The outline of what happened and is happening to the Digital Public Library of America is understood. On November 8, DPLA sent emails to a couple of co-ordinating councils of its members network (n.b., I have no idea what any of those words means) saying that it had laid off six staff. Word went through the grapevine that these were folks involved with DPLA’s signature achievements — digital collections aggregation, and primary source materials curation. At the LITA conference on November 10, DPLA chief John Bracken outlined an organizational pivot to support ebook delivery to public libraries, perhaps, or something, whatever this shit is:

And on January 9, some chud from an entity called Biblioboard posted whatever this is:

Now, I steadfastly refuse to read whatever “greetings fellow kids”-flavored gibberish the above is, so you’re welcome to peevishly correct me here. But, just to complete the outline, effectively Sloan and Knight and Mellon said “Your five years is up, great work, you don’t exist anymore,” and John Bracken and similar folks felt that they weren’t ready to stop being Directors of Something or Savvy Digital Technology Knowers, and they looked around the room in a flopsweat, searching for ways to make DPLA attractive to some other form of support, all collectively heaved “It’s ebooks,” said “Nobody gives a shit about archives, fuck them,” and reached for the long knives. We’ve seen this shit before, man:

Man, I don’t even remember NetLibrary, dear Wikipedia, please tell me about this noble, doomed endeav-

netlibrary

What does Sloan want? Or, more clearly, what is it that these large information science funders think they want? Never forget, early on, DPLA swamis thought they were going to drive around the country scanning shit, in hand to God, a Scannebago

In this discussion, Palfrey argued that “you could create a DPLA for a town or for a historic society. You could imagine it also taking the form of mobile scanning operations. So you could imagine a project I like the name of—the Scannebago—…driving Winnebagoes across certain areas, going to historical societies, going to local libraries and helping people to scan materials that might be of local interest; having them fold up into the DPLA but also be curated locally as part of a local collection that otherwise might not get put into a digital collection.” The idea might involve library students, active librarians, and retired librarians, as well as those who work in other cultural heritage institutions, driving the Scannebago around the country.

What do Sloan, and the John Palfreys and Carl Malamuds and Brewster Kahles of the world think they want? And what does that mean for the rest of us who keep working in this hopelessly fucked field? Look at what they clearly don’t want: well-curated collections, nor do they want to support the labor-intensive contextualization of primary documentary sources in the cultural production of history, I mean, look at how young people use technology, after all. The most successful recipient of funders’ dough is also the — I have to be fair here, because it used to be worse — most lightly-curated one. Aww baby you know who I’m talking about:

ferguson

Holy shit guys, you have nine (9) items in your Ferguson collection! I’m proud of you for removing the wack community-contributed content from this set — Jim Hightower podcasts, self-publishing Pakistani polymaths, pr0n — but shit my balls that is not a lot of work there!

Look at Washington University’s Ferguson collection, set up at the same time, but looked after with human resources. Nothing is perfect, but hey 782 items, chiefly community-contributed content, carefully selected, and it’s not just live news footage, there’s creative responses to the murder of Michael Brown, you know, poems and shit. There’s at once an expansive notion of what constitutes the archival record, and a thoroughgoing rootedness in the task at hand, a moral focus. This kind of work is the good shit, and it’s exactly the kind of work DPLA stripped off.

What do funders think they want? Ten years ago, it was mass digitization. Five years ago, for a blink, it was content curation, with skilled human operators. With the human element removed, and deep thinkers like Bracken vaguely waving toward uSes Of tEChNoloGy wE cAN’t fAThOm, it’s clear that funders are back to wanting what they wanted in the 1990s — all the things, digitized and dumped in an online swamp, with robots set loose to crawl the swamp. Get robots sufficiently sophisticated and you can do dumb shit like upload your consciousness to the cloud like every other neckbeard incel with three undescended testicles ever.

Whether you think that our current artificial intelligence is real and not good at what it does, or whether you think that AI is basically a term used by dilettantes and heartless manipulators to siphon cash out of venture funds like something out of the 19th fucking century, and I guess por qué no los dos, in any case the behavior of funders gives off a strong whiff of grief response.

I think that funders recognize that, really soon, the first world, via the increasingly nightmarish present effects of global warming, which incredibly keep manifesting at the disastrous end of scientists’ range of predictions like a fucking swarm of black swans, is going to first of all murder the third world, and then immediately commit suicide, and that this pact is locked in. In their grief, they deny what’s transparently real, and so we get that garbage asshole who killed Gawker drinking teenagers’ plasma and fucking smug apartheid-emerald lad shooting Camaros into space or some shit.

Even something as piddly-shit as how a non-profit markets a new partnership is a symptom. Why punk rock? Most of us immediately saw Ramones and thought NOW I WANNA SNIFF SOME GLUE. And it’s sad. The illusion of individual freedom, peddled in that stupid LinkedIn blog, and whomst the fuccc uses LinkedIn as a platform, is the last one that a culture bent on annihilation has before it pulls the plug.

