Archivists on the Issues: A Defense of Institutions in the Pandemic

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following post is from Bradley J. Wiles, a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Information Studies. 

The COVID-19 pandemic promises to be a game changer in many areas of contemporary society moving forward. Aside from the devastating mortality currently unfolding, the most immediate impact involves severe disruptions in healthcare systems, economic activity, and supply chain management, all of which have short and long term consequences for communities depending on the depth and scale of the damage in a given location. A major outcome so far is that the pandemic has forced people and organizations to rethink and reconfigure daily interactions previously taken for granted, both as a response to stemming the spread of the virus in real time and in preparation for future disruptions. For many individuals and organizations, virtual interaction through networked digital technologies has been the main route of accessing or retaining some sense of normalcy during this trying time.

In some instances, the ability (and often privilege) to utilize online communications and cloud-based applications offer the only possibility of keeping employed, delivering education, receiving medical treatment, reaching out to loved ones, and participating in other aspects of everyday life. Although the drastic modification of these and other social activities is likely temporary, the pandemic demonstrates that the value of the internet to maintain social cohesion is beyond question (if often problematic) and that many people and organizations can no longer get by without it. Ideally, this era will spark productive conversations and activity on digital infrastructure development that extends from matters of life and death during the pandemic to more prosaic cultural interests in less extraordinary times.

For better or worse, the cultural world has experienced something of a digital flourishing during this extended social distancing period. Concerts, plays, lectures, book readings, and other cultural events that were previously accessible to limited audiences are now offered regularly and freely in real time via various conferencing platforms, social media outlets, and streaming services. Approximating normalcy, staving off boredom, and raising spirits seem to be the main motivations of these efforts, but these also serve to bolster online communities and their cultural correspondents by keeping the focus of cultural interests within the online environment where so much other activity already occurs.

For their part, many individuals and organizations in the archives sector have tried to maintain their regular duties and transition further to online delivery of services. A recent post in Atlas Obscura described several notable projects aimed at engaging new and existing user communities through the web. These and other ongoing institutional efforts reflect theoretical discussions and practical trends in the archives discipline that emphasize the growing importance of community-based initiatives to expand their scope and direction toward greater inclusion and representation, while also supporting the network of non-institutional cultural heritage interests in documenting an increasingly diverse society.

The proliferation of web-based technologies has helped facilitate the growth of independent community archives, as well as enabling traditional archives to establish more targeted documentation strategies and projects that incorporate the expertise, perspectives, and labor of non-archivist collaborators in everything from collection development to public programming to archival description. The prevailing notion is that archival work can no longer discount the people, groups, cultures, and identities reflected in the collections and that, whenever possible, those who might legitimately speak on their behalf should be involved. Often these are current or prospective audiences that can bring a fuller understanding to the collections–a process made more immediate and accessible by mobile digital networks and social media utilities.

Undoubtedly, sustained effort to engage new and diverse publics is a moral and practical necessity for all archives institutions in this emergent digital reality heightened by the pandemic, regardless of one’s location in the overarching network of cultural interests. The pandemic also offers an opportunity for American archivists and other records and information professionals to advocate on behalf of our institutions and our shared principles as a bulwark against the entrenched difficulties of reaching common ground on facts, evidence, and truth in a tribalist and politically polarized society. Journalist David Roberts has spent the past several years tracking this “epistemic crisis,” which he links to comprehensive right-wing attempts at undermining public faith in government, academia, media, and science¹. We see firsthand how dangerous this is in the current administration’s woefully inadequate, dishonest, and fatalistic approach to a national and global emergency.

However, this only tells part of the story. Various strains of the skeptical relativism that characterize the current social and political landscape are residual holdovers of intellectual movements originating in the academic left during the 1960s and 1970s. Although many of these movements were focused on peace, justice, equality, and liberation, they were fundamentally based on mistrust of institutions. It is most definitely a stretch to draw moral equivalency between armed protestors railing against social distancing measures in 2020 with activists marching to protest the Vietnam War in 1968, but the impulse to react and respond to real and perceived threats from powerful institutions transcends political identification and ideology.

The personalized information universes enabled by the web now make it easier for groups and individuals to coalesce around a narrow agenda or set of beliefs without having to engage in wider discussions that contradict these. Everybody has their own unfalsifiable truth and nobody can deny anyone else’s reality. In this setting, facts and evidence supported by verifiable information and reliable records are meaningless, or rather they hold only situational meaning and arbitrary relevance. Institutions are suspect because they are gatekeepers incapable of serving all equally or effectively.

Undermining an institution involves discrediting its experts, rejecting its animating ideas or mission, disparaging its central functions, and casting doubt on its social value and historical legitimacy. In most instances, this arises against an institution’s authority from an external oppositional standpoint, but with archives the opposition and skepticism frequently originate within the profession. This often takes the form of critical evaluation and deliberative efforts by scholars and practitioners to improve institutions. But there are several intellectual and activist strands that seem equally intent on categorizing mainstream archives institutions as just another tool of systemic oppression, an irredeemable cog in the larger framework of white supremacy, colonialism, misogyny, economic exclusivity, heteronormativity, etc.

