The National Archives is redesigning its website. Like most government website redesigns, anything will be better than what they have now. Anything.
If you don’t think I’m serious about how bad their site is, just look at this flow chart about ARC, their catalog, published one click into their site:
I could go into detail about why it’s useless, but let’s just say that if you’re not an archivist this means NOTHING to you and if you are an archivist, you wonder what’s so complicated about the idea of file hierarchies that a flow chart is required. This is a pretty good representation of the rest of the site — a lot of useless information at the wrong level of granularity, confusing, busy, all getting in the way of the core tasks that visitors to the site might want to perform.
So, they’re dong a website redesign. But they can’t seem to shake their acute case of the BORINGS.
If you click through, you’ll see that they desperately need a copy editor. “Veteran’s service records” vs “Teachers’ resources”? Spot the mistakes in “9 billion permanently valuable records.” Ugh.
English-language problems aside, the site makes me think that doing research at NARA is going to be a bloodless, anesthetized affair, where I’ll be hassled to fill out six zillion forms all duplicating the same information and then sit in a freezing reading room where I look through almost-useless catalogs and finding aids, on one hand hoping that they have what I need and on the other hand secretly delighted that if nothing turns up, I can leave this god-forsaken place.
As my colleague Jordon Steele reminded me this morning, none of us got involved in archives because we wanted to be bored… right?
About a year ago, a friend asked me to speak at career day at the high school where she was teaching in Fishtown (that’s a neighborhood in Philadelphia). It was a good time in my career as an archivist — I wasn’t yet at my “all of my efforts are for naught because the institution doesn’t actually care about research or researchers, they just want to complain and do their work poorly” phase. Indeed, I was still in my “with enough smiles and patient explaining, surely we can at least put some shit up on the internet!” phase. Anyway, it was a nice time in my Philadelphia career. It was a time that reminded me why I wanted to be an archivist.
Basically, I wanted to be an archivist because I love the philosophy of history. This comes from my natural disposition toward being a big, staring-over-my-glasses, brutally honest, hater. I have no use for nostalgia, living history museums make me ill, and as far as I’m concerned, big books about founding fathers are most useful for throwing through the windows of living history museums. I love some good queer history, some subaltern studies, class analysis… and I love it because I don’t think of history as an avocation.
History, to me, is a mode of analysis so that we can understand and perhaps gain leverage on our situation. History helps us understand that there’s nothing natural about the way societies and economies and (DARE I SAY?) families operate, that these systems are the products of centuries of habits and traditions, and that there were times in the past where great ruptures occurred. I find this tremendously liberating because it means that it doesn’t always have to be like this, it won’t always be like this, and my situation isn’t what it is because of my inherent worth or any other form of fundamental justice other than that which we enforce.
And who, I asked myself, would find this more compelling than under-served urban teenagers? After all, when we’re teenagers, so many of us assume that the world HAS to be this way (and our parents are responsible for making it so!). High schoolers often have no conception of the scope of the world, either geographically or chronologically, and I wanted to give them the same sort of brain melt that I first encountered (if they haven’t already had it) when I started asking questions about the veracity of historical sources and other questions of authority.
Really, I had three messages I wanted to convey:
- There world has more to offer you than you know exists in it.
- How do you know what you know? Who’s your authority, and does this source deserve your trust?
- The people who make judgments about what happened in the past are people, just like you, and hopefully they took the time to make careful considerations. You could do this too.
So, I brought some effin’ cool images from the archives about archaeologists, anthropologists, ancient civilizations and living peoples from around the world.
These images, I hoped, would speak to goal 1 — exposing us all to the breath and depth of opportunities in the world, and showing us all something new. Broadening horizons, I guess.
Then I talked about how as an archivist, I keep track of these images and their associated records so that we can all read them carefully and understand more about the past. I talked about how in archaeology, once we dig up a site, all that’s left is the record of that site — we couldn’t visit it again if we wanted to. This is why we need records so that we can read or imagine the past. I talked about how things change, and while we leave traces of these changes, the past can never be wholly reconstructed.
The question then becomes a question of interpretation. Why are we trying to figure out the past in the first place? Is this to make some claim on the past? To right wrongs previously committed? And how are we consuming the past?
I asked the students how they learn history — from their teacher, they say.
Okay, how does the teacher know? From the textbook.
And, well, how does the textbook know? Was the author around in 1944 to know for sure that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? Or in 1066 to see the Battle of Hastings?
Well, then how does he know?
He knows, we discussed, because of primary sources like letters and newspapers and diaries and also from oral tradition (sort of like how you know because your teacher told you).
But, I asked, can’t newspapers and letters and dairies lie?
Whoa. These kids, who were honestly not giving me much indication that they were interested up until this point, had their minds blown at this moment. One of them kind of freaked out.
“But if they can lie, how do we know ANYTHING?”
“Well, let’s say something happens at school and you weren’t there. How do you find out what happened? You talk to some people. If you have someone who you always, always trust, you might just ask that person. But maybe the first person you ask is the kind of person who likes to start rumors, or who isn’t always honest. You might start by asking that person, but you would probably talk to more people too. Historians do the same thing. They evaluate their sources — they try to figure out if the person writing down the story has any reason to be dishonest, and when they can, they check the story against other peoples’ stories, people who might have been there.”
So there were goals 2 and 3 — understanding that history is a human, not natural process, that human beings have to interpret this information, and that these students, with some deliberation, have every bit as much of a right to interpret sources as anyone else.
And what does this all have to do with NARA and their boring, boring, BORING existence?
Well, let’s just say this. I’m really tired of whiny archives and archivists complaining about fighting to stay relevant. History IS relevant. It just is. It’s the production, dissemination and access to history that we’ve clouded in mystery and technology and worked hard to make “specialized” or “professional” or otherwise IRRELEVANT to the people who might draw power from it. So, NARA, if you really want to redesign your website, make it clear how much your holdings are going to blow my mind. Tell me how you’re going to give me the story behind the story, how NOT BORING history inherently is (particularly the history of the actions of the US government, hoo-boy), and stop building barriers with flowcharts and jargon and archival bullshit.