Steering Share: Laurel Bowen

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post is from  Steering Committee member Laurel Bowen.

What was your first job in a library, archives, or museum? 

One summer break I was hired as the Engineering Records Librarian at an IBM laboratory complex in my hometown.  The long-time librarian (I still remember her name!) had just retired.  My researchers were the engineers developing and testing new machines, and my job was to locate and retrieve microfiche cards of specific parts from a gigantic rotating metal storage system.  On the way to my office there was an exhibit of the company’s older computing machines.  The contrast between this larger older equipment and the more powerful compact computers being produced was vivid testimony to the pace of change in both technology and information dissemination.

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

I wanted a closer view and greater involvement in our profession’s efforts to raise public awareness about (a) the value and power of archives, and (b) how records—in the skilled hands of archivists—can make a concrete and definable difference in people’s lives.

 What is one major issue you see archives tackling in the next five to ten years?

We live in a digital world now.  Hacking and cyberthreats are commonplace.  Our medical and credit records are compromised.  Voter and driver records are probed.  Public utility grids (water, electric) and telecommunication systems and networks (Internet) are disrupted.  The potential for a quick and devastating blow to society is no longer science fiction or fantasy.  Both as archivists and a profession, we need to become more knowledgeable and well-practiced with regard to electronic records and digital records systems.  The Digital Archives Specialist curriculum is a firm step in the right direction.  But we need to partner more actively with organizations, companies, and specialists on issues like the authenticity and verifiability of vital records in an electronic or networked environment, the security and recoverability of critical information and infrastructures, and the management of risk for electronic records and digital data systems.

 What archives issue means a lot to you?

I’m concerned about the myriad ways that public officials ignore or mishandle records in an attempt to avoid transparency and accountability.  On the other side, I’m also concerned that many citizens seem unaware that documents define both their rights and responsibilities, as well as the scope and limits of a public official’s legitimate exercise of power.

 Describe and share an interesting archives you have come across over the years.

One of my most interesting experiences was with the very large collection of temperance and prohibition records discovered in a small town north of Columbus, Ohio.  I was one of those who arranged, described, and prepared it for microfilming.  The town librarian who discovered it, untouched in an outbuilding for decades, said exterminators returned multiple times “before everything stopped running.”  Books were pulled from shelves, and the termite-ridden bookcases collapsed.  Although she “saved everything we could,” the bottom layers of the collection (fused together) were shoveled into a line of waiting garbage trucks.  Over the next two years, I learned plenty about various types of mold, insect, and rodent damage.

In college history classes I wasn’t much interested in the temperance and prohibition movement, but these records opened up a new world.  There were characters like “Pussyfoot” Johnson, whose nickname reflected his law enforcement technique; Ernest Cherrington, the benevolent man with an Al Capone-style hat who was at the center of all the major organizations; and the women of the Scientific Temperance Federation, who gathered physiological and sociological evidence to demonstrate the ill effects of alcohol.  Did you know root beer used to be alcoholic?  Or that there is a reason that the 18th (prohibition) and 19th (women’s suffrage) amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified so closely together?

Archivists, Donors, and the Grieving Process

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Sara Harrington about a survey she conducted about archivists and the grieving process. 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 archivesissues@gmail.com. Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

My first job after completing my undergraduate education was in a local vintage shop.  As a secondhand store, we acquired our merchandise from a variety of sources, including members of the public seeking to sell or donate items left behind by someone who has passed away.  In addition to our regular business, we also conducted estate sales or clearings for clients who have inherited the household of a recently lost loved one.  Although the lion’s share of the interactions with these clients was left to my manager, I was in a position to observe the process from initiation to completion.  As such, I witnessed countless moments of grief exposed:  moments of longing and yearning, moments of nostalgia and reminiscence, moments of indecision and confusion.  These moments, these glimpses into the heart of mourning, are inevitable when you work in an industry that centers on the remnants of living.

When the opportunity arose to conduct my own research project as part of my graduate education in archives, a study on donors and the grieving process seemed a perfect fit.  It allowed me to explore the future through the lens of the past–I could use my experiences with grieving clients and my education in psychology to examine an interesting topic that could prove to be highly significant to my new career path as an archivist.  My aim was to discover the ways in which the grieving process can complicate the archivist-donor relationship, and the methods or training employed by archivists to navigate this relationship.

During my review of the existing literature, I was surprised to find that very little attention has been given to this topic.  A precious few studies peripherally touched on the subject but, other than a single master’s thesis (Garbett-Styger, 2014), no empirical research had been conducted related to grieving donors in an archival setting.  With so little previous work to serve as a foundation for my own research, it seemed best to keep my study simple and fairly broad in scope.

A Quick Word on Grief

Early psychological models conceptualized grief as an arduous but predictable process consisting of several distinct phases that were played out over a delineated period of time.  These models did not allow room for outliers; failure to work through grief in prescribed order and within the allotted timeframe was considered problematic, if not pathological.  Modern grief science, however, demonstrates that the grieving process is more complex and less predictable than originally theorized.  Still, some patterns can be identified.  First, grieving is an iterative and fluctuating process; the bereaved often experience various emotions – both positive and negative – in waves.  Second, symptoms of grief – also known as grief reactions – generally fall into one of four broad categories: emotional, which may include anger, anxiety, or guilt; physical, which may include loss of appetite or sleep disturbances; cognitive, which may include indecisiveness or difficulty focusing; and behavioral, which may include increased irritability or aggression (Lamb, 1988; Cancer.Net, 2015; MedlinePlus, 2016).  These four categories served as a framework for both the construction and analysis of my survey.

Survey

To explore this under-served topic, I created an online survey using Qualtrics Insight Platform software.  This short, anonymous survey consisted of both closed and open-ended questions and was distributed via professional listservs, including SAA’s Archives and Archivists (A&A) List.  The target population for this survey was archivists and special collections librarians in an acquisitions or collections role in the United States.  The survey, though relatively short, provided a wealth of information.  It would be nearly impossible to adequately describe the full results without exceeding the word limit for this post.  As such, I’ll simply summarize those patterns that have the most potential significance to current or potential archivists.