But the thing is it’s not that there’s no future, it’s even worse than that. I started writing this blog, my longest-running and least-productive ever, as entertainment, back when I realized that the easiest way to be with an infant on a 45-minute sleep cycle was to just stay up all night. Five of the six years of my kid’s life have been in the all-time top ten warmest, 2012 the aberration iirc. No the worst part isn’t that there’s no future, it’s that there is a future, it’s going to suck shit, people like me are going to feel the least of it mind you, and there’s absolutely no sTRaTeGiC pIvOt off that, and there’s absolutely nothing meaningful about our narrow little intellectual endeavors unless our work is jolted back to life by the fear of these futures, and directed by a desire to atone for setting them in motion.

Advertisements

red_rectangle

A specter is haunting the library archives and museums sector, a specter called, The Internship Discourse. We have written about librarianship eating its young, we have promulgated standards for ethical internships, and every half year or so we recommit to screaming about our exploited labor force. We are probably not going to tell students and new archivists not to work for free. Or, here, let Karly Wildenhaus start, and let me echo her: Do not work for free.

Just don’t do it! If someone says, Here, here is labor that you can do for my archives, and in return I will give you a Letter of Recommendation, do not work there! If someone says, Listen, my archives has a robust volunteer program, and we need you to handle collections, write exhibit captions, and do biographical research, and in exchange you can add my name to your list of references, do not work there either!

It is obviously the responsibility of archives’ management not to exploit the contingent position of students and young people by creating or posting unpaid internships or “volunteer experiences” but we just keep doing it, because it’s in our interests and in the interests of our funders, who are searching for the greatest possible return on investment, and we’re never going to learn. So. Dear students and youths, what are we going to do? Not work for free!

Do not work for free! Here, look, 50,000 students in Quebec went on strike over unpaid internships a couple of weeks ago. Check out the Young Communist League of Strasbourg, in a message of solidarity to the strikers in Quebec:

Au lieu d’investir dans de nouvelles infrastructures universitaires et d’embaucher davantage d’enseignants, l’État bourgeois préfère tout mettre en place pour envoyer rapidement les étudiants sur le marché du travail, pour constituer une masse de main d’œuvre potentiellement gratuite, taillable et corvéable à la merci des entreprises

Hell yeah don’t work for free. Internships are designed to “build a mass of workforce potentially cost-free, scalable, and malleable to the will of business.” Refuse to participate in them! Why would you consent to become a massive scalable free workforce? Don’t work for free!

Okay it sounds like I’m putting the entire onus on ending a bad employment practice on the most-oppressed unit of the LAM sector workforce. Okay yes I am doing that. Ever since Dee Garrison, we’ve known that libraries were the first outpost of the educated and underpaid young woman. Any highly feminized labor sector will be underpaid because patriarchy is a motherfucker, and because of the running assumption that women’s jobs are second-incomes. That is, anyone, in the year of our lord 2018, who is attracted to this sector must have some awareness of the idea that her eventual salary is a secondary source, not a main source of income. And if the point of entering a profession is not to get money, but to sacrifice for the greater good, management is fine with that. Your altruistic instincts amount to a wage suppression mechanism, and for every paid position, to say nothing of every unpaid internship, there is a whole generation of affluent Pratt and Simmons grads, waiting to add a chit to their resumes and new names to their rolodexes.

Don’t work for free! Employment in the field thereby becomes social reproduction, instead of cultural production: people with certain experiences — BAs from tiny liberal arts colleges, rich parents, obscene admiration for the musical Hamilton — just somehow get to know younger people with the same life experiences, and absolutely fuck all else ever happens! The advisory body for a grant-funded project recommends the project manager for a spot as a reader for grant proposals! An Oberlin grad meets an Oberlin student at a professional mixer! Meanwhile our HVACs fail and millions of files of the Guatemalan secret police languish in storage, and the world’s stores of broadcast video on open-reel mag and U-Matic all go the way of the fucking dodo. At least Chad got a job though!

Some of us are probably in a position to make free work a thing of the past, and some of us are in a position to contribute to student strike funds, or to contribute to labor organizing efforts in the sector, but I guarantee you all of that goes down the toilet without a radical demand in our back pocket, and widespread intransigence is it. So fam. Don’t work for free!

1) A little while back, perhaps you heard, Anthony Clark reported that Allen Weinstein, head of NARA in the George W. Bush administration, serially sexually assaulted women employees of NARA. Maryellen Trautman, whose account makes up the bulk of the article, was certain Weinstein had harassed women at NARA other than her; he was “smooth, practiced.” Sam Anthony, who reported directly to Weinstein, later reported on his conversations with Trautman, “Four times she asked me to ‘find the other women.’” Ordinarily, reports of sexual harassment or assault are reported to the NARA Office of the Inspector General. In Trautman’s case, NARA general counsel first spent a week soliciting advice from the Office of Government Ethics, the White House Counsel, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, before finally passing the baton to NARA OIG, which promptly brought in the FBI. Weinstein ultimately resigned, and found a soft landing at the University of Maryland, where he would assault more women. He died in 2015. Our current AOTUS knew why Weinstein resigned, while publicly praising him:

His successor, David Ferriero—who, a National Archives source confirmed, knew the real reason Weinstein had resigned—warmly memorialized him on the Archives’ website, writing, “[We] will forever remember with gratitude his dedication to the mission and employees of the National Archives.”