Certainly, there are many instances over time that justify a skeptical or even pessimistic position on mainstream or traditional archives. There’s no doubt that the prominence of community-centered models based around intersectionality and social justice in recent disciplinary conversations reflects attempts to redress such historical marginalization. Although there seems to be general consensus in the profession that this is a net positive for archives, I don’t think anyone can determine with any certainty what the long-term impact of this shifting focus might be on the mainstream institutional networks or on the historical record more generally. That said, precarity related to funding, technology, and administration all present more of a threat to traditional archives than the muddled postmodern criticisms of scholars, but the lack of any comprehensive defense of institutions in the face of inward criticism and outward threats is still very unfortunate.

It is my belief that a positive defense of institutions must be made to internal skeptics and external parties that are unaware of the value that archives provide. This is not a “you’re either for us or against us” proposition, but rather a reminder of the important role that institutions play in cultural memory and democratic stability. If the past few years have revealed anything about power and authority, it is how easily norms can be discarded by unprincipled leadership. If the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us anything, it is that information, facts, and evidence are a matter of life and death. It should be clear by now that our institutions are largely responsible for holding the line against historical threats, both those posed by rare natural phenomena and others resulting from the epistemological free-for-all of the digital age. Archives institutions are flawed but essential social assets that still offer the possibility of finding common ground and preserving the truth.

¹ See the following articles for more reportage and details on Roberts’ view: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/3/22/14762030/donald-trump-tribal-epistemology; https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/11/2/16588964/america-epistemic-crisis; https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/11/16/20964281/impeachment-hearings-trump-america-epistemic-crisis

Steering Shares: A Piece of Professional Literature that Impacted Me

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Genna Duplisea, archivist and special collections librarian at Salve Regina University.

On a class message board during library school, I once remarked that Howard Zinn’s “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest” (https://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/44118) was a “mic drop.” I felt his call to action across the decades. Working full-time while taking two summer classes had accelerated the pace of my life and my studies past thoughtfulness, but reading Zinn’s concise connection between archives, power, and justice reminded me why I had chosen to train as an archivist. This piece made clear the importance of “the relation between professing one’s craft and professing one’s humanity” (14). Returning to this speech almost eight years after I first read it, in one of the greatest times of societal, political, and public health upheaval I have experienced, I was stunned by how apropos his words continue to be.

Zinn’s essay, published in The Midwestern Archivist in 1977, draws on an address he gave at the 1970 SAA Annual Meeting called “The Activist Archivist” (https://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.34.1.23527290p7mx1w33) He argues that insistence of neutrality as a value of professionalism causes a separation between work and belief and an assumption that the work of archivists is not inherently political (17). Archivists have made progress in embracing the understanding that archives are not neutral, though it is not a universally-held tenet. The maintenance of neutrality “leaves very little time or energy to worry about whether the [information] machine is designed for war or peace, for social need or individual profits, to help us or to poison us” (16).

In recent years, we have seen attempts to erase archival information in support of crimes against humanity and environmental degradation. The routine destruction of ICE records or the removal of Web information on climate change left over from a previous administration could be standard archival practices. However, if we keep our values separate from our assessment of these practices, our will will tend “to maintain the existing social order by perpetuating its values, by legitimizing its priorities, by justifying its wars, perpetuating its prejudices, contributing to its xenophobia, and apologizing for its class order” (18). Such controversies are not quibbles about efficient procedures; they are moves of powerful apparatuses with bearing on people’s lives.

During this pandemic, we all must pause; as Arundhati Roy writes in her recent essay, “The pandemic is a portal,” (https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca)  this rupture forces “humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.”  We have an opportunity to ask whether the work of archivists resists or endorses harmful narratives, such as American exceptionalism, disease as a third-world problem, immigrants as dangerous, poverty as a just product of meritocracy, or science as suspect. We do not have to look for egregious prejudice to see the impact of archival information and practices on people’s lives.

Zinn remarks that problems in the United States are not problems of excess, but of normalcy; how prescient was his observation that “our economic problem is not a depression but the normal functioning of the economy, dominated by corporate power and profit” (19). We see the coronavirus rip apart people’s lives and livelihoods, and lay bare societal problems and structural inequalities. How do we make sure that we document these phenomena equitably, inclusively, and with careful attention to our own influence?

I take Zinn’s words as an argument not to return to “normal” after the pandemic, and Roy argues that nothing would be worse. The disruption of operations is an opportunity to decide how we want to remake our work. Zinn notes several biases in archives — the wealthy and powerful over the marginalized, the domination of the written word, past over present, preservation over documentation, among others — that are still challenges today. How do we want to contend with these biases in the future? To what, and to whom, do we want to give our attention? Archivists have roles to play in guiding for more equitable and activist documentation and access to information. Each of us will have to decide what that means, and I encourage everyone to take this strange time to meditate on how we can further humanize our work.