Results

Working with bereaved donors is a common experience for many professional archivists.  Of the 48 archivists surveyed for this study, only 3 (approximately 6%) had never worked with a bereaved donor before.  Despite the frequency of interactions with grieving donors, it is clearly not prioritized in the training and education of archivists:

  • 32%  reported that they had no previous training or education that aided them in their work with bereaved donors
  • 16% reported having taken coursework related to donor relations as part of a broader LIS course, but none had taken a course dedicated solely to donor relations.
  • 26% relied on onsite training or mentorship to prepare them for such work, while 21% relied on personal experiences with the grieving process.

According to grief experts, grief reactions generally fall into 1 of 4 categories: behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and physical.

  • Crying, restlessness, and verbal reminiscing were the most commonly reported behavioral reactions: 64% reported encountering “a little” crying, 43% reported “a little” restlessness, and 44% reported “a lot” of reminiscing.
  • Cognitive issues such as indecisiveness and hesitancy to let go of physical mementos were also frequently reported, with 34% encountering “a moderate amount” of indecisiveness, and  49% encountering “a moderate amount” of hesitancy.
  • Emotional and physical reactions were reported less often, probably due to being less noticeable to the archivists; however, 95% of archivists reported witnessing at least “a little” signs of sadness in bereaved donors, while 43% have noticed signs of fatigue in grieving donors.
  • Qualitative data collected suggests that as high as 27% of donors also demonstrate positive reactions during the donation process; respondents reported that donors often find a sense of relief or closure in the act of memorializing the deceased through their donation.

The archivists surveyed employed a variety of methods to aid in their work with grieving donors:

  • The methods most commonly employed by archivists in their work with grieving donors are empathetic listening (100%), reassuring the donor of the collection’s value to the institution (97%), and reassuring them that the collection will be well-cared for (97%).
  • Follow-ups about the collection (69%) and handwritten notes or other tokens of appreciation (67%) were also commonly reported.
  • Physical touch (36%) and allowing the donor to take an active role in crafting the future of the collection (31%) were reported less often.

Suggestions from those surveyed for better preparing future archivists for working with bereaved donors also varied:

  • Most of the archivists surveyed thought that seminars/workshops in donor relations (82%) or lectures/conference materials on the subject (62%) would be most helpful.
  • Those surveyed considered LIS coursework in donor relations (44%) and professional literature on the topic (44%) to be of equal helpfulness.
  • Qualitative data collected in the survey reflected that the archivists considered patience and empathy to be key factors in working with grieving donors.

Regardless of the amount of time that has passed since a donor’s loss, donating to a repository can arouse a variety of grief responses.  As one respondent stated, the grieving process “can last a few months, or years, or a long lifetime.”  At least one respondent encountered significant grief reactions in a donor over 40 years after their loss.  The nature of archival work makes working with bereaved donors – and thus, encountering such grief reactions – a common occurrence.  With this in mind, it seems clear that further research on this topic is very much needed in order to better prepare inexperienced archivists for the challenge of working with the bereaved in a competent, compassionate, and professional manner.

Bibliography

Cancer.Net. (2015). Understanding grief and loss. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/grief-and-loss/understanding-grief-and-loss.  Last accessed: 8/1/2016.

Garbett-Styger, M. (2014). Death, dying, and archives: Learning to work with grieving and dying donors (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://cedar.wwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1395&context=wwuet.  Last accessed: 8/1/2016.

Lamb, D. H. (1988). Loss and grief: Psychotherapy strategies and interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training25(4), 561-569. doi:10.1037/h0085382

MedlinePlus. (2016). Bereavement. Retrieved from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/bereavement.html.  Last accessed: 8/1/2016.

Sara Harrington is an MLIS student at Louisiana State University.  She will obtain her master’s degree with a specialization in cultural heritage resource management in December 2016.  She is interested in the historical artifacts of popular culture, and the human side of archives. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.  

Response from I&A Poll Discovery or Not?

On June 24, 2016, we opened the I&A Poll Discovery or Not? The poll was inspired by two opinion pieces which were dated the previous week but were later pointed out to be from several years ago, regarding whether or not something could be discovered if it was in an archives. The poll remained open through July 1, 2016 and received 83 responses. Of those 83 responses, 19.5% identified as a member of the Issues & Advocacy Roundtable; 46.3% as a member of the Society of American Archivists but not the Issues & Advocacy Roundtable; 28% as an archivist but not a member of the Society of American Archivists; and 6.2% as someone who is not an archivist but wanted to weigh in.

Respondents were asked to read the two pieces and then asked what they thought. They were given four options and the results are as follows:

Discovery results

Respondents were asked if they had any other thoughts to share. Responses have been redacted to remove any potentially identifying information and have not been edited to fix any typos. The responses were:

