Archivists on the Issues: Restrictions and the Case of the University of Michigan

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Steering Committee member Samantha Brown, an Assistant Archivist at the New-York Historical Society.

As archivists, we are constantly weighing the rights of record creators and donors against the needs of researchers. Sometimes balancing these differing needs can lead to a struggle that puts archives and libraries in the middle. We can find an example of this in a recent news story involving the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.

The Bentley Historical Library’s story begins with the John Tanton Papers. The finding aid for the collection describes Dr. Tanton as an environmental, population control, and immigration reform advocate who has held leadership positions with the Sierra Club, Michigan Natural Areas Council, Wilderness and Natural Areas Advisory Board, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Advisory Commission, Little Traverse Conservancy, and the Environmental Fund [1]. What makes him a controversial figure was his work with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA. While working with these organization, Dr. Tanton worked to reduce both legal and illegal immigration and opposed bilingualism in public schools and government agencies [2,3]. In addition to this work, Dr. Tanton also created a publishing company called The Social Contract Press which notably published The Turner Diaries which was a race war fantasy novel that is seen as a key work for members of the American white supremacist movement [2].  

Part of what makes this collection newsworthy is the fact that half of the collection is sealed. While boxes 1 through 14 are open to researchers without any special restrictions, boxes 15 through 25 are sealed until April 6, 2035 [3]. This presents a problem for Hassan Ahmad, a Virginia-based immigration attorney, who is trying to gain access to the whole collection. Mr. Ahmed believes that the collection could contain materials that show the relationship between anti-immigration groups and white nationalists as well as the influence that some of groups that Dr. Tanton has worked with are having on the White House [4]. The link between Dr. Tanton and the White House may very well exist. President Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, transition aid Lou Barletta, policy adviser Julie Kirchner, and immigration advisor Kris Kobach all have ties to FAIR, an organization that Dr. Tanton founded and was a chairman of [1,4].

Believing that the sealed parts of the collection could hold important information and should be part of the public debate, Mr. Ahmed filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the University of Michigan in December 2016 but the request was denied as was the request to appeal the decision [3,5]. Both the original request and the appeal were denied on the basis of Dr. Tanton’s donor agreement with the library [3]. After being denied his FOIA request, Mr. Ahmed sued the University of Michigan to gain access to the restricted parts of the collection [3]. When the case was brought before a judge, the University of Michigan filed for a motion to dismiss the lawsuit based on the fact that parts of the collection were sealed due to the collection’s donor agreement [5]. While information about the donor agreement was disclosed in court, information about the donor agreement was not included in the collections finding aid [1,5]. The judge, Stephen Borello, ruled that since the collection was a private donation and not being used for a public purpose, the University of Michigan could not be compelled to open the collection [3]. Mr. Ahmed proceeded to appeal this ruling as well and is arguing that the university can’t use donor agreements to keep documents sealed. As of right now, he is scheduled to appear in court again in late September or early October when a ruling on his appeal will be made [3].

If Mr. Ahmed wins his appeal, the results could have a massive impact on archives and researchers. Without the ability to guarantee that parts of a collection can remain restricted, archivists may not be able to persuade people to donate or house their collections in an archive which will make it harder for the materials to be preserved and accessed. Access doesn’t just mean that someone can use the materials for their research but also that they can find the materials. A private person may have a collection that is helpful to someone’s research but a person looking for those materials may never be able to find it if an archive can’t create a way for those materials to be found. The work of archivists to arrange and describe collections plays a crucial role in a collection’s findability. If donors are too worried about giving their materials to archives because archivists can’t provide the donors with any guarantees then researchers lose out as well.

While this case holds risks for archives and archivists, it also teaches us something as well. Finding Aids need to be more than just a list of items and folder titles, they need to give researchers a preview of what the collection holds. One of the reasons that Mr. Ahmed wants to access the restricted materials is because he doesn’t know what is there. The finding aid’s description for the restricted materials only includes series and subseries titles with very little other information. If there was a way to know what could be found in the unrestricted  parts of the collection as compared to the restricted parts and what differentiated those parts of the collection then maybe there could be a way to work with Mr. Ahmed so that he could find what he is looking for in a different way. Other members of the organizations that Mr. Ahmed is interested in may have unrestricted collections at other institutions. Otis L. Graham Jr., another founding member of FAIR, for example, has some his collections housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The best result for both the researcher and archive, in my opinion, would be to find a way to help the researcher with their request without breaking the donor agreement. If this isn’t possible then I wonder why a box and folder list is even provided for the restricted materials. Why tell people that you have something if you’re unwilling to tell them about it? Without more information in the finding aid or speaking to the staff at the Bentley Historical Library and investigating their policies around arrangement and description, it’s difficult to know why the collection has been handled in this particular way. For now, we, as archivists, can look at this situation and use it to change how we both deal with collections and researchers.

 

Works Cited

  1. John Tanton Papers Finding Aid. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library, 14 Jun 2013, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhlead/umich-bhl-861056?view=text
  2. “John Tanton” Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/john-tanton
  3. Peet, Lisa. “Attorney Sues for Access to Tanton Papers in Closed Archive.” Library Journal, 18 Sept. 2018, https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=180918-Tanton-Papers
  4. Frazen, Rachel. “Why Is the University of Michigan Fighting to Keep an Anti-Immigration Leader’s Papers Secret?” The Daily Beast, 3 Sept. 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-is-university-of-michigan-fighting-to-keep-anti-immigration-leaders-papers-secret
  5. Warikoo, Niraj. “University of Michigan Oct.  Blocks Release of Hot-Button Records of Anti-Immigrant Leader.” Detroit Free Press, 28 Oct. 2017, https://www.freep.com/story/news/2017/10/17/university-michigan-blocks-release-anti-immigrant-records/732133001/

 

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Archivists on the Issues: Intellectual Access to Archives

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from regular writer for I&A’s blog, Lindy Smith, Reference Archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives.

