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Why I also don’t post to Archives & Archivists

28 Jul

In honor of Ben Bromley’s post, I thought that I would keep the ball rolling about why I don’t find A&A useful, and also talk about professional development resources that I do find useful and how I think the A&A could be improved.

I will make a caveat that I’m something of a crankypants about fluffiness entering my worklife. This is partly because I’m extremely busy — I’m near the beginning of my career, trying to learn a lot, and responsible for a large project — and partly because I think it’s important to separate my work life and my personal life. If I’m going to read jokes on the internet, I’m going to do that after hours. Same for looking at images of flowers. Same for thinking about picnic menus. I’m friendly, I’m cordial, and I’m personable at work, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to send my colleagues those kinds of emails. And frankly, I think that we would all be better off if we thought of members of the list as future colleagues or supervisors. It’s unprofessional to interrupt my inbox with dumb crap in a professional forum.

I also like to separate my work and personal life because I consider it in my best interest as a woman. There are two very good books about this that I would recommend,* and they both come to the same point that women are expected to do more “care” work in the workplace — they have to be feminine, nurturing, and sweet-voiced, they’re expected to un-ruffle feathers and tend to do more bullshit administrative work, but are held to a higher standard of competence.** So I don’t really talk about my personal life, I don’t send dumb jokes, I’m not on the party-planning committee and I don’t bring baked goods to work. I don’t offer to take minutes at meetings, unless we’ve already set up a system and it’s my turn. I don’t take work home. I do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and then I leave.

Anyway, here’s why I don’t post to the A&A:

  1. I’ve never gotten a helpful response. Okay, that’s not true. At my previous job I offered to give away some sound recordings, and someone accepted them. That was cool. But usually the discussion isn’t terribly practical, and high-volume posters are more likely to pontificate or willfully misinterpret a position than offer advice based on experience or technical know-how. Do not get me started on the fact that offering a Google search is not a helpful contribution. I’m not going to argue that every archivist needs a graduate degree, but I will argue that every archivist needs to be able to perform a skilled search.
  2. Many archivists who might be able to offer advice don’t hang out there, or are dissuaded from offering responses because they don’t want to deal with others on the list. This is an extension of my previous point, but I don’t think that I will go to the list for help anymore, because I don’t think that the majority of highly-innovative archivists hang out there. For instance, my project is using the MIX standard for technical metadata for digital images. LC has samples of MIX 1.0 files, but not MIX 2.0, and I wanted to work from an example. So, I asked the list if anyone could send me a sample of a MIX 2.0 document. Crickets. Is this because archivists aren’t using MIX 2.0? No. Is it because archivists don’t like to share? Certainly not. It’s probably because archivists who could help me just don’t hang out there.
    I don’t learn about exciting new archival projects from the A&A — I just don’t. It isn’t my source, and it wouldn’t be a very good source. The people who are conducting them don’t post there. Plus, there’s a weird strain of professional conservatism that feels the need to challenge innovations in practice in histrionic tones. Look, dudes, there’s enough un-processed, un-researched, possibly not very important crap out there that we should encourage each other to figure out new ways of getting through it. I would almost say that there’s a strain of “BUT WHO WILL THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” [replace children with precious, precious old crap] to some of these discussions. There’s a class (dare I say generation?) of archivists who understand protecting the longevity of individual objects, but don’t do much for the sustainability and accessibility of repositories.
  3. Some of the content makes me cringe. The spam email took up the bulk of discussion for like… three days.

Let me just say, though, that there should be a place for good-hearted, thoughtful musing (for the record, I get a kick of of Maarja’s posts and I like how much she’s thought through her responses). But damn it, I also want a listserv that’s helpful, interesting, professionally relevant and not quite so pedestrian. Does it bother anyone else that with American institutions’ wealth and brainpower, the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders are (on the whole) kicking our butts when it comes to innovations in archival practice?