Steering Shares: Advice your current professional self would tell to your young professional self regarding a particular issue

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Sheridan Leigh Sayles, technical services archivist at Seton Hall University.

My archival career started at an intersection between the library world and the museum world. As an undergraduate with experience and passion in both, I settled on archiving as a way to be able to be more hands-on with historic materials while having closer to the job security of a librarian. Right?

AngryGoldenIsabellinewheatear-mobile

So I dove in; I racked up a number of part time jobs in libraries, museums, in archives. I had almost a full resume of experiences before even starting graduate school, and graduated after adding a GA, part-time job, and two more internships on that list. And I was one of the fortunate ones who found a job only 3 months after graduating.

Now as an early-to-mid career archivist (when exactly do we become mid-career again? This is what happens when I let the imposter syndrome in), I thank my early 20s self every day for getting in that extra internship and doing that little extra reading. And while I currently serve on I&A to try and reduce the hoops I had to jump through for future archivists, I still want to tell my younger self this:

  1. You never know where you’re going to end up, so embrace the ride.
    • If you had told me that my first job would be as an archivist for a political collection? I might have laughed at you. If you told me that one thing that got me that interview was a 40 hour volunteer position weeding government documents, I might have laughed even harder. And now that I’ve completed that term position and met a number of fantastic colleagues through it, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity that I couldn’t have imagined—and am growing a professional identity from it. I’m also happy that my wide range of internships leading up to that position gave me plenty of insight going into that position. Which leads to point 2…
  2. All experience is good experience – but only if you learn from it.
    • Probably my biggest heartbreak as an emerging professional was getting too optimistic about a job prospect too soon. Twice I took and continued with internships with the possibility of a job at the end of it and both times they fell through. So while we can’t control budget cuts or federal-ese, I have learned to manage my expectations and be transparent. Now when I take on interns, I outline what I hope for them to learn on the job, share advice when I can, and be open while still being encouraging. I also usually tell them…
  3. You only need one job, so don’t let rejections discourage you.
    • I think I applied to about 80-100 jobs when I got out of graduate school, and I stayed up more nights than I wish to count crying over anxiety of whether or not it would be worth it. The perfect job may come right out of grad school, it may come after 6 or more months, or after years of mediocre jobs strung together. So plan for the worst, hope for the best, and trust yourself.

Now good luck out there!

Steering Shares: Professional Hindsight 20/20

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of the chair of the I&A steering committee, Joanna Black, the archivist for Colby Library, Sierra Club national headquarters.

The following is based on the prompt, “Advice your current professional self would tell to your young professional self regarding a particular issue.” In this case, the issue is beginning a career in the archival profession.

Flashback: It’s 2010. The financial crisis is two years deep. I’ve just graduated with an MLIS. My year and a half student gig at the university library is drawing to a close. I have no job lined up after graduation. I have very little life experience but hold firm to the “go with the flow” attitude typical of individuals in their 20s. I assume, after graduation, it will be easy to snag an archives job. I am very wrong.

If I had known then what I know now (knowledge that was gained from years of ups and downs in the archival field), I may have had an easier time finding my archival path. None the less, growing as an archivist required some missteps along the way. If I could travel back in time to 2010, I’d tell myself the following:

  1. Ask for help. It is easy to be arrogant after accomplishing something like a master’s program. Tons of new skills and concepts are acquired, and falling into the illusion that you are now an expert is a common mistake. But a graduate program, like most educational resources, is merely a starting off point. It is also important to take stock of the relationships you’ve built through your education, especially those people who are willing to help you in the early stages of your career. Accepting that you don’t know everything is a sign of maturity, and asking for help shows strength. When you begin applying for jobs (and are inevitably rejected for jobs), ask more experienced and professionally wiser colleagues to review your resume and cover letters for feedback. Set up informal informational interviews at archival institutions and ask individuals who work there what form their professional path took. If you are volunteering or interning somewhere, ask your supervisor questions (at an appropriate time) about the workflows and tools you use. All this will add to your own wisdom over time, which you will happily pass along to others down the road.
  2. Trust your instincts. Admit it, sometimes you feel insecure. Sometimes, there is that little voice inside your head that tells you you’ll never understand descriptive cataloging or figure out XML. But there is a reason you pursued archival work over any other type of profession. All people have insecurities around their careers, but one should not fall victim to these common doubts. Remember, you passed your courses, you completed your training, you got your degree – you know more about archival work than your insecurities lead on. So while you’re putting yourself out there pursuing your chosen profession, have the courage to speak up and make your positions heard. So much archival work is about decision making (usually decisions with no definitive answers). Your well-informed instincts will play a big role in guiding your work, and although it is nice to have straight yes or no answers, archival work is about judgement. Trust your judgement – it got you this far – and when you are really stuck, refer to tip #1 (Ask for Help).
  3. Cherish professional opportunities. There will be plenty of opportunities and experiences that come your way during your career, from attending professional conferences to volunteering at small local institutions. You may even work a few jobs that have nothing to do with your chosen career path. Each opportunity offers a chance for personal and professional growth. When you attend a conference, you have the invaluable opportunity to see what colleagues at different stages of their careers are working on. When you answer a call for volunteers, you show your willingness to contribute something positive to the archival profession while building trusting relationships along the way. When you take that retail job because you can only find part-time archival work, you are building up customer services skills that will serve you immensely when doing reference work later on in your career. Every professional experience on your path to long-term archival work will serve you in some way. While it is important to have goals, do not become fixated on exactly how those goals should be achieved. Let your experiences illuminate the best path forward and never waste an opportunity.