In my final post on access and accessibility in archives, I am examining intellectual access. By this, I mean the language, theory, practices, and other non-physical barriers that exist in archives. Once a patron has navigated the obstacles of digital access and physical access that I discussed in my previous posts, they finally make it to our reading rooms either in person or virtually and want to use our collections. What gets in the way of this process?

Description can often get in the way, sometimes through its absence and sometimes through its presence. When description is non-existent or not online or not accessible or too minimal to be useful, it is detrimental to access. This is not news to anyone. But sometimes seemingly great description can also be a barrier to access. Say you have an important, highly used collection and you decide to write a DACs-compliant EAD finding aid at the item level, post it online with excellent SEO and cross list it in all appropriate union catalogs. It is a thing of beauty. It has extensive notes, a detailed inventory, and follows archival standards. It is easy to find. If you know where to look.

But then you have an ESL patron who speaks limited English and cannot read it all. Or a seventh grader working on a History Day project who has a middle school reading level and does not understand some of the terminology. Or a patron who is completely unfamiliar with archival description and does not understand the complicated series structure or how to use the detailed information you have painstakingly input. Based on my experience in various reading rooms, these kinds of casual patrons make up a significant portion of our users.

There’s something to be said for gaining familiarity with the systems in place, but for the patron who only wants to make one visit to see something for personal reasons or the student using it for one class, or the patron who is frustrated by a first visit and never comes back, our systems are exclusionary. We cannot write description for everyone, but it is important to recognize that language, reading level, structure, jargon, and many other factors can hinder access for some users.

Many of these issues can be mitigated with good reference help, but this leads to another question I think about often: how do we determine an appropriate balance of labor between patrons and archivists? How much do we require them to do and how much are we willing to do for them? What is policy mandated and what is grey area? What can we change to improve the patron experience? Obviously, patrons need to take the first step to make contact. They need to provide information about the subject of their interest or the items they’d like to request. They need to adhere to any established policies regarding registration information, payment for reproduction, collection handling, etc. Archivists have to respond to requests, pull requested materials, and explain necessary paperwork and policies.

But between this is a whole world of negotiation, personal preference, and available resources. How much time do (can) we spend with a single patron? Where do we draw the line? I like to think that we should be willing to take more on ourselves as the gatekeepers to make things easier and more pleasant for our patrons, but that is not fair when so many of us are already overloaded with work. On the other hand, it is not fair to put all of the work on our users, especially when it is our policies that are creating extra work for everyone.

Many archives have policies regarding remote research time, but what about patrons who require additional assistance with finding aids or computers or microfilm readers or handling fragile collections or the photocopier? How do we ensure smooth hand offs to other archivists when schedules require that multiple staff members be involved? How do we enforce policies that require official ID cards when we are trying to reach out to user groups that may not possess them? How do we respond to concerns about patron confidentiality when we are storing information about patrons and their research topics? How do we reassure patrons who feel targeted by security policies that require surveillance?

How might we rethink our policies and procedures to make things easier for everyone involved? While it is not a magic bullet or a possibility for everyone, there is something to be said for tapping into aspects of industry or libraries that are already familiar to our patrons. Along these lines, there are some technological solutions to help streamline the reading room experience. The biggest and best known in Aeon, which is a great product, but prohibitively expensive for most of us. Other archives have come up with in-house solutions using existing free products, like Trello or Google Forms.

At my institution, we have been working with our web developer, access services department, and catalogers to come up with a solution that allows us to treat special collections materials like ordinary library materials. Briefly, our web developer came up with a button that is enabled in our catalog on materials that have the Lib[rary] Use Only status that allows users to request items for future use. It generates a form that collects name and contact information as well as the date they would like to use the item(s) that is emailed to the appropriate collection. Patrons can also request items on site without scheduling them ahead of time. We use the emails as pull slips and place the items on our hold shelf. When the patrons arrive, we set up a courtesy card in our ILS (Integrated Library System- we use Sierra) that allows them to use only special collections materials (a proper courtesy card with ordinary borrowing privileges has an associated fee but a special collections card is free). We then check the materials out to their account while they’re using it on site and check it back in once they’ve finished. We explain at the time of checkout that they are not allowed to leave our floor with the items and we have not had any issues with this. The one drawback is that we do not yet have all of our special collections in the catalog, which is where our fabulous catalogers come in to create records. We are also in the process of implementing ArchivesSpace and are hoping that our developer will be able to create a similar request feature for use there. All special collections will eventually be represented in both places.

Obviously, a solution like this is only available to archives with access to an ILS and some developer time. If you are interested, our web developer has made the request button code available on GitHub. But if you think outside the box, you may be able to come up with your won solution with the resources available to you. Libraries have been using similar systems for decades to track use and it is past time for archives to do the same.

My posts here have been much more question-based than answer-filled, but these are important issues with lots of room for discussion. I look forward to continuing that discussion with any of you who are interested and hope you will take the opportunity to use some of these questions to help examine your own work.

Archivists on the Issues: Archives as Art, Part 2

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. This is the second half of a 2-part essay.

Art critic Hal Foster puts a fine point on the “archival impulse at work internationally in contemporary art” in his much-cited 2004 essay, “An Archival Impulse,” published in the journal October, a publication established by Rosalind Krauss in the early 1980s as a forum to discuss post-structuralism and politically conscious art. In this essay, Foster highlights the work of three international artists: Tacita Dean, Sam Durant, and Thomas Hirchhorn.