2) Archivists spend a lot of time writing notes governing access to our holdings, and it’s largely a matter of self-involvement and involution. If a donor agreement stipulates restrictions on access, it’s a garbage agreement. If a contract demands an embargo of digitized content, it’s a garbage contract. If institutional policy creates a blanket time-based embargo on access, it’s a garbage policy. DACS 4.1, “Conditions governing access” becomes the chief bucket we store our garbage actions in, and it’s a required element of our description, which means we are required to be snitches for archives — to reveal aspects of the organizations we work for which are unflattering — with every recondite obstruction to access we create. We’re also required to be finks for archives — our restrictions notes, our rights notes, our security and registration practices, how we treat patrons, our preservation notes, how clean our hands are supposed to be and what we’re supposed to smell like — are all the hinges around which we fink on each other, and on our users.

3) A lot of heat on twitter was generated by the ALA panel on librarians’ neutrality, and there was a lot of good head-busting to be had. I’ve said here before, and nearly constantly since, that the professional compulsion to have archivists respond to social change qua archivists is moot. We’re much worse than neutral actors, neutrality for us would be a positive step toward revolution! We are the means by which our users are interpellated as subjects before our collections, before power. Howard Zinn’s 1970 SAA address is therefore good and forthright and also pitifully naive. We aren’t the lawyer boldly arguing for the Vietnam Moratorium and calling out the humanity shared by the judge, the defendants, and the people of Vietnam — we’re the stenographer, the clerk, and the bailiff. When the lawyer is done with his appeal, we open chambers, we flip to the next item on the docket, we reset our steno machine, and we move the gears.

I’m obviously reading Althusser and barely grasping him, but our real job — opposed to the unreal admonition to make archives liberatory spaces, or to preserve people’s lives using archives, or whatever is on the menu this year — given that any of us fortunate enough to work for an Archives Power always already supports and lends credence to the legitimacy of that Power, is something else. Here, here’s our large wife-murdering boy, also in 1970, from Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses:

Now it is this knowledge that we have to reach, if you will, while speaking in ideology, and from within ideology we have to outline a discourse which tries to break with ideology, in order to dare to be the beginning of a scientific (i.e. subjectless) discourse on ideology.

I think there are two roles or figures we could play in archives if we begin, while speaking in ideology to outline a discourse which gets at the “scientific mechanism” of ideology’s creation, and they are the Snitch and the Fink.

1) The FBI, when it began interviewing NARA staff about Weinstein, found a squealer, may Allah smile upon this person:

An Archives official would reveal to investigators a more disturbing truth: There were other women. Some within the agency had noticed Weinstein’s inappropriate behavior for at least 16 months before he assaulted Trautman.

The official, whose name was redacted, told investigators that she “first became aware of the possibility of inappropriate behavior” by Weinstein in August 2006.

The official told investigators that, while she had no direct knowledge, there were rumors that Weinstein was “hitting on” a National Archives employee and heard “through the grapevine” that he was “acting inappropriately during his trips.”

The employee then recounted an incident from a year earlier when she and Weinstein had dinner across the street from the Archives Building. While at the bar, Weinstein leaned in to talk to her and put his arm around her shoulders and the chair. “[She] thought it was a friendly gesture but also thought this was a ‘stupid’ action on the part of [her] supervisor. [She] broke away from Weinstein by physically moving [her] body around.”

She also told investigators that another woman told her Weinstein had read her poetry behind closed doors and once hugged her, but that “she did not want this information to go anywhere.”

The Snitch reports out content that Power wants held private. In the case of the FBI investigation into Allen Weinstein, all praise and honor goes to the career NARA archivists who reported out. What’s startling to me is that so few archivists reported on Weinstein — not that this stuff is easy, not that anyone talking didn’t see a world of future bureaucratic repercussions and career stumbling-blocks, or targeted harassment for fuck sake, headed their direction. No, I was surprised because functionally it’s our nature to report. We’re born snitches.

2) Think of the noble Ohioan who snitched, at a long distance, on Warren G. Harding. This guy found Warren’s “Mount Jerry” sexts, set up a clandestine microfilm kit way off in the stacks, filmed them alone after hours, and fed a copy of the film to a friend. (I’m not even re-reading this because it’s so good, correct me if it matters.) What happens next is the friend, a prof at Case Western, retires and deposits his papers with the University, which dutifully describes them, including the mystery roll of microfilm. Up goes the fuckin balloon. People write about the letters using the film, lawyers for the Harding family swoop in, nobody dies or anything, but things get, for our little clerkly profession, somewhat real.

What happened here is that our hero tried to snitch on a president. He made surrogates of records; in the hands of his friend, the surrogates were transmuted into records. Being accessible, the records finked on our hero. Our hero’s friend could easily have stopped this chain of events by destroying the film, or else not depositing his papers with his university. A lesson: records will fink on you. Beware the receipts.

4) A note about screenshots, and the desire to shout “Receipts, biccch” at people on twitter. First of all, it’s a thing I’ve enjoyed:

So what happened is a guy who doesn’t know anything (not me for once!) knee-jerk well-actuallied Safiya Noble online, many people rose up in anger, the dude apologized, and then deleted the offensive tweets and the apology. We then swooped in to point out the ignominious, craven deletion of tweets. I was elling my effing ass off because an archives dedicated to internet stuff didn’t know what to do about Google cache and screenshots.

