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.

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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.

 

 

Archivists on the Issues: REFLECTIONS ON GENDER AND HOSPITAL ARCHIVES

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from François Dansereau, Archivist at the McGill University Health Centre, in Montreal, Quebec.

Postmodern archivists have learned the value of diplomatics and provenance in order to contextualize records, to assess the hierarchical organization between units and offices, and to determine their impact on archival practices. Moreover, studies have emphasized the power associated with the control of information and the means of record creation. Michel Rolf-Trouillot expressed this idea brilliantly, writing that “the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production.”[1] The eminent archivist Verne Harris has also demonstrated the extent of information control in his studies of South Africa’s apartheid regime.[2] Other authors have explored the power of photographs in the mapping of territories, to imagine a landscape, and in connection with the elaboration of national identity.[3]

Traditional archival institutions are currently being challenged on issues related to archival literacy in the digital world, and by the emergence and growing importance of community archives and participatory archives that seek to address social justice. These concerns and endeavors are crucial and resonate on how we think about institutional impacts on the creation of records, and how we give access to them. These institutions, and recent studies, allow us to think about the constantly evolving interpretations of historical records, the importance of reading “records against the grain,”[4] in all sectors, and the need to study the “sociohistorical context” of provenance.[5]

It is with these themes in mind that I propose to challenge interpretations of the hospital records of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), in Montreal, Quebec, and attempt to gather as much information as possible on the context of the production of these records, the preservation of documents, and the dissemination of historical traces of MUHC hospitals.

From this starting point, I began to think about archival theory and hospital record-creation and record-keeping practices. What type of records did North American modern hospitals produce when they established their organizational functioning in the late-19th century? With what kind of care and organization were archival records managed? Were official documents and photographs circulated internally and externally? What purposes did the production of official documents achieve? All of these factors, I argue, influenced how doctors, nurses, founders, and volunteers were represented in hospital photographic records of the late-19th- and early-20th-century.

In a forthcoming article, I explore these themes and look at hospital record-creation and record-keeping frameworks – or rather, the absence of standardized archival policies and procedures. My main argument around interpretation of hospital records rests on the larger picture of hospital organizational structure. Organizations, nation-states, corporations, and others instill a particular identity in the records they produce, based on conscious decision-making processes. Large-scale institutions, such as hospitals, are no different. Traditionally, institutional archives naturally reflect the particular identity of their larger institution. After all, it seems evident that archives should be aligned with their parent organization’s identity. Historical records allow institutions to construct and maintain their collective memory, but power dynamics are reflected in the records institutions create and disseminate, and that is what I intend to examine.

Hospitals of the late-19th century needed to forge their own medical and administrative structures. In addition to responding to hospital growth and increased access, they needed not only to establish their way of functioning, but to manage the arrival of dozens and eventually hundreds of women into the public sphere. I ask, what is the impact of the delineations of professional boundaries between health care workers on the identity of hospitals? More precisely, how do these elements affect the production and dissemination of institutional records? I am interested in how these aspects are translated in the depiction of health care workers, founders, and volunteers in institutional documents. What immediately struck me in my research were the social and cultural indicators permeating hospital records.

The content and context of historical records, I suggest, play a role in how archivists should approach past archival practices and how contemporary postmodern archivists can assess their current activities and professional development. I argue that hospitals’ historical power structures and record-keeping practices have an impact on the present management of historical records and archival practices. I believe it is crucial for postmodern archivists to contextualize the origins of their institutional structures in order to grasp what shaped and continues to shape the production of institutional records.

My research proposes to use a gender analytical framework, including the growing importance of the theme of masculinity in social studies, in order to contextualize hospitals’ historical traces and archival practices. The subject of gender and archives needs, I think, to be studied more extensively. A gender analytical framework for the study of traditional large-scale institutions, and their records, allows past archival practices to be put in perspective and can help present and future archivists in how they approach, give access, disseminate, and study archival documents.

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1995), xix.

[2] Verne Harris, “The Archival Silver: Power, Memory, and Archives in South Africa,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 63–86; Verne Harris, Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006).

[3] See, for example, Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, ed. Joan M. Shwartz and James R. Ryan, (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co., 2003).

[4] Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[5] Jennifer Douglas, “Origins: Evolving Ideas about the Principle of Provenance,” in Currents of Archival Thinking, 2nd ed., ed. Heather MacNeil and Terry Eastwood (Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2010), 23–43.

Archivists on the Issues: Making Archives Visible Through Maps

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post is by Eira Tansey, Digital Archivist and Records Manager at the University of Cincinnati.