Stating at the beginning of his discussion “the examples [of the archival impulse in art] could be multiplied many times,”[6] Foster’s discussion of these artists’ work outlines a shift in the archival mode in art within the last fifteen years and a resurgence of its popularity among artists. He says, “Archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. To this end they elaborate on the found image, object and text, and favor the installation format.”[7] He emphasizes the face-to-face nature of these artworks, as opposed to using electronic means of connection such as the Internet. He also differentiates archival art from the institutional critique, which focuses on the museum, such as Broodthaers’ work. These artists use collected materials to create quasi-archives, such as Hirschhorn’s altars and kiosks and Dean’s collected photographs of “sound mirrors” built in Kent between 1928-30 to act as warning systems in case of air attacks, which were soon replaced by more reliable radar systems. Dean’s photography collects images of outmoded objects and gives them a place in the present moment, in effect removing them from time and place and including them in a catalog of “failed futuristic visions” that can only be recovered via the archive.

Foster asserts that the archival impulse in these artists’ work attempts to “probe a misplaced past, to collate its different signs” and the purpose of their work is to give presence to historical objects in a positive way that “turn[s] excavation sites into construction sites…it suggests a shift away from melancholic culture that views the historical as little more than traumatic.”[8] Foster’s view of the archival trend in contemporary art may not strictly adhere to a traditional definition of “archive” but it expresses the archive’s role of importance as a physical and symbolic entity that is inseparable from our understanding of and interactions with time.

There are many more examples of archival influences in contemporary art, and the complex relationship between artists and archives will continue to serve as muses to one another in new and unexpected ways. Archives are never a single thing; they can be aesthetic, political, personal, fictional, historic, and eternally present. For this reason, they will continue to inspire artistic and cultural works.

 

Further Reading on Archives in/ as Artistic Media
  • Breakell, Sue, “Perspective: Negotiating the Archives,” Tate Papers, Spring 2008: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/18316767.pdf
  • Enwezor, Okwui,  Archive Fever—Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (New York: International Center of Photography, 2008)
  • Holzer, Jenny. War Paitnings, (WALTHER KöNIG, KöLN, 2015)
  • Merewether, Charles, ed.. The Archive (Boston: Whitechapel and MIT Press, 2006)
  • Raad, Walid, The Atlas Group Archive (website), accessed http://www.theatlasgroup.org/
  • Raad, Walid, and Eva Respini (ed.), Walid Raad, (New York: MoMA, 2015)
  • Spieker, Sven. The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008)
  • Thompson, Michael,  “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as Medium in Contemporary American Art,” Bibliographical Society of America, The University of Chicago Press (2015), especially pages 175-181
References

[6] Foster, Hal. “An Archival Impulse,” October, MIT Press, 2004, 3-22

For more international examples see also:  De Jong, Ferdinand and Elizabeth Harney. “Art From the Archive,” African Arts (Summer 2015), vol. 48, no. 2, 1-2; and Jolly, Martyn. “Big Archives and Small Collections: Remarks on the Archival Mode in Contemporary Australian Art,” Public History Review, vol. 21, 2014, 60-85.

[7] Ibid., 4

 

Archivists on the Issues: Archives as Art, Part 1

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. This is part 1 of a 2-part essay.

To conclude my blog series about archives as prominent cultural and artistic influences, I’ll turn to the visual arts, a broad and varied category, to be sure. As an archivist at an art museum, I am highly aware of the importance institutional archives can have within museums as historical records of the museum itself, or as repositories for artists’ archives, but there are also countless examples of archives, archival materials, and archival practices as major forces within an artwork, or the artwork itself.

To consider the archive as an artistic medium in and of itself, it is helpful to begin with James O’Toole’s essay, “The Symbolic Significance of Archives,” an important piece of writing by an archivist on the aesthetic and transformative qualities inherent in the role of some documents. His examination of archives as symbolic entities casts light on a side of the archival profession that had not yet been given much attention by archivists themselves, although many visual artists have been working in “the archival mode” since the early 20th century. Archivists are trained to care for records of enduring value and emphasis is placed on “utilitarian motivations for the making of written records” [1]. O’Toole begins his discussion with an invocation of Frank Burke’s 1981 essay, “The Future Course of Archival Theory in the United States,” in which he provokes archivists to consider archives beyond their practical operations and use, and to ask larger, more philosophical questions of the profession, such as “what is the motivation for the act” of recordkeeping and making.

O’Toole’s very question suggests that there is more to records than their practical uses, however dismissed these uses may have been by the majority of archivists who agreed with Lester Cappon’s conjecture that there is nothing to theorize about; the job of the archivist is to “shuffle the damn papers.”[2] Indeed, the conversation about archival theory that Burke began in the late 20th century seems to have caused some rancor among many archivists who stick firmly to the school of thought that archival records are purely practical. This, O’Toole argues extensively, excludes the role of archives and records as symbolic objects. By examining examples from history, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Domesday Book, O’Toole demonstrates the manner in which a document can change from being a record that is useful in the traditional sense, into a record whose use extends beyond practicality and conveys meaning symbolically. Since the very essence of an archival document lies in its having transitioned from primary to secondary use, it follows that the secondary use is not necessarily always going to be practical in the evidentiary sense.  O’Toole’s discussion concludes, significantly, by affirming that archival records can have both practical and symbolic uses; one side is not more important than the other, and if we value archives and archival materials solely for their practical features, we are missing half the picture.