But above all else – rules or no rules – work hard and trust yourself. Believe me, you’ll get to where you want to go.

With a firm handshake,

You / Me from the future

Archivists on the Issues: Creating Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation: A Workshop

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following post is from Laura Alagna, Digital Preservation Librarian at Northwestern University; Keith Pendergrass, Digital Archivist at Baker Library Special Collections at Harvard Business School; Walker Sampson, Assistant Professor and Digital Archivist at the University of Colorado Boulder; and Tim Walsh, Software Developer at Artefactual Systems.

Background

In 2017, we  came together due to a shared concern over the increasing environmental impact of digital preservation. Despite some notable recent work calling attention to and investigating the environmental costs of practices in our field,[1] we observed that most discussion of sustainable digital preservation was still focused on financial and staffing concerns, sustaining practices as a long-term program, or on the large amount of electricity used by digital storage infrastructure. Additionally, we noticed that current frameworks and standards push practitioners toward optimal digital preservation whenever resources allow, instead of providing guidance when lower levels or standards may be sufficient.

In light of these trends, we proposed a paradigm shift in digital preservation practice in our 2019 article, “Toward Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation.”[2] Rather than focusing on strategies that simply reduce the unsustainability of current practice by improving the efficiency of the technological infrastructure we use to do our work, we argue that truly sustainable digital preservation can be achieved only when digital object management, successful use, and environmental sustainability are explicitly balanced and integrated into decision-making criteria. Suggesting a paradigm shift[3] along these lines, we outline ways for practitioners to critically reevaluate appraisal, permanence, and availability of digital content—providing a framework for integrating environmental sustainability into digital preservation practice.

Workshop Protocol

Throughout our research and writing, we returned again and again to a driving factor behind our work: that the changes we propose can make a difference. The breadth and enormity of the climate crisis should not drive us to despair that our actions are inefficacious. When aggregated, our actions can result in significant positive change. To this end, we want to continue sharing our work in the hope that it will inspire others to implement and advocate for environmental sustainability at their own organizations. To facilitate this, we developed a workshop protocol designed for participants to discuss issues of environmental sustainability in digital preservation, identify and enact change toward sustainable practices in their organizational contexts, and identify and plan further research. The protocol is available at: https://doi.org/10.21985/n2-hxe1-m195.

BitCurator Users Forum 2019: Workshop First Run

We ran the workshop for the first time at the BitCurator Users Forum 2019 on October 24, 2019 at Yale University. We briefly introduced our article’s core arguments, set the ground rules for discussion, and split into three discussion groups based on the paradigm shift areas. Groups reported back in two sessions, with participant-created notes available here.

In the first session, we broke into three groups, each lead by a facilitator:

  • Appraisal. Discussion in the appraisal group focused on collecting policies, and in particular that many participants feel that they do not have the authority to influence the appraisal process or collecting decisions. There was consensus that the low cost of storage has resulted in an reluctance to invest in staff and technological resources to conduct critical appraisal, and that reappraisal is even more difficult to accomplish.
  • Permanence. Participants in this discussion group also discussed digital storage, particularly whether participants’ organizations accounted for environmental factors when implementing new (or refreshed) on-premises or cloud storage solutions. On the idea of acceptable loss, participants discussed how much loss would be acceptable at their organizations in different contexts, and how the concept could be communicated with collection curators. Those in the permanence group also compared notes on how each organization approached fixity checking, with a wide variety of practices reported among participants.
  • Availability. This discussion group observed that the availability of digital content is tied to reappraisal and permanence decisions. Decisions earlier in a digital object’s life cycle have consequences for access that should be incorporated into organizations’ decision making and transparently explained to researchers. Participants discussed digitization projects in detail, particularly the issue of on-demand digitization versus mass digitization, and the lack of clear guidelines on determining what the critical mass of user need is that would move a collection or group of materials from on-demand to mass digitization.