  • There is a comment on each of the stories from an author who claims he cited the very same document in his 2008 book. It was not the original report at NARA, but a copy in a file at Georgetown. That basically refutes the researcher’s claim that “no one knew [it] was there.” But I also think her argument is flawed in general – just because archival collections are not processed to the item level does not mean every item found in that collection is a “discovery.” Perhaps the argument is semantics – based on how someone defines the term discovery. But the original article’s point that these “discoveries” often devalue or exclude the work archivists have done with historical material is an important one. I feel the researcher’s response missed that point.
  • Saying that a researcher “discovered” something in the archives is an unethical erasure of the massive amount of labor it takes to manage archives in the first place. Even if a contemporary archivist doesn’t specifically know about one piece of paper in a collection, that shouldn’t negate the labor and efforts of the repository or that one archivist’s predecessors. The records came into the archives because an archivist made the decision that they had enduring value.
  • “Discovery” depends on context. If it’s unprocessed or minimally-processed material, then it’s a lot easier for archivists or researchers to feel that thrill of seeing something for the first time in years. Even if the material is processed/described/accessible, if it’s highlighted or put to a new use, that also has the glow of discovery. My kneejerk negative reaction is that popular use of “discovery” also includes processed and described materials being put to perfectly ordinary use (there’s a difference between not CARING that something exists and not KNOWING it exists and/or an innovative way in which it can be used), and tends to disregard the fact that processing archivists discover things every day.
  • I agree with the researcher (who is also an archivist) that discoveries can be made and it is not to discount the efforts made by archivists. As a lone arranger archivist myself and under the time constraint of a two-year grant, I know perfectly well that I won’t know everything there is to know about my collection, it spans four generations and my best bet is to get it organized and then catalog what I can so that researchers can at least have a starting point. Archivists often do just make general decisions about a collection without sitting down and reading every item, we look at an envelope perhaps confirm the to and from and then file it where it belongs in the arrangement without ever looking at the actual content. I have even made these types of decisions when it comes to digitization, its time consuming and at times costly, you just choose those series you think most valuable to researchers but never know if one small item in the miscellaneous or another small series could be that one thing that changes a researcher’s whole angle on their topic. So yes, researchers make discoveries and their findings are very valuable to institutions, the public may not recognize the effort put in by the archives staff but those researchers do.
  • It seems that archivists have a lot of internal definitions that the general public does not share. I wonder about the broader importance of this issue. It seems that, as researchers’ skills and expectations change with the emergence of digital collections, we might revisit the importance of description. There is no way to describe a collection for every future researcher’s interests, but we do have a responsibility to ensure that description establishes appropriate context rather than assuming that researchers can hit control-f and find the items they require. To me, the issue here is whether we are enabling discovery (in archivists’ parlance) for modern researchers with different expectations and training than those of years past.
  • Discovery seems to me to be reliant on the concept of use and observation. I would argue that Columbus “discovered” America for Europe, for example, far more than did the Vikings who arrived there hundreds of years earlier. The former’s efforts resulted in actual change, whereas the latter’s attempts at colonization were scattered and ultimately doomed to failure. In the same way, an item may linger on the shelves for years or decades, but its value is only realized when a researcher or archivist finds it and makes use of it.
  • Even in the most well processed collections, archivists make decisions about what they’ll describe. In theory, we strike the perfect balance between brevity and detail that leads the researchers straight to the smoking gun, even if we don’t describe that gun itself. But maybe we don’t. And there are always items in the collections that even the archivist didn’t realize were there. So can the answer be yes and no at the same time? Schrodinger’s Hollinger box? Anything inside is both discovered and not discovered until the box is opened?
  • I don’t think the researchers analogy of King Tut’s Tomb holds water. A more acurate analogy would be saying that the tomb was “discovered” it in the 1300’s BC when it was built it is like saying Leland “discovered” the document when he wrote it. But of course in between when Leland wrote the report and when the researcher “discovered” it, there was an archivist at the National Archives who processed it…
  • I would say that the situation is nuanced but is also kind of boring and therefore requires less discussion
  • There are a lot of different ways we can think about “discovery.” You don’t have to be the first person in living memory to see something to “discover” it. I think “discoveries” are made in the archives all the time–it’s that aha moment, such as when a researcher finds what they were looking for. However, more to the point, archivists cannot necessarily know every single sheet of paper in their repository (although I would not say it is impossible). Even if a researcher finds an item that the archivist was unaware of, the item still falls under the responsibility of the the archivist. Users should be confident that the archivist has “taken care” of the items. I think documentation is a really important factor. Archivists do not have to describe at the item level to gain familiarity with the material and make note (if not in the finding aid, in an accession record or processing notes) of items that might be the most significant to users. Also, I think that archivists should provide means for researchers to comment on their research experiences. We should ask them: did you find what you were looking for? how could we improve our finding aids? did you find any discrepancies between the finding aid and the actual content of the boxes? Since researchers are the ones using the materials, archivists should respect their input and allow them to participate in the process of “describing” archival materials. Maybe then we can fill in some of the gaps and get a better understanding of the materials in our collections.
  • the articles in question appear to be from 2012, not a month ago or this week
  • I also blame MPLP. And sheer volume of materials. Archivists don’t look at item level. Why can’t this be a “discovery” with mutual shared credit (even, shared “author-ity”). Archivist led researcher to collection. Researcher found item. Neither possible w/o the other
  • If we’re not describing collections at the item level, let’s give researchers their due for highlighting discoveries from collections described at the folder/box/series level. If we really think that we’re not missing interesting records when we MPLP a collection, we’re deluding ourselves.
  • The original articles were written 4 years ago, not a month ago, but still quite relevant.
  • Even if an item is “findable,” the archivist’s knowledge of it doesn’t move it into the public arena as a scholarly/historical resource. It needs to be a partnership of archivist and researcher to save/protect/make available on one side and to explore/spend the time/read the documents/make connections on the other.
  • This question is nuanced, but I generally thought the “yes” opinion to be closer to my views. I think it is possible that there are uncatalogued items that no archivist in recent memory knows are there (like the Lincoln report). I also think there are many times when an uncatalogued item is well known by the archivists and is not truly a “discovery” for a researcher. It’s clear that more advocacy about the nature and value of the work that archivists do is needed.
  • Perhaps we can liken this to “personal discovery”….i.e. a friend could tell you your book purchases boarder on obsession long before you “discover” that truth when confronted with the bill. Archivist’s set the stage for discovery. It is up to the researcher what to do with that discovery.
  • We can’t possibly remember or know what every piece of paper is or says, even if we have come across it in our work. That’s much like saying that a librarian should know what content is on every page in every book in a library’s collection. Plus, our researchers find documents that have been long forgotten and it is a new discovery not only because we located it again but, also because we just located it within this time and place with a different perspective. The analysis of history changes over time depending on new discoveries and someone may have come across a certain document decades earlier; however, there may not have been any well-documented context for it until the recent ‘discovery’.
  • From nearly 40 years in the Archives biz I’d say that each person who discovers what he or she had not previously known, well, they’ve made a DISCOVERY! Does publication mean it was previously discovered? Do multiple copies mean it was previously discovered?
  • Repositories differ on levels of cataloging and amounts of metadata made available. These differences are often due to funding levels and/or size of the repository. If funding challenges and lack of personnel force archives to not list creator names, describe materials of note, or even make their finding aids public electronically, findability is restricted. Yes, researchers who habe time and funds to make in-depth searches make “discoveries”. But archivists would make more discoveries themselves if afforded the opportunity to catalog in a more detailed way. It’s unfortunate that MPLP often becomes “no product because no process” in lone arranger situations.
  • If it’s in an archives, even if unprocessed, someone decided the materials were important & needed to be preserved & cared for. Regardless of the stage of care, it’s presence in an archives makes it accessible & thus findable on some level. If the media & scholars would just acknowledge & understand the scope of what we do across formats & time with extremely limited financial & staffing resources, I don’t think it would rankle so bad when they claim to “discover” a document. These “discoveries” never turn into additional staff or supplies though. Given that they must market themselves & their research to get tenure, I doubt the media hype will change.
  • Discoveries can be made by both parties, either working together or separately. Plus, many of our institutions have poorly-described or unprocessed collections that could contain countless treasures.
  • It’s naive to think that our esoteric access tools make it obvious or easy for the general public to be aware of the contents of our collections. It can also be reductive and offensive to archivists’ hard work to imply that a document was completely unknown when it simply hadn’t been written about yet. HOWEVER, if the archivists themselves are completely unaware of a document’s existence, for example in the case of folder-level processing where specific contents are not understood, then I do think it can be framed as a discovery. It’s important to still emphasize that the item was well cared for and managed within a collection, not rotting in a forgotten basement.
  • Can’t they both me given credit?

