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.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Good Times: Convergence, Conflict, & Chaos

Below are my comments presented at the plenary session at the Association of Moving Image Archivists in Savannah, Georgia on November 13th.

The Chinese novelist and poet Ha Jin recently published an interesting account of the “writer as migrant,” exploring the results of writers who seek to establish careers in countries other than their own and who write in languages not native to them. Ha Jin suggests that the “best qualification for claiming spokesmanship that a writer can have is to be an established voice in his native country – that is, before arriving abroad, to already have an audience at home. From this position, he can resume writing abroad, though he may be speaking to different people and about different things” [Ha Jin, The Writer as Migrant, The Rice University Campbell Lectures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 5.]. Later, Ha Jin places the writer as migrant in our present Digital era, where “airplanes and the Internet can keep us close in touch with our native lands. The issue of return is no longer physical, but it is an issue of how we view our past and whether we accept it as part of ourselves” [p. 72].

Why start my commentary with such literary allusions? I am doing this because Ha Jin has captured something of the world now inhabited by archivists of all varieties. Most of us grew up in an analog and textual world, and our interests in archives were shaped by the prospects of working with old documents, printed ephemera, and old film stock (and other such stuff). It may surprise some to know that the majority of individuals attracted to graduate archival education programs still come with romantic notions of what archivists do and what they work with. While some get energized with deep challenges posed by the digital documentary universe, others complain and sometimes drop out. Our task is to engage them intellectually, as well as to build new bridges to the public. If one is looking for fascinating challenges, these are good times indeed.

It is easy, however, to be blinded by the lights of the digital age. We have more outlandish and utopian predictions about the transformation of society by the digital technologies than careful study and reflection about the actual impacts (although sometimes the craziest notions come true, keeping us on our guard). Let’s consider a few such predictions, ones that usually conjure a form of technological determinism (typical of what we hear about these days, from television ads to spam mail to even our own professional literature).

The convergence of disciplines has been one prediction floating about for some years. I wrote my first skeptical essay about the idea of convergence more than a decade ago [Richard J. Cox, "Why Technology Convergence Is Not Enough for the Management of Information and Records," Records & Retrieval Report 13 (October 1997): 1-16]. Basically the idea is that the technologies will bring, even force, disciplines together in new and more powerful ways. Some want this because they see it as the only way that we will harness the technology (and the expertise about this technology) and gather the resources to make the archival mission work in the new Digital era. Others want it because they see it as a means to elevating their societal profile either by tossing off old elements they deem holding them back (records rather than information, because records suggest clerical status or bureaucratic inertia) or by embracing newer, trendier notions that place them in the lead in the modern information age (digital curators rather than archivists, cyberspecialists rather than librarians). And some desire this because they want to break the old, guild-like, professional boundaries, making the issue of expertise a more democratic or socially engineered process.

Is there anything wrong with the convergence model or platform? Not really. Given the growing complexity of all documents, it makes sense that any way we can concentrate more knowledge, especially of the technical sort, is a commendable way to proceed. However, we need to also be mindful of the ingrained legacy of centuries of doing business that work against this, as well as the superficiality of glib promises of new empowered ways of operating. There have been decades of discussion, for example, about being more interdisciplinary in universities (and interdisciplinarity is just another variation of convergence), and there is still a long way to go. Traditional disciplinary boundaries, by schools and departments, still persist, and when tenure and promotion are considered, traditional patterns of evaluation still win out. I live and work in an old LIS school, self-declared as a new I-School (Information School), where we have been engaged in the past few years trying to break down old boundaries erected between LIS, IS, and Telecommunications (a task easier defined than completed).

Within universities we do see some aspects of what could be called convergence. New research centers are regularly created, intended to bring together faculty and graduate students from a variety of departments and even individuals from outside the university (such as in corporations). “Collaboratories” have been established for team research projects, usually featuring clusters of researchers representing a variety of disciplines interested in common questions or problems. Also, we see more scholars crossing disciplinary lines in their research, borrowing from or drawing on other fields’ work and methodologies; we have seen a growing blurring of disciplinary work on the nature of the archive and the management of records – all of it perhaps representing early stages of some sort of convergence. Outside the university, we see growing numbers of international conferences, projects, and publications bringing together archivists, other records professionals, and scholars and practitioners from other disciplines [For an example of an ongoing international conference, the International Conference on the History of Records and Archives is particularly rich with its interdisciplinary perspectives; for the latest manifestation of this conference see For the results of a lengthy international research project, see Luciana Duranti and Randy Preston, eds., International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems (InterPARES) 2: Experiential, Interactive and Dynamic Records (Rome: Associazione Nazionale Archivistica Italiana, 2008), available at].