This post is about the Repository Data project, an SAA Foundation grant funded project to assemble a comprehensive data set of US archival repositories. The research team consists of Ben Goldman (Penn State University), Eira Tansey (University of Cincinnati), and Whitney Ray (UNC-Chapel Hill). By contacting over 145 archival organizations, they have received data on thousands of archival repositories across the United States. They are still processing the data, but it will eventually be made accessible to the public. Read on!

As we previously noted, the only existing open data set for archival repositories – OCLC’s ArchiveGrid – lacks representation of many small archives, historical societies, and other nebulously-defined archives. As many of you know, inclusion in ArchiveGrid is primarily driven by having various descriptive data (MARC records, EAD finding aids, etc) online and crawlable to OCLC. This means that repositories with professional archivists on staff and the resources to make archival description available online are over-represented in the ArchiveGrid data set. In reality, there are many archives that don’t fit this description, and are therefore literally invisible to much of the profession.

This has been frustrating to us as we pursue our work on archival vulnerability to climate change. The institutions that are most at risk for sea-level rise and climate change influenced disasters are also the least likely to have professional staff and sufficient resources to sustain archival collections even in “normal” times – let alone during an emergency. And yet, these are the archives that weren’t visible in our first pass at mappingrepository vulnerability to climate change.

But now we’d like to show you the dramatic way in which our research project has uncovered how many archives exist – even if they aren’t putting their finding aids online.

This is the “Before” map, reflecting OCLC’s data – according to ArchiveGrid as of 2016, there are approximately 44 repositories in the state of Ohio:

ArchiveGrid_2016_BEFORE_OhioData
Map by Eira Tansey

Although this data is not yet final, this is our beta data set for Ohio – i.e., our “After” map. You can see a dramatic difference in how many more archives have been revealed thanks to our efforts (and especially that of Whitney, our fantastic research assistant, who has done the heavy lifting in reaching out to archival organizations to compile and clean data). According to our preliminary* data, there are well over 500 repositories in the state of Ohio.

RepoData_2018_AFTER_OhioData
Map by Eira Tansey

I want to highlight that constructing archives as those repositories that participate in networked archival descriptive infrastructure tends to erase the visibility of small archives, especially those outside of major population centers. Let’s use southeastern Ohio – aka Appalachia – as an example.

The light-green counties are those that are part of the federally-defined Appalachian Regional Commission’s jurisdiction. (Clearly there are cultural constructions of Appalachia that do not fit in with these county delineations, but those aren’t as easy to find as open GIS data!)

In the “before” map, only 3 archives exist in Ohio’s Appalachian counties, and they are all associated with higher education: Marietta College, Youngstown State, and Ohio University.

ArchiveGrid_2016_BEFORE_ARCcounties_OhioData
Map by Eira Tansey

But in the after map, we see that there are roughly 100 (100!!!!!!!!!!) archives in Ohio’s Appalachian counties. Why the massive difference? Because our efforts to get as much data from local, regional and state archival organizations means we have pulled in dozens of small historical societies, public libraries, and museums.

RepoData_2018_AFTER_ARCcounties_OhioData
Map by Eira Tansey

We haven’t done before and after comparisons yet with other states, but I anticipate they would look very similar to what we’ve seen with Ohio. Building the first comprehensive data set of US repositories is no small task, but we think the preliminary results speak for the importance of our work.

*We say preliminary because we still have some cleaning and minor de-duplication tasks left with our data.

Archivists on the Issues: Digital Accessibility in the Archives

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, Lindy Smith, Reference Archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives.

Archivists spend a lot of time discussing, working on, and agonizing over outreach. We want people to know we exist and are doing the important work of providing access to documents, objects, and files that tell the stories of history. But once we meet that elusive goal of getting people to interact with us, what are we doing to make sure that experience is open to all potential users equally? By focusing on getting people in the door or clicking like, we may overlook the different abilities, experiences, and expectations our patrons bring to these interactions.

In this first of three posts, I will discuss improving digital access. I’m not an expert in this area, but I take accessibility very seriously and am working to educate myself and improve. My library has recently formed a task force to examine all our digital properties; being involved in that work has been a great learning experience. I’ve only scratched the surface in the great literature out there. I encourage you to do your own research and start making small changes locally. They can make a huge difference for users as well as increase potential audiences. We may have a tendency to think primarily of issues facing computer users with visual impairments, but the A11y Project reminds us that there are four categories to consider in making content accessible: visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive.