If Not Us, Then Who?

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Verónica Reyes-Escudero about cultural competence in archives.  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 archivesissues@gmail.com.

“My mother would turn over in her grave if she knew her papers were going to the Yankees.” One of my donors spoke these words as he considered donation of his mother’s papers with us. As a donor of Mexican decent, his words captured his fears and misgivings about donating his family’s legacy to a U.S. academic institution. Two years into our relationship, he was on a visit to our archive, and I was demonstrating what we had to offer to preserve, process, and make his mother’s invaluable papers accessible. We were standing by one of the stacks. I could see he was delighted by the future we offered for his mother’s papers – preservation, organization, access – especially in light of their state in his home. But anxiety came over him as he contemplated the decision. What would it mean to him – to his extended family? to his mother’s legacy? – to deposit her papers in a place, institution, and a nation representative of so deep a history of marginalization, even rejection? I understood his misgivings – the tremble of his voice — the knot in his throat. And I didn’t just understand: I knew it, too.

I recently co-authored a book with Patricia Montiel-Overall and Annabel Nuñez entitled Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives: Cultural Competence in Action!An Asset based approach. The Issues & Advocacy (I&A) Roundtable generously invited me to blog on cultural competence in archives after the book was announced on the Archives listserv. When my colleagues and I began to discuss writing about working with Latinos, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take on the task. But my professional service had led me to see the importance – the imperative – to write about cultural competence in our field. For me, the opportunity was timely: Dr. Montiel-Overall had written on the topic of cultural competence, and I had already presented widely on building relationships with donors from underrepresented communities. Our colleague Annabelle Nuñez had long worked as a health sciences librarian, brokering relationships between community and colleagues in Public Health.

I did not take on a book lightly. It was a substantial commitment for all of us. We would necessarily sacrifice evenings, early mornings – and, for me, the only family day each week with my small children. And, as a minority faculty, I wondered whether or not research on diversity and cultural competence would be taken seriously. (I’m sure there are one or more studies on how research by minority faculty is discounted – especially when they research diversity.) After many cafecitos to discuss our ideas and experiences, we decided the issues, and our commitment to them, was too important. If not us, then who?

In my now longish library career as a librarian, I’ve immersed myself in several areas, including more than twelve years in special collections. As Associate Librarian and Borderlands Curator for Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries, I’ve worked with many donors with misgivings just like the one I mentioned above. Slowly, I began to realize I brought assets and competencies into my work with donors I was otherwise taking for granted.

Special Collections Librarians and Archivists working with the Latino and other communities face a variety of challenges in pursuit of collections. We heed the calls to acquire materials from various underrepresented communities. We join our efforts to those of other institutions. Yet we’ve hardly considered the skills necessary to work within, and with, these communities. As we wrote Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives, we had long conversations about our respective clients, donors, patrons. Most importantly, we recognized the importance of tacit knowledge. We began to tease out long-ago learned behaviors and knowledge so deeply held it was second-nature, and hardly valued. It did not escape me what we were delving into what might be described – perhaps diminished – as “soft skills.” But I know now, through our experience and the research, these competencies are essential, hard-won, even painful insights to our communities. Trust and relationships with our underrepresented communities cannot be taken for granted. Research, identity, and the historical record depend on trust and relationships. While the Latino community is our book’s focus, the suggestions will ring familiar to anyone working with other underrepresented communities.

There is much to be said. A previous post delves into some of that conversation already. What I offer here are some competencies necessary for work with the Latino community, and brief thoughts on their importance.

In Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives, we listed characteristics of a culturally competent professional. I have used all of them in my work as an intermediary between donors and my home institution. My cultural awareness – of myself and others – and my awareness of context and history has informed my actions many times. I am of “the same background” – in my case Mexican – but I see, understand, and appreciate differences and the nuances of the Mexican community. I understand how various factors affect how we communicate and relate to one another. We are varied. We cannot be depicted or represented with the same brush. And who we are affords us assets: ties to others, knowledge of resources, the ability to speak more than one language, and the knowledge of the place and significance of experience found in archival material. By practicing an ethic of caring, librarians and archivists doing the hard work of building trust with the disenfranchised and disregarded learn respect and patience, and the importance of an open mind, an open heart, authenticity and genuine commitment to building trust.