After the general discussion on each of these areas, the three groups focused on plans for implementation, and the facilitators encouraged participants to think about actionable steps that they could take at their own organizations. A sample of these action items follows:

  • Appraisal
    • Develop and implement policies for regular reappraisal.
    • Ensure that curatorial and collecting guidelines cover digital content.
    • Write preservation policies that include tiered levels of preservation so that organizations can consistently select the most appropriate level during acquisition (and communicate this to donors).
  • Permanence
    • Promote collaboration with those responsible for appraisal to ensure implementations of tiered preservation solutions are meeting donor/organizational/user expectations.
    • Implement a lower tier of preservation commitment for digitized content that has a stable analog original.
    • Enact file format policies that do not migrate stable file formats.
  • Availability
    • Document demand for digitization to inform preservation approaches in line with the tiers advocated for in OCLC’s 2011 Scan and Deliver
    • Develop criteria for shifting collections or groups of materials from on-demand to mass digitization, especially for audiovisual materials.
    • Investigate central or interoperable discovery systems, to avoid duplicating digitization efforts across organizations.

When the groups reported out, it became clear that there were some implementation ideas common across all three areas. Foremost among these was advocating for environmental sustainability: all three groups brainstormed ways to advocate at their own organizations, from demonstrating the need for environmentally sustainable practice to working with existing environmental initiatives. Additionally, some participants noted that having more quantifiable data on the environmental impact of digital preservation, and the positive correlation between environmentally sustainable actions with staffing and financial sustainability, would help them make the case for their action plans to their organizations’ administrators.

Next Steps

We are making the workshop protocol available so that others can run this workshop at conferences and in their local organizations and communities. Conducting the workshop at BUF2019 made it clear that participants had many areas of shared interest, and significant enthusiasm for the subject. There is ample further opportunity to learn from each other and work together to implement specific actions across organizations.

We hope that individuals and existing or newly-formed working groups will take on investigating subjects such as:

  • Data and metrics on the impact of digital preservation at cultural heritage organizations.
  • Strategies for advocating for sustainable digital preservation practices.
  • Frameworks for gathering use statistics or user demand for digitization.
  • Guidelines and policies for implementing tiered preservation approaches.

We are excited to continue working with the digital preservation community on moving toward environmentally sustainable digital preservation and look forward to seeing new research on this topic from others.

[1] See for example Eira Tansey, “Archival Adaptation to Climate Change,” Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 11, no. 2 (2015), https://doi.org/10.1080/15487733.2015.11908146; Benjamin Goldman, “It’s Not Easy Being Green(e): Digital Preservation in the Age of Climate Change,” in Archival Values: Essays in Honor of Mark Greene (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2019); and Linda Tadic, “The Environmental Impact of Digital Preservation” (presentation, Association of Moving Image Archivists conference, Portland, OR, November 18–21, 2015), updated December 2018, https://www.digitalbedrock.com/resources-2.

[2] Keith Pendergrass, Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh, and Laura Alagna, “Toward Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation,” American Archivist 82, no. 1 (2019), https://doi.org/10.17723/0360-9081-82.1.165, open access via Harvard DASH: https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/40741399.

[3] See Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System (Hartland, VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999), open access via the Academy for Systems Change: http://donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Leverage_Points.pdf; and John R. Ehrenfeld, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

Archivists on the Issues: Discussion and Disagreement in Good Faith

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following post is from Bradley J. Wiles, a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Information Studies. 

In August of 2019, I rejoined SAA and the general archives fold after several years away due to professional and personal factors that diverted my time and energy into other areas. I immediately second guessed this decision after reading about what happened at the SAA annual meeting with the cancelled Brown Bag Lunch discussion on Frank Boles’ unpublished article, “To Everything There is a Season.” I was not at the meeting, so I can’t speak firsthand about the “pall” cast over the proceedings by the session or whatever other immediate fallout resulted from the decision to cancel it. However, the subsequent explanations by the SAA council and American Archivist editors, along with the apparently unquestioning acceptance by the membership at large, demonstrated what has become so disappointing about discourse in academy-dominated professions like archives. Or, in this case, the resoundingly negative discourse on social media that seemed satisfied with mostly attacking Boles’ character while providing minimal analysis of the article or its arguments.[1]

In any event, when it comes to instances like the session cancellation, I would never accuse anyone of acting in bad faith nor would I question anyone’s motives for defending their principles and doing what they think is right. I have no doubt that there are many valid points that people could make and did make from a variety of perspectives. Specific responses to the Boles article recently made available on the American Archivist website offer some illumination from an oppositional standpoint.[2] My disappointment stems from the apparent inability or unwillingness to engage with ideas or opinions that do not fit prescribed insider viewpoints or that might merely suggest the slightest deviation from a set of rigid premises that now seem to dominate the professional discourse. Heck, I probably even agree with most of these premises, but the notion that I should not be spoiled by other views that disagree with them is absurd. I read the Boles article and there were some things that I liked in his argument and other things that I didn’t. Imagine my surprise when my brain didn’t explode upon this realization.