It’s our nature to report out, to describe the content we encounter, to contextualize it for others. It’s in the nature of records to fink on us, to expose us at our worst.

4) Another, less-conflicted take on receipts. The state archives of Israel encompasses certain records of the British Mandate in Palestine. The blanket embargo on records related to national security in Israel is 75 years. The state archives of Israel has a really assiduous digitization program, and so we can see many administrative records, honestly a lot of receipts, scanned and OCRed and translated. Do a search for almost any Arabic surname, and see what you get. You will mostly get pre-1948 records of property sales and transfers, and extradition orders in the post-1948 period for people accused of “infiltration.” The net effect of paging through the newly-accessible — and make no mistake, Israel has undertaken serious labor on this score — is to read an account of the founding of the Jewish state that consisted of legal transfers of land, from Palestinians to Jewish settlers, for which money was paid, and legal transfers of human beings, from Palestine, where they once lived, to places as far afield as Egypt. For these transfers, Israel has all the receipts.

I keep coming back to Ariella Azoulay’s work on the figure of the infiltrator, and the work done in archives to construct this figure. Receipts in the state archives of Israel, viewed through Azoulay’s lens, do not necessarily prove a truth so much as they support an assertion, namely, that the establishment of the state of Israel proceeded entirely normally, via legal transfers and sales of land; the acquiescence of the people living in Palestine to Jewish settlers’ rule is established by receipts. And the presence of infiltrators — lest anyone forget, people who fled terrorist attacks, who were displaced by force, to return, occasionally, to retrieve furniture, or to attempt to harvest olives and oranges from their families’ groves — is likewise established by receipts.

The receipts do not capture the ordinary experiences of Palestinians dispossessed by the new Jewish state. Of Raja Shehadeh’s family — whose mother inherited a hotel, whose father and grandfather were highly regarded Palestinian lawyers — who fled for Ramallah after the King David Hotel bombing. Of Fawaz Turki’s family, or Ghassan Kanafani’s. Of anyone who was ever presented with the old mafioso pitch, “Lovely olive grove you got there, be a shame if anything happened to it.”

3, 4, 1, 2) The figures of the snitch and the fink are part of the same framework. Structurally, each reports content. One reports out: to lawyers, investigators, researchers, the curious, the seekers. One reports in: to lawyers, investigators, inspectors general, bosses, and spooks. But in archives, we are bound to report. You can serve the devil or you can serve the lord, but you better serve somebody.

Is it possible that our twitter-culture of caches and receipts is bad? Isn’t it worth examining the externalities of our discipline? Should we think carefully about how we reveal content? Should we, as we do all these things, struggle to make sure that we provide receipts to the palaces, and peace to the huts?

 

Thicc tweets in action

This began as a series of jokes about Clifford Geertz which I would now ask everyone here to take seriously as we consider what thiccness would mean for archival description.

In the interest of supplying you, reader, with sufficient context to understand a human interaction from which you’ve been alienated by distance, technology, or other means, here first is a link, and then screenshots follow.

In the post-MPLP age, we archivists spend a lot of time going back and forth about describing collections. We all agree — apart from a few heretics I’ve encountered who think that a biographical note for anyone is a form of hagiography and so we should therefore just not write them, etc. — that baseline contextualization of collections matters, and that the kind of description we’re most familiar with, which I’m going to call ripped description, is the way of the past. But I’m not sure we’ve theorized a good alternative. Something between description as an archivist’s performance of superior knowledge and mastery, and something utterly skimpy and skinflinty.

Geertz, as near as I understand, and I’m not terribly learnèd on this score, conceived of thick description as a narrative practice in anthropology, where close observation of human activity provides the reader with intimate understanding of the context of the activity. Here’s a parody of Geertz watching me ride my bicycle to work:

“The rider accouters himself in gloves, open at the second knuckle, of breathable fiber, with kevlar pads covering the entrance to the carpal tunnel designed to mitigate the shock of bearing his weight on his hands and to prevent breakage in case of planting the hands in an accident; with a rudimentary helmet which would be of no assistance in a dire crash but is required by law and custom, and the absence of which would open to rider to scorn from others in the community; and a backpack of weatherproof buckram, which shields the rider in a backborne skid, but does more to signal to other riders that the rider is expert and an elder in the urban bicyclists’ environment[…]”

And I haven’t gotten on the bicycle yet. You see how this can take a while.

Thickness, as overabundance or superfluity, or the dream of same, has been in style ever since our starving forebears had a crop failure and turned to sculpting stone female figures instead of umm I guess just starving. Thickness is the wish-fulfillment fantasy which overcompensates for mere satisfaction. In the Land of Cockaigne, everything is thick. A real encounter with this imaginary is of course baffling to think about — human appetites cannot contend with whatever thick spirit animates the Venus of Willendorf, with her innumerable beaded blind eye-busses; real appetites can’t handle pigs with knives ported in them, and so on. Thick description, in archives, would exceed simulacral description — even beyond the kind of moot description which replaces the archival item itself with an exact replica, thick description would demand contextualizing every line of the text, or commenting on the composition of every image, and situating those commentaries among other commentaries. Shit gets Biblical, fast.