Culturally-competent librarians and archivists alone are not enough. To be successful, our institutions must understand and support commitments to diversifying collections and nurture cultural competency. Institutions must do the important work of self-reflection. What institutional values are in place? Have the parent institution and the library established standards for diversity? Are the institution’s or library’s statements about diversity focused, manageable, and clear? Or are they too broad? Has the institution committed resources to meaningful diversity projects?

Anyone working with donors knows the necessity of managing expectations. When building trust with the Latino community or any other underrepresented communities, we know missteps can take enormous energy and time to repair – or prove irreparable. Our institutions must understand their commitment is paramount. We cannot be looking over our shoulders, wondering about institutional support. And, given past experiences, many of our donors are looking over our shoulders at our institutions, and they are dubious about the depth of commitment. Our knowledge of our own institutions and archival standards and ethics go hand-in-hand with our cultural competencies.

The end to my donor’s story proved something of a fairy tale, as several things came together. Standing there in the stacks and shelves, voice trembling, my donor decided to donate his mother’s papers. His family, learning about the deposit, and with some additional relationship-building, donated still more material. Their collections afforded the opportunity for our inaugural Spanish-language finding aid. At an event to celebrate the launch of a related, bilingual digital exhibit, long-standing family differences were set aside to celebrate an extraordinary legacy and an archive preserved, open for research, and accessible.

At an interview in preparation for the same event, my donor was asked what made him decide to donate the archive to our institution. I was there to translate. He spoke of me, our relationship, and my institution. You were authentic with me, he said. I could see that you were a serious person. And you had the institution behind you to do what needed to be done.

Verónica Reyes-Escudero is Associate Librarian and Borderlands Curator at the University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections.

I&A Poll: Discovery or Not?

We’ve all heard it before. A researcher makes a groundbreaking discovery…in an archives. Who should get the round of applause? The researcher or the archivist who processed and/or catalogued the collection?

About a month ago, news broke that there was new insight into Lincoln’s final hours. A researcher found a report from the first doctor who treated Lincoln. The report was heralded as a discovery, however, it was found filed away in a collection in the National Archives. This week there has been a bit of a point/counterpoint discussion with two opinion pieces from the Atlantic: Note Bene: If You ‘Discover’ Something in an Archive, It’s Not a Discovery and Actually, Yes, It *Is* a Discovery If You Find Something in an Archive That No One Knew Was There.

Now we ask you—can something be discovered in an archives? Take a look at the two pieces and take the poll. We’ll report the response here on the blog.

This I&A poll is open to all and will be accepting responses through July 1, 2016.

Take the I&A poll Discovery or Not?

Hamilton Gets the Jameson

Once upon a time, back in February, the I&A Steering Committee was brainstorming potential nominees for the J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award. Ideas were being tossed around and then there was one, a name. Alexander Hamilton, or, more specifically, the musical, Hamilton. One by one, we all began to agree. More than a few of us were fans of the hit musical, and none could deny the attention that it, and its source material, brought to archives. Steering Committee member Jeremy Brett drafted the application (portions of it are reproduced below) and we sent it off.

Over the course of the next several months, Hamilton and Lin-Manual Miranda won award after award. You can imagine our delight when we found out that another award could be added to the list. If you didn’t read this week’s “In the Loop,” spoiler alert: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ron Chernow won the 2016 Jameson Archival Advocacy Award!

Many thanks to the J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award Committee for all of their work. No word yet on whether the winners will be in Atlanta to accept the award, but one can hope.

How does the nominee meet the criteria of the award?

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical (and national cultural phenomenon) Hamilton, which debuted off-Broadway in January 2015 and moved to Broadway in August 2015 in response to a wave of critical and popular acclaim, is a powerful example of the emotional impact that history can have on people’s hearts and minds when presented in an original and creative form. It also wonderfully proves the power of story and of individual historical personalities, as the narrative of one man’s life (Alexander Hamilton) evolves from archival evidence gathered through primary sources into a unified biographical study and then into a dynamic artistic production that unites the social and political concerns of the 18th century with those of the 21st. The story of the musical’s very creation is one that demonstrates such power: Miranda came upon Ron Chernow’s lauded biography Alexander Hamilton at an airport in 2008, looking for reading material for his vacation. He was immediately captivated by the drama inherent in Hamilton’s rise from poor orphaned immigrant to powerful politician and one of the major figures of America’s Founding Generation, as well as by the direct and readable prose and expert use of primary sources that made Chernow’s book a bestseller. Miranda instantly saw the potential in Hamilton’s story as a chance to tell our national history through a contemporary musical lens, and with Chernow’s biography as his inspiration went on to create a vibrant, deep and intensely clever musical with a powerful union of hip-hop, Latin-flavored, and traditional musical stylings. It is particularly notable in that the major roles, including Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, Angelica Schuyler Church, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis De Lafayette and James Madison, are all played by actors of color – this choice on Miranda’s part not only reinforces the traditional image of America as a refuge for immigrants and minorities but causes its audience to question the ongoing cultural dominance of American history by whites.

The continuing popularity of Hamilton, and the renewed interest in the book that inspired it have sparked among a wide variety of people a new fascination with Hamilton’s life, his times, and those of the people around him. Because of the musical, new generations of students are learning about Hamilton and his inspirational immigrant’s story. As Newsweek’s Zach Schonfeld says, “This show has done more than any work of pop culture to bring Alexander Hamilton out of the ivory tower and into the popular consciousness.”

The Jameson Award is designed to honor those who most effectively promote greater public awareness, appreciation, or support of archival activities or programs. The phenomenon that Hamilton has become affirms that there is a real public hunger for history and a fascination for the primary materials that document it. (Miranda certainly, in the course of writing the show, made great and profitable use of the writings of Hamilton and Aaron Burr, among others.) The Atlantic’s Edward Delman notes that “now, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has the opportunity to change the way people consider one of the Founding Fathers and the era he lived in.” The combination of Miranda’s artistic brilliance and Chernow’s sterling historical scholarship has made for a powerful tool that educators, students, and the general public have used and will continue to use in gaining a better understanding of early American history and, by extension, the letters and other primary documentation that chronicle it. The New York Public Library, for example, has recently embarked on a project to digitize much of its holdings relating to Hamilton and other historical figures featured in the show and make those images publicly available, in response to the show’s popularity.