On the one hand, I can understand the distaste of highlighting controversy for its own sake, as expressed in the statement by the Archivists and Archives of Color Section. But it stretches credulity to claim that the article and lunch session were categorically divisive in intent, design, and execution. As far as I can tell, other reasons for it being canceled were flawed planning and because it was deemed incompatible with the program requirements for inclusivity. Ostensibly, it failed to adequately question how archivists are “navigating power dynamics, facilitating transparency, preserving the history of transgender and other marginalized communities, or researching transnational records to actively transform our pedagogy and practice, and how do our actions affect the people and communities we serve.” In my reading, Boles’ article generally fits within the spirit of this statement, but apparently his approach or conclusions did not properly align with how the program committee and others thought this should be expressed. Although, it’s not clear if anyone who made the decision to cancel the session had a problem with the article until the social media backlash began.

Unsurprisingly, Boles’ account anticipated the reaction that unfolded at the meeting. All official responding parties made it a point to say they reject censorship, welcome vigorous debate, and appreciate multiple viewpoints, but the cancellation makes clear that this is only true to a certain extent. And if Boles’ article represents the intellectual tolerance threshold or demarcates what is or is not acceptable in disciplinary discussions, then the profession and our institutions are in big trouble. In so many ways, the archives profession has gladly assumed many of the highly caricatured qualities of the academic left, but we’ve really leaned-in to the ideological calcification aspect of it without generating the commensurate usable knowledge an applied discipline demands. The resulting self-congratulatory spiral of conspicuous wokeness is both exhausting and meaningless, offering the veneer of intellectual robustness and social value without the substance. The admirable and necessary impulse to rethink and reform institutions and practices in the name of inclusivity, representation, and justice too often shifts into a knee-jerk rejection of anything that smacks of convention or tradition.

In a telling sign of these Trumpian times, the archives profession appears more likely than at any other point in my career to embrace a narrow orthodoxy that leaves little room for criticism or consideration of frameworks that do not mirror the inviolable beliefs of those now making the rules. I suppose that’s where my regret mostly resides—not because I reject those frameworks or beliefs out of hand, or because I think there is something so important or essential about Boles’ perspective or the cancelled discussion, but that this incident further galvanizes a standard that can be easily applied against anyone else who finds themselves out of step with that orthodoxy or the hashtag warriors enforcing it. And let’s be honest: it’s not like we’re shouting down neo-Nazis or tangling with fascists in the streets here. Attempting to spare the archives world from Boles’ perspective perfectly embodies the half-baked approach by the academic left to policing itself through speech and thought codes. At the end of the day it allows the archives profession to do what it has become so good at: patting ourselves on one side of our back, while flogging ourselves on the other.

It comes down to this: a judgement was made in the service of zero-sum identity politics that preempted anyone from having to think about the matter any more than necessary. But that’s just the world we live in now and I regret re-entering the archives professional fray in an atmosphere where intellectual freedom has become so loaded with preconditions and unwritten rules that are arbitrarily applied. But I also know that my regret—my ability to have it and express it—is tied to the relative privileges that I enjoy and I do not take this for granted, nor do I begrudge anyone’s right to be offended. My hope is that good faith professional discussions can still occur even if they are uncomfortable or contentious. Good faith assumes civility or at least the lack of malign intent. I don’t see how archivists advance as a profession if we cannot move forward on this basis, especially if our default reaction is umbrage against those with whom we might disagree, effectively killing necessary conversations before they begin.

[1] See the Twitter hashtag #thatdarnarticle for the tenor of the discussion, and for substantive analysis in other non-SAA venues see these blog posts by Geof Huth and Eira Tansey.

[2] See the responses by George, Inefuku, and Stuchel.

Archivists on the Issues: More than a warehouse: why the closure of Seattle’s National Archives facility matters

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following is from Burkely Hermann, recent graduate of the University of Maryland – College Park’s graduate program in Library and Information Science, with a concentration in Archives and Digital Curation.

On January 26, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved the sale of the 157,000 square foot National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Seattle facility, which holds permanent federal records for Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. This decision raises the question: which is more important, access to historic records or selling a public facility in a high-value real estate market? There has been fierce opposition from historical societies in Alaska and Seattle, historical researchers, genealogical groups, indigenous leaders, university professors, archivists, and historians. They were joined by a bipartisan group of eight Alaskan state legislators and 16 Congress members. The latter, comprising Washingtonian, Alaskan, Idahoan, and Montanan politicians, was also bipartisan. Washington Governor Jay Inslee also opposed the decision, as did Washington’s Secretary of State Kim Wyman. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is considering suing the federal government over the closure. He reportedly submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the five-person Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), OMB, NARA, and the General Services Administration (GSA) regarding the closure. The Washington State Archives even created a page about the topic.

History Associates Incorporated, which cautioned their clients to plan ahead for the facility’s closure, noted the process would take 18 months. They also included the estimate from Susan Karren, NARA’s Seattle director that only “.001% of the facility’s 56,000 cubic feet of records are digitized and available online,” and stated that permanent records may be inaccessible when transferred between facilities. According to NARA, no actions are being taken imminently which affect users of the facility, and NARA has requested to stay in the facility for three years following the sale. With such hullabaloo on this topic, one question is relevant: why does this closure matter to us, as fellow archivists?