In the twentieth century, the use of archival materials as artistic media became increasingly popular, particularly with the arrival of conceptual art and structuralism on the scene. In her seminal lecture, A Voyage on the North Sea” Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, art critic and professor of art history at Columbia University, Rosalind Krauss presents a discussion of art that does not belong to classical modes and mediums like painting and sculpture, but incorporates any number of expressive modes.[5]  She describes a break from traditional classifications and a movement toward mixed media, video art, installations, readymades (like those made by Marcel Duchamp), collections, and conceptual art. The latter might even lack physical form; the ideas and contextual performance are the artwork.

Krauss focuses on the work of Belgian poet and artist Marcel Broodthaers, who created a fictitious museum called “The Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Division” around which he built collections of objects, such as an installation of stuffed eagles and other objects pertaining to the eagle, much like one might see presented in a natural history museum. Each object is labeled, not with information about its species, but with the admission (joke?): “This Is Not a Work of Art.” Broodtaears picks up where Duchamp left off, creating an imaginary museum, structured around readymades and antiquated modes of display, poking fun at art world expectations and conventions. Broodthaers’ work is often referred to as “institutional critique,” a form that attempts to call out the inner workings of establishments such as the museum and archive; official spaces that command respect, embody some degree of power (financial, intellectual), and authority.

This shift has made the work of many contemporary artists possible such as the work of Lebanese-American artist, Walid Raad. While Broodthaers re-envisions the colonialist structure that names, categorizes and capitalizes upon fine arts, Raad reimagines the archive as a structure wherein truth is not tied to fact while still relying on archives’ hydra-like power to tell many stories at once.

References

[1] O’Toole, James. “The Symbolic Significance of Archives,” The American Archivist, 1982, 234-255

[2] Ibid., 235

[3] Craig and O’Toole, 98

[4] Ibid., 98

[5] Krauss, Rosalind, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 5

Archivists on the Issues: Answering the call for inclusivity

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from regular writer Summer Espinoza, her last for the year. Summer is the digital archivist at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she is working on a California State University Archives project.

This is my third and final blog post for the Archivists on the Issues series. It would be more scholarly of me to share research, but I hope you (reader) can excuse my personal, introspective and non academic discourse here.

One of the most important attributes I carry in this life is that of a brown-skinned human (insert Library of Congress subject headings as you please). My brown skin has guided my experiences in my academic and personal education. My research interests today are guided by the way external and self identifiers have constructed and shaped my life and career. If you are midway through a sigh right now, I empathize. I sometimes catch myself with this same reaction because, in fact, I sometimes cringe at the fact I am so invested in this identity politic.

My duties as an archivist have guided me towards descriptive cataloging, perhaps by the same token of the fluidity and interpretive nuances of identity politics. Let me relate this conversation to my current work with the California State University System Archives Digitization Project. I have created subject headings for persons of color and I have also made use of the equally dodgy “Caucasians” subject heading. My methodology (if you can call it that) when creating a subject heading for ethnicity (non- “Caucasian”), is to look for published articles, newsletters, or records of events in which a notable person has been commended for work in a community, often by a community with which they identify. I take these cues and with all the best intentions, I apply a Library of Congress or local vocabulary term, and hope for the best. This has not, however, caused me to create particularly accurate or authoritative headings, for example Mexican American, Chicano and/or Latino and Black or African American, Chinese American or Asian American.

The “Caucasians” subject heading has given me extreme pause. I approached the task of descriptive cataloging for photographic prints of European Americans with an apology first: “I’m sorry I am labeling you this way.” Why am I sorry? I am sorry because in the back of my mind is this little kernel of negativity toward the word “Caucasian.” Why am I using this word in the first place?

Up to the point of this project, I had not fully acknowledged the history of this word, and upon further investigation I found the term is rooted in eighteenth century racial classification. How and why am I blindly following the notorious Library of Congress (out)dated subject headings? Not to mention the word as both anachronistic, archaic, and still very much alive in our modern societal vocabularies in human classifications.

Much like my first post, I express these reflective (and yes, negative) experiences to better understand the role of my own history and how it interacts with my professional responsibilities.

In a recent listserv call for panel proposals for a visual arts conference, a cataloger posed some very compelling questions about the ways in which descriptive cataloging of an artist interacts with the cataloging of their artistic works.

This led me to more questions, but primarily this one: why do we as archivists believe that the (best) answers to our initiatives to be inclusive and diverse rest solely in our professional circles? Did we and do we currently believe that we are the best and only source of expertise in the digital environment? Do we not look outward to other disciplines for marketing and development, content expertise, and so forth? Are we the first group of professionals to tackle inclusivity? What do we generally understand about cultural inclusivity on a professional level, and are we trained and educated enough to move beyond initiatives and policies that do not mean much to the everyday archivist?

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too quickly as we circulate these documents amongst our ranks, let us share our shortcomings for the better.

Archivists on the Issues: Societal Logic from Archives, a Dying Concept

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a new regular writer for I&A’s blog, Summer Espinoza. Summer is the digital archivist at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she is working on a California State University Archives project.

The archives’ role in collective memory making is hardly a new topic, but how does that translate into actual social concepts? The article “History, Society, and Institutions: The Role of Collective Memory in the Emergence and Evolution of Societal Logics” in the Academy of Management Review (2016) theorizes that archival documents have something to do with what emerges as widely accepted logic.

In their article, authors Ocasio, Mauskapf, and Steele define the various concepts, occurrences, documents, archives, and historical events, that lead to the formation of societal logics. Societal logics itself is defined by the authors as “historically constituted cultural structures generated through the collective memory of historical events.” Some of the more widely accepted societal logics are defined in the following categories: family, religion, the state, the market, professions, community, and corporation.

