Archivist on the Issues: The Best of Both Worlds, Combining physical & digital primary source education

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Adriana Flores, Assistant Archivist for Acquisitions at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.


If you have been keeping up on current trends in the archival profession, then you have heard about teaching with primary sources. The topic has had a distinct presence at the past few annual meetings, particularly the Reference, Access, and Outreach section’s full-day unconference, “Teaching With Primary Sources,” happening for the third time in Portland. However, another trend has also sparked my interest: creating education programs that utilize digitized archival materials. These programs offer access to primary sources in a whole new way and force archival educators to re-imagine the ways we’ve taught archival intelligence in the past. Clearly, teaching with primary sources is a vast subject with many approaches.

As an early professional, I am torn over how best to bring materials to college students. Should students be brought into the reading room to handle our rare and exciting materials themselves or should our items be scanned so students can access them from the comfort of their laptop? Or should students be exposed to both? To explore this issue further, I reviewed current literature on primary source education that highlight projects involving both physical and digital primary sources.

First, a quick overview of teaching with primary sources. Many archivists are not professionally trained educators so new publications, webinars, and other tools are vital to the transition from custodian to educator. Professors often enjoy incorporating primary sources into their classes because it gives their students an opportunity to engage with their lessons in a new and exciting way. In Teaching With Primary Sources, authors Elizabeth Yakel and Doris Malkmus write:

Textbooks and lectures present information in an authoritative voice, striving for clarity and concision, but research shows that students learn best when they experience cognitive dissonance and must struggle to make sense of new information by integrating it into an existing framework or building one around. (p. 35)

When engaged with primary sources, students are forced to think beyond the pre-packaged information often found in textbooks or articles. This method of teaching presents numerous opportunities for archival repositories to become more involved in course curriculum on campus.

When teaching with primary sources, the first approach that archivists can employ is straight-forward: bring students into archives. By allowing students to see archival materials first-hand, to touch them, to even smell them, understanding of the item can completely change. Physical materials often spark an interest in history by making an event or idea seem more tangible. Additionally, by being in an archival repository, students are able to learn more about how archives work and how to do research, also known as archival intelligence. As described in “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise”:

Archival intelligence is a researcher’s knowledge of archival principles, practices, and institutions, such as the reasons underlying archival rules and procedures, how to develop search strategies to explore research questions, and an understanding of the relationship between primary sources and their surrogates. (p. 52)

By bringing college students into the archival repository and showing them primary sources, the archivist is able to impart archival intelligence, which will hopefully impact their future research skills. Overall, working with physical archival materials can make a lasting impact on students, which is both exciting and rewarding for archival educators.

Another approach to teaching with primary sources involves digital surrogates, which can be used to create online collections or exhibits, and expose a wider audience to archival materials. These platforms oftentimes make students feel more comfortable with the process of using primary sources; students can access documents from the comfort of their laptops without the limitations of reading room hours. Additionally, these methods can be great for distance or online-only students who are unable to visit campus. Digital projects will only become more prominent in our profession and it is worth investing the time to learn how to implement them.

It seems that the best way to expose students to primary sources is through a combination of physical and digital methods. By doing so, instructors are able to broaden their students’ research skill-sets and foster comfort and confidence with both in-person and online research. Yakel and Malkmus write:

While online sources are increasingly being used as substitutes for physical documents, both educators and archivists have also used online and physical records in a complementary sense. Instructors may introduce documents online to familiarize students with the sources and then bring students into the archives to focus on some of the material aspects of the items. Likewise, archivists may begin by introducing students to the actual records and then have them finish assignments using online collections…In the end, the important thing for both primary source and archival literacy is that students understand the advantages and disadvantages of using only actual, only online, or both types of primary sources. (p. 44)

By using primary sources in multiple formats, students are able to gain complementary research skills that will help them throughout their college career and beyond.

Lastly, working with both physical and digitized primary source materials presents one more exciting opportunity: digital humanities projects. At Nebraska University, archivists worked with faculty to create a series of classes that explored the relationship between physical and digital primary sources. Their goal for their students was to “…personally work with collections and learn more about the benefits of archival research through use of the materials in potentially compelling interpretative projects, and the online world would be able to discover our collections digitally” (Brink et al, p. 163). Digital humanities projects hold a great deal of potential for what primary source education can look like in the future; these projects are creative, collaborative, and constantly evolving. If you are struggling for a way to connect with humanities professors on campus, this is a great place to start.

Teaching with primary sources cannot be ignored by college and university archivists. Both physical and digital sources have their benefits and disadvantages while teaching, but I believe an education program is strongest when they are combined. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend SAA’s Teaching With Primary Sources, ACRL’s Past or Portal: Enhancing Undergraduate Learning through Special Collections and Archives, as well as attending RAO’s unconference. Any success stories, ideas, or reading suggestions? Please leave your comments below!


Adriana Flores is the Assistant Archivist for Acquisitions at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. She graduated in 2016 with her MLIS from Simmons College, with a concentration in Archives Management. Currently, Adriana is also a contributor for SNAP’s “Year in the Life” blog series.


Sources Cited

Brink, Peterson, and Mary Ellen Ducey, Andrew Jewell, and Douglas Seefeldt.”Teaching Digital History through the University Archives: The Case of Nebraska U: A Collaborative History.” In Past or Portal?: Enhancing undergraduate learning through special collections and archives, by Eleanor Mitchell, Peggy Seiden, and Suzy Taraba, 163-68. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2012.

Yakel, Elizabeth, and Deborah Torres. “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise.” The American Archivist 66, no. 1 (2003): 51-78. Accessed April 20, 2017. doi:10.17723/aarc.66.1.q022h85pn51n5800.

Yakel, Elizabeth, and Doris Malkmus. “Contextualizing Archival Literacy.” In Teaching with Primary Sources, by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe and Christopher J. Prom, 5-68. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2016.




Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This end-of-the-year post is from I&A Steering Committee member Daria Labinsky, Archivist at the National Archives at St. Louis.