NARA’s Seattle facility in Sand Point is more than a “giant U.S. government warehouse” or “excess property” as described in bureaucratic language. This facility holds records on indigenous people in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. It also holds: Chinese Exclusion Act case files which have been diligently indexed by local volunteers for the past 28 years; Forest Service teletypes about the Mount St. Helens explosion in 1980; federal case records from the early 1900s; and other important local documents. Such records make the NARA facility part of the “historical ecosystem” in the Northwestern United States, providing the public “direct access to government documents, from genealogical records to court files.” These aspects make the facility a “high value” federal property (or “asset”) which has a “deferred maintenance backlog of $2.5 million.” Additionally, no public PBRB meeting transcripts showed discussion of the closure. In one meeting, “warehouse[s]” used by NARA for “long-term storage” was touched on and at another there was a passing mention of Seattle.

Some may point to existing digitization efforts. Sure, some of Alaska’s records have been digitized, but record series are often digitized by FamilySearch and the project is only five years old. For instance, some records relating to Alaska have been digitized like crew lists, immigrant lists, draft cards, and naturalization records, as is the case with Washington and Idaho. But these are primarily 20th century records, with very few 19th century records. The letter from congress members criticizing the decision also called this out, stating that “NARA’s partnership with FamilySearch to digitize records has…not resulted in actual access to records that have been prioritized by stakeholders,” a unique and rare criticism of the NARA-FamilySearch partnership. The limitations of existing digitization undermines NARA’s reasoning that some of their “popular records” are already digitized or available online, asserting that public access to their archival records will stay in place.

Access to “archived knowledge” is vital and inherent to archival ethics. Moving records away from those who can use it, dividing it between two existing facilities in Riverside, California, and Kansas City, Missouri, is an act of cruel inaccessibility. Furthermore, splitting the records between two locations, regardless of the reason, leads to a strain on those facilities, which need additional storage space. NARA itself admits that the closure will negatively affect those who use the facility. They pledge to engage with researchers in a “smooth” transition when the facility is shuttered, even though this change will undoubtedly disadvantage various stakeholders, whether state archivists, government employees, scientists, students, or others. In a recent invitation-only meeting, they showed their commitment to the closure of the facility, pledging to work with indigenous groups.

The PBRB’s executive director Adam Bodner claimed that the closure of the facility was a decision by NARA staff. If true, this would put them at odds with users and stakeholders who want the facility to remain open. On pages A-68 to A-71 of their report, the PBRB concluded that NARA wanted to move to a more modern facility and that the 10 acres the facility sat on would be great for residential housing, apparently worth tens of millions of dollars as one article claimed. The PBRB also stated that NARA could only fulfill its storage needs at another facility because the current facility does not meet NARA’s “long-term storage needs.” In the process, some records will be moved to a temporary facility. Reportedly, NARA justified the closure by the fact that the facility is the third-least visited NARA site in the country and has “high operating costs.” Such arguments don’t consider the fact that the 73-year-old building could be retrofitted for the agency’s needs or records could be moved closer rather than split between two locations. This closure also stands against NARA’s stated goal that public access is part of its core mission and violates the Society of American Archivists’ Code of Ethics, stating that archivists “promote and provide the widest accessibility of materials.”

In coming days, NARA will be submitting a Report of Excess to the GSA, headed by Administrator Emily Murphy, which will collaborate with the PBRB and OMB to help “offload” properties like this facility. As such, to speak out against the closure, you could email Emily Murphy at emily.murphy@gsa.gov, the GSA’s Deputy Administrator at Allison Brigati at allison.brigati@gsa.gov, call 1-844-GSA-4111 or contact the GSA’s Office of Real Property Utilization and Disposal at 202-501-0084 and at realestate.buildingdisposal@gsa.gov. Alternatively, you could contact the OMB’s Russell Vought at Russell.t.vought@omb.eop.gov or Archivist David Ferriero at David.Ferriero@nara.gov.

Steering Share: Meet Sara DeCaro

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Sara DeCaro, the university archivist at Baker University Library. 

 

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I was lucky enough receive the Mary Louise Meder Internship in the State Archives division of the Kansas Historical Society when I was working on my MLS. It was a great introduction to archives, and it was paid! I wrote finding aids for two collections of personal papers and did some work with Kansas Memory, the KSHS’ digital image website. I enjoyed every minute of it, too. It reaffirmed my decision to pursue a career in archives.

 

 

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

I initially became a part of I&A because I had never served on a committee in any of the professional organizations I belong to, and I&A seemed to match my interests. This is my second year on the steering committee, and I already feel like I’ve gained a lot. Having the opportunity to work on our temporary labor survey was meaningful to me personally, as someone who has held temporary positions in the past, and although analyzing all that data was a bit challenging, I learned a great deal. One of my Steering Shares from last year also led to participation in a panel discussion at the Annual Meeting in July, which was also a very worthwhile experience.