In this model, occurrences yield documents, some of which make it to archives, and historical events are where it all comes together. Historical events are created through the retrieval and interpretation of materials in the archives on a larger scale. What we archivists do in our classification, general handling, and other processing activities is create metanarratives. To Ocasio, Mauskapf, and Steele, these metanarratives are the foundation for the creation and normalization of societal logics. Metanarratives can create both common and conflicting stories or perspectives of historical events; again, historical events are the retrieval and analysis of materials in the archives.

In their larger hypothesis, the authors trace the beginnings and acceptance of institutions formed from historical events and societal logics. Some examples include business models and companies created during the Civil War, the transcontinental railroad’s effect on collective memory and corporate logic, and legal cases affecting the interpretation of law.

Sure, this is a great elevator speech – “my work affects societal logics” – but can we really look to historical practices in the archives to continue this hypothesized influence of archival processes in the creation of metanarratives, historical events, and societal logics? What do the effects of self-publishing and even the stronger influences of “the self” in 2018 societal logics have on archival resources human and otherwise? Are archivists really “in the game” now, or are there other professions with more agile processes who will maintain historical events?

Will strong, and sometimes conflicting metanarratives of movements like #metoo, #takeaknee, and #marchforourlives be sought as historical documents in archives? In Kenneth E. Foote’s 1990 article “To Remember and Forget” in The American Archivist similarly acknowledges the temporal and spatial bridges archives support in collective memory. In this same article though, Foote acknowledges radical historian Howard Zinn’s 1970 statement that archivists neglect collections outside mainstream society. Here we are as a Society of American Archivists, forty years later,  identifying non-mainstream collection-building as “radical” and “inclusive.” That is not to say that mainstream societal logics haven’t changed and grown as well.

Collective memory, as a concept of study, is multidisciplinary and wide-ranging.  In their article, “The Memory Remains: Understanding Collective Memory in the Digital Age” in Science Advances (2017), the authors observe that the Internet, and more broadly, digital technologies, has impacted the way in which occurrences are recorded and also the Internet’s impact on the way in which collective memory – and therefore societal logics in the longer term – can be observed and measured “at-scale.” Where do and when do archivists and archives meet information systems professionals and data scientists to be relevant in data-driven or digital societal logics?  How do such studies impact the theorization that societal logics are derived from metanarratives interpreted and analyzed by historical events in the archives? Perhaps there is a future in theory-building in archives for such interdisciplinary work on a larger scale.

I hope in this small attempt to take a peek outside of my day-to-day work, I have stumbled upon something worth investigating– the future of the sources of historical events and metanarratives. Does the professional archivist have a responsibility, as a matter of advocacy for the profession today, to contribute to the field of collective memory theory in the digital age of self-centric and wider spheres of societal logics categories?  I do believe relevant as a matter of issue and advocacy in the Society.

 

Sources:

Foote, Kenneth (1990). To Remember and Forget: Archives, Memory, and Culture. The American Archivist: Summer 1990, 53(3), 378-392.

García-Gavilanes, R., Mollgaard, A., Tsvetkova, M., & Yasseri, T. (2017). The Memory Remains: Understanding Collective Memory in the Digital Age. Science Advances, 3(4).

Ocasio, W., Mauskapf, M., & Steele, C. (2016). History, Society, and Institutions: The Role of Collective Memory in the Emergence and Evolution of Societal Logics. Academy of Management Review, 41(4), 676-699.

Archivists on the Issues: Access and Inclusion in the Reading Room

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from regular writer for I&A’s blog, Lindy Smith, Reference Archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives.

For my second in a series on Access and Accessibility in Archives, I will discuss physical access to collections and spaces. I did not want to cover physical accessibility since there was an SAA AMRT/RMRT Joint Working Group on Accessibility in Archives and Records Management that covered this in depth and has created excellent documentation for working with both patrons and professionals with disabilities.

My initial thoughts were unfocused, though I knew I wanted to touch on this idea of who is, and more importantly, feels welcome in our spaces. I have been thinking about this since last spring, when I attended a presentation on art education and museum outreach, and last summer, when I read Cecilia Caballero’s blog post, “Mothering While Brown in White Spaces, Or, When I Took My Son to Octavia Butler’s Exhibit.” My thoughts congealed into a more digestible mass in my brain after I attended a fabulous session at the Midwest Archives Conference annual meeting titled “Beyond Description: Toward Critical Praxis in Public Services,” featuring Anna Trammell, Cinda Nofziger, and Rachael Dreyer as panelists.

These three occurrences gave me a lot to think about regarding the people in our reading rooms and what we can do to increase access and inclusion to a wider range of patrons. I hope we as a profession can come up with solutions to improve access to our physical spaces.

Director Dialogue: In Conversation with Brian Kennedy

Last March I attended a public discussion between three art museum directors about how they approach art education at their respective institutions: Brian Kennedy, director of my local art museum, the Toledo Museum of Art; Gretchen Dietrich from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts; and Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum of California. Though I went looking for outreach ideas, I came out with many questions, which I summarized on my own [sadly neglected] personal blog shortly after the event.

The directors discussed how they conduct outreach to make their museums into community spaces, better anticipate user needs, and invite more of the people from their respective neighborhoods into their buildings. Libraries, especially public libraries, have served the role of community centers for decades and museums are now getting on board, but where does this leave archives among our GLAM counterparts?

