Description, decolonization, activism, and the quick brown fox

Last week, I went to DVAG’s panel discussion, “Decolonizing Archival Description.” I have Thoughts and Feelings™ I intend to expand upon but probably won’t get around to, based on past performance. So instead, while I should be working on at least three other things, I will toss off a blog post. (Also: thank you to the organizers, panelists, and attendees.)

First off: setting. The panel was in the Ashhurst Room at the College of the Physicians of Philadelphia. High ceilings, Gilded Age1 grandeur, and (as Jarrett Drake pointed out) portraits of dead white men gazing down at the proceedings. The acoustics were weird. Mostly, it was just a little tough to hear people. Attendance was pretty good, but that also meant the correct seating answer was rows of chairs. There were a few times that it seemed like a discussion might break out among attendees, but then it would swing back to panel-and-Q-and-A mode. I think I may have been seamlessly shifting between two parallel realities, where the parameters and direction of the event were subtly divergent. (This was only mildly disconcerting, not at all the sort of traumatic event one expects from an extensive review of the literature, and I appear to have returned to my home reality so everything is fine.)

Second: anecdotes. Narrative is an incredibly powerful tool. It’s only been a few days, and already my memories of the event are starting to fade.2 But some of the things that remain fresh, and will likely to persist longest, are personal anecdotes from the workplace. Renaming files but preserving original labels—“heroes,” “villains,” “pigs,” etc.—as notes. Despairing at biographical notes that do not include contextualizing information about, e.g., sexuality or political significance of sermons. The professional tension of working for organizations actively interested in suppressing certain records. The comically uneven processing standards that serve as evidence of earlier employees’ personal interests.

Third: categories. The issue of subject headings came up. If you’re using LCSH, then you are stuck with what LCSH has. (One term desired but not in existence: “Police abuse” as an umbrella term, to include such things as the extant “Police brutality” but also actions that do not involve physical violence.) This also came up at the Women’s History in the Digital World conference (I’m thinking specifically of Jennifer Redmond’s presentation in the International Networks and DH panel): categories are a choice, and if we’re not thoughtful (or even if we are) we may simply codify current forms of oppression in our terminology. Maybe because I am Not A Librarian™, I am concerned about this but I tend to think of such labels as adjectives rather than boxes. Rather than aiming for the unattainable, Platonically ideal subject heading, I’d rather just kind of throw everything applicable out there so researchers have multiple pointers to the same material. (I expect librarians may have something to say about this attitude, which could take the form of a lengthy theoretical essay or a derisive snort and roll of the eyes.)

Fourth: professionalism. One recurring theme was the need to crank out biographical notes, often with only a C.V. as reference, or the need to delegate to student workers. I’ve never labored under the who-is-this-person constraint: if their papers are at the American Philosophical Society, they were probably a member, and if they were a member they were prominent in their field, so there’s always something, even if it’s comparatively sketchy or fragmented. I’m also approaching archives as a historian (and in a library with a high population of historians), so my baseline assumption is both “of course you need to research your collections” and “of course you will be able to research your collections.” Being reminded (with a convenient narrative hook) that my experience isn’t universal is useful. The student worker issue is a big and multi-faceted problem that gets to serious issues of professionalism within the profession. We all joke about needing a master’s degree to remove staples, but the fact is that being an effective archivist requires training and skill.3 If (presumably undergraduate) student workers are processing and it’s only after the fact that staff find things like bio notes cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia…that’s a problem from a custodial perspective, as well as service, educational, and managerial, plus the bigger issue of eroding the perceived value of the field.4

Fifth: biographical and historical notes. One question that frankly surprised me was “Should we be in the business of writing biographical/historical notes?” with the thinking being that it’s the job of researchers. But after hearing the anecdotal evidence that seemed to be informing this question, my conclusion was that we shouldn’t be writing bad biographical/historical notes. (Call it confirmation bias—a while back, I felt satisfaction when somebody at APS forwarded a link to SNAC, specifically highlighting APS descriptions versus others; obviously, quantity does not equal quality, but if nothing else it reflects effort and institutional commitment.)

Sixth: objectivity. This is sort of complicated, and perhaps another indication of historian versus librarian (I am familiar with the academic discussion of objectivity and subjectivity among historians, but I’m not sure if/how such conversation may manifest itself on the library side). I’m in the camp of everything is subjective/contextual/contestable; even if we want to aim for some sort of Platonic ideal of objectivity we should all realize it’s not actually attainable; and professionally speaking the important thing is to aim for transparency so that our work as well as our work product (the archives and all their attendant documentation) can be evaluated. When the suggestion is to become more objective, I am worried that it simply means reverting to the mean, the uncontroversial—and, ultimately, reinscribing oppression. (For a snarky illustration of the oppressive possibilities of passive voice, see Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” a few months old but new to me and, sadly, perennially topical.)

Equality, equity, fairness, and justice are loaded terms. (See the cartoon of kids looking over the fence to watch a baseball game—or attempting to do so—using various configurations of boxes.)5 On the one hand, processing all collections equitably sounds like a great idea. On the other hand, some subjects and people are under-documented. Description—particularly notes fields, where you can jam in all sorts of narrative material with juicy keywords—can be a low-hanging means of highlighting material.6 Those sorts of descriptive tricks will probably look dated, at a minimum, not too far down the line; but I’m okay with that. We’re all of our time, but we all get to choose what that means.


  1. If we all talk about the Long Nineteenth, I can call 1908 Beaux-Arts Gilded Age. 
  2. See Cameron and Cocks (1995) on the design of memories, as well as aspiring to be Angela Bassett. 
  3. Whether that translates to a specific type of degree or flavor of certification is a whole other question, and makes the assertion of professionalization complicated. I’m similarly sympathetic to the ambivalence about the term “activist.”7 It carries a lot of association, and has the potential to be wielded effectively; but it can also be used to implicate the effectiveness of work deemed too activist or insufficiently activist. 
  4. And here I want to talk about the pitfalls of pink-collar professions, the devaluation of graduate degrees, the adjunctification of the workforce, and all that; but instead I’ll just say patriarchal misogynistic anti-intellectual capitalist systems suck, because that’s shorter. 
  5. In the usage of the first image, it’s noted that it is “adapted” from indianfunnypictures.com, so I suspect it’s the closest to the original; though based on the name of the now-removed original .jpg, “equity” was substituted for “justice.” Just a side note about the propagation of images on the internet, the problems of attribution, and the deployment of terms. 
  6. Personal example: I have a few brief bio notes for individuals whose correspondence pops up in Bentley Glass’s papers. They tend to be notes about women, because there aren’t a lot of women in science represented in collections like this (see note 4 above); if researchers are going to write about them, they’re probably going to have to look in more than one place, so I want it to be as easy as possible for researchers to find one of those possible places. 
  7. An issue separate, if not entirely unrelated, to how, to whom, and by whom the label is applied. 
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