Existing standards can help prioritize changes. First is Section 508, a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. If you work for the federal government, you’re probably familiar with this as it’s required for all federal agencies to meet these requirements. Some state and government institutions also require that employees meet these standards when creating web content. The other major standard is Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a body that sets global standards for web content. Section 508 was updated earlier this year to better address new technology, WCAG 2.0, and other global standards.

Websites

Your collection’s website can be a great place to start since websites are a relatively finite and static collection of pages. Many of the principles applied to your website can be carried over into other digital content.

If your archives is part of a larger institution, your local IT and accessibility services departments can be great allies in making these improvements and they may be able to provide additional information and training based on local infrastructure. Chances are they’ll be delighted to help you be proactive in setting up good, accessible websites rather than reactively making changes when someone makes a complaint.  If you’re a lone arranger or working in a small archives, you can find lots of helpful information online and there may also be local resources in your community that you can take advantage of.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are tools like Siteimprove or WebAIM’s WAVE that can help you identify potential accessibility issues on web pages. They scan pages for situations that look like they might cause problems for your users so you can review them and make fixes as necessary.

Additional Resources

Social Media

Most of us use social media accounts for outreach and it is often the first point of contact, so content should be available to anyone who is interested. Social media also is often very current, so you can add in accessible options going forward without having to go back and fix past posts.

Each platform approaches accessibility differently and offers different tools. Take time to explore the options available and decide what makes sense for your content. If you never post videos, for example, you don’t need to worry about captions. If you post photos of documents, find out how to add alt text. Make sure your blog posts conform to best practices for general web content.

The following are links to accessibility information for some popular platforms:

You’ll notice some glaring omissions in the list above. Not all platforms offer good accessibility options or documentation, which is important to keep in mind when deciding which services to use for your archives. Broader guidelines and tips are in the additional resources directly below.

Additional Resources

Finding Aids

Many archives have collection descriptions online. This makes collections much more easily findable online and is a laudable goal, but the description also should be accessible to researchers who rely on assistive technologies like screen readers to navigate the virtual world. Finding aids can be tricky because they use a variety of formats and platforms: simple PDFs embedded in websites, HTML or EAD documents posted with style sheets, open source or proprietary software templates. Each presents opportunities and challenges.

In a 2013 study, Kristina L. Southwell and Jacquelyn Slater tested the accessibility of randomly selected online finding aids from ARL member libraries. The formats varied, but overall almost every finding aid had at least a few accessibility errors. Southwell and Slater’s article is highly recommended reading, as it offers specific examples of issues and the problems they cause for users. Perhaps things have improved in the five years since this study was published, but likely there are still many finding aids that inaccessible out there.

If you’re curious, do some research on the platform that your archives is using and look for documentation on their accessibility efforts or test your finding aids the way you would other web pages. You can search for a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), which resources marketed to libraries and archives may provide, to help you make your assessment.

Additional Resources
  • Southwell, Kristina L. & Slater, Jacquelyn (2013). An Evaluation of Finding Aid Accessibility for Screen Readers. Information Technology and Libraries, 32(3), 34-46.  https://doi.org/10.6017/ital.v32i3.3423

Digital Collections and Exhibits

Digital collections and online exhibits have a lot in common with other websites, but they also have unique issues. They have a higher concentration of images, digitized documents, and A/V files, which can require more mediation to be fully accessible. These items should have, respectively, detailed descriptions, searchable transcripts or OCR-created text, and captions or transcripts. In addition to digital objects, also consider the accessibility of the metadata that describes the objects and the platform that pulls it all together. As with social media platforms and collection management tools, take the time to research the accessibility documentation available from the platform you use for sharing your digital collections.

Tammy Stitz and Shelly Blundell developed a helpful rubric to help assess the accessibility of your digital collections. They draw on various standards, including Section 508 and WCAG 2.0, to help you make high impact changes. For example, audio content would ideally have sign language interpretation and synchronized captions, but if you’re only able to manage a transcript, that’s acceptable.

Additional Resources

Email Reference

Writing this post, I started with a list of all the ways that we digitally interact with our users; email correspondence was the only option that I had not previously considered accessibility. And why not? It’s the most personal, and accessibility should be just as much of a concern there as anywhere. Basic email text can be approached largely like any web content. I recommend knowing enough about your email client and its necessary features. Both Outlook and Gmail, two major email providers, have websites that offer assistance to make email accessible.