 

 

3) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

Low wages in the archives profession is a very important issue, in my opinion, and one that I’ve been able to explore as a result of my involvement in this committee. That was the focus of the panel discussion I mentioned before. It’s a widespread problem in the archives world, for a number of reasons. I knew that after reading the responses to our survey, but listening to the other panelists and hearing their stories made the scope of the problem very clear. I like being able to contribute to a solution, even if it is in a small way.

 

 

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

I’ve recently started volunteering with Kansas City Pet Project, my local animal shelter. I wasn’t ready for a new pet when my cat passed away, but I missed cats and wanted to be around them. Shelter environments can be stressful for cats, so I’m glad I can give them a little comfort.

Steering Share: Meet Courtney Dean

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of the past-chair of the I&A committee, Courtney Dean, the head of the Center for Primary Research and Training in UCLA Library Special Collections.

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1) What was your first experience working with archives?

As an undergrad I wrote a paper on the history of May Day in Boston using mircrofilm copies of old newspapers, but that’s as close I got to anything remotely archival for a long time. When I was thinking about grad school I came across the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) and the Riot Grrrl collection at Fales and was disabused of the notion that archives are stuffy and elite. Then I found out “archivist” was an actual job and was completely sold. My grad school internships were at the Wende Museum of the Cold War, Pacifica Radio Archives, and LACMA. I worked with artifacts and artworks; ¼ inch audiotapes; and institutional records. While in grad school I also worked in the Center for Primary Research and Training in UCLA Library Special Collections, a program I now head. There I had the opportunity to work on collections from the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives as part of their partnership with UCLA Library.  

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

This is my third(!) and last year on the Steering Committee and I hope to contribute to both the continuity and sustainability of the section and its ongoing work. So much volunteer work is thankless and burnout-prone, but I’ve always appreciated how I&A’s charge is broad enough for folks to pursue issues of importance to them. The enthusiasm of my fellow steering committee members is infectious, and I look forward to pushing forward conversations around issues facing the profession. 

3) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

Fair and ethical archival labor has been something I’ve been passionate about for a long time- everything from paid internships to temp labor to salary transparency and barriers to entry in the profession. Aside from I&A, I participate in the Digital Library Federation’s (DLF) Labor Working group, co-chair the Society of California Archivists (SCA) Labor Issues Task Force, and am on the organizing and issues committees for the librarian unit of my union. Right now a lot of this work involves data collection, which can hopefully be leveraged to better advocate for change. Like others have mentioned, I’ve also started thinking more and more about the environmental impact of the profession- flying to conferences, digital storage, etc. 

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

Way too much of my free time has been devoted to archives adjacent activities, but I’m trying to get better with boundaries and work life balance. I play guitar in a punk band called Red Rot, just joined a rad book club, and am obsessed with my cat, Walrus. (My other feline bff Potato just passed away last week which was really hard.) I’m also currently watching Deadwood for the first time.

 

Steering Share: Meet Genna Duplisea

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Genna Duplisea, archivist and special collections librarian at Salve Regina University.

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1) What was your first experience working with archives?

After working in the library stacks my first year of college, I transferred my work-study to the Special Collections and Archives department because when I often walked by its glass doors and beautiful sculptural gates, I thought it looked interesting. For the rest of my time at Bowdoin, I was an assistant there, learning how to handle and organize everything from architectural plans to brittle folded nineteenth-century correspondence to newspaper clippings to masses of trophies. The collection was robust and the department busy, so I got to see the variety of research primary sources could provide. My supervisors encouraged enthusiasm about the collection and the environment allowed me to take joy in my work. One year for my grandfather’s birthday I found for him the alumnus file for a doctor from our family lore – he had delivered one of my ancestors on a kitchen table!

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

Much of my reasoning for pursuing a career in archives is my desire to contribute positively to human rights and the environment. It can be difficult and overwhelming at work to stay grounded in the ever-changing landscape of concerns and ideas linking archives to social justice. Attending to the role of archives in combating prejudice and harm means advocating for our labor, too. Serving on the I&A Steering Committee will, I hope, help me do the things I entered this profession to do, by connecting me more closely to the work addressing social and environmental justice issues and placing me in a position to support or join in archival activism.


3) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

I see climate change as underpinning every problem and political issue because it affects every community. Archivists have a role in helping communities preserve and protect their heritage as the climate becomes more unpredictable, and we also have lot to do in addressing our profession’s carbon footprint. How do we perform memory work for changing and disappearing communities without further contributing to the source of that change? As part of Archivists Responding to Climate Change (ProjectARCC), I recently collaborated with other archivists on hosting Climate Teach-ins and hope to contribute to the growing body of writing on archives and climate change in the coming year.


4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

Reading, writing, and basic fiber crafting are also among my hobbies, which almost goes without saying in this profession. It cracks me up to around the room of archivists and seeing a bunch of people knitting during a presentation, which I have been known to do. Additionally, I’m not very sporty, but I love going for walks. There is a land trust in my community that maintains beautiful walking trails. I’m trying to learn more about the plants and birds I see and develop a stronger knowledge of the natural world. My houseplants are also doing all right