Archival public spaces tend to be limited to utilitarian reading rooms and maybe exhibit space. What would it look like if we tried to build new kinds of spaces where people could interact with our collections in different ways? What if we focused on more than research needs and looked at other information needs we could fill? What if we built spaces that are comfortable and appealing to spend time in? What if people didn’t have to sit at an uncomfortable table in a silent, surveilled room to get access to our collections? I am sure some of you reading this are thinking, “We’re doing something like this!” I want to hear about it! Do you have a good model others can follow? Shout it from the rooftops (or @librarypaste on Twitter)!

Beyond Description: Toward Critical Praxis in Public Services

During the MAC session, Trammel, Nofziger, and Dreyer began by presenting the idea of taking a critical look not only at our collections and our profession, but also the public services our staffs provide, using Michelle Caswell’s instant classic “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy” as a basis to examine the barriers that keep some users from accessing archives. Caswell’s article provides a useful diagram to provoke thinking about ways white supremacy shows up in our work; the area on Access/Use is particularly relevant to this discussion, but it only scratches the surface.

The second part of the MAC session was an interactive activity where the room broke into groups and filled out a rubric that had a much longer list of types of barriers along with space to include a description of specific barriers to help guide the group discussions. The categories listed were as follows:

  • Technology (i.e. digital literacy)
  • Physical (i.e. vision or mobility challenges presented by public spaces)
  • Time (i.e. public hours, length of time required to conduct research, request and recall materials)
  • Financial (i.e. costs involved with accessing archives)
  • Documentation (i.e. registration requirements, identification required)
  • Policy (i.e. restrictions)
  • Identity (i.e. gender, sexuality, race)
  • Institutional/Systemic (i.e. whose interests & history are represented by holdings?)
  • Human Factor (i.e. customer service issues, approachability, etc.)

I found these categories to be excellent starting points to brainstorm.  For the sake of (comparative) brevity, I will not go into all of them here, but I want to talk through a few to give examples of how to use them as inspiration for brainstorming. Full disclosure: some of these came up or were inspired by my group’s discussion and did not spring fully formed from my own brain.

First example: Cost is a huge barrier. Obvious costs include memberships to private libraries and historical societies, photocopying or other reproduction services, or private researcher time, but hidden costs like parking, transportation, childcare, time off work, food and accommodations if researchers are coming from out of town are also present. It is great to collect materials from underrepresented communities, but if members of those communities cannot afford to come see and use materials from their own lives and experiences, we are still only serving people with the means to visit. To mitigate this, archives could provide research grants to members of the communities targeted in collection development projects. Institutions could also take their work directly to those communities, rather than continuing on relying on patrons to do all the work of coming to them.

A second barrier: Time. Many repositories have limited hours, often because of limited staffing or other concerns that are seemingly insurmountable, but we should take a closer look at ways to make ourselves more available outside “normal working hours” (or 9-12 and 1-4, or afternoons two days a week, etc.). People who work have to take time from jobs to visit, and if they have limited or no paid time off, this is a costly proposition, especially if their research needs require multiple visits. Archives can at least test extended or flexible hours as their circumstances allow. What if a repository closed on Wednesday afternoons in order to open Saturday afternoons instead? What if academic archives used students to stay open on weekends? My repository is somewhat unusual in that we have a circulating collection in addition to our special collections; so we have longer hours than most special collections – when school is in session, we’re open until 10pm five days a week and Saturdays and Sundays). We only have four full-time and one part-time staff in our department, so our terrific student employees keep things running on evenings and weekends. Sometimes staff members take an evening shift, but we flex that time and take it off during the week.

“Mothering While Brown in White Spaces, Or, When I Took My Son to Octavia Butler’s Exhibit”

I stumbled across Cecilia Cabellero’s post via Twitter last fall and it hit me hard. It is worth a read, because we can see some of these issues in action in a real person’s real life. Rather than try to rephrase her words with my own [white] words, take a minute to read her post and reflect on the issues she raises.

Cabellero mentions a specific library, but let’s be honest: this could be many of our repositories. She identifies it as being in a white space, as many archives and special collections are. Started by a wealthy white man for the use of other wealthy white men. A place where researchers need to have advanced degrees or letters of reference to access collections. Who is served by these policies? What is protected? For those of us with less stringent admission guidelines, what groups are we still keeping out? Do you require photo identification? Do you charge membership or usage fees? Many of our policies have good reasoning behind them and we are not likely to update them anytime soon. Are there better ways to communicate that to our users?

Cabellero was visiting an exhibit about Octavia Butler, a woman of color who wrote science fiction at a time when neither women nor people of color were particularly welcome in that genre (I am sure many would argue they still are not, but things have improved). Regardless of the library’s intentions, they created an environment in which a female writer of color did not feel comfortable or welcome or allowed to visit an exhibit with personal resonance.

One of Cabellero’s main points, as evidenced by the title, is her experience parenting in our spaces. This deserves some examination for archivists. Do you allow children in the reading room? If not, do parents who want to use your collections have other options? Childcare is expensive and may not always be available at convenient times. This disproportionately affects mothers, who often take on more childcare labor, especially during weekdays when archives tend to be open.

How often do we exclude as Caballero was excluded, or on similar but smaller scales? How often do our minor interactions with patrons leave them feeling unwelcome? I am sure I have unintentionally done this in my work. What kind of image do we project and how does that keep people away? How do we make archival spaces that are really for everyone?

It Take a Long Pull to Get There

I do not have nearly as many answers as questions, but let us have these discussions and attempt solutions that better serve all potential users. It won’t be quick or easy, but it will be worthwhile.