In addition to email’s text, think about what your links and attachments to those emails. When you share digitized content with your patrons via email, is it accessible? I have to confess, this isn’t something I had previously taken into consideration, but it’s worth a few small steps to try to increase accessibility. Even running quick OCR on PDFs or including brief descriptions of requested images is helpful.

If you have a good solution for this or are taking similar measures in your own work, I’d be interested to hear about it.

Additional Resources

Challenge: Make One Change

Many commonly discussed accessibility issues are focused on improving user experience using assistive technologies. This can seem abstract, so I encourage you to try it out. One commonly used assistive technology is a screen reader; your computer likely has one pre-installed (VoiceOver for Mac, Narrator for PC). If not, a variety of free programs and YouTube videos demonstrate how to use a screen reader. Turn it on and try it on some of your web content. You’ll soon understand why meeting accessibility criteria is so important. As an added bonus, many changes that improve accessibility also improve all users’ experience and can improve sites’ search engine optimization (SEO) as well. Everyone benefits from accessible websites!

Some problems may be difficult to fix or completely out of your control, but if you start by making a few simple but high impact changes, you can make a big difference for users. Create new workflows with accessibility in mind so it becomes an integral part of what you’re doing, instead of an afterthought. Develop good habits going forward and clean up previous work as you go. Be proactive in policies, instead of reactive. Add accessibility features to your list of criteria for new tools.

My challenge to all of you is to choose one thing, large or small, that will improve user accessibility this week. Maybe you sign up for web accessibility training locally, or start adding alt text to new blog images, or set up a department meeting to brainstorm a plan to improve your finding aids’ accessibility. Every little bit helps and makes it easier for larger audiences to access your content.

Archivists on the Issues: Reflections on Privilege in the Archives

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.

In Fall 2016, Michelle Caswell’s “Archives, Records, and Memory” class at the UCLA Graduate School of Information Studies collectively created the content for the poster “Identifying & Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives”(Caswell, Brilmyer, 2016).  The poster lists five areas to identify and take corrective action towards disassembling the power-structure of white supremacy.  The sections of the poster, identified as an “Incomplete List of White Privileges in Archives and Action Items for Dismantling Them” include appraisal, description, access/use, professional life, and education.  Each section lists privilege and possible actions to create a counteraction.  As an example, in the description section, one privilege is listed as “materials are described using my native language” and actions to counter this as a privilege are “Hire multilingual people as archivists and translators and translate finding aids into appropriate languages” and “Encourage, value, and give credit for language courses in MLIS programs and as continuing education” (Caswell, 2016).  In a related article, “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,Caswell reflects on her experiences and consequential action to bring the conversation into her class as teaching faculty in a national political climate in which her colleagues and students expressed to her fear and anxiety about their rights as residents of the United States (Caswell, 2017).

Though the poster may have come out of a class exercise, it exudes a sense of professional activism.  It provides rules to live by, goals in daily archival work and easily accessible and relevant issues in archival work.  My own professional experiences have made me stop and reflect on the privileges from which I have benefited.

I am a project archivist at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), where the student population is less than 10% white; the largest populations are Latinx (69%) and Black (14%) per CSUDH Institutional Research, 2016.  The campus also has a large population of undocumented students, also known as “Dreamers.”  At the time of my arrival in Spring 2017, the campus Dreamer Success Center provided ally workshops, informational talks about the challenges of being an undocumented student, and discussions about the threatening nature of the United States’ current political climate.

In an admittedly naive attempt to create a professional space for allyship, I began to investigate the possibility of implementing an oral history project for Dreamers’ narratives, to be accessioned into the University Archives, unaware that this posed a potential risk not to myself but to contributors.  After some initial research and conversations with collaborators, and after wrestling with the responsibilities and possible consequences, I was directed by a concerned party to locate news about a Boston College Irish Republican Army (IRA) oral history collection and the 2016 government-ordered release of restricted content recorded in 2001.

Today, I reflect on my role as an archivist of color at a public university, how I found fear in my position, and the real implications of this particular attempt at inclusivity in the archives without a clear sense of action and acumen in the profession.  The fear I felt was the ease with which the information could be abused, as was the case with the aforementioned IRA oral history collection.

Previously, I experienced this same fear at a community-based private non-profit cultural archive.  In this instance, the emotion was based in possible consequences of increased access and deviation from a “normative narrative” of heroism and reverence.  There were potential tangible consequences to the fiscal health of the organization per se if increased access to content were viewed as the “airing the dirty laundry.”

