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.

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.