I’ll leave you with one final illustration. I studied musicology in graduate school and I often think back to a point that one of my professors, Dr. Gayle Sherwood Magee, made about the importance of representation and access, as illustrated by the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. A little background if you’re unfamiliar: it is very controversial because a group of privileged white men wrote about poor black characters so the script play into a lot of negative stereotypes: characters are beggars, drug dealers, abusive partners, etc. It gave African-American singers the opportunity to perform on Broadway, something that was still remarkable when Hamilton premiered with a diverse cast 80 years later, but none of the characters portrayed in the opera had access to be in the audience and watch their stories playing out on stage. Are we doing the same thing in archives by focusing our diversity efforts on our staffs and collections, and not the people coming into our reading rooms?

 

References

 

Archivists on the Issues: Welcome to the Séance, Voices from the Archives in Contemporary American Poetry, Part 3

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. In this last of three micro-essays, she shares another example of recent books of poetry that exemplify “ripped from the archives” writing, each in its own distinct way. The first is here, and the second is here

 

Nox

Anne Carson

New Directions, 2010

 

“When my brother died, I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book,” writes Carson as a caption to Nox (Latin for “night”), which is part artist’s book, part memory box. The physical book is constructed as a box that opens and contains accordion-like pages that could unfold and extend endlessly, it would seem, like a memory made physical, extending through time. Its construction is similar to a Hollinger box, with each fold representing reproduced pages of the author’s notebook of memories, written after her brother’s death in 2000. Similar to The Work-Shy, reading Nox is séance-like, but is an individualized exploration of private grief. The reader, in effect, is granted permission to riffle through Carson’s private papers and read her loss.

Carson, who is a classicist and poet, begins the book with an elegy in Latin by Catullus (poem 101) and throughout the work she defines each word of the poem with in-depth explorations of the words’ meanings, emphasizing a human urge to find meaning and connection when grieving. Carson has published many books throughout her career, including translations (If Not, Winter, 2004, translations of Sappho’s fragments), novels-in-verse (The Autobiography of Red, 1998, and Red Doc, 2008), and hybrid-form verse essays (Beauty of the Husband, 2001), as well as scholarship (Eros the Bittersweet, 1986). Her writing does not sit easily in any one category, just as an archives’ collections contain various kinds of record types and visual media. Nox is especially “archival” in its form and content, conveying that sometimes-spooky feeling an archivist can get while processing someone else’s personal papers and objects. Some pages of Nox display pasted fragments of letters, black and white photographs, and short memories surrounded by white space.

In an early section, 1.1, Carson writes: “History and elegy are akin. The word “history” comes from the ancient Greek verb…“to ask.” One who asks about things – their dimensions, weight, location, moods, names, holiness, smell – is an historian. It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion into a thing that carries itself.” In a way, this is what an archive is: a carrier of histories, questions, and answers; this early passage is also a fitting description for this book, which carries the story of Carson’s brother, their estrangement, his death, and her grief. Nox is a moving example of how personal papers can carry and convey universal emotion, whether they are one’s own or belong to a stranger.

Read excerpts here.

There are several other poets whose work could be added to this list, particularly Susan Howe, whose poems and visual artworks draw from archival sources and research, her numerous books include: Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, 2014; My Emily Dickinson, 1985; The Midnight, 2003; and, most recently, Debths, 2017. Her visual artworks, created from found texts, were included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

You can view Howe’s 2014 lecture at Harvard, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives.

It is clear that archives are not just the domain of historians and academics. Our collections hold evidence of human creativity and life of all kinds that can be a treasure chest for artists, writers, and readers. In my next post, later this year, I will continue this exploration by looking to the visual arts for examples of archival influence and the wide-reaching impact of archives on culture.

 

Cate Peebles is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art. She holds a BA in English from Reed College, an MFA in Poetry from the New School, and an MLIS with a concentration in Archives from the University of Pittsburgh. Her first collection of poetry, Thicket, will be published by Lost Roads Press in 2018; previous work has appeared in Boston Review, Tin House, jubilat, and elsewhere.

Archivists on the Issues: Welcome to the Séance, Voices from the Archives in Contemporary American Poetry, Part 2

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. In this second of three micro-essays, she shares another example of recent books of poetry that exemplify “ripped from the archives” writing, each in its own distinct way. The first is here

 

Voyage of the Sable Venus

Robin Coste Lewis

Alfred A. Knopf, 2015

 

Lewis’s book, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, confronts representation and description of the black female body throughout art history, showcasing a central, eponymous long poem that creates a narrative by listing “the titles, catalog entries, or exhibition descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present” (35). The author explains that none of the tiles have been broken or altered in any way, although she has reversed the re-classifications of historical naming conventions, including “slave, colored, and negro” to “African American” back to their originals. She writes, “I re-corrected the corrected horror in order to allow that original horror to stand”, and she also chose to include work by “black women curators and artists…” and “work by black queer artists of any gender” (35). The poem’s content is pulled directly from museum catalogs as direct commentary and revision of Western descriptive practices. Lewis’s poetry brings contradictory human emotions to what might be considered dry, didactic wall text.

The poem is visceral in its use of material language paired with descriptive titles that amplify historical violence as well as beauty, physicality and imposed aesthetic classifications. Behind the horror, or from it, Lewis shows us beauty and life. In “Catalog 1: Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome” she writes:

 

Statuette of a Woman Reduced

to the shape of a Flat Paddle

 

Statuette of a Black Slave Girl

Right Half of Body and Head Missing

 

Head of a Young Black Woman Fragment

from a Statuette of a Black Dancing Girl

 

Reverse Head of an African Princess

Statuette of a Concubine

(43)

 

This early section reads as a list whose repetitions build upon one another and accumulate ominously; even though the words describe marble and stone figurines, the language is at times similar to a police report and as the images build in the reader’s mind, a horrifying and mythical mass of disembodied heads is speaking. As the poem travels through time, its language shifts, and by the last section the staccato bluntness of the list’s diction transforms into a lyrical stream of blended voices and meditative, natural imagery:

 

What on earth have you done

to this coffee, Black Blossom?