The key in this convergence, for archivists, is to make sure that we do not lose our way, that is, that our mission does not get lost. I sometimes tell my students that there may not be a profession known as archives in the future, and the gnashing of teeth is audible (especially as they contemplate what they paying for the privilege of being in a graduate program designed to help them become archivists). What I am getting at, however, is that what we are called may one day change and the primary nature of our work, stressing more effort with digitally-born materials and more focus on the digitization of older analog stuff, may be very different. In fact, I tell them that the nature of what they may be doing could make it easier to promote a public mission since the digital universe opens up so many possibilities of personal archival work or threatens the traditional sense of preservation in a number of profound ways. If these students bring engrained traditional notions about archival work, this is not always a message for them to hear.

Convergence, in all its variety of representations, has the potential to bring conflict. Not everyone likes to change, and, many have come into the archival community looking for the peace and solitude of a monastery. If this ever existed, it certainly does not now. In order to function as an effective archivist, we have to be much more of an activist and advocate, and this means we have to be out in the open, explaining and arguing for our cause. Let me focus on two examples.

There can be little argument that the new digital technologies empower people in new ways, far beyond what most of us over 50 at least ever imagined. Armed with a modestly priced laptop the average person can create virtual archives, publish books, and access more information, consolidating all of the roles from information consumer to information creator, from reader to publisher, from archival researcher to archival custodian. Archivists have been accustomed to thinking about the life cycle of records, and while some have generated the notion of the records continuum to take into account the new technologies (the continuum model tossing aside the notion that records move through stages of activity and inactivity until an ultimate decision is made about whether they have archival value or not), mostly we have clung to fairly passive notions of how and why records are created, used, and destroyed or archived.

Without lapsing into becoming a technological determinist (and in the face of many of the most spectacular new technologies, this is difficult), it is important to mull over the implications of these technologies for our future. Building on ideas promulgated by Rick Prelinger, it is clear that we have to develop better ideas about how to work with the public, what Prelinger calls equipping citizen archivists. What this entails is the development of a new attitude in helping the public, moving from a focus on acquiring documentary sources to preserving these sources by providing guidance and assistance to individuals in how to maintain personal and family archives. In effect, established archives become repositories of last resort (although given the tremendous amount of older documentary materials out there, I doubt serious institutional collecting will end). This approach takes into account the fact that many of the new digital documents, Web sites and blogs are examples, are not really as collectible as their predecessors (scrapbooks and diaries) [I have expanded on the idea of citizen archivists in my Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations (Duluth, MN: Litwin Books, 2009)].

Some of what we are seeing happen is due to what has been labeled Web 2.0, the use of the Web to allow and promote social networking through approaches such as wikis, blogs, and so forth. Add to this Web 3.0, and we see even different roles for archivists and their allies in the future. As Web 3.0 has been described, its goal is “to add a layer of meaning on top of the existing Web that would make it less of a catalog and more of a guide — and even provide the foundation for systems that can reason in a human fashion” [ John Markoff, “Entrepreneurs See a Web Guided by Common Sense,” New York Times, November 12, 2006,, accessed October 25, 2008]. Obviously, archivists ought to be involved in such activities, enhancing how they work with the users of archival sources in an online environment. Whether researchers cease to come to physical spaces known as archives (or libraries or museums) may not be the issue; the issue is that how researchers interact with archival sources will be more varied and complex than anything we have experienced before. The continued evolution, and growing power, of the Web will have dramatic impacts on how archivists and librarians function and what their future will be.

One of the primary issues archivists need to deal with in the Digital era is the notion that everything can be saved. The belief in this is pervasive, from individuals developing software, such as MyLifeBits, to record everything, to leaders (and many followers) in the library, information, and computer sciences fields who regularly state such a belief. The idea that everything can be saved may be the mantra of the digital true believer. Not only does this idea and its supporters ignore the other technical issues of retrieval, the ability to retrieve and retain important contextual meaning, and the costs of maintenance, the reason for or logic behind saving everything is usually avoided. It is interesting that many information professionals who have embraced the notion of adding value to the sources they administer are also so quick to embrace such utopian notions as utilizing the technology to save everything.

The archival community can make a contribution here, if it wills itself to look beyond the false promises of saving everything, in digital form and otherwise. While archival appraisal practice is weak (or at least weaker than it should be), the theoretical and methodological literature is quite interesting and useful. Over the course of more than a half-century, archivists have articulated appraisal schemes using values of records, more precise definitions of records, macro approaches considering the reasons for recordkeeping, functional analysis, sampling models, intrinsic values of records (or, records as artifacts or the symbolic value of documents), documentation strategies, and reappraisal methodologies. Archivists (at least those engaged in this function) have accumulated a high level of expertise about the means of identifying the evidence and information found in documents of all sorts, even if their application in the digital realm has been limited and their efforts to work with other fields (such as preservation administrators) have been just as limited. What archivists need now to do is to develop new versions of the appraisal approaches to be applied effectively to the digital documentary universe and, just as importantly, evaluate some of the approaches for dealing with this universe, such as the Internet Archive (really a sampling method).