The Issues & Advocacy Roundtable Steering Committee wholeheartedly nominates the team of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ron Chernow to receive the 2016 J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award, as champions of and advocates for the power of history and archives to inspire and educate us. We hope that the Jameson Award Committee will consider this in making its decision, and will not, in fact, throw away its shot at finding the best possible recipient for this year’s award.

What are the outstanding characteristics of the nominee?

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a brilliant composer and lyricist whose 2008 musical In The Heights won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical, and, for Miranda himself, Best Original Score) as well as a 2009 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album and a nomination for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The musical, like Hamilton, was marked by its fusion of hip-hop and Latin musical style. He is also the co-composer and co-lyricist for the 2011 musical Bring It On, which was nominated for 2 Tonys and 5 Drama Desk Awards.

Miranda is particularly noted for his combinations of musical and lyrical styles drawn from a number of American cultural communities, including his own Puerto Rican ethnic background. His works have received multiple awards in addition to those above; perhaps most notably, he was awarded a coveted 2015 MacArthur Genius Grant. It is also worth noting that Miranda and Ron Chernow received the 2015 History Makers Award from the New-York Historical Society, signifying an acknowledgment within the historical community of the importance of their work in raising historical consciousness.

Ron Chernow is a noted historian and biographer. His biography Alexander Hamilton (2004), regarded by many now as the standard one-volume biography of the man, won the 2004 George Washington Book Prize (from Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which also awarded Lin-Manuel Miranda a Special Achievement Award in 2015) and was nominated for the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award. His 2011 work Washington: A Life won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He has also written works on the history of the J.P. Morgan financial empire, on the Warburg family, and on John D. Rockefeller, Sr. In 2011 Gordon Wood dubbed Chernow “an outstanding member of the new breed of popular historians who dominate narrative history-writing in the United States today”, taking note that “his ability to master the secondary sources as well as the primary materials is the secret of his remarkable success as a biographer.”

Supporting Documents

Focusing on the Practical Needs of Community Archives

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Kris Bronstad about her survey that will gather much needed information on community archives.  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 archivesissues@gmail.com.

Community archives are important. I’m not talking about the representative family or organizational papers sewn into the patchwork of a large manuscript repository, although those collections are important, too. I’m referring to independent community archives existing outside the reach of professional associations and networks, and representing communities chronically under-represented in relatively well-funded state or academic repositories. I think we intrinsically know, not just as archivists but as members of multiple communities ourselves, that these community archives are important, and have always been.

Many of these necessary community archives remain outside the traditional archives’ gravitational pull by choice. Some groups may be searching for technical advice or assistance, but are wary of asking institutional repositories. How can we offer our expertise as archivists in a way that respects community archives’ independence?  Archivists have been tinkering with the nuts and bolts of acquiring, organizing and making things accessible for a while now. Couldn’t we offer to supplement community archives’ own expertise with the practical knowledge we’ve acquired and already happily share amongst ourselves?  Although it would be foolish to assume such action would be free of the power dynamics existing between the state/academy/organizations we are agents of and the groups community archives represent, we believe the benefits of sharing what we know outweigh any potential harm of this interaction.

These were the conversations, among Sonia Yaco, Rebecca Hankins and I, that inspired us to consider developing resources aimed at community archives.  Through Sonia and Rebecca’s work with various community archives, we know at the ground level there’s a need for more resource and information sharing. While the UK and elsewhere have a history of infrastructure support for community archives, there seemed to be few publicly available resources here in the United States. This is of course with the exception of important work done by groups such as LAGAR, Library Juice and IMLS’s National Digital Platform. Definitely there are others doing similar, vital work.

Survey

But what are the needs of community archives? We found there wasn’t much information describing what aspects of archival maintenance community archivists want to know more about. Are community archives (and archivists working with them) interested in the technical aspects of arrangement, description, and access? Are outreach and legal issues bigger concerns? To find out, we need to know more about different community archives: who are the people who work with them, what are their needs, and how we can help if asked. We decided the best way of starting to ask these questions was to utilize the existing networks of individuals involved in both the professional archival world and in working with community archives. We’ve launched an online survey[i] asking our archival colleagues who have worked with community archives to tell us more about the communities they have worked with.

Finding and Defining Archivists

There are obviously some blurry lines here. The archival profession is elastic and defies strict definition. To get around that we’re surveying people who self-identify as professional archivists. If you have earned or are on track to earn a master’s degree in information science degree with archival coursework, or you are members of national professional organization for archivists, and/or are certified as archivists, you may recognize yourself as a professional archivist.

Why are we limiting the survey to those professional archivists I just attempted to describe? Our theory is that targeting professional archivists first and foremost­—and not individuals involved solely with community archives—gives us some practical advantages. First, it makes it easier to contact respondents. From where we sit, community archivists lack the same kind of visible, funded, and widespread specialized networks established used by professional archivists. Secondly, querying professional archivists increases the chance that respondents will be comfortable with archives-specific terminology and analyzing archival needs.

Focusing solely on professional archivists also provides obvious disadvantages. We’re not tapping the expertise of community archivists themselves, who have the most important say on the matter of their own communities and practices, and who have information and experiences professional archivists could learn from. We’re also guilty of not directly tapping the expertise of archival educators, who have done an enormous amount of work with community archives. Archival educators are theoretically a target population of our survey, but we didn’t know how active and prolific their relationships with community archives actually can be. We we will need different questions to properly investigate their work.  Listening to these communities (community archives themselves and archival educators) are essential areas of inquiry, and those investigations will hopefully constitute our next steps. Surveying those practitioners who work directly with community archives and are also plugged into professional networks is our first step.

 What do we want to know?

While our main goal was to figure out what tools were needed, we wanted to take the opportunity to find out about community archives themselves: what kind of materials they collect, broadly what sort of community they serve (Is it a community of interest? Location? Identity?). We also want to know what tools the archives have in place. These are all important in deciding the focus of future resources.

