Comment on proposed standards for public service metrics

Earlier this summer, the SAA-ACRL/RBMS Joint Task Force on the Development of Standardized Statistical Measures for Public Services in Archival Repositories and Special Collections Libraries drafted proposed standards for public service metrics. If you’re an archivist, librarian, or other interested party, please do take a look and offer feedback.

The document and directions for submitting comments are posted on the SAA and RBMS websites. The comment period closes on August 22.

International Archives Day: Harmony is overrated

It’s International Archives Day, and the theme is “Archives, Harmony and Friendship.”

I would like to take a moment to point out that archives—the collections and the profession—can benefit from a lack of harmony.

Archives have a tendency to reproduce structural inequalities: your documents, your story, are much more likely to be preserved (and deemed worthy of preservation) if you have power. (That power can take many forms, but there’s a reason so many buildings are named after rich white men.) Proactive collecting policies, thoughtful description, and community archiving can help correct some of these issues, but it’s work, and not necessarily the type of work that will earn enthusiastic institutional support.

The archival profession also reproduces structural inequalities. Archivists are not particularly well-paid or powerful by most objective measures. Despite that lukewarm career payoff, there are significant educational and financial barriers to entering the profession. (That Master’s degree is not cheap, and only having one can limit your options.) And barriers to staying in the profession. (You want money and professional development opportunities? How about an internship?) And the impressive set of barriers that confront archivists of color and other outsider groups.

Harmony is great…except when it’s a fiction inspired by politeness or insecurity. A little less harmony in the archives could help make archives a better place.

International Archives Day: Archives are Magic

It’s International Archives Day, and the theme is “Archives, Harmony and Friendship.”

A blog post seemed appropriate, but on what subject? As the parent of young children, the theme immediately suggested My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Twilight Sparkle’s performance as a librarian has already been analyzed, and she is not herself an archivist—though her use of special collections material is often pivotal to the plot and, on occasion, the fate of Equestria. My Little Pony can therefore be added to the list of fictional works depicting the public good of archives, and rather refreshingly avoids presenting them as universally dusty and boring to all major characters.

But I’d like to step back from the show and instead take a quick look at fandom.1 Bronies (loosely defined as adult male fans of the show) emerged online as a self-identifying community thanks to message board postings, made accessible and retained for future users. Unboxing videos reflect personal opinions and also capture details of material culture, not simply consumer goods but also their ephemeral packaging. Fanfiction online aims to transcend the ephemeral, as indicated in the name and mission of Archive of Our Own, launched in the wake of content and community purges on commercial sites.2 Six pastel Ponies have inspired an awful lot of community archiving.

I find that heartening. Every time I think of Digital Dark Ages, organizations that are careless or malicious with their records management, and the challenges of preservation, I also think of the people who really want other people to hear their opinions about Hasbro properties…and the people who do, in fact, want to hear their opinions…and the people who want to make sure content is classified in an appropriate manner…and the substantial number of people who may not all have the technical skills to design and maintain data repositories, but certainly have the savvy to use and adapt them as needed. People are documenting themselves, in ways trivial and significant, and future historians will have a blast. Material is out there, and if it’s not as permanent as some creators may think, neither is it quite as ephemeral as archivists may fear.

  1. I intended to do some of this in a more extended fashion, once upon a time; we’ll see if I ever get around to assembling the scattered little bits into a presentable whole. 
  2. Admittedly, My Little Pony accounts for a small fraction of the material on that particular site; but it’s a handy intersection of the more feminized realm of fanfiction and the more masculine Brony set. And though my encounters with copyright concerns are primarily filtered through Section 108, I’m also interested in how “transformative” is deployed. 

Conscientious meetings

Jeremy Brett has a post on the Issues & Advocacy blog, “A Case of Conscience,” suggesting that SAA take steps to avoid holding annual meetings in states that pass discriminatory legislation.