From my vantage, appraisal is the core, critical function of archival work. For more than a hundred years, individuals in the modern archival community have discussed the challenges posed by the immense scope of the documentary universe. Yet, I am sure we will all agree that the scope of the present documentary universe is far more complex and larger than anything we have considered before (or ever could have imagined). And, when we consider such shifting identities, different missions or greatly re-engineered methodologies, it is when we wonder just how much chaos we can really handle or how much confusion we might bring upon ourselves. Our sister profession, records management, has spent considerable effort and resources the past two decades constantly reinventing itself into some other form of information profession and often with little noticeable success. This has even led to some of its leaders out rightly rejecting any aspect of archives and the archival mission. This is a tragic part of our professional history, but it also suggests the need to move on by developing forward-looking visions that envision the developing of new partnerships and new knowledge.

Also, I have in the last few years given up thinking that technology is the major challenge facing archivists in their work. Now I see the main challenge as being an expansion of the archival mission from just a cultural role to one encompassing ethics and accountability matters. Records and recordkeeping systems, especially as they move deeper into the digital realm, pose greater problems with intellectual property, preservation, privacy, and so forth. The cultural mandate remains (and always will be the main attraction for many), but it is also the case that corporate, government, and academic archives will generate more and more instances where archivists are called upon both to help records creators and users guarantee access to documents and to assist the organizations defend themselves (sometimes in unethical or illegal ways resulting in individual archivists needing to consider their own ethical and moral foundations) [I have explored such matters in my books, one co-edited with David Wallace, Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society (Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 2002) and one solely authored by myself, Ethics, Accountability and Recordkeeping in a Dangerous World (London: Facet, 2006)].

When we reflect on such issues as these, it is always important to remember that at any given time the archival profession is full of novice, up and coming, experienced, and senior leaders. Their reactions to new and complex challenges will range from annoyance to excitement, from ignoring to embracing, from trepidation to creative experimentation. What we need to key in on is the preparation of a new generation of archivists, professionals who have the knowledge of the history of recordkeeping systems, traditional archival principles (traditional in the sense that they are based on older recordkeeping systems and forms), and new and emerging digital information systems (including a solid working understanding of new digital document forms).

How do we prepare this new generation of archivists? Our graduate archival education programs are, at best, a mixed bag. Between 1980 and 2000, we witnessed an amazing growth in the number of regular, tenure-stream or tenured faculty, including a number (but probably not enough) of programs supporting multiple faculty members. Are they able to offer a comprehensive enough curriculum for Digital Era archivists? It is, at present, a mixed situation. These programs range from workshops teaching short-term skills and attitudes to research-focused and forward-looking theoretical orientations to the field. These programs have nearly all shifted to LIS schools and, while there, some of these schools have made a shift to I-Schools. It is in these programs, however, that we have the best chance to inspire new perspectives, build new leadership, and develop new principles for what looms ahead in both our profession and our broader culture. These opportunities have been enhanced in the rebirth of LIS schools as I-Schools, now addressing concerns such as the curation and preservation of primary and secondary sources that are born-digital, the life cycle/continuum concept of records, the preservation imperative, cultural and humanistic perspectives, public and institutional memory, and the evolving notion of records in the digital era), and the implications of new portable digital technologies on issues such as the creation, maintenance, and use of records and information sources deemed to possess long-term archival value) [Ron Larsen, the dean of my own school, co-wrote a paper with me on archives in the I-School curriculum, presented at the 2008 I-School conference at UCLA, now being revised for publication].

So, we have a lot of opportunities and challenges ahead of us. Patricia Zimmerman’s contribution to a recent volume of essays on home movies describes how “home movies constitute an imaginary archives that is never completed, always fragmentary, vast, infinite.” She also adds that, “In the popular imagination, archives often are framed as the depositories of old, dead cultural artifacts. But archives are never inert, as they are always in the process of addition of new arenas and unknown objects. The archive, then is, is not simply a depository, which implies stasis, but is, rather, a retrieval machine defined by its revision, expansion, addition, and change” [Karen L Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmerman, eds., Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), pp. 18, 19]. Such concerns upset some, but these reflect the new reality we are dealing with, and, more importantly, suggest some wonderful new opportunities. In what is left of my own career, I hope I can focus on the new opportunities and inspire others to do the same.