I haven’t plotted these on an axial chart (YET, MY GOOD >BICHES< NOT YET) like the deranged Claude Levi-Strauss stan that I am, so let's just say elsewhere in our field there lies ripped description. As a reminder, here are the only two genders that there are:

The ripped, like the thick, is a form of excess, but rather than emerging from myth or the imaginary, it is the product of self-flagellating labor in the realm of the real. Getting ripped is a public performance of labor on the body, and ripped description is the same, on the archival corpus. The description that we lament, that which does more to demonstrate an archivist’s having leveled-up or attained mastery of his subject than it does to invite the archive’s reader into its secrets, is hella ripped.

Opposed to the ripped and the thick, I offer thicc description. Thiccness as we seem to be using it right now in the year of our lord 2017 is a diminution or imitation of the truly thick — Trina is not pulling over just any old thiccness — but let’s consider thicc description here as an intermediate practice, somewhere between skinflint description and fully living into the actual experiences of creator-entities. Thicc description should proceed from the idea that users do not profit from master-knowledge of the collections — Geertz-level stuff is automatically alienating, it prompts even from those of us who write this junk an instant “That’s great and no one will ever read it all.” Thicc description must however be about more than providing elementary nourishment to users — thiccness provides unanticipated thrills. Such description should relay the charged moments in a creator-entity’s life, the actions and beliefs that made the creator-entity valuable enough to land in an archives. Thicc description understands that research in archives is about jouissance, rather than need (I mean, okay, this is a claim that needs a citation, but apart from journalists poring over state records, who among our power users is doing research for fact-finding rather than sense-making? How often do our holdings spur more questions than they settle?) and it leads users, it goads them on, from kick to kick.

This is barely half an idea, so I’ll close with a short story. I was in the record store the other day, selling shit, and there was a tween lad who came to the counter after browsing and bravely — and yet, this is not the 1990s, and no one is shitty about scenes and culture anymore, right? — asked the shopkeep:

“Do you have any recommendations in punk?”
“Well, what sort of stuff are you into?”
“Oh, anything.”
“Well, we got the Ramones right there, can’t go wrong with the Ramones. Or wait, here–”

He hands the kid Buzzcocks first LP,

“Listening station is right there my dude.”

I told him he was doing God’s work right there — directing a user from the merely nutritive punk, to the radically enlightening. A thicc reference encounter. I only wish I’d stuck around for when they got to real teenage kicks.

Nixon in a hard hat

Nixon in a hard hat, NARA ID 16916291

This is a long divagation from @meau’s request for comments on the proposed new DACS guiding principles or more specifically, only to part one:

Archival description expresses professional ethics and values.

Professional ethics and values drive archival work, including descriptive practice. Archival description is an iterative, ethical practice that requires  continual engagement with core values. Rooting standards in values helps archivists enact these values consistently and makes them explicit to our user communities.

Ethical description:
produces trust in and between users, archivists, and repositories
encourages a diverse archival record
promotes responsible and responsive descriptive practices
holds archivists accountable to users and to each other
privileges equitable access and accessibility

So I recently moved house and now walk by my kid’s preschool every day. The school has four windows in front, and the teachers have put up four posters TEACH / LOVE / TEACH / RESPECT. My first question for the new principles was, Can virtue be taught? Because the principles clearly attempt what Socrates considered impossible — you will not educate the narcissism out of Donald Trump — kind of by the back door. That is, even if we can’t pour virtue in to systems that are innately unvirtuous, we can develop standards of behavior so vanilla and taken-for-granted that subsequent generations behave virtuously without meaning to. Establishing ethical description as a norm — placing it first in the list — is to elevate description to the level of pure ideology.

Do your Žižek voice if you need to. Okay.

It’s worth noting that TS-DACS has to model this for us because no other American archivists’ entity can or will. We don’t write ethics case studies inside SAA anymore because there’s no capacity among us to take risks for the historic record (in contrast to the learned people of Timbuktu who hid their texts from AQIM  or the Hoover institution’s preservation of Ba’ath Party records, yeah that’s right, don’t @ me )

I suspect TS-DACS is aware of its situation of influence. In the current ethics-power vacuum, of course, all any group need do is grasp power outright, but the power of technical language in our discipline is particularly overwhelming. The mass of professional archivists is exhausted by listening to the exhortations of woke LIS professor after woke LIS professor, but let one technical subcommittee issue rules or one expert lecture on codecs or something and we’re all just brought to orgasm. TS-DACS is leveraging our worship of rules and more significantly our worship of rulesmaking in order to get us to do good. It’s of course mind-bending that we have to resort to this kind of totem-and-taboo to get traction on decolonizing our description, but selah.

The principles therefore subject to bounding an ethical zone of exclusion — the heroic, extralegal, fireable offenses that got us Warren Harding’s love letters, for example, are instances of archivists claiming sovereign power. Under the principles, all description, if ethical, is heroism; and since heroism now comes as standard equipment, the notion dissolves of its own, it withers away…

And so the daring move “Ethical description produces trust,” read appropriately, is an extension of this act of including-exclusion. It’s absurd to think that a technical standard for writing finding aids could inculcate something like love among “users, archivists, and repositories,” but that’s precisely what the principles aim for: a common front of mutual aid and mutual reliability. People become subject to one another.