Want to get your message heard by a member of Congress? Here’s some advice from an intern in the trenches. Let’s call her Intern X. She spends hours every week in the Washington, D.C., office of a U.S. senator, fielding the calls and mail of the American people. While honing her ability to deal with difficult customers, Intern X is also picking up pointers on what works and doesn’t work when you’re trying to influence a legislator.

Note that this is what it’s like in this office; other Congressional offices may not operate in exactly the same way.

What’s the most important thing to know? “Make sure you only contact your Congress person,” she says. “I don’t need to hear anything about (for example) Elizabeth Warren. I can’t do anything about Elizabeth Warren.” And when you call a member of Congress who doesn’t represent you, you’re making it harder for someone whom they do represent to get through on the phone.  

What’s the best way to get your Congresswoman or man’s attention? Set up an appointment to meet her or him in person. Intern X’s senator hosts regular events for constituents in D.C. when the Senate is in session. There’s a section on legislators’ websites where you can schedule appointments in D.C. or in your state.

 “Town Halls are not as useful as private meetings in a conference room with 10 people,” says Intern X. “Even if you can’t meet with a senator, you might be able to meet with one of their aides. Town Halls are more for just asking questions.”

Next best? “If it’s time sensitive, then call or fill out a comment form on our website,” she says.

More about phone calls. “Don’t call assuming you’re going to talk to a United States senator.” They’re seldom in their offices, and the offices get thousands of calls each week.

Voicemail is OK. Try not to get frustrated if your call goes to voicemail. “Understand that they answer to a lot of people, and if you’re getting voicemail, that probably means they’re getting a lot of calls,” Intern X says. Rest assured that those voicemails are indeed being listened to—even on days when a thousand calls come in. “Don’t assume because you’re getting voicemail, you’re being avoided.”

“The maximum number of phone lines we can have ringing is six or seven,” she says. The interns and staff listen to and document all the messages, including the hundred or so that come in overnight.  

You need to provide some kind of identifying information–even if it’s just your ZIP Code. Intern X sometimes speaks to people who refuse to provide any identifying information. “I can’t record your comment if I don’t have a ZIP Code, because I can’t verify you’re from our state,” she says.

What about snail mail? If you want to discuss an issue that’s not time sensitive, then sending a comment by mail can be better than calling. “We can take as much mail as we get but only have so many people who can answer the phones,” she says. “And if you want your mail to make an impact, have a return address.”

What about faxing? “Faxes are useless. We get so many faxes. If you just want to comment or give an opinion, then don’t fax. We get too many, and it’s too easy for them to fall through the cracks.”

Don’t send form letters. They usually get shredded without reading. “Some offices have software that can recognize form letters,” making them easier to dispose of, she says. “Some of them are subtle, like, I read one that I didn’t know was a form letter until I read the same thing over three or four times.”

The petition-type email letters that many organizations email out—the ones where you add your name and contact information, and maybe personalize them, are OK, as long as they’re from a constituent.

Some postcards are OK. “Like, if it says, ‘Dear (Senator), I’m writing because I’m concerned about (some issue) and this is why (I feel this way)’—that’s OK.”

Don’t be mean. “Being nice on the phone never hurts,” she says. “I don’t know if it helps but there’s no downside.” She often gets calls from people thanking the senator for a specific vote, or even thanking the intern for answering the phone.   

And lastly,

No cash. “Don’t mail money to the Congressional offices, because we can’t legally take it.” (Like archivists have a lot of extra cash lying around. … )

Research Post: Archiving Accounts of War Crimes–Preserving History, Protecting Victims

I&A Research Teams are groups of dedicated volunteers who monitor breaking news and delve into ongoing topics affecting archives and the archival profession. Under the leadership of the I&A Steering Committee, the Research Teams compile their findings into Research Posts. Each post offers a summary and coverage of an issue. This comes from the General News Media Research Team, which monitors the news for issues affecting archivists and archives.

 Please be aware that the sources cited have not been vetted and do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.


The Syrian and Iraqi civil wars spotlight two archival problems faced by countries experiencing or recovering from war. The first problem centers on the protection of a country’s archives and cultural landmarks. The Islamic State has looted, smuggled, and destroyed ancient monuments, artifacts, and manuscripts in Syria, most infamously in Palmyra.[1] The Islamic State has also destroyed pre-Islamic and Islamic manuscripts in Mosul, Iraq, which Mosul citizens, not surprisingly, view as an attack on their heritage.[2] The second problem centers on capturing and preserving materials that document war crimes, such as videos, photographs, court transcripts, surveillance files, and a variety of other materials that prove torture, extrajudicial punishments, and repression have occurred. Individuals often face serious risks acquiring and preserving such materials due to the destruction caused by war, along with the aggressors’ desire to escape justice. Sound and Image, a group operating in Syria and Turkey, maintains records of the Islamic State’s crimes (the Islamic State has targeted and killed some of its members).[3] Hadi al Khatib and Jeff Deutch, who live in Berlin, created the Syrian Archive, which focuses on video footage of war crimes in Syria, regardless of the perpetrators’ affiliation. Syrian Archive members catalog the videos and assign metadata.[4]

Countries recovering from war benefit from archivists’ preserving both historical materials and contemporary documentary evidence. Historical manuscripts, photographs, and other records express the cultural heritage of ethnic groups and nation states, which can serve as a source of unity. Evidence of war crimes aids the pursuit of justice, restitution, and healing. The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner succinctly stated the latter point in the recent Rule-of-Law Tools for Post-Conflict States: Archives:

When a period characterized by widespread or systematic human rights violations comes to an end, those who suffered under the previous regime or during a conflict will particularly seek to fulfil their rights to the truth, justice and reparation, as well as demand institutional reforms to prevent the recurrence of violations. To meet these demands States use a variety of approaches: investigations and prosecutions, truth-seeking activities, reparation initiatives, and institutional reforms to reduce the possibility that repression or conflict will recur. Every one of these processes relies on archives.[5]

