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Monthly Archives: February 2014

In lettuce fields along the Colorado River, Mexican worker carries boxes to field pickers, 05/1972. via NARA, ARC#549084

In lettuce fields along the Colorado River, Mexican worker carries boxes to field pickers, 05/1972. via NARA, ARC#549084

So if anything is archives’ product it’s historical writing, right? This is the classic view, reading rooms open only to known scholars carrying out their business with ancient texts in stunned, holy silence, and I can’t imagine that this view is wrong, not yet, or else not possibly. What else could be the one inalienable outcome of archives work?

It’s not access to information, because everything. It’s not cultural patrimony, though that’s a better candidate because it makes me feel French and man archivists love to be French RESPAY DES FONDS, because many archives just don’t operate in the sphere of heritage. Many of us are hired goons for vicious people who test herbicides on Africans and then try to kill poor George Clooney to cover up their nefarity I mean yaa lots of us are basically risk-managers for Tilda Swinton. Similarly, I think we can scratch out community, emancipation, liberation, and reconciliation as products, though I’m sympathetic to the lattermost, not just because archivists though mostly of Zion invariably work for Babylon, but because it’s cheap, alienating and silly to conceive of those ideas as quantities much less as products. It’s easier to think of exhibits or curation as our product, I mean because we definitely do that, but those things aren’t inalienably ours since you know there are still museums and galleries and the whole interwebs now is building itself on users tumblr™ing and Pinterest™ing collections of their favorite GIFs from Korean soap operas and every outer-borough party DJ five years ago was calling himself a music curator, so either we abandon curation as skunked or we reconceptualize curation as something other than cool mashups and stuff and that’s not to diss good curation at all, I mean my soul too would swoon if I heard someone spinning “Israelites” into “96th Nervous Breakdown,” it’s just if we’re going to insist on the idea that archives make something exclusively archivish, curated content — feel free to at every instance of this term which by itself proves the insufficiency of late-stage capitalism exaggeratedly sigh, facepalm, do a shot, or throw steak knives at your Elon Musk hand puppet — ain’t it.

But the thing we clearly still do and do alone is prepare the field for historians, and yeah, Newspapers, I said it. Because your first draft of history sucks, mainly, but also because the action on history — by which I mean now the tides of human events we all swim in and please don’t make fun of me for getting all Hegelian, whereas usually here I’m using “history” to mean the discipline, the body of techniques, practices, rhetorical modes whatever — that newspapers are part of emerges extemporaneously. Contemporaneous “research” is reporting. You got that, still, kind of, in a way. Non-contemporaneous research is history-writing. We got that.

Here’s the supply chain of archives: creator bodies ⇨ (optional records management / appraisal, usually nothing) ⇨ archival description ⇨ reference archivists ⇨ researchers ⇨ dissertations. Framed this way, some interesting things happen. You can see I’m being SUPER NORMATIVE UP IN THIS BITCH because OMG not all of our interactions follow the chain. Sometimes historians or journalists do a bunch of work with creators first and then dump incriminating content onto archives /cough/ BELFAST /cough/. Sometimes archivists go out and get oral histories straight from creators and put them up online. Sometimes IT and Legal get together and install a keep-everything-forever email-vaulting-system that they will call an “archive” and that real archivists somewhere down the line will have to deal with WHICH IS CRAY-CRAY. But those are comparatively small branches in a big supply web, and when you break them off you get archivists doing labor on primary source materials for the benefit of people who write secondary source materials. I feel like I’m only stating the obvious here.

What’s significant about our supply chain is that just as in any other chain the work in the middle is obscured from the end-user. Until in maybe 2009 I realized that textile workers’ strikes were happening every summer in Dhaka I really didn’t care where my socks came from; even if I did care, I’d never see the rest of the chain beyond point-of-sale. And historians have nearly the same haptic impressions of archivists’ work as we in the West and North have for Bangladesh’s textile workers, only with one crucial difference: we don’t get ALL UP IN THE GRILLS of Bangladesh’s textile workers and write about how we found all these socks lying around and no one had done anything with them in the dusty-crusty old mustinesses and hidden fastnesses of the sock factory AND HOW AMAZING IS THAT I AM A FINDER. Exhibit A in all of these conversations, for me, is the Times writing about the “discovery” of a copy of “The Machine Age” in the Norbert Wiener papers at MIT: “It was a vision that never saw the light of day.” Yes, except insofar as Wiener was processed to the item level in 1980 and the whole shebang was dumped into Archivists’ Toolkit in 2009, so yes, this essay has been visible in some form for at a minimum four years and at a maximum 33 years before you ran across it, Times.

This happens over and over again. Five hundred fairytales outside the Grimm canon, published in three editions in the 19th century are “discovered” after being “locked away in an archive [sic].” Google it. Historians “discover” women scientists, dance lineages, jazz gems, prospectors’ diaries, photographs, reel-to-reel tapes, and everything. (Gallingly, sometimes archivists “discover” things that were “lost,” which is why #IFoundItInTheArchives is the worst, and why the term “trove” is suspect, and there WILL BE A TEST ON RECAPITULATING THE TERMS OF OUR OWN SUZERAINTY.) Naturally, historians insist that their information-seeking is serendipitous, that they find things by accident because archival description is so hard to navigate, and I’m sympathetic to that I mean we’ve all seen crazy kinds of legacy description, and Duff and Johnson were writing in 2002, when all we had was HTML, and PDF, and EAD 1.0, and APPM in MARC, and DACS was just a glimmer in our eyes, and OH WHATEVER SHALL I DO I CAN’T MAKE SENSE OF THIS DAAAY-TAAAH, but there’s no real difference in a user survey between serendipity and bald-assed ignorance of the political economy of archives. Mostly I think historians just like to pretend they’re entering the Temple of Doom instead of the reading room. They’re engaged in a retail experience, which frankly most of us under late-capitalism view as a kind of foraging, I mean day-um I feel like I just persistence-hunted a deer every time I drive back from Whole Foods, so it’s not surprising that they’d see processed, weeded, carefully tended collections as virgin territory met by their conquering pioneer hands.

So let’s make a deal. I like you, historians, I really do. When next you plan on theorizing the archive, let’s theorize across the supply chain, let’s be up-front that there’s a long distance of labor between records and you, and let’s start by theorizing your styles of consuming archives before conceptualizing my styles of producing them. Do that. I gotta get some vittles.

Radar in snow, 1968, via NARA, ARC# 6506387

Radar in snow, 1968, via NARA, ARC# 6506387

Evgeny Morozov led me to Remo Bodei, whose brief notes here bring the clinical definition of delusion to bear on the acts of memory and the practices of history. There’s a lot to chew on here for archivists.

Speaking of the classical delusional subject, Bodei lays out for us some stuff: I’m going to replace “his” here with “the archivist’s”:

[The archivist’s] psychic apparatus does not only raise smoke screens or secrete ink, like cuttlefish, in order to hide from itself: to dazzle and confuse it also uses light.

The style I’d like to call white redaction emerges when we dazzle and confuse with light. It isn’t always a matter of overwhelming potential researchers with an abundance of worthless bulk, the way your lawyer will passive-aggressively respond to a discovery request with photocopies of everything JUST EVERYTHING HAHAHAHAA. It’s more akin to what David Foster Wallace gets at in The Pale King: an iron triangle of information, transparency and apathy. Any system in which our capacity to read records outpaces our capacity to understand them, where access outpaces description, is essentially a regime of redaction.

For the better part of a two decades, archivists with a thing for information technology have been shoehorning narrative content into structured data with the aim of enabling researchers to drill down into a collection to get at the couple parcels they knew they needed, doing for the old print finding aid what the print finding aid did for collections, making sure no one has to read things that they didn’t ask for. MPLP and flipped processing, though in good hands they shouldn’t, similarly enable a style of archives-work that deprecates description. We’re counting on users to know what they’re looking at when they see it, and to know what they’re looking for before they see it.

What if we’re wrong and better known-item search is not better research? The glory of an archival collection is that it’s a collection, a whole tangled bolus of curated passages into historical fact, each reflecting and illuminating every other. Really great known-item search is like digging out individual carbon molecules from an ingeniously cut diamond. Even calling archival known-item search known-item search is oxymoronic: an item in an archival collection can’t be known except as part of a whole. In the name of facilitating access we’ve deployed our technologies to the task of alienating researchers from archives’ contexts. This is our old unacknowledged wish irrupting into daily life, and our compensatory act for indulging the will to opacity is to desperately try to re-embed context into data. And I mean we can BRO DOWN WITH EVGENY LATER about how the response to the ills brought by technophilia is to apply more technophilic solutions, BUT THAT’S FOR LATER. Following Bodei, I can see a world in which EAC-CPF implementation is like stress-eating, or the itch you get when you’re depressed; a technical response to a deep psychic wellspring.

We’re now going to replace “acute schizophrenia” here with “archives”:

Overinclusive thought, frequent in [archives], consists in the inability to choose the pertinent elements of a concept, eliminating the ones that are less relevant or completely unrelated

Delusion, for Bodei, is hyperawareness, “the result of an unsuccessful attempt to interpret coherently the incoming collection of data,” which is the kind of thing so broadly misused as to diagnose all of modern life as schizophrenic, and is this close to being just warmed-over Future Shock, dumbed-down Eros and Civilization, or lobotomized Civilization and its Discontents, but if we confine ourselves to the tiny sphere of archival description and its encodings, and we think about who’s writing new descriptions, and whether those young people are well-read enough to write a good historical note, or to identify events of significance in 20th-century collections, then I think it’s fair to say at many institutions we see unsuccessful attempts to interpret large bodies of information coherently at least after every summer internship if not ALL THE TIME HAVE YOU EVER READ A BOOK and so here’s a fun aside:

Archives comrade: So when are these due? December 7? How will I remember that?
Old Mole: Um, it’s Pearl Harbor Day?
Archives comrade: [baffled, in all seriousness] Oh okay, like that’s gonna help. You’re so obscure.

Now, I might have said “That reference is obscure,” because it’s just my style coz I dunno if people other than Jude can be obscure per se, but ultimately the larger point is SO MUCH FOR LIVING IN INFAMY hahahha I mean, WHO REMEMBERS WHAT ALL THE FUSS WAS ABOUT ANYWAY and as you can see my aside and my main theme dovetail neatly [/brushes shoulder off]:

It’s important that researchers get as broad a view of the historic record, or cultural patrimony, or the sources of art history, or the scope of old business operations and human resources practices, or whatever it is we’re curating as possible. We have to replace immediate if fragmentary access with knowledge born of real work in history; to get people a wide-angle view of a collection, to see peripherally. One of the ways we defeat information-delusion is to deliver to our seekers something like a collection’s gestalt, the undergirding sensation of being situated in space and time.

We can read another path to defeating information-delusion into the phrase “choose the pertinent elements,” and I really think this should be etched in everyone’s mind in screaming capitals: RECORDS MOTHERFUCKING MANAGEMENT. And on and on. There’s a lot more in that little address to pick through for anyone interested in how human beings might behave in the so-called information age: “insecurity exits,” the feverish work of maintaining delusion, delusion as dense interconnection — or why networks don’t always cure cancer or solve economic inequality or make a better grilled