I’m in agreement, including with Brett’s anger and idealism and the impulse to be able to pick up balls and go home. I suspect the logistics of picking up balls might be more challenging than a conscience clause; though I haven’t done it, I know hotel negotiations are complicated. But even if an event has to go forward there’s the possibility of pulling future business—and, perhaps, thinking Very Carefully about future business in states that seem likely to introduce discriminatory legislation. Kind of like the Voting Rights Act (1965–2013) for convention planning.

Somewhat queasy-making, from my perspective, is the prospect that chunks of the profession don’t agree with the position that this type of legislation is wrong. (Our reputation might be kind of lefty, but that doesn’t really mean much. I wouldn’t be surprised if some archivists find trans urine as terrifying as North Carolina legislators do. Though really, there are so many more terrifying things in restrooms.) Then there’s also the it’s-political-and-the-organization-isn’t argument, which I associate with folks coming from a place of unexamined privilege and/or hewing to strict process arguments but can also, I suppose, come from other places. But from an organizational policy perspective, I think this is the money quote that answers those arguments and personal bias:

Nor as a professional organization should we be tacitly granting second-class citizenship to our LGBT members, which we would be doing by giving our dollars and our time to a state or municipality that choses to wage war against a minority group.

If you have opinions, there’s an I&A Roundtable Poll open until April 8. Do stop by, whether you’re a member of the organization and profession or not.

Storification of last Friday’s PACSCL event

For your edification, I have Storified Building Philadelphia-area Digital Collections: From Project to Plan to Program. This is quick and dirty, based just on hashtag, and I haven’t made any effort to track down anything that was missed or excise anything superfluous. (Especially since that would have been a chunk of the hobbit stuff, which would have been a shame and a misrepresentation of the character of the discussion.)

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.)

Continue reading “Description, decolonization, activism, and the quick brown fox”

I did some things

Over the summer, I worked as an intern at the Hagley. I’m really glad this mini-gig worked out: it gave me a chance to work with some neat people and tour impressive (and often rather cold) facilities, all in a gorgeous setting. (The Hagley is located in the part of “Wilmington” that is dominated by rolling hills, which are good for the soul, if not radio reception.) I was in the AV Collections and Digital Initiatives department, mainly rehousing photographic materials. With the exception of digitizing Hallowell photographs, most of my APS work has been focused on paper, with photographs and other materials shunted out of correspondence and into separate series. Concentrating on those materials provided a good change of perspective. I worked with materials from the Public Affairs Department of the David Sarnoff Research Center. This was also a change of pace: I’m used to working with the collections of individuals, but this was corporate material. I wrote a little bit about some of the fun things I encountered in the collection; those pieces are (or will be) included in the Sarnoff Library Project blog.

In August, I took the exam to become a Certified Archivist and I am now a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists. I have Thoughts™ and Feelings™ about the test and certification, which I may write about later in more detail. But for now, if you see “CA” written after my name, you’ll know what it means.

This fall, MARAC called for volunteers to join its new Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. This is Important Stuff™ and, I thought, a good way to (finally) become involved with MARAC in an official capacity. I was very pleased to be accepted as a member of the Task Force and I’m looking forward to the coming year’s work. I hope we’ll be able to do some good within the organization and, more broadly, within the profession and society. (It’s important to be realistic, but there’s no harm in dreaming big.)

In the category of things I’ve been meaning to do since spring, I finally volunteered to serve as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies. This will be a new thing for me, outside of peer comments on seminar papers and (less relevantly) critiques of fiction, but I want to try stretching those particular metaphorical muscles.

October is Archives Month. I’ve had the opportunity to attend some fun events (including watching colleagues’ presentation at the Wagner’s Lantern Slide Salon), and #AskAnArchivist Day was a good excuse to dust off my Twitter account.

May Day

May Day 2015 Saving Our History logoThis is the first year I’ve done any SAA May Day1 activities, but this year an e-mail went around work about a webinar, “After Disasters: Salvage and Recovery in Small to Mid-Sized Museums and Libraries.” It’s available (free) at the Connecting to Collections Care website.

One thing that struck me was the number of times phrases like “[$subject] is its own webinar” popped up, though in retrospect that should absolutely not be surprising. “Disasters” can take many forms, and the contents of museums and libraries vary wildly. The webinar concentrated on fires and floods, both because they’re common and because they may occur as secondary disasters (e.g. an arson component to civil unrest).