So, how could the listserv be improved? Here’s my modest proposal for a list of rules and attitudes we could all adopt:

  1. If you wouldn’t send it to the director of your institution, don’t send it to this list.
  2. If your argument doesn’t offer new facts, isn’t immediately helpful, or is plain cantankerous, don’t send it to the list.
  3. Check the list archives before posting a question. It may have been already answered.
  4. If you have past or immediate experience with a problem someone is posing, help a sister out. Do send it to the list, and if you can, tell us about your process. What other solutions did you consider? Why did you go with this one? How easy was it to implement? What would you do differently if you were to try again? The list at its best could be a repository of  tried-and-true practices.
  5. Don’t be too cool for the list. If you’re doing something interesting, tell the list about it. Tell us why you’re doing it, how you’re getting around budget restrictions, and how you think it might be applicable to other institutions.
  6. Try to remember that you’re a professional. The profession has some pretty serious problems to face (dwindling funds, new formats, a society that’s only producing more records, forces that try to restrict sensitive records). The listserv too often doesn’t represent this seriousness of purpose.

I don’t think that anything is going to change, other than hoping that the profession becomes  more… professional… over time. And I do have out outlets for what I’m looking for from the professional listserv — blogs, twitter, conferences, geeking out with archivist friends (okay, this is an area where I permit my professional life to enter my personal life). But can we all agree that the A&A is kind of embarrassing, and all do a bit more to make it better?

*  Wajcman, Judy. Managing like a man : women and men in corporate management. University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998 and McDowell, Linda. Capital culture : gender at work in the city. Oxford UK ;;Malden Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1997. These are both very good sociological resources that combine data and theory to make a compelling point that life in the workplace is different for women, and that they tend to be at a disadvantage.

** I’m not interested in talking about this in comments with anyone who doesn’t have a grounding in feminist theory. It’s my house. That’s all.


7 Jul

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:

This is what a useless flow chart looks like.

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:

  1. There world has more to offer you than you know exists in it.
  2. How do you know what you know? Who’s your authority, and does this source deserve your trust?
  3. 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.

This is one of my favorite images, because it shows the lengths that museums go to in order to move objects from their indigenous context to elsewhere. Sometimes we all forget that monuments weren't born in museums. Workers moving Altar 1, Piedras Negras, Guatemala, 1931. Photograph by Linton Satterthwaite. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum, image #15658.

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.


Quakers! Sex! Anachronism! Bring it ON, google!

9 Jun

Soooo from what I can tell from my blog stats, most of the random google traffic I get is from this post about a paper I was writing in the fall term. Although (and trust me, this upsets me more than anyone else) it would appear that these google searches are looking for a very rarified market of bonnet-and-wide-brimmed-hat pornography, I suppose it’s possible that there’s someone out there looking for more about dress and social memory. So, let’s give the people what they want.

Anyway, the class was about archives, evidence and institutions of social memory, and was a way to get at the idea that the way that societies engage with their past may or may not have very much to do with archives or professional historical practice. Memory is transmitted all kinds of ways, and many of us tend to think of the links between past and present as more direct and inevitable than is true.

The paper for the class was a research paper on social memory, which I thought was conceptually flawed. It’s difficult to be analytical without falling into the trap of “X group thinks that their history is Y but it’s REALLY Z!” and it’s very hard to explain or measure the social history of a group without a bit more ethnographic skill. The most successful papers were from classmates who were very intimate with a particular social tradition, but their papers were the most vulnerable to empirical blind spots, For instance, someone was writing about the influence of the Adventist Village (a site in Battle Creek, Michigan, that preserves the homes and buildings used by church founders) among Seventh-Day Adventists and how the church’s past is used to create a sense of shared past among members and proselytize to potential new members. But what, really, was the author supposed to say about the relationship between place and memory? There’s plenty of room for description, but how exactly does one measure how successfully this kind of site can create social identity?

My project was similar and somewhat easier. I was interested in a micro-trend I had found while blog-surfing of present-day Quakers (usually women) wearing “plain dress.” Entire pages of websites were devoted to the definitions and permutations of plain, but the results often resembled historical Quaker women from the 18th and 19th centuries, or present-day Amish women. And, as I mentioned, I had the benefit of a living archive, entire blogs and web communities of plain-dressing Quakers who vociferously explained their reasons for wearing plain dress and how these reasons related to religious practice, community identity and spiritual beliefs.

