-checked, edited, proofread, and backed by a trusted news organization vouching for its truthfulness and accuracy. Take those filters away, and we, the general public, are faced with the impossible task of sifting through and evaluating an endless sea of the muddled musings of amateurs” (p. 55). Keen tries to shift the attention from playing with new technologies to preserving the systems of expertise that we have built over the generations, worried that it will be difficult to rebuild it. Keen believes we need to “use technology in a way that encourages innovation, open communication, and progress, while simultaneously preserving professional standards of truth, decency, and creativity” (p. 205).

Keen makes some good points, of course, ones that many archivists and other information professionals may embrace. However, there is also new power and unlimited possibilities if records and other information professionals consider what can be done with digital information. Traditional missions of preserving, accessing, and identifying archival evidence may be enhanced, for example, if archivists rethink their roles in our society and its immediate future. Weinberger suggests that “in the third order we are externalizing meaning. We can miss this when we refer to the digitizing and connecting of information as an ‘information highway’ or as a vast library. Something more important is going on. In the third order, the content and the metadata are all digital. This enables us to bring any set of content next to any other, whether through relationships intended by the authors, crafted by the readers, promoted by the companies, or created by the customers. That makes the digital miscellany fundamentally different from previous miscellanies. The value of the potential, implicit ways of ordering the digital miscellany dwarfs the value of any particular actualization, whether it’s how a researcher finds her way through ideas and facts to come up with a cure for a disease, how a citizen navigates through the laws and policies of her government, or how a customer leaps through a company’s offerings to buy precisely the item that pleases her most” (p. 171). Weinberger never argues that librarians, editors, and other experts and gatekeepers will or should disappear, but he certainly is suggesting that they need to consider other ways of fulfilling their mission and participating in the emerging digital order.

What I read into his arguments is the possibility of new partnerships and relationships between experts like archivists and their clientele or the creators of information and evidence that the experts shifted through to identify and maintain in some useful fashion. People contribute ideas, information, opinions, and even strong evidence to listservs, blogs, the Wikipedia, and other similar sources in new and innovative ways. The challenge for archivists and other experts is how to harness this in meaningful ways. Some archivists are developing finding aids where researchers can contribute to the finding aid, enriching it with additional information and the knowledge of the researcher (who often possess greater subject expertise concerning the records than what archivists can bring to the task of description). Perhaps this suggests less of a fixation on descriptive standards and traditional means of describing records in finding aids, although Weinberger himself is generally ambivalent about such matters. Yet, there is something new and provocative to wrestle with, as Weinberger suggests when he writes, “In the world after the Enlightenment, the cultural task was to build knowledge. In the miscellaneous world, the task is to build meaning, even though we can’t yet know what we’ll do with this new domain” (p. 222). This is exciting, of course. How can archivists, sitting on top of storehouses of documents, build meaning from them in our digital era? Weinberger, and others writing in this area and in this fashion, are provoking us to rethink what we do. Thanks.