I found the overview style useful. It stressed the importance of advance planning and forming relationships. One anecdote recalled how a local fire department, having been advised in advance of a repository’s more valuable items, carried furniture out of the building and left it neatly arranged outside for the staff. Everyone in the room liked the suggestion of placing reflectors on shelves with particularly valuable materials. Another point of emphasis was managing human resources—not just assigning roles and preparing to enlist the assistance of contractors, but the importance of self-care and the impact upon staff morale over the long term. Evacuating collections in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is a sprint, but disaster recovery is a marathon.

Other oft repeated words included “ask a conservator,” but the webinar did include run-downs of some conservation considerations. (Is the painting on canvas or wood? Have you checked the ingredient list of the kitty litter you’re planning to use for drying and odor control? Is the glue binding the book strong enough to support it being hung up to dry, or are you better off standing it upright with the pages fanned open or leaving it closed with frequently-changed interleaving?) I am used to having a conservator right across the street, which is very nice. (So is the fact that my conservation issues tend to be things like decades-old Scotch tape or torn paper rather than how to triage collection materials.) I think “ask a conservator” is excellent advice, but I’m always glad of the 101 level discussion. It helps focus the questions you need to ask.

Some of the other general advice fell into the category of common sense, but was still good to hear. I’d like to think that I would be mindful of supplies (masks, gloves, batteries, and non-battery dependent technologies, like pencil and paper, were mentioned as must-haves) and cross-contamination. But bullet points help. Walking paths are an obviously great idea, and the fact that they were mentioned explicitly now makes me more likely to think of them when they’re relevant, rather than in a post-mortem of a disaster situation. I’m unlikely to ever be in charge of a disaster response, but if I’m onsite I hope I can be a more useful soldier.

  1. There are enough iterations of “May Day” that the extra specificity helps. 

The dispersal of photographs

I’ve started to catch up on professional literature, and earlier today wrapped up “Archival Diasporas.”1 As a case study, Punzalan looks at photographs that have entered a variety of institutions at different times, courtesy of different individuals; how those photographs continue to acquire a history and context in the repository; and how blind spots in professional and institutional practice conspire to hide materials.

Now I want to read more about Worcester, his family, and their connections to various institutions. More broadly, Punzalan’s chosen a great example of why metadata matters…but also how archival questions sometimes need to be essays, not multiple choice. This stands in contrast to the morning’s reading: concise notes on Jenkinson, which emphasize strict adherence to archival principles and a resolute refusal to consider future historians’ use cases.2 (And yes, the wartime archives of England are a different animal from American special collections.)

I buy into the idea of archival diasporas, in part because I am a historian. I can see the “danger” to which Jenkinson refers, insofar as that training gives me an additional set of considerations when making appraisal decisions. It also makes me dismiss the possibility of objectivity, which I assume would make his head explode. (But I do indeed keep processing records. My initials are all over a couple of collections, which has more to do with MacNeil than Jenkinson, but I think he would approve, once he scraped his gray matter off the walls.)3 Switching off the historian impulse as soon as materials enter the repository denies the new meanings that materials acquire. It also limits the role of archivists, who can be so much more than passive (if knowledgeable) service providers. I like the idea of defining communities of artifacts–whether those communities or artifacts are virtual or material is kind of immaterial–and the nearly infinite opportunities to recontextualize them.

  1. Ricardo L. Punzalan, “Archival Diasporas: A Framework for Understanding the Complexities and Challenges of Dispersed Photographic Collections,” American Archivist Vol. 77, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2014), 326-349. 
  2. Hilary Jenkinson, A Manual of Archive Administration (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1922). Thank you for the notes, Bryan! I’ve at least skimmed chunks over the years, but now is not the time to sit down and read it.
  3. For the potential value of colophons, see Heather MacNeil, “Picking Our Text: Archival Description, Authenticity, and the Archivist as Editor,” American Archivist Vol. 68, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2005), 272-273,