These two experiences led me to cautious action moving towards inclusivity.  Why?  Chris Taylor’s article (2017), “Getting our House in Order: Moving from Diversity to Inclusion” creates a conversation on the impact of our training, our worldviews and experiences, and how our personal worldview is projected in our professional work (p. 23).  My own professional training and education is far from adequate to effectively maneuver in this conversation that is not yet rooted in any wide-scale and sustained conversations or representation by any governing organization or collective in the field of archives. In both of the aforementioned cases, I recognize a gnawing inadequacy of my professional-self.

With a movement towards dismantling supremacy in archives, there will be challenges and fear of change, and hesitation of being seen as a change-maker.  What is the professional and personal impact of these actions?  How does one engage with the political implications of disrupting an architecture, and what tools can I equip myself with that will diminish negative professional self-doubt, fear of consequences of change, and foster empowerment.  How do we complete the list of white privilege and structural oppression?  What can be built in its place and what authority does such new inclusive structure have?  Will/can archivists dismantle white supremacy in the archives alone, and should we do so, alone?

Archivists, contributors, users, are faced with personal and professional risks and consequences in an emotionally and politically charged topic that systematically misrepresented, and excluded communities of color.  My sense of fear is based in real daily experiences, not as case-studies or theoretical conversation.  Perhaps others feel fear, confusion, hesitation, exhaustion and other emotions that can deflate professional duty, and create a roadblock for future attempts to build a truly inclusive archive.

Sources

 

Hiding in Plain Sight: Archives and Popular Culture

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, 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. 

Lately there have been rumblings on the internet regarding the deadness and/or dying of the library and archival professions, which is nothing new, but it strikes me as a particularly myopic death knell considering the omnipresence of records-related headlines (emails, JFK, cyber-attacks, etc…) and the ongoing relevance of archival work, both traditional and digital. The professions are changing, as the nature of information creation and sharing changes, but our work and ideals remain crucial to a society that values the open exchange of ideas.

Since beginning my career as an archivist in 2015, I have developed a heightened awareness of the proliferation of archives, “the archive,” and archival documents represented in popular culture. I can’t binge watch my way through the latest Netflix series without at least once hitting an imaginary buzzer on the couch and yelling “Archives!” to anyone (or no one) who happens to be next to me. But at the same time, there is also something—or someone—missing in these moments of recognition: the archivist. Where are we in the popular imagination? The results of our work are everywhere, yet representations of actual archivists are few and far between. Of course, it is traditional in our profession to be behind the scenes and to leave no trace once we have “shuffle[d] the damn papers” (O’Toole, 1993).

This has led me to wonder about the role of the archivist in society, how we are seen or ignored, and how our work is vital to so many creative pursuits beyond the expected use of archival sources by historians. Archival materials are used by poets, visual artists, and filmmakers to deepen their work and as “the narrative marrow and aesthetic backbone” (Paletz, 2013) of their pieces.  In this post, I will explore one popular genre that notably relies on archives: the true crime documentary.

Beginning with Errol Morris’s seminal film, The Thin Blue Line (1987), modern true crime documentaries place records in a starring role alongside interviewees; these records are narratively and aesthetically significant.  In the last couple of years, such films have been everywhere: Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Serial (podcast), OJ; Made in America, and The Keepers, to name a few, and new titles continue to appear (such as Morris’s new film Wormwood).  

This notable trend builds upon a literary genre that has been popular for centuries—the crime serial—and modernizes it with an emphasis on theatrical legal drama (Silbey, 2010), records, and recordkeeping. The visual power of records is matched by their power to effect real change in the lives of the films’ subjects. In the case of Morris’s subject Randall Dale Adams in The Thin Blue Line, his exoneration came about as a result of the film; we see this happening again with The Jinx, the Paradise Lost trilogy, and the podcast Serial, which establishes a strong link between filmmakers’ use of archival resources and criminal justice causes that result in activism.

And with the proliferation of sources available online and in various media, filmmakers have access to materials beyond newsreels and photographs. Taking center screen in many of these true crime films are: home movies, cell phone records, police documents, interview transcripts, handwriting samples, and police interviews with suspects (custodial interviews).

In film, as in other visual media, records carry symbolic weight (O’Toole, 1993). In each of the docu-series discussed here, records constitute much of what is seen on screen. Having “gained independence from its conventional role as historical wallpaper” (Paletz, 2013), archival footage, and footage of archival materials, now drives the action.

Unlike the traditional guts and gore we have come to expect from crime stories, records convey a familiar, quotidian side of human logic that contrasts the inherent sensationalism of the genre. Records, representing truth, drive visual narrative and on-screen action; they also provide the viewer with access to potential answers and a satisfying resolution.