Insha’Allah they’ll succeed but it perplexes me that in order to get the mass of archivists to really engage with how our work affects the arc of history we have to embed a polemic on archival values inside a technical standard. It’s as if “What Is To Be Done?” or “Murderers Who Have Yet To Be Clubbed To Death” could only reach their audiences via railway schedules or actuarial tables.

And the fault of course lies not in TS-DACS but in ourselves. The ethic of servant-leadership, unstated and still plain as day, contained in the new principles is not typically archivists’ modus. More typically we empanel ourselves as Savvy Knowers Who Deliver The Archival Science — which boxes to buy, mostly — to the unwashed hordes. Our only calls to the barricades occur when NARA’s budget is threatened, as occurs ritually. I hope it turns out that standing on principle portends more effective advocacy than Save Our Jobs or May Day For Conserving Stuff ever could. Certainly it couldn’t be worse….

Imagine any other lobbying organization: AMA, APA, AARP, the National Rifle Association. Any appeal they make is couched in terms of ultimate values — health, life, self-defense — and aimed at a constituency of users — not doctors, psychs, investment bankers, and gun dealers, but their users. To center the principles on service to the user, is in addition to being plainly Christian in a primitive sense — though I have questions about this too; are we ready to lay down our DACS for a friend? — good politics.

I dream of an SAA which takes everyone who drafted the new DACS principles and empanels them as the board of overseers of our new 527, designed to raise funds and distribute them with the aim of gaining political power. I am totally sanguine about receiving dark money from Hollinger and Iron Mountain. We labor under conditions not of our own devising, and the tactics of our party should be as flexible as the end goal is immutable…

St. Valentine's Day Hop at the National Archives, 14 February 1975, NARA identifier 35810664

St. Valentine’s Day Hop at the National Archives, 14 February 1975, NARA identifier 35810664

I am here to dirty the clean room.

I have never fallen in love with archives per se, and this is probably at the root of why I prefer to think/spiel about archivists, what they like, do, and need, instead. I have, however, a couple/three times, fallen in love in archives, had erotic encounters in archives, and so on, so there’s a literal component to why I see archives through the lenses of desire, romantic love, compassion. Or, as we had it in the deeply abridged and mixed-up Catholic teaching on love we got as kids: eros, amor, and caritas.

(All philosophers of Christian love should abandon ship here, because any consideration of who thought what about love in what way in the first couple centuries of the Common Era and what words they used basically lands Christians at C. S. Lewis and he frustratingly counts up Four Loves, which is no good for me because I need three things for my Lacan, Freud, Marx, etc. Seek shelter elsewhere is all I’m saying.)

My work is reliably physical, so again, it’s only a hop and a skip to see the handling of sheaves of text, or skins, substrates, emulsions, as ways of enacting desire. To get any knowledge about what I touch, there’s a lot of opening, paging or thumbing through (thumbs are erotic, says the palm reader, but I understand ymmv), and so on. The initial contact and exploration, the first enticing hints of what might be deeply and sustainably important about the collection or corpus, the discovery of its quirks and kinks — accessioning is the kingdom of Eros for archives, and that’s where I live all day.

Work in accessioning is like bringing a thousand houseguests into your bedroom every year: establish names, addresses, relationships, remove outer enclosures, pile your puffy coats on the master bed, add new enclosures, triage, decide who gets to stay, put them to bed. The first thrills of desire are I can’t help but think likewise a kind of triage: how does this work, what works, does everything work, is this at all real, are we just blinded by newness? The first stages or opening gambits of a love affair are all about acquisition — I want you, I need you, I have you — and appraisal — You will be mine and I want to keep you close.

Amor, as the dads of CCD had it, is romantic love, eros for them denigrated into something more like cupiditas, a fleeting, wayward, unreliable, momentary bliss. You may bring things into your holdings which don’t deserve to stay. Amor is the business of naming what will stay, and doing the work to keep it whole. All of this blog is an overextended conceit, but this is the greatest overreach: processing is a series of acts of romantic love. We undertake to remove from the body we want anything that will harm it, we pull metal, we breathe rust, we scrub dust, we house the new beloved body in clean clothes. Having gotten a grasp on the corpus, we achieve physical control. More significantly, we ask the newcomer about himself, we do a deep dive, who really are you after all, what are your contents, what is your scope, help me to name it, help me to name it.

Certainly all of you have seen and thought about that slightly annoying article in The New Republic, o which one you say they’re all kind of okay well here:

Go read, there’s enough rage-inducing stuff there to fill a whole other blog, but I was struck over and over by the outsiders’ — we all know that humanities Ph.Ds’ experience of research in primary sources is, well, variable — focus on the bodily presence of the archives, of its mutability and permeability: narrow stacks, well-worn handles on drawers, jeans, the fugitive poisonous adhesive of post-it notes, self-destructive cellulose nitrate. And if the author promotes a kind of fetishization of ordinary care, well hell so do we right? Our author even gets a little monarchist, but I don’t know, man, Eros rules me like a sovereign does a serf, so even this dankness didn’t faze me:

This is the sort of thing that the New-York Historical Society saves: flotsam, jetsam, things left behind. The curators follow closely in the wake of the city’s human activity, collecting the materials left behind by protests and vigils and attacks. The museum treats these items with a reverence rarely seen in any part of our culture. The archive turns objects into art the same way that a devoted servant might turn everything the king has touched into treasure.