Archivists operate under enormous strain, however, when attempting to preserve materials in countries with ruined infrastructure, political instability, and few financial resources. An archives’ existence is often at stake under these circumstances. Still, the United Nations argues that sensitive records ought to stay in the countries of origin and that only copies should be deposited in archives located in other secure countries.[6] The National Archives of Finland, for example, recently accepted “digital copies of documents that have become endangered due to the Syrian Civil War.” The archives had previously accepted documents concerning the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon.[7] The Nile River Museum in Egypt also houses artifacts collected for a future museum of South Sudan, which declared its independence in 2011. The country is attempting to build a national archive, museum, and theater to preserve the cultural heritage of the new country’s 10.5 million citizens. While artifacts are in Egypt for safekeeping, archival documents still remain in Juba, the capital city, amidst a new civil war. Many of the archivists there fled to refugee camps when the conflict began, but staff member Becu Thomas stayed in the capital. Thomas thought that his country never learned from its past. He now works diligently to arrange and digitize South Sudan’s historical documents.[8]

France provides another example of the relationship between archives and countries recovering from war. The French government declassified over 200,000 records in December 2015 that document the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis. The records may shed light on arrests and executions previously shrouded in secrecy, allowing researchers, family members, and others to come to terms with a difficult past. The French government, however, decided not to declassify documents relating to the country’s occupation of Algeria.[9] Algerians fought a bloody war for independence from France between 1954 and 1962. Materials relating both to war crimes and torture that occurred during the war, as well as cultural materials from pre-colonial Algeria, remain in French archives. Abdelmadjid Chicki, who serves as the director of Algeria’s national archive center, argues that records produced on Algerian soil belong to Algeria. Members of the French national archives argue that France owns materials that French citizens collected. France has offered to share copies of the Algerian materials with Algeria[10], a reversal of the previously mentioned position that the United Nations holds. Algerians have resorted to buying Ottoman-era documents at French auctions in order to develop an extensive collection of historical materials from their country.[11]

While France refuses to return records to Algeria, French archivists are attempting to develop a complete archival record that incorporates materials from former colonies. The French National Archives started Le Grande Collecte, a project to acquire and preserve materials from West Africans who lived under French rule or who migrated to France.[12] The French government also strongly supports a UNESCO fund to restore ancient sites and archives in places like Syria and also to find “safe havens” for endangered items. Some nations are worried about losing control of their cultural heritage.[13]

Archivists must balance the sometimes competing goals of protecting records and respecting the rights of record creators, owners, and subjects. Moving and storing records around the globe may aid preservation but not access for those who need them most. When these records are associated with crimes and torture, there may be other motives besides preservation behind the relocation of materials. A repository outside London, for instance, houses records that document the torture of people in 37 former British colonies, including Kenya, who fought for independence. The records’ existence remained a guarded secret from the rest of the world until recently, even as victims of violence sought justice for years.[14] Such records must be preserved and made accessible so that restitution and accountability can occur, and so that countries recovering from war can move forward.


 List of Further Readings

The I&A Steering Committee would like to thank the General News Media Research Team, and in particular Audrey Lengel and Sean McConnell, for writing this post. The General News Media Team is: Courtney Dean; Lori Dedeyan; Audrey Lengel; Sean McConnell; and Daria Labinsky, team leader. If you are aware of an issue that might benefit from a Research Post, please get in touch with us:

Sources Cited

[1] “Alarmed at destruction in Palmyra, Security Council reiterates need to stamp out hatred espoused by ISIL,” UN News Centre, January 20, 2017. Accessed April 17, 2017.

[2] “Rubble, Ash Left in Mosul Museum Retaken from IS,” Voice of America, March 8, 2017. Accessed April 18, 2017.

[3] “Syria: Witnesses for the Prosecution,” Al Jazeera, November 19, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2017.

[4] “Syrian Archive catalogues war atrocities online,” Deutsche Welle, December 29, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2017.

[5] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Rule-of-Law for Post-Conflict States: Archives (New York and Geneva, United Nations, 2015), 1.

[6] Ibid., 10, 40.

[7] “Endangered Syrian documents taken into safekeeping at the National Archives of Finland,” Ministry of Education and Culture, February 12, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2017.

[8]Strochlic, Nina. “Can Archivists Save the World’s Newest Nation?” National Geographic. November 3, 2016. Accessed April 22, 2017.

[9] Danny Lewis, “France is Making Thousands of Vichy-Era Documents Public,”, December 29, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2017.

[10] Christian Lowe, “Algeria, France tussle over archives 50 years after split,” Reuters, July 4, 2012. Accessed April 19, 2017.

[11] Abdul Razak bin Abdullah, “Algeria obtains Ottoman-era documents at French auction,” Anadolu Agency, March 4, 2017. Accessed April 19, 2017.

[12] Alison Hurd, “France adds African perspective to colonial period archives,” Radio France Internationale, November 21, 2016. Accessed April 21, 2017.

[13] Erin Blakemore, “New Fund Pledges to Protect Cultural Heritage from War and Terror,”, March 21, 2017. Accessed April 21, 2017.

[14] Marc Perry, “Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire,” The Guardian, August 18, 2016. Accessed April 21, 2017.

ICYMI: Personal Digital Archiving, 2017

Our ICYMI series provide summaries of presentations, publications, webinars, and other educational opportunities that are of interest to I&A members. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email The following is from Chelsea Gunn, a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Computing and Information.

At the end of March, I traveled to Palo Alto to attend Personal Digital Archiving (PDA), hosted this year by Stanford University Libraries. This was my second time attending PDA (my first being last year, held at the University of Michigan) and my first time presenting at the conference. Over the course of two full days of presentations and one half-day of hands-on workshops and museum tours, professional archivists and dedicated amateurs alike approached personal digital archives from a range of perspectives, some familiar, and others entirely new to me. From a logistical standpoint, the single-track symposium format removes concerns about choosing one session over another, and well-placed breaks throughout the day allow pauses for reflection and conversation. In a day of densely-packed panels, pacing is particularly important, and moments for pause were especially appreciated.