 

Examples of archives in pop culture includes:

The Jinx (HBO, directed by Andrew Jarecki, 2015)

Estranged real estate heir, Robert Durst, is the central figure in three murder cases: his wife, his neighbor, and his best friend, Susan Berman. His story is bizarre and ongoing. Oddly, it was Durst himself who approached Jarecki and offered access to his personal papers (3). Each episode presents records used to further the story in a variety of ways: 

  • Reenactments based on crime scene photos
  • Handwriting samples
  • Highlighted interview transcripts
  • Newspapers, crime photos, tabloids.

The crux of this series, and the subsequent re-arrest of Robert Durst, lies in the unearthing of a handwritten note from Durst to victim Susan Berman found in the personal papers kept by her stepson, Sareb Kaufman. Kaufman serves as a kind of amateur “citizen archivist” or keeper of records that link Durst to the murder of Susan Berman.

The Jinx, which is full of interviews and oral history interviews, is itself a new record of the crimes it represents, documenting the relationship between filmmaker and subject along with the subject’s continued role as suspect. The film is a well-constructed result of careful research and Jarecki credits many archival sources at the end of each episode.

Making a Murderer (Netflix, directed by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, 2015)

Created over 10 years, this series explores the life and trials of Steven Avery, a man convicted of murder and exonerated after 18 years in prison in 2003, only to be arrested and convicted of murder again in 2007. Many questions arise regarding the Wisconsin criminal justice system and local police department’s handling of Avery’s case(s) and that of his nephew, Brendan Dassey. The film’s focus on the legal system and court room activity also highlights the importance of evidentiary records over time and the need for adequate stewardship of legal and public records.

Pivotal use of records in the series includes:

  • Possible evidence tampering, case files and police evidence
  • Cell phone metadata
  • Police interviews and custodial interrogations
  • Court and police dept. documents

The filmmakers use of documents and police footage led to the overturned conviction of Brendan Dassey after his pre-arrest police interviews were found to show a coerced confession (Almasy, 2016). Like The Jinx, this series is a compilation of many years’ research and is itself documentation of Wisconsin’s criminal justice system and the Avery family.

The Keepers (Netflix, directed by Ryan White, 2017)

These clues to what [the past] was linger on in a place like this attic. These objects hold energy…Tom Nugent, Journalist, “The Keepers”

This is a series as much about memory as it is about solving a long-cold case. As the title suggests, its protagonists are keepers of memory, truth-seekers and literal stewards, collecting stories related to the murder of their teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik. They also investigate the role of the Diocese of Baltimore in covering up sexual abuse at area schools.

The Keepers taps into what it means to steward ephemeral fragments of a larger story, delving into the psychology of memory, abuse survival, and the emotional work of recordkeeping.

Led by a team of citizen researcher-archivists and advocates, the women at the center of this series “went into this collecting information…every bit of scrap…every story” seeking answers where the absence of records leaves an endless trail of questions.  

 

Film invigorates archival records, inviting new eyes and reinterpretation. Records participate in the narratives and underpin the criminal justice causes and retrials instigated by these series.

These documentaries highlight records as active participants in ongoing investigations rather than mere static referents—but they do not rise magically from nowhere. Archival records, both analog and digital, require ongoing stewardship and preservation if they are to remain accessible to creators and researchers. We see stacks of papers and boxes pulled from shelves, but actual archives and archivists are often absent. There is no “popular” image of an archivist and yet we are more present than ever, however unseen we may be. Without records and their keepers, there are no stories to tell.

Other Viewing and Listening
  • The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1988)
  • Serial (Koenig, 2014- )
  • Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, 2003)
  • OJ: Made in America (Edelman, 2016)
  • Paradise Lost Trilogy (Berlinger and Sinofsky, 1996-2011)

 

References

Almasy, Steve. ‘Making a Murderer’: Brendan Dassey conviction overturned. CNN.com, August 12, 2016.

Bagli, Charles V.; Yee, Vivian. On HBO’s ‘The Jinx’ Robert Durst Says He ‘Killed them all’. The New York Times, March 15, 2015.

O’Toole, James. The Symbolic Significance of Archives. The American Archivist, 1993. 234-255 

Palatz, Gabriel, “The Archives in Contemporary Documentary,” POV 83 (Fall 2011), available at http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/the-archive-in-contemporary-documentary

Silbey, Jessica M., Evidence Verité and the Law of Film (April 24, 2010). Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 1257-1299, 2010; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 10-23