It’s fine to acknowledge that new users come to the archives by way of bodily connection. I guess the only difference between them and me, in Accessioning Which is the Kingdom of Eros, is that I lack reverence for the bodies becoming guests in my house. I do not wrap them in muslin or mylar. I do not shield my hands with nyplex from their pages. I do not breathe in their vapors. That way lies a neurosis your boy Nietzsche diagnosed in 1874, in Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie fur das Leben:

Man envelops himself in an odour of decay; through his antiquarian habit he succeeds in degrading even a more significant talent and nobler need to an insatiable craving for novelty, or rather a craving for all things and old things; often he sinks so low as finally to be satisfied with any fare and devours with pleasure even the dust of bibliographical quisquilia.

Caritas, always presented last, is for the dads of CCD, the highest form of love, and I disagree. Caritas is the love that lays down its life for a friend (John 15:13), meant to be the semi-literate Catholic dad’s version of ἀγάπη, abiding, boundless, and unconditional love. Perhaps there exists a love without conditions or boundaries, preset terms, default entries, perhaps between people ἀγάπη exists, perhaps between people and their god, but I’m not sure we have this in archives. Nothing lasts, the future is the obsolete in reverse, in the very long run we’re all dead: as an archivist you have to bend your mind to the idea that your world is material and entropy is its governing force. For outsiders this is an ironic stance: the people most dedicated to making texts (broadest possible sense) persistent don’t really think any of their work will succeed. If there is agape anywhere in our discipline, it rests in exactly this kind of humility, it lies in offering our bodies daily to an insurmountable task, to the presence of failure and loss, and at the end there won’t even be dust left to devour.

rotary_file

I want to talk to you about your bodies, O archivists, not because I’m not interested in your minds, but because, as with all forms of labor, it’s your bodies that are at stake. (This is a long hat-tip/dérive from Allana’s work from last year.)

Enki, God of Waters, at peace in the pure land of Dilmun, heard the cries of its own god for water. Enki orders the sun to bring water from the Earth, and the land is awash. He and his consort Ninhursag let flow the “waters of the heart” — Sumerian ab is both water and semen — and in 9 days, Lady Greenery is born.

The other day at work I was helping someone understand OCR, and really reaching the limit of my knowledge swiftly, and this someone asked if manuscript text could be made CTRL+F-able, and I said “Oh heavens no,” and said that non-typescript character recognition was basically in research-and-development, and someone please correct me but it seems like the sheer variability of human handwriting would make any machine-learning exercise too expensive for the use to which it would be put, I mean if you need to build Skynet in order to do a “find” in Lenin’s Paris notebooks, I mean, and they said “Yeah but Ancestry does it” and I was able to explain that what you, Dear Someone, assumed to be the product of a machine because surely SURELY IN THIS MODERN AGE we would never consign human beings to maddening, gut-wrenching soul-killing piecework, was in fact a 21st century version of Maelzel’s Folly, which was that thing of where instead of a robot playing chess you have an actual midget under the table moving pieces with magnets, that is, Ancestry does it using swarms of poorly-paid humans in China and the Philippines, and the Smithsonian uses swarms of volunteers to tag images with their texts, and we let them, mostly because we want to use our bodies to sit in meetings, wherein we govern others’ bodies.

Ninhursag leaves Enki, and he, wandering by the waters, sees a woman resembling her, who accepts him. Neither knows this is incest, and Lady Greenery bears her father’s child, Ninkurra, Lady Fruitfulness. Somehow this happens a third time, and the offspring of the God of Waters and Lady Fruitfulness is Utta, the Weaver, the Spider Goddess, Who Makes The Web of Life. Utta’s grandmother gravely instructs her granddaughter to keep away from the riverbanks, the marshes, anywhere the water-lord travels.

When we think about the labor of archives, we mostly think of its gaps, lacunae, diminutions, and disappearances — we don’t have agency, autonomy, respect, solidarity, hands, heads, or feet. The body of the archivist is not, in the official account, present. So let’s sing for the traffic of bodies in the stacks, cry for their wounds, exult in their power, and by so doing remind the insensate crowd that we’ve been here, burrowing through the sources that make their memes.

The analogous presence of human beings among archival material in the stacks, that is our bodies working among our bodies of work, is the great disavowed other of our profession. (I realize like every other year I find another objet petit a for the archives, so maybe this is where you hop off the bus.) It’s evident from the literature that we replace care and concern for our own bodies and those of others with care and concern for the material bodies on the shelf. Search for “injury” in American Archivist and you will hit an ancient piece on restoration, another aged work on the bindery, a treatise on flattening paper, one on English manuscript repair, und so wieter. We write about the skins and flesh of motion pictures, the pellicules of photographic negatives, the broken spines of bound volumes, the baby goats encasing books who just want to return to being three-dimensional goats instead of goat-skins, the dismemberment of collections, and we couch our writing about this charnel-house in the arid language of the medical inquest, and we seem to have never written about injuries suffered by archivists’ own moving bodies.