But whence analysis? I decided to use the paper as a critique of the limits of describing what the past (and practices of the past) mean to groups of people.

It is not uncommon for members of a religious tradition to look to their collective pasts for spiritual inspiration and direction. However, the concept of a “collective past” is slippery and the lived practices of how this inspiration from the past is transmitted to the present is unclear. The phenomenon of modern Quaker women donning “plain dress” brings many of these questions into sharp relief. In a tradition marked by competing views of the role of mysticism versus the place of tradition, foundationalism and doctrine, some groups of Friends in the 20th and 21st centuries have often eschewed doctrine and practiced a faith based on continued revelation that looked toward the future and social justice rather than to the past. Thus, women who look to the past do so outside of (and according to some, contrary to) the current practices of their religious communities….

As I looked at the history of plain dress, I was faced with something of a methodological crisis. If I’m trying to measure some distance between “history” (plain dress from the late seventeenth century until it was largely discontinued in the early twentieth century) and “recurrence” or “nostalgia” or “revival” (plain-dressing Friends today), on what authority do I measure that distance? How do I say that I can identify the “true” history of Quaker dress? Even if plain-dressing Friends today don’t claim exact authenticity, they are claiming to be part of a particular tradition.

As I look over my work, it’s clear that I couldn’t figure out what to make of this paper and these problems. After all, in order to really measure the distance between what is remembered and what was lived, I have to some how measure how wearing this kind of costume makes people feel and why it makes them feel connected to the past. And really, what I want to know is what kind of power there is in this connection to the past.

These are important questions to an archivist. What we’re really doing in our archives is wielding our own bits of power. In the case of government or institutional records, it’s easy to understand the potential for power in our documents. Decisions are made on precedent; records can provide evidence for restitution or compel another to acknowledge past events. But what of memories? What is the power in the feeling that one gains from reproducing the past?

So, googlers, if you’ve come to this blog by searching these themes and you have some insights, please let me know.

My New Favorite Blog

29 May

I just happened upon The Sullen Librarian, and I think it’s my new favorite blog. S/he has this magical ability to channel some of the distributed rage and frustration that I sometimes feel (don’t lie, you have those moments too) into extra-concentrated snark. And her comments on the uses and misuses of web 2.0 (what a bloated, meaningless term) are spot-on.

Food in the Library

26 May

Please visit my friend Jason Young’s blog, Food in the Library, home of all things culinary and bibliophilic. There, I’m guest-posting a five part series on the history of the disposable cup (adapted from a paper originally written for Bob Frost’s material culture course in the spring of 2007). It’s more about waste, disease, and public health than you might have ever thought a paper cup could tell you.

This Has Nothing to Do With Any of this Blog’s Themes

22 Apr

But because I have a huge screaming web-crush on Michael Berubé, I’m going to go ahead and encourage you all to read his post on the candidates’ positions on disability.

My favorite part:

It’s as if we Americans have been talking about disability all our lives, as Molière’s M. Jourdain has been speaking in prose, without realizing it. Remember that debate about SCHIP? You know, the one we lost on Bush’s veto? What the hell was that about? It was about disability, folks – about children suffering catastrophic illnesses and traumatic injuries for which their parents couldn’t (and their parents’ dastardly, moustache-twirling health-insurance providers wouldn’t) provide. Vets returning from Iraq with PTSD or TBI (post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury) and being warehoused and/or underserved and/or neglected by VA hospitals? Uh, well, once again, here we’re talking about disability. Why in the world do we frame these things as matters of “health” or “employment” or “veterans’ benefits,” when doing so prevents us from realizing that we’re all touching different appendages of the 8000-pound elephant in the room? The subject is disability, people. It’s about our common frailty and vulnerability. Get used to it.

So, um, go vote.


9 Dec

Art for everyone.