Some of the other questions we ask respondents concern:

  •  What help is most commonly requested of archivists interacting with community archives
  •  What issues the respondent has had trouble helping community archives with, if any
  •  What the respondent would most like to see in new resources for community archives

We will also collect demographic information about our respondents, including type of employer, country of residence, age range, and education. This is part of our attempt to understand if there are discernable patterns in which professional archivists have relationships with community archives.

Are there questions we’re not asking that we should be? Resources we’re overlooking? You tell us (please). This is an ongoing exploration.

If you have worked with community archives, we invite you to take the survey. The survey will be available until 11:59pm on June 27. You can find it here. It will take 10-30 minutes of your time given how much information you want to give, and will be anonymous.

If you have already taken the survey, thank you.

Kris Bronstad is an Assistant Professor and Modern Political Archivist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Libraries.

[i] ARCHIVIST RELATIONSHIPS WITH AND ASSESSMENT OF COMMUNITY ARCHIVES SURVEY UTK IRB-16-02885-XM — TAMU IRB 2016-3010 — UIC IRB 2016-0350. If you have questions at any time about the study or the procedures, contact me the researcher, Kris Bronstad, at lbronsta@utk.edu. If you have questions about your rights as a participant, you may contact the University of Tennessee IRB Compliance Officer at utkirb@utk.edu or (865) 974-7697.

 

 

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.

Steering Share: Laurel Bowen

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post is from  Steering Committee member Laurel Bowen.

How did you get involved in archives?

In graduate school (history) I regularly passed by a door in the library.  One day I got curious and walked in.  The man in charge of archives, rare, and manuscript collections took me on a lengthy behind-the-scenes tour, explaining what they did and why.  Wow!  Why talk about history described in books when you can touch, feel, and experience it in documents, images, and objects real people leave as evidence of their lives?  My first archives job was working with a large, newly discovered collection documenting a major U.S. social movement.  Professors at the local university pestered us constantly, trying to get hints about what we were discovering.

Why did you get involved with the Issues & Advocacy Roundtable?

I’ve always been inspired by SAA’s goal to increase public awareness of the value of archives and archivists, so I was involved early with the I&A Roundtable.  How public awareness might occur, though, was unclear to me until several property owners in my extensive neighborhood tried to change the residential land use and zoning on their property to sell it to big businesses.  Looking for ways to counter those owners resulted in an eye-opening experience in the practical but powerful ways archives can be used.  As community advocates, archivists can find and use records to persuade government officials to support residents dealing with important quality of life issues.  Citizens appreciate the power of documents and images when that evidence proves a lawyer is presenting only half the story.  And the public values skills in locating and interpreting records when that makes a concrete difference in their lives.

What is an archives issue that means a lot to you?

I’m troubled about the increasingly creative ways public officials find to avoid transparency and accountability as they govern in our name.  The distance some officials will go to camouflage their actions demonstrates awareness of their responsibilities, but often a sense of power and an “I know best” attitude lure them to the dark side where they become easy prey for people with money and influence.  Officials who serve in the public interest can be careless in creating public records, deny citizens timely access to them, or even misplace or destroy records they are required to maintain and produce.  Citizens also seem distracted and less attentive to their rights … until it’s too late.  Records define rights and responsibilities.  Archivists know records.  Archivists can make a difference!

How would you define advocacy?

Advocacy is being passionate and “vocal,” but it is also being well-prepared and persuasive to those with the power to decide an issue.  Along the way, there may be a need to learn how to read the documents, learn the concepts, and talk the language of other professions well enough to communicate citizens’ viewpoints in a compelling way.  Being able to translate technical issues and government procedures into ordinary language that motivates supporters to stay with the cause–and convinces others to join–is also essential.  And finally, an overall strategy that weaves all of this together improves the likelihood of success.  Sometimes, being called “a thorn in the side” by the powerful is a grudging token of respect for your cause.

There Will Be No Digital Dark Age

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Bertram Lyons addressing the alleged “Digital Dark Age.” 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 archivesissues@gmail.com.

[Update: Eira Tansey, from SAA’s Records Management Roundtable has written a response to this piece.]

On January 4, 2016, NPR published a story, “Will Future Historians Consider These Days The Digital Dark Ages?”, with the tagline: “We are awash in a sea of information, but how do historians sift through the mountain of data? In the future, computer programs will be unreadable, and therefore worthless, to historians.”[1]

As is often the case with news media, there is a noticeable absence in the way the story is framed. Read the tagline again. What is missing? It seems that the journalist ignores the fact that historians[2] have intermediaries called archivists who not only select and aggregate data for the future but who have also been heavily engaged in the question of digital preservation and digital acquisition since at least the 1980s.[3] We, as archivists, are not absent, and have not been absent from the action.[4] We are, however, hidden in the public narrative. This not being the first time that I felt frustrated to see archivists (and our sibling professions) left out of the conversation, I left a note on the NPR comment page for the article:

“Hi Eric. This is a nice story. Something we need to remember, and that did not come across in your story, is that this is an issue that archives, libraries, museums, funding agencies (IMLS, NEH, NSF), and many, many others have dedicated decades of time and millions of dollars into researching, responding to, and developing methods to prevent such a digital dark age. Nothing in your report is news to any practicing records managers, archivists, cultural heritage collection managers, librarians, or any others whose responsibility it is to take care of historical and informational documentation. It is great that NPR is promoting this issue, but please do not promote the issue as if only a few prophet-like or savior-like individuals are involved. From NASA to the Smithsonian, from Harvard to Indiana University, from the Internet Archive to the British Library, there is an army of practitioners working on this problem—and it will take an army, not just a few, to ensure we carry our digital information with us into the future. But we will succeed, just as we succeeded in previous generations by amassing an army of librarians to carry our books with us, and an army of museologists to carry our artifacts.”