Inevitably Enki lusts after Utta, and they have sex, and Utta’s attendant retrieves Enki’s semen from Utta’s womb, and plants it in eight parcels near the riverbank. The seeds become various plants, which fruit. Utta’s attendant shows Enki the sundry new fruits, and Enki eats one of each, which is his own semen. So doing, he falls ill with tumors or pregnancies “in his jaw, his teeth, his mouth, his hip, his throat, his limbs, his side and his rib.” Unable, as a male, to give birth to these swellings, he writhes in exquisite agony while the rest of the gods figure out whether they should do anything.

Instead our concern for bodies is subsumed into our writing about archival description; our bodies and our collections become bodies of work; our presences and their presences are packed into workflows and descriptive standards. Again, as a sample, go looking for “bodies” in AA. I got pieces on appraisal, “theory,” description, processing; in short, answers to the question of putting the whole bodies of collections into the hands of researchers. Habeas corpus. This control of bodies via descriptive regimes of course extends itself into the common prison metaphors for our work: stewards, caretakers, custodians, gatekeepers. And we panic at the idea that the alien bodies under our care are proliferating on their own, unchecked, unchecklisted. Search for “bulk” and you’ll find “reduction.” There is a cure for paper/cancer, and we’re working on it, in 1940, in 1967, in 1978, over and over again, sampling, selecting, appraising, reducing, liposuctioning, and stitching back together the terrifying obesity we’ve shoved into our steel catacombs. So instead of anthropomorphizing the collections and then, with academic fig-leaves, papering over their obscene bulk, I’d like to just think of how our bodies got their bodies onto the shelf.

Reed Group are some fuckers who help SSDI people figure out whether or not to pay out on your disability claim, and here is their comprehensive description of our work. Note here that the chief health risks for us are pregnancy and major depression, and that our work is classed as sedentary:

Exerting up to 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of force occasionally and/or a negligible amount of force frequently or constantly to lift, carry, push, pull, or otherwise move objects, including the human body.

Which is a bunch of hot bullshit, insofar as any archivist tasked with accessioning or processing has to lift 40 pounds by theyself. Which is why there’s a pretty strong correlation between entry-level work and manual labor, why, look at this job listing here, which requires independent lifting of 50 pounds, or this one, which my god I would fail just for the vision portion, or this one for 40 lbs. Lifting is the first task of bringing in a collection, and how we’re capable of moving objects around affects how we represent them to researchers. To in part and haptically answer @meau:

I feel like MPLP has been applied poorly or unevenly in part because our bodies naturally and inevitably limit the size and scope of depeche-mode processing.

For me, to do a quick initial sort and triage on a largish collection (again, for me), say 50 feet, I need a room with six three-by-eight tables. I need to be able to load 50 boxes ranging in weight from 20 to 35 pounds onto carts and then load these boxes onto the tables. I need to be able to open everything at once, stack like items with like, identify oversize stuff, identify media, pitch all the publications, find out what has worms, etc. This involves standing, mainly hunched — we don’t tend to make 3-1/2 foot high folding tables really — for, if I’m lucky and uninterrupted — four hours at a time for eight hours a day.

You’ll note that for a heterogeneous collection any larger than this, MPLP is not scalable. You can cut a giant collection into homogeneous chunks and box and label them 10 feet at a time, but for giant groups with no incoming order, forget it. You’ll also note that MPLP does and should emphasize description of the gestalt or the oeuvre or the corpus, that is work on the whole body, but again, unless you’re working with a collection which came to you already pretty assiduously cared-for by a phalanx of women in central filing (see main image), there is no such thing as work on the whole without a serious bodily commitment. This means repetitive stress injuries to the back, knees, neck, tendinitis in the elbow and wrist, and so on ad infinitum. A thousand tiny indignities welling up into chronic conditions.

The woman in my position before me developed arthritis in both knees, and routinely had hand surgery on her hands and forearms for carpal tunnel syndrome. (My job initially was basically to serve as her arms and legs.) I pulled the same old lower lumbar muscles I always do right in the middle of writing this blog, and have had to return to my old regimen of core exercises recommended for 70-year-olds just to maintain. The grande dame archivist of my region has a persistent cough which her pulmonologist attributes to forty years of work in basements, breathing dust and red rot. I have a colleague so sensitive to active mold that he’s our canary in the coal mine: if he’s sneezing, I’ve got to quarantine something.

The gods ask Ninhursag for help, and she relents, again taking ab from Enki, and giving birth to eight gods of healing for each of Enki’s afflicted regions. Waters ebb and flow across the land, bringing life to the parched, bearing fruit. The waters bring along with life, suffering. And for each form of suffering, there is a healing genius.

And here’s where I would pivot from the bodies to the intellectual corpus of work. The archival profession, like Enki floating in the river which is himself, has eaten dire fruits and has abscesses. We have a fetish for conservation science, where we need the god of triage. We prize visualizations of description over the grunt work of tilling the bulk of the 19th and 20th centuries to bear real fruit. We enshrine the rights of donors at the expense of the sovereign powers and rights of users, of society writ large. We have an absolute paranoia about copyright, which can really only be lanced by the goddess of not giving a shit and wishing a motherfucker would. We have work to do, and, unlike poor Enki, no external source of relief, and so we will heal ourselves by ourselves, or languish in our excruciating insufficiency to the given task.