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.