 

Pour vous, Madame,

Paso doble as I am.

 

The Aftermath: underwater

window-shopping, Sunday

 

morning fireflies

on the water, blue shade–

 

Silence,

Poise. Prayer

(107-108)

 

As in The Work-Shy, Lewis’s writing revisits a system of oppression to claim its constraints and correct its erasures, revealing vibrant life and lives within those institutional depictions. Archives, libraries and museums are not neutral spaces, we know, and it is often through art and poetry that we can confront difficult pasts with empathy.

 

Cate Peebles is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art. She holds a BA in English from Reed College, an MFA in Poetry from the New School, and an MLIS with a concentration in Archives from the University of Pittsburgh. Her first collection of poetry, Thicket, will be published by Lost Roads Press in 2018; previous work has appeared in Boston Review, Tin House, jubilat, and elsewhere.

Archivists on the Issues: Welcome to the Séance, Voices from the Archives in Contemporary American Poetry

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. 

In my last post, I focused on the prevalence of archival source material in popular recent true crime docuseries, including The Keepers, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer, and the active role of records as essential narrative components and aesthetic representations of the criminal justice system’s silences and revelations. Under the guise of entertainment, these often sensational tales offer mainstream audiences a glimpse of archives and records in action, with little to no mention of professional archivists. This inquiry has prompted the question: where else in cultural and artistic practice are archives and records used as both resource and aesthetic medium?

The image of historians and genealogists spending long afternoons in the reading room is a familiar one—backs hunched over a table as they leaf through finding aids and folders, culling primary source materials to investigate, reconstruct, and re-present personal and cultural histories. However, this is not the only outcome time spent in the archives. What about less familiar modes of archival research and representation of primary sources? In honor of April, National Poetry Month (and also the cruelest!), this post will blast through literary tradition, history, and trends to take a look at three recent books of poetry that repossess archival source material and reanimate it as lyric lines in a manner that is no less impactful than a biographer’s refined synthesis of research materials.

Since the early twentieth-century (think: Marcel Duchamp and other Surrealists), and more so since the rise of conceptual and institutional critique art in the 1960s, documents, archival practice, and research have become valid and popular mediums for artistic works. In conjunction with these movements, some contemporary literary artists, particularly poets, have adopted a mode of writing that places archival sources at the center of their work. The work is often labeled “experimental” for lack of a better nutshell in which to encapsulate this genre-fluid kind of writing. In some instances, and with certain writers in particular, the mode is referred to as “Documentary Poetry” and “Poetry of Witness”, which document a particular moment, event, or cultural movement through the use of primary sources, photographs, video, and testimonial accounts. [i]

Archival collections are often fragmentary by nature and structurally lend themselves well to the production of evocative, lyrical, and time-bending poems. Since the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1923), which includes frenetic splicing of sources, “borrowed” fragments, and telltale inclusion of an extensive “Notes” section, many poets have been attracted to this fragmentary, academic style that highlights interaction with the past and places seemingly unrelated references, quotations, and text side by side, reverberating so to speak, to create new associative leaps through sound and image in the reader’s mind; the word “medium” springs to mind—pun intended.

Similar devices are used by other Modernist and Surrealist writers, including Andre Breton, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf.  The incorporation of found language and images has become a powerful technique of giving voice to the previously silenced; it is a kind of time travel via linguistic stitching of the past into our present moment. As in archival work, voices from the past are brought into the present.

In the following three micro-essays – one below and two posted separately later this week – I share but three examples of recent books of poetry that exemplify this mode of “ripped from the archives” writing, each in its own distinct way.

[i] See: C.D. Wright’s One Big Self, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Carolyn Forché’s Angel of History, and Tyehimba Jess’ Olio. The common impulse in this mode is one of social activism and revising cultural erasures.

 

 

The Work-Shy

Blunt Research Group

Wesleyan University Press, 2016

 

Published anonymously under the collective authorship of the Blunt Research Group, a collective of writers, scholars, and artists, the book begins with a brief, expository essay: “The following poems operate under a strict constraint: they are composed entirely of phrases drawn from the case files of inmates in the earliest youth prisons in California between 1910 and 1925…The histories contained in these files were gathered and archived by the now defunct Eugenics Records Office” as well as testimonies from the “chronically insane” collected by the Prinzhorn Collection in Germany and the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in New York.

What follows in the book’s first section are the voices of predominately African American and Chicano youths, aged 12-17, many of whom were subjected to psychological and physical experimentation. Experiments which, a decade or two later, influenced the eugenics practices at Nazi concentration camps.  Many of the book’s poems are named for the ward, whose words are italicized and spliced with the words of the “fieldworkers” who studied them. (The lineation is difficult to replicate here, sadly.)

Jose

Joe possesses

all the bad characteristics of all the boys

was heard to say

this is the last time

        I’m coming in here

twice accused of murder twice acquitted

made a fool of himself

too much already

he wanted us to keep on goin’ with the bottle

            at age 14 went out

to work in the fruit

(27)

The Work-Shy weaves together many voices, from multiple geographic and temporal locations, to build a chorus of the unheard and forgotten. The book calls out past wrongs that were once ignored by society at large and brings the reader face to face with the present, prompting us to take a closer look at the institutional systems of oppression that surround us yet.