As someone who specifically studies personal digital archives, attending PDA when possible has become something of a no-brainer for me. However, the range of ways in which presenters interpreted personal digital archives make this a conference that I think information professionals focused on other areas would also find relevant, both to their work and their own acts of personal record creation and preservation. The first day’s keynote speaker, Gary Wolf, raised questions about the long-term preservation of quantified self data, while the second keynote, delivered by Kim Christen, explored the personal archives of indigenous groups using the Mukurtu platform. Questions of sustainability, ownership, and access were common threads throughout each of these seemingly different talks, and these questions set the tone for many of the presentations that followed each day.

A number of this year’s presentations explored different approaches archivists have taken to working with and learning from donors and communities of practice; for example, accepting the born-digital materials of a composer, documenting the careers of dancers, or working with individual collectors of video games to inform archival best practices. Others (including my own) identified some of the challenges and opportunities related to preserving quantified self or lifelogging data, and how such data may fit in with the rest of our personal digital archives. Others still investigated the archival functions of specific formats, such as screenshots or animated GIFs from GeoCities websites.

I was particularly excited to hear from staff from the Salman Rushdie digital archive at Emory University on their experience moving from a high-profile discrete project to a comprehensive born-digital archives program. I had not previously been familiar with Jennifer Douglas’s work on intimate archives and online communities centered around grief, but was deeply moved by her presentation. A panel on PDA and social justice, grounded in the work of Copwatch and citizen documentation gave me a great deal to think about, and felt truly timely, as did a presentation on collecting documentation of student activism on college campuses.

The presentations closed with a retrospective panel, featuring Cathy Marshall, Mike Ashenfelder, Howard Besser, Clifford Lynch, and Jeff Ubois. Their discussion touched on the history of PDA and the buckets that presentations could generally be placed in – including outreach and activism, documentation strategies, community history, lifelogging, digital humanities, and storytelling. They noted that for many attendees, personal archives are not necessarily their professional responsibilities, but instead often a passion project. They concluded with a conversation about how PDA can be more accessible and inclusive in the future, and it occurred to me that that commitment to inclusivity is one of the aspects of PDA that I have most appreciated so far in my acquaintance with this conference.

At the risk of over-editorializing, or relying on cliché, the personal is absolutely political, and for many, it may feel more so now than ever. I appreciated the experience of being in an environment in which a breadth of perspectives related to the acts of creating or preserving personal records could be discussed. As individuals, we can engage with records (or own or others’) in diverse and deeply personal ways. The PDA conference and community provides a supportive space in which those myriad ways can be investigated alongside one another. While I don’t yet know the details of next year’s conference, it’s one that I encourage archivists (and others) to keep an eye out for and attend, if possible.

For a deeper dive into conference content, I highly recommend looking through the session descriptions and author bios on the conference schedule, as well as reading through the #PDA2017 hashtag on Twitter.


END OF YEAR STEERING SHARE: Tales of an Engaged Archivist

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This year-end post is from I&A Steering Committee member Laurel Bowen, University Archivist at Georgia State University.

What is an example of an elevator pitch you have used concerning your own archives, and who was the audience?

As a university archivist, one of my most important constituencies is the university’s administration.  In soliciting records and selling our services, we let administrative staff know that:

The Archives can enhance your effectiveness by helping you find and use records that address your most pressing needs.  We work hard to respond in a timely and thorough way to your priorities.  Sometimes the results may surprise you.

Here is an example of one request.  The President’s Office wanted Board of Regents support to obtain state funding to build a new classroom building.

Kell Hall, Georgia State University, courtesy of Georgia State University Archives, Atlanta

The Archives quickly provided information about the large classroom building the university wanted to replace:

  • We acquired it in 1946.
  • It was built as a parking garage (ramps are still there).
  • It was originally “renovated” for classroom use using World War II surplus.
  • In addition to its primary use as a parking garage, it also housed a grill, a cotton warehouse, and a sawmill.

Certainly not an adequate environment for 21st century teaching and learning! The Board of Regents, which oversees more than thirty public educational institutions, made the university’s request its top facilities priority that year, and the state provided the funding.

What controversial item or collection have you had to deal with in your career?

In a previous position, I was responsible for the papers of a number of state and national political leaders.  Managing the collections of incumbents was challenging because, during every election cycle, opponents would try to gain access to those papers.  The innovative subterfuges they employed always made us cautious when political papers arrived.

One day a number of bankers boxes were delivered.  Markings indicated their use as evidence in legal proceedings.  These were the papers of a well-known state official.  In addition to the expected speeches and correspondence were a variety of financial records relating to his businesses, income tax returns, campaign finances, state vendor contracts, and race track investments.  Boxes of photos included friendly images of the official with his personal secretary.  Additional boxes concerned the settlement of his estate–names of some prominent people appeared there.

What was this?  Apparently, after the man’s unexpected death midway through his second term, a large amount of cash was discovered in the hotel room he routinely occupied in town.  A substantial liquor cache was also found.  (Remnants of neither remained in the collection—we checked carefully.)  On further inquiry, we heard the official was popular, folksy, and powerful:  people often came up to greet him, shaking his hand and simultaneously depositing little tokens of appreciation in his pocket.  He stored his growing collection in various sized containers in his hotel room closet.

How did we handle the situation?  After years of investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the subsequent litigation, we decided anything controversial had already been well aired.  The collection opened for research without any restrictions.  (N.B.  The IRS recovered $1.5 million.)

What should archivists focus on in the future?

Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

Archivists should be active in the civic arena, advising and even advocating on issues that have a records-related component.  Are elected officials creating and maintaining records documenting their decisions as they act on our behalf?  Do they provide timely access to those records when requested?  Are police body cameras  public records?  Are lives endangered by unwieldy records-keeping systems and laws limiting effective access to records?

Archivists who interact only with other archivists are preaching to the choir.  We need to be stepping out and engaging fully with neighbors and fellow citizens on issues that matter to us.  David Gracy’s “archives and society” initiative encouraged us to define the value of archives and archivists to society.  Rand Jimerson convinced us of the power of archives, enabling us to be bold in using familiar tools to effect meaningful change.  Kathleen Roe urges us to become expert at telling the stories that demonstrate how archives changed lives.

Archivists need to not only tell the stories, but create stories in our own communities.  We have the skills.  When is the last time your neighbors or a public official wanted to know, after seeing you in action, “What kind of profession are you in?”

Research Post: The Evolving Landscape of Collecting Protest Material, Part 2

I&A Research Teams are groups of dedicated volunteers who monitor breaking news and delve into ongoing topics affecting archives and the archival profession. Under the leadership of the I&A Steering Committee, the Research Teams compile their findings into Research Posts. Each post offers a summary and coverage of an issue. This post, part two of a two-part series, comes from the General News Media Research Team, which monitors the news for issues affecting archivists and archives.

Please be aware that the sources cited have not been vetted and do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.


In the first part of this two-part series, we discussed digital, social media, and other online materials that can be collected to form archives. Forming bodies of these digital artifacts carries legal consequences and privacy issues for the folks whose information is collected, but such work also has issues around narrative and interpretation. Below are two lists: one is a list of projects and tools that use social media and online materials in documenting history, and the other is a bibliography where the work as well as its related issues are discussed.

Projects and tools

  • A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland. Digital repository that “collects, preserves, and shares the stories, memories, and accounts of police violence as experienced or observed by Cleveland citizens.” Partnership between Cleveland residents and professional archivists.
  • Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project. Digital repository “that seeks to preserve and make accessible original content that was captured and created by individual community members, grassroots organizations, and witnesses to the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015.” This is a collaborative project of Maryland Historical Society, university faculty, museums and community orgs.
  • DocNow. “Tool and a community developed around supporting the ethical collection, use, and preservation of social media content.”
  • Documenting Ferguson. Project of Washington University St. Louis. “Freely available resource that seeks to preserve and make accessible the digital media captured and created by community members following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.”
  • Trump Protest Archive. “Self funded digital repository, collecting [photographs of] items of material culture from protest events relating to the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump and the early part of his administration.”

List of further readings

This post is courtesy of the General News Media Research Team, and in particular Courtney Dean and Lori Dedeyan. The General News Media Team is: Courtney Dean, Lori Dedeyan, Audrey Lengel, Sean McConnell, and Daria Labinsky, team leader.

If you are aware of an issue that might benefit from a Research Post, please get in touch with us:

Research Post: The Evolving Landscape of Collecting Protest Material, Part 1

I&A Research Teams are groups of dedicated volunteers who monitor breaking news and delve into ongoing topics affecting archives and the archival profession. Under the leadership of the I&A Steering Committee, the Research Teams compile their findings into Research Posts. Each post offers a summary and coverage of an issue. This post, part one of a two-part series, comes from the General News Media Research Team, which monitors the news for issues affecting archivists and archives.

Please be aware that the sources cited have not been vetted and do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.

Protest materials have long found their way into archival repositories, and collecting initiatives such as the gathering of signs from January’s Women’s March are not unsurprising in our currently volatile political climate. While still fraught with their own set of ethical considerations, as was evidenced by Occupy Wall Street archive custody concerns, traditional protest ephemera does not harbor the explicit privacy and legal consequences that have arisen as a result of the increasing online presence of protest movements.

The internet is a richly generative arena where movements are born and developed, either with or without a coincident physical presence. The way it is mobilized for protests can vary–from coordinating and publicizing traditional actions, to communication and information sharing, community building, fundraising, and movement organizing. Its rapid and reactive nature means that the parameters of a movement can be constantly adjusted and redefined, often across social media networks. Social media content by design yields much more information about its creators and can therefore be harvested and analyzed differently than traditional material, and due to its increasing ubiquity, it warrants new conversations where traditional legal and social notions of the public and private domain may no longer be adequate. As the volume and variety of this content grows on an unprecedented scale, so, too, do the tools and methods by which it is subjected to scrutiny.

Curt Ellis, “Woman holds up her fist ,” Preserve the Baltimore Uprising: Your Stories. Your Pictures. Your Stuff. Your History., accessed March 15, 2017. 

Legal consequences and privacy issues

In response to this ever-growing body of online material, archivists and archival institutions have been initiating and developing best practices for web archiving projects. Web archiving and data harvesting provide opportunities to study metadata as well as content, in order to better understand the context of creation. For example, researchers may be interested in studying tweets across time, by geographic origin, or as part of a larger network of contacts.

This information is also of interest to law enforcement agencies, some of which have partnered with companies that sell tools for tracking and monitoring social media content culled from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media companies that offer programs which allow app makers to create third-party tools. One such company, Geofeedia, counts more than 500 such clients and has advertised services that were used by officials in Baltimore to monitor and respond to the protests that followed Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in April 2015. Using such tools, Baltimore County Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit was able to discover and arrest protesters with outstanding warrants by collecting and filtering social media photos through facial recognition software, a practice that has been shown to have serious technical flaws and to disproportionately affect people of color. Such tools are also used to assemble dossiers on targeted individuals as part of a strategy of long-term surveillance, as evidenced in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office records.

Use of social networks by third parties and law enforcement agencies has been met with opposition by many, including activists and the American Civil Liberties Union. Companies including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram cut ties with Geofeedia last year, according to the Washington Post, and on March 13, Facebook announced that police departments cannot use data to “provide tools that are used for surveillance,” a move that some consider a first step in curbing the online surveillance and targeting of activists and people of color.

Given this context, it is important for archivists to be aware of the potential ramifications of collecting contemporary protest material. For example, lawmakers in several states have recently introduced legislation that would target and criminalize protests, in some cases creating or greatly stiffening existing penalties and in others going so far as to give drivers legal license to hit protesters blocking traffic. Regardless of whether or not such pieces of legislation are passed, their existence is a testament to a political atmosphere that is fraught with serious issues for people who exercise their right to protest. As protest and movement organizing moves to an online and increasingly public sphere, the potential reach of such legislation, in conjunction with increased surveillance and data collection, could expand significantly.

Archivists should also be cognizant that many communities have complicated histories with the legal apparatus of this country. Different movements stem from different contexts, and as such the needs and aims of communities may differ with regards to visibility and their own safety. For the indigenous communities at Standing Rock, for example, the violent response of law enforcement towards protesters is the latest in a long history of dispossession.

Communities of color also often find themselves at the convergence of government surveillance and the rhetoric of legality. Some police departments, which respond to and monitor protests, have formed partnerships with the FBI, DEA, and federal immigration agencies such as ICE. These task forces facilitate information exchange between local officers and federal agencies through data-sharing agreements that provide reciprocal access to local and federal databases. Such partnerships have serious consequences for the activity of targeted communities, whether they are Muslim communities that are subject to surveillance by Joint Terrorism Task Forces, or undocumented and immigrant communities that are fearful of local officers deputized as ICE agents.

Archivists can navigate these concerns through the appraisal and reappraisal of their roles and documentation strategies, and by opening dialogues about consent. One model for ethical collecting could be the solicitation of community materials via online digital platforms. In A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, for example, professional archivists worked in conjunction with community members to develop “a safe and secure space to share any testimony, documents, or accounts that narrate or reflect on encounters or effects of police violence in their lives and communities.” In other words, members of the community self-select what to contribute, while professional archivists serve to make that material accessible.

Harvesting does not need to be inherently problematic, however. In fact, ethical concerns can inform the development of technologies themselves. DocNow, a collaborative project between the University of Maryland, University of California at Riverside, and Washington University in St. Louis, has created a suite of tools for working with Twitter data related to Black Lives Matter and other social justice actions. As part of their mission they explicitly affirm, “a strong commitment to prioritizing ethical practices when working with social media content, especially in terms of collection and long-term preservation. This commitment extends to Twitter’s notion of honoring user intent and the rights of content creators.”

A recent American History Association article by Kritika Agarwal further acknowledges technology’s potential to dismantle problematic archival constraints and to “rectify injustices associated with historic collection and archiving practices.” The article cites collaborative content management system Murkutu, which allows indigenous communities to limit access in accordance with community practice, as another example of a digital tool that places ethics at the forefront.

Issues of narrative and interpretation

In any collecting effort, archivists must consider whose stories are being preserved and why. As has been pointed out previously here, historically repositories tended to focus on rehashing, and thus elevating, hegemonic narratives. While now there is a greater acknowledgement of the power in appraisal, description, and access decisions made by archivists, and the position of privilege these often come from, issues of representation still persist.

A recent thread on the Women Archivists Section listserv spoke to issues of counter-narrative in the Women’s March on Washington Archives Project, specifically concerns over actively trying to document voices of women who chose not to participate, and the tension between respecting “intentional archival silence” and including a variety of voices in oral histories and other event documentation (Danielle Russell, e-mail message, February 15, 2017). However, narratives and collections no longer need to be limited by traditional single repository/project models. As WArS co-chair Stacie Williams pointed out, “Let’s not assume that they don’t want to be a part of the larger narrative happening here, however well-meaning our intent as archivists; they may have their own ideas for how they want to be represented.” (e-mail message, February 15, 2017)

While digital collecting brings with it a host of new challenges such as security and privacy, it also carries the potential to create tools and projects that possess community-centric values. These are not mutually exclusive imperatives. As Jarrett Drake stated in his #ArchivesForBlackLives talk, “We have an opportunity before us to transform archive-making, history-making, and memory-making into processes that are radically inclusive and accountable to the people most directly impacted by state violence.” Now more than ever, archivists need to consider the ethical ramifications of our work.

A list of tools and related bibliography will be in the next post.

This post is courtesy of the General News Media Research Team, and in particular Courtney Dean and Lori Dedeyan. The General News Media Team is: Courtney Dean, Lori Dedeyan, Audrey Lengel, Sean McConnell, and Daria Labinsky, team leader.

If you are aware of an issue that might benefit from a Research Post, please get in touch with us:

End of Year Steering Share: My Ever-Evolving Elevator Pitch, Thanks to Student Assistants

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This mid-year post is from I&A Steering Committee member Stephanie Bennett, Collections Archivist at Wake Forest University.

I had never heard of an elevator pitch before I became an archivist. I likely was first introduced to the phrase in grad school, and since then, it’s part of my bread and butter. I feel like every archivist has an array of elevator pitches, for donors, students,  administrators, their loved ones – heck, maybe even their favorite bartender.

As a collections archivist, I spend most of my time with my immediate colleagues, most of whom are well-schooled in the arts of Special Collections is not archival collections, or undergraduate student workers, whose interests are a bit less mercurial than I remember mine being at 20 (but not by much).

I do get out of the archives, of course: I have friends in departments around the university (I’m not above feigning casual interest as I ask pointed questions about department recordkeeping practices), and I meet with donors, prospective or current, who may be giving collections, attention, or financial donations to the institution.

In these conversations outside of my more routine archives duties, I find myself increasingly grateful for my work with those kind-hearted but ever-preoccupied undergraduate assistants. I’ve learned new descriptions and metaphors for the work that I do, because students are curious – either naturally or because it’s time for them to craft a resume – but even after some time working alongside me, they don’t have the vocabulary. (Don’t worry, they have the range.)

I still need a second to recover when someone asks that perennial favorite question, why can’t everything be digitized. But I recover and list, with a minimum amount of jargon, the labor of digitization. My answer to that question looks more like this now:

“We are able to do digitization work with the help of students: you would be surprised at the amount of time it takes to physically scan items, even with fancy scanners. To get high resolution images and not damage the physical item, we can’t simply run then through the copier. And even with training, things go wrong in scanning – you remember being a college student. So a librarian runs quality checks and has to re-do some scans. While the scans are being cooked up, or maybe before, a librarian creates metadata: describing that single item, or group of items, giving them dates. What’s your favorite picture of the university? Do you know the date, or the location, or maybe the people in it? We need as much of that information as possible about a photograph, say, since every person remembers it a little differently.”

In my answers, I aim to highlight the skills and number of people involved in the labor, and I skip over new vocabulary words.

First, the laborers: We do a lot with less, and it’s thanks to our student workers, but I want to impress upon them that students cannot do this all themselves. I am a skilled laborer, due to my Master’s degree, so I am agile in employing uniform names; but also, sometimes I renumber folders because a student missed something and every correctly numbered folder saves my reference colleagues time and energy. To drive this home, I may introduce controlled vocabularies – I often call them uniform vocabularies or taxonomies. Biscuits in the South mean something entirely from the biscuits of England, and if there’s time I tell the story of looking for biscuits at a KFC in Central London, for added punch. “In a world run by librarians, the biscuits in London would be just like Grandad’s!” Most folks can nod along with that, and in turn understand when I say, it takes training and experience to recognize when you should employ a controlled language and when you’re free-wheeling.


Secondly, I have mostly given up “finding aid” and such terminology when I’m talking to non-archivists; apologies to my professor, Kathy Wisser, who insisted (correctly!) that every professional field has its own jargon and few abdicate that pleasure. But I would rather the student assistants learn the concepts and not focus on the words. So they’re collection inventories, or collection overviews if it’s an MPLP finding aid without a box listing – a hierarchical inventory, I tell them, with parents and children, like a family tree. They know about our DSpace instance, searchable on our landing page – but I don’t call it a content management system or a digital repository, I call it our processed collections database. It’s not right, but for initial conversations, it is enough. I can drop some more knowledge on them later – and thankfully, most of these interactions are the first of many, not one-and-done.

Above all: I keep my initial answer as short as possible initially. “I’m an archivist; I work at the University in the library with rare materials and University records” because I want to draw out their comments and questions. If zines come up, or recent activism and related recordkeeping, or family photos: I’m in. Repetitive though a question like “but what about digitization” is, I take the opportunity to regale them with tales of the immense digitized photo collections, or videocassettes that my students treat like cuneiform. I may even invite them to a “Hop into History” event (hat tip to Erin Lawrimore, UNCG) at one of the local breweries, if they’re lucky!

Archivists on the Issues: The Neutrality Lie and Archiving in the Now

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Samantha “Sam” Cross, the Assistant Archivist for CallisonRTKL.

If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.


Neutrality is a lie. The sooner archivists agree on that matter, the better the profession will be. It’s not even a good lie, considering the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Howard Zinn’s infamous 1977 speech to the archival community called us out, stating: “The archivist, even more than the historian and the political scientist, tends to be scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest: a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records of society.”

Echoing Zinn, archivists ourselves have revealed the facade of neutrality built into every step of the archiving process. Terry Cook, Helen Samuels, Mark Greene, and Richard J. Cox all consider appraisal “the critical archival act,” the step from which other aspects follow.[1] The selective nature of collecting and retention policies allow archivists to claim that they cannot collect anything outside of the established boundaries. Vernon Harris pointed out that even collection description is a byproduct of cultural and societal biases that construct their own narrative.[2] Last February, in an interview with the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA), Jarrett Drake bluntly stated that “Archives have never been neutral – they are the creation of human beings, who have politics in their nature.”

Claims of neutrality distance archives and archivists from the Now. In his book, Flowers After the Funeral: Reflections on the Post-9/11 Digital Age, Cox anxiously critiqued the purpose of digital and physical collecting in 9/11’s immediate aftermath. From his perspective, the compulsion to archive as a means of remembrance negates the “necessary” distance that the archival act supposedly demand.[3] That distance is where neutrality lives, allegedly, a convenient barrier between archivists and the real world. However, as Randall Jimerson states, “neutrality is the abdication of responsibility.”[4] It deters active archiving and reduces archivists to passive recipients. In reality, archivists have the potential, if not the responsibility, to act and explore other options of collecting and serving their communities.

Easier said than done, but if we want to fight against the perception of neutrality, we have to make a greater case, as a profession, for active, deliberate archiving. A stereotype remains that archivists are basement-dwellers covered in dust, gatekeepers of documents that have long surpassed their use. In truth, archivists have been agents of political disruption and social activism since the beginning of our profession. But whereas archivists of the past were limited by fledgling technology, archivists today can utilize technology to our advantage for the specific purpose of archiving the Now.

While Cox reflected on emerging digital spaces with caution in 2003, archivists in 2017 embrace the tools at our disposal. The ubiquity of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and tumblr has turned the average person into an amateur historian or archivist. We openly document ourselves via tweets, vlogs, and status updates. For those in marginalized communities, the opportunities for visibility – evidence of existence – are enormous.

One of the first online platforms to formulate a response to deliberately archiving digital content was Documenting the Now (DocNow), a suite of tools designed to help researchers mine social media datasets as well as collecting and preserving digital content. The group began in 2014 in response to the Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement that chronicled events in real time and disseminated information quickly via Twitter and other platforms. DocNow’s mission is to put archiving power into the hands of those within marginalized and activist communities, offering ownership and access that traditional archives cannot provide. That power allows communities to hold others accountable, bypassing distance and neutrality for active and speedy responses, whether from law enforcement or a global community of witnesses.

Archiving the Now has naturally extended into “guerilla archiving events,” intent on swiftly preserving content of all kinds. One example is the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative efforts to preserve public data regarding climate change in danger of disappearing under the current presidential administration.

