Institutional Silences and the Digital Dark Age

The post below was first published on The Schedule, the blog for SAA’s Records and Management Roundtable (RMRT) on May 23, 2016. In it, RMRT Steering Committee Member, Eira Tansey, responds to Bertram Lyons’ Archivists on the Issues post, There Will Be No Digital Dark Age. Many thanks to Eira Tansey and the RMRT Steering Committee for allowing us to repost this response.

Over on the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable blog, Bert Lyons recently wrote a post titled “There Will Be No Digital Dark Age”. I loved this piece, since it touches on two of my favorite hobby horses: the erasure of archival labor from public discourse, and re-asserting the value of professional archival labor for a problem that routinely vexes the general public (in this case, degradation of digital cultural heritage).

Bert recalls a recent NPR article covering one of the common fears of our age, that of an impending digital dark age. He left a comment on the article noting that the story left out a critical component — the work that archivists and other information professionals have been engaged in for some time so that we don’t lose all of our digital heritage, culture, records, and information to the great intertubez quicksands. He states, “We are not and have not been absent from the digital preservation questions. We are, however, hidden in the public narrative” and goes on to stress that appraisal and selection will be tantamount, particularly around questions of archival silences.

I agree with Bert’s assessment, but I also want to bring my perspective to this as a public university records manager (the other half of my job is digital archivist), that I think many archivists whose work doesn’t include an institutional records mandate often miss. I get the sense from recent archivist conferences and meetings that if we just raise our consciousness enough, if we advocate just hard enough, if we can be just squeaky enough, it’s within our power as archivists to prevent many of the issues around things like digital black holes or archival silences. Being a records manager has taught me that nothing could be farther from the truth; because those with the most power within organizations are rarely the same individuals tasked with carrying out records mandates, there will always be archival silences despite archivists’ and records managers’ best efforts. I may write in “Transfer to archives” under the disposition area of a records retention schedule, but that act of instruction is not an assurance that the records are actually preserved.

Currently, I think a lot of online and offline discussion around archival silences is dominated by archivists who work or have been professionally socialized within a manuscripts/external donor/topical collecting framework. The perspectives of people who are required by their jobs to dedicate the majority of their time to preservation of institutional records of the parent organization’s official business (be it corporate, government, university, etc) are often missing. This is unfortunate, because I believe there are as many archival silences among institutionally-mandated records as there are among archives that emphasize collecting content from external parties.

In a 2004 article on archival silences, Rodney Carter’s article approaches the paradox of powerful entities’ determination of what goes in the archive, while actively resisting full documentation of their activities. However, the majority of Carter’s article (and additional recent literature on archival silences) focused on the lacunae of marginalized groups from mainstream archives. Much of the literature on archival silences explain these silences through the biases of archivists, claims of objectivity, or chasing the trends of historians. These concerns have become a rich part of the archival literature, and have led to the rise of community archives, training activists in archival methods, post-custodial models, and other revitalized forms of practice to preserve non-institutional archives.

If archivists care about accountability, I would argue that within the context and mandates of institutional archives, silences associated with the powerful have just as many ramifications. In countless circumstances, the powerful actively resist documentation or inclusion in the archive. In a 2013 post from Records Management Roundtable member Brad Houston, he builds on a conversation with Maarja Krusten reflecting on how digital technologies have enabled records creators to easily circumvent cooperation with records policies. In a highly litigious environment, or in areas where the powerful are often more concerned with their public appearance than in fully-documenting their work, there are myriad ways in which people routinely circumvent records requirements. Just as appraisal is never a neutral activity, neither is retention scheduling (which obviously constitutes its own form of appraisal). For a very current view of the political weight around records retention scheduling, I would refer readers to the inconsistency among jurisdictions on the retention around non-evidentiary body-worn camera video .

A lack of records associated with the powerful within the context of institutionally-mandated archives denies people an important avenue to examine the evidential actions of elected officials, CEOs, and other leaders, and hold them accountable. In his work on the nature of police records in post-Katrina New Orleans, and the records of prisons (which includes an analysis of retention schedules, something I wish we saw more in our literature), Jarrett Drake notes that state records can and often are manipulated or destroyed in order to protect the powerful. Because of this, human rights archival literature has long argued that state records alone cannot be the entire corpus of evidence for bringing about justice. But the question remains — what can archivists, records managers, and others who work within an institutionally-mandated records program (the ones who write retention schedules, arrange for records transfers, and educate records creators on policies and procedures) realistically do to ensure that institutional records are authentic, and that what comes to the archives aren’t just the public relations leftovers that make the institution look good?

From my perspective, silences of the powerful highlight the fact that there are two other forms of archival silences that can be explained by factors outside of archivists’ direct control:

1. Lack of, or inconsistent cooperation with records disposition on the part of records creators. This should not necessarily be construed as active malfeasance — but for many people, disposition of their records (via destruction or transfer to archives) is a perennial after-thought. In a recent report from Archives New Zealand, it noted that in virtually every office it audited, disposal and transfer of records was “inconsistent.” Although countless archivists have called for embedding ourselves at the beginning of the record life cycle, it would appear we are nowhere close to successfully doing this on a large scale. We often forget that archivists are not the sole arbiters of what resides in an institutional archive: preservation of the records of the organization is highly dependent on individual employees’ cooperation with institutional records policies. Resistance or non-cooperation leads to myriad silences; and these gaps become problematic in ensuring institutional accountability.

2. The 30-year long cycle of poverty that afflicts archives. Obviously very well-funded archives with significant staffing and resources can, and are, still rife with bias. However, many (most) archivists, whether in institutional archives or collecting archives, are constrained in their ability to process and preserve as many records as they would like to due to a persistent lack of archival labor and resources. If every archive could double (quadruple) its staff, this would help fix many silences by being proactive about identifying record gaps, doing the hard work of maintaining relationships with originating offices or donors, establishing post-custodial relationships where appropriate, etc. Not all records are lost due to active destruction, many are often lost due to benign neglect. A 2014 report showed that 33,000 of boxes intended to be transferred to British Columbia Archives were warehoused instead due to insufficient resources . If archivists with institutional record mandates are overworked and under-resourced, is anyone surprised that all they have time for is dealing with the records that do manage to get transferred? (And even then, many institutional archives have a hard time keeping up with what does manage to come through the door, for example according to a recent OIG report, 28% of NARA’s textual holdings have not yet been processed).

And this is where I want to push back against Bertram’s post a little bit and bring it back to the digital dark age — in an environment with institutional records mandates where archivists have little power to enforce compliance with records policies and even less agency over the budgets they receive, the risk of a digital black hole is very, very real. According to last year’s Council of State Archivists report, the number of state archives FTE employees dedicated to electronic records actually decreased from 2006 to 2014, and there are now fewer state archives staff relative to overall state employees. State archives have reported that there is a consistent gap between the authority to carry out state records policies, and the resources needed to actually perform or deliver duties and services. Archivists with institutional records mandates rarely have the authority or resources to go out and get all the electronic records on their own that are required to be transferred to the archives. For us, the digital dark age remains a major risk without organizational buy-in and adequate funding, and the full support of our professional organizations for the challenges we face.

Eira Tansey works as the Digital Archivist/Records Manager at the University of Cincinnati. She is a Steering Committee Member of SAA’s Records Management Roundtable.