Tag Archives: NARA

Give the people what they want – EAC and whether we should care

10 Aug

‘Tis the season. The Society of American Archivists’ conference has come to DC, and yesterday dozens (dozens!) of us descended onto the National Archives and Records Administration for a pre-conference meeting about EAC-CPF. By the way, I left my gold and red metal water bottle in the auditorium — I would love a heads-up if anyone found it.

Unsurprisingly, the proceedings provided the basis for a lot of twitter chatter, and one of my favorite digital historians chimed in to ask for context:

Asking why this all matters is really, really smart. And, with respect to the TOTALLY RAD presenters at the workshop on Monday, I think that this step of standing back and explaining why this is important in the first place is the part that might have been missing. So, I’ll do my best to explain why this might be important to different audiences/practitioners, how implementations may change researchers’ experiences, and how I think this fits into the varieties of archival practice that the profession encounters. BTW, this post is a much better run-down of what was discussed than I’ll be providing.

Standard disclaimers apply.

  1. I am a Johnny-come-lately to EAC. I’ve poked around, read the announcement, and briefly entertained the idea of coding some records. I came to the workshop to listen and talk and think about why this is important and how it might be used.
  2. I am a pragmatist about this sort of thing, and I believe in using the proper tool for the job, but I also think that we’re all going to want compelling reasons if the adoption of a new standard requires extra time, labor, or thought. I think that those of us who want to change archival practice and want wide-spread participation in these practices owe the profession a really good elevator speech, a killer manual and friendly answers when asked “naive” questions.
  3. I am not a data nerd. Strong opinions aside, I may not be explaining this with the elegance and precision that others may offer.

Wait, Mo. Wait. What exactly are we talking about here? Um, here’s some official language, written in nerd:

Encoded Archival Context – Corporate bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) primarily addresses the description of individuals, families and corporate bodies that create, preserve, use and are responsible for and/or associated with records in a variety of ways… [C]urrently [EAC’s] primary purpose is to standardize the encoding of descriptions about agents to enable the sharing, discovery and display of this information in an electronic environment. It supports the linking of information about one agent to other agents to show/discover the relationships amongst record-creating entities, and the linking to descriptions of records and other contextual entities.

Let’s see if I can provide a gloss. When archivists describe records in our collections, we write about the records, but we also understand that the records don’t speak for themselves. We also have to contextualize how they came to us, who might be found in the records, and what the historical circumstances were around the records’ creation. So, bundled together in a finding aid, we have description (marked-up in EAD) with a bit of context in the middle there. Strictly speaking, I’ve heard the argument that description is description (what a researcher can find in the archives) and context is context (this is information that isn’t necessarily discovered within the records, but is about the records’ circumstances), and that we shouldn’t be mixing context and description. I’ll come back to this point (preview: I find it weak).

There’s a pretty good tradition among our cousins in libraries and museums for giving special attention to people. The Library of Congress maintains the NACO authority file, which is a big, fat list of people who have created published works (or something – the “why” bit on the NACO website makes me want to stab). Basically, it’s a way for us to all know if we’re going to talk about Samuel Clemens, or if we’re going to talk about Mark Twain. We certainly don’t want to do half and half, and have a researcher only encounter half of the available works when she wants to find everything written by that person. So it makes good sense to keep a list, to decide which form is preferred and also to get a sense of what other names we might encounter, and to know that someone has done a bit of research about when this person was born and when he died. There’s something similar for museums that the Getty maintains — ULAN, which is the union list of artists’ names. This is the same idea, and requires a lot of research, because those artist mofos can be cagey.

And a lot of us use NACO (and/or ULAN), but NACO doesn’t have everyone and it’s frankly not worth our time to contribute to the authority file, and we might want to say more about the person than their name and dates.

So, EAC-CPF is a way for us to take information about people in our records, tell machines that these are indeed people that we’re talking about (as opposed to places or folder titles or whatever else is in a collections guide), and when we have a bunch of these records, get a sense of the larger universe of which people are out there in the archives. Using search technologies, we have the data we need to ask better questions and get better results.

The cool thing about structured data is that it lets us compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges, and see right away when we have ended up with an orange apple. Basically, in the case of EAC, you might see a situation where I have the Walt Whitman papers, you have the Walt Whitman papers, and some podunk archives that no one ever heard of ALSO has a long-lost Walt Whitman letter. Podunk archive didn’t know this was a big deal, in fact, it was in a collection that didn’t have much to do with Whitman at all, the other archives didn’t know that Walt Whitman was in this collection or this archives, and it’s really only a researcher who would have thought to make a big deal of this.

The situation I just described happens when all of these EAC records sit in one place, and can be searched or browsed in the context of one another — but (and I think that this is a huge reason why EAD wasn’t adopted as widely as it might have been), the situation is trickier if you don’t have one home where all of these records sit, so that you can compare them to each other and sort through them. There’s a lot of inside baseball in the archival world about who should be hosting such a home (may I point out that the Europeans and Australians don’t seem to have a problem figuring this out?), and that’s where the imperative to be able to have these records work with each other in a de-centralized way comes in.

So a lot of the discussion at the workshop was of really cool projects where EAC records were brought together (btw, EAC records are being made en masse from NACO files and bits and bobs of EADs) to do exactly this — to make it possible to look at the Walt Whitman EAC entry, see all of the institutions that have Walt Whitman records, and compare how they’ve written his biographical notes.

Small side note here — no one at the workshop mentioned issues of intellectual property. I predict that amalgamation may reveal a few notable instances of processing archivists “borrowing” copyrighted material. It’s also been suggested that EAC records may be useful for re-purposing — for “dropping” someone else’s EAC record into a new finding aid. I wonder if the community will be willing to give away their intellectual labor.

In any case, we end up with a lot of duplicate legacy data (and situations in the future where it may be perfectly appropriate to add overlapping new data). And here I’d like to go back to the problem of description/context. Let’s remember how history is actually made — we go to our records, learn about people who lived, sift through variously reliable and unreliable accounts, and synthesize this data into history. I know that the biog/hist (contextual) notes that I write when I write my finding aids are influenced by the records that I just processed — they have to be, because if these records didn’t give insight into the people I’m describing, they wouldn’t be worth having. And even if my contextual notes are entirely divorced from these records, they’re based on some other historical trace that was synthesized by someone else, written in a secondary source, or popularly known. In this way, everything is description, and I don’t think that it makes sense to pretend that description and context are pure and separate.

So, back to Shane’s question of why this would matter to a historian. Well, it’s possible that EAC may give us the structure to present history to you differently. After all, for the most part, historians don’t write about records, they write about people. I can imagine that as a historian, I would much rather discover archival sources from a main entry about a person than from a record group. And I would also say that historians can help contribute to this conversation about how we can most transparently represent the people in our collections and the traces they’ve left behind.



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.