Another is the Women’s March on Washington Archives Project. As stated by coordinators Danielle Russell and Katrina Vandeven, the Project evolved from a desire to “ensure the preservation of women’s voices and responses to politics and legislation in wake of the intensely controversial 2016 elections.” Though materials aren’t immediately accessible, the project goal was to make available for future research the evidence and first-person accounts. Had archivists not acted, those voices would be lost and efforts to understand marchers’ motives would be at the mercy of speculation.

Even the Internet Archive, a repository of online content, has positioned itself as a tool of accountability through the Wayback Machine and its recent endeavor to collect the 45th president’s online statements, interviews, and sound bites. Like DocNow, the Internet Archive made deliberate efforts to provide evidence and access for the explicit, immediate purpose of use by journalists and citizens. These are efforts of people who understand the luxury of neutrality and the power of inaction. If they chose to remain neutral, the historical record would remain ever incomplete. Keeping up with the current pace of “historical” events is no easy feat, nor will archivists capture everything. But as archivists choose to act, we leave a far more encouraging and greater history in our wake.

Samantha “Sam” Cross is the Assistant Archivist for CallisonRTKL in their Seattle office where she oversees the physical and digital documents and drawings of the global architectural firm. A graduate of Western Washington University, Sam has a Bachelor’s in History and a Master’s in History with an emphasis in Archive and Records Management. In her free time she runs and writes for The Maniacal Geek and hosts That Girl with the Curls podcast where she talks with guests and friends about geek culture, comics, movies, and whatever weird thoughts pop into her head.



[1] Terry Cook, “Documenting Society and Institutions: The Influence of Helen Willa Samuels” in Controlling the Past: Documenting Society and Institutions, Essays In Honor of Helen Willa Samuels, ed. Terry Cook (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2011): 2.

[2] Verne Harris, Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007): 142-143

[3] Richard J. Cox, Flowers After the Funeral: Reflections on the Post-9/11 Digital Age (Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2003): 4-5.

[4] Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009): 294

Mid-Year Steering Share: Activating Coordinated, Compelling Advocacy

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This mid-year post is from I&A Steering Committee member Laurel Bowen, University Archivist at Georgia State University.

In the last few months, the Issues & Advocacy Section has been adding new content from the history and historic preservation professions to our Toolkit.  In a separate venture, many members worked on research teams to find information about legislators that could help SAA advocate on our behalf.  

Thinking about both projects, I wonder if we, as archivists, should (1) look to a broader range of professions for joint or coordinated advocacy; and (2) craft a value statement for archives that is as relevant and compelling as those done by the history and historic preservation professions.

We hear that “all politics are local”—that to get and remain elected, politicians must first focus on their home community and constituents.  A legislator whose constituents are passionate about their region’s wide open spaces may more readily support funds for parks, while a lawmaker representing an urban area that has fallen on hard times may lean toward funding historic preservation as a means of revitalizing that city.  

But these initiatives are not mutually exclusive.  The National Park Service manages not only natural areas but historic sites, monuments, buildings, and collections related to them.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation advocates for “saving places,” but how can either built structures or natural areas be restored to their former glory without documents, photographs, and objects that describe and illustrate what that past glory was?  Archives, libraries, museums, parks, historic sites—all provide ways to understand communities, places, and their interrelationships over time.  As a profession, we already work cooperatively with the library and history professions—why not with the historic preservation and park people as well?

Dennis Meissner tells us that compelling advocacy needs to be grounded on “data that speak to the archival value proposition:  economic impact, audiences served, outcomes achieved.”  The Preservation Leadership Forum (National Trust for Historic Preservation) has stepped firmly in that direction, linking their work to

  • engaging diverse communities;
  • “promoting building reuse in cities as essential to economic growth and vibrant communities”;
  • being environmentally responsible and creating “economically vital, socially equitable, and strong resilient neighborhoods.”

In addition, they articulate their value to those who redevelop property, and speak about their “new relationships” with historic sites (that often include collections) and with federal agencies that manage our vast historic and cultural resources.

The history profession, through the History Relevance Campaign, is also identifying “the value of history in contemporary life.”  History is essential because it:

  • nurtures personal identity in an intercultural world;
  • teaches critical 21st century skills and independent thinking;
  • lays the groundwork for strong, resilient communities;
  • is a catalyst for economic growth, drawing people to communities with a strong sense of historical identity and character;
  • helps people craft better solutions;
  • inspires local and global leaders.

And finally: “Through the preservation of authentic, meaningful places, documents, artifacts, images, and stories, we leave a foundation upon which future [generations] can build.”  At the bottom of all this…lies archives!  Surely we, as archivists, can craft as compelling, clear, and relevant a value statement as colleagues in allied professions.

As archivists, we know the inherent power of archives and how archives can be used in meaningful ways to change lives.  In my university archives are documents that: 

  • provided proof of employment and its length so an employee could claim retirement benefits;
  • enabled an alumnus to reconnect with a former classmate, pleasing both the older gentleman and his state legislator who made the request on his behalf;
  • estimated the cost of a former student’s education so he could claim his fair share of the estate of his deceased relative (and former benefactor).

Similarly, records are important in local governance. In my community, I’ve used:

  • court and county records to support our neighborhood’s position that a proposed commercial development abutting our homes wouldn’t enhance the livability of our community or the value of our homes (it was defeated);
  • planning documents to reveal that drawings of a proposed development didn’t include generous greenspace (the lawyer colored the parking areas green);
  • government engineering records to dissuade an eager decision-maker from quickly approving an expanding business that wanted to avoid connecting to a sewer line.

The archives we know, and that we use in powerful ways to change lives, are the underpinnings that support, strengthen, and insure the validity of the work of other professions.  Some of the same themes that flow through both the history and historic preservation value statements could be adapted to an archives value statement.

Ultimately, it’s about how communities can live and grow together through the years in harmony with each other and with the places they occupy.  We live in challenging times. Working with a wider variety of allies could help us compete more effectively for those dwindling resources. As one of our Founding Fathers remarked upon signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”