I really am not sure how many people this comment reached. Maybe no more than 30 if I had to make a guess. But that is not the real point of this post. The point is not about my small response to this one report on NPR. One of the points I hope to make has already been stated: We are not and have not been absent from the digital preservation questions. We are, however, hidden in the public narrative. From emerging efforts to improve social media data collection activities such as Documenting the Now[5] to decade-old web archiving programs such as the Internet Archive; from the ePADD email analysis project at Stanford University[6] to the enduring work of the Digital Preservation Management Workshops and Tutorials,[7] as well as the Digital POWRR project;[8] from LOCKSS and CLOCKSS networks to the continued outreach of the NDSA; from the forensic methodologies applied in the archives domain via the BitCurator project[9] to the millions of hours audiovisual archivists the world over have already put into the process of avoiding the never-mentioned magnetic dark age;[10] the list of archive-based digital preservation and documentation initiatives goes on. Seriously, the list of projects and research alone could fill an archive, not to mention the enormous amount of actual digital content collected, selected, and processed each day by archivists, librarians, museum professionals, records managers, and many others in the collecting domains around the world. We are there, we are doing the work, we will continue to do the work, and we, most of all, must continue to communicate about our digital preservation work outside of the walls of the archive profession.[11]

However, even a few weeks into the future, I would argue with myself about the comment I made on the NPR site. I did not go far enough to address the important topics of selection and appraisal, nor the complexity of who collects and selects the documentation that will persist into the future. Which leads to the other point I hope to make in the context of a digital dark age: the concepts of selection and agency to collect are more salient today than the fear of lost bits. We critique the contents of archives today — the absences, the presences — because, as archivists, we know that appraisal and selection matter. Even as, today, we ask important questions about how these activities should change — focusing on what is selected for the archive and by whom, and to be stored where and for how long — we ask these questions to improve the effect archives and archivists can have on society, to reveal assumptions and biases in the practice of archives, and, in turn, to affect change within the archives profession itself.

The digital dark age will not happen in the way that the media predict it. We should not be blinded by a fear of the inability to ensure persistence of digital information. As I mentioned above, it is obvious that as a profession (and as part of larger communities) we are engaged in the technical solutions to that issue.[12] If we have any digital dark age, it will manifest, as has been the case in the past with other forms of information, as a silence within the archive, as a series of gaping holes where groups of individuals and communities are absent because there was no path into the archive for them,[13] where important social events go undocumented because we were not prepared to act quickly enough, and where new modalities for communication are not planned for. The digital dark age will only happen if we, as communities of archives and archivists, do not reimagine appraisal and selection in light of the historical gaps revealed in collections today.

It is the digital-ness of today’s world that may actually allow archives to reach out to and to document (or to support self-documentation of) the enormity and complexity of society in a way that has never been feasible before.[14]

Bertram Lyons is a Certified Archivist and senior consultant with AVPreserve, where he specializes in digital asset management, digital preservation strategy, digital repository development, and in the acquisition, management, and preservation of documentary, research, and cultural heritage collections.

 For fourteen years Bert has worked as an archivist for extensive archives, first at the Alan Lomax Archive and most recently at the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress, where he developed tools, policies, and partnerships around the development and management of analog and digital archival collections. His recent activities include the implementation of digital risk assessment standards in the assessment of digital preservation environments; development of digital collections management workflows, tools, and policies (including a new tool, Exactly); the design and implementation of a nation-wide, EAD-compliant, multi-user online cataloging platform for folklore collections, a project sponsored by the American Folklore Society and hosted at Indiana University; the design, development, and implementation of the U.S. International Standard Music Number (ISMN) web application for the Music Division at the Library of Congress, the U.S. ISMN agency; as well as the development of a collaborative workflow system for the congressionally mandated U.S. Civil Rights History Project, a born-digital oral-history partnership between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

 Bert is active nationally and internationally with professional archival organizations such as the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (Member of the Executive Board and Editor of IASA publications) and the Society of American Archivists (Chair of the Membership Committee). He has also received certification from the Academy of Certified Archivists and is a graduate of the Archives Leadership Institute. He holds a MA in museum studies with a focus in American studies and archival theory from the University of Kansas.

Bert is also an associate lecturer in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches Archive Appraisal & Theory, Digital Curation, and Web & Social Media Archiving. He will be serving as a new SAA DAS faculty member in 2016, teaching an introductory course on command line scripting for archive workflows.

[1] Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2016/01/04/461878724/will-future-historians-consider-these-times-the-digital-dark-ages, 2016-04-27.

[2] Actually, many who write “history” today are heavily engaged in digital archaeology or digital humanities and, themselves, have the skills and capacity to reconstitute abandoned and/or obsolete data formats.

[3] An easy example is this list of the writings of David Bearman, stretching back into the 1970s, actually: http://www.archimuse.com/consulting/bearman_pub.html, or Jennifer Trant, beginning in the 1980s, http://www.archimuse.com/consulting/trant_pub.html. Really the list could go on and on.

[4] I have to thank Ed Summers (http://inkdroid.org/) for the reminder to revisit the excellent work of David Rosenthal on the question of the digital dark age: http://blog.dshr.org/2011/02/are-we-facing-digital-dark-age.html.

[5] Read more: http://mith.umd.edu/introducing-documenting-the-now/.

[6] Read more: https://library.stanford.edu/projects/epadd.

[7] Read more: http://www.dpworkshop.org/.

[8] Read more: http://digitalpowrr.niu.edu/.

[9] Read more: http://www.bitcurator.net/.

[10] You know why? Because archivists.

[11] And, of course, there are many examples of this activity ongoing today, including efforts surrounding personal digital archiving, digital humanities and other academic collaborations, and research data management programs.

[12] We do need to continue to broadcast these efforts beyond the profession, however.

[13] Or there was no repositioning of an archive that exists within their bounds, within their control.

[14] I mentioned Documenting the Now previously in this post, but this is an excellent example of a combined  technological and ideological approach to address the absence of voices and experiences that have long been silent in the archive by refocusing collecting agency, reinforcing ethics and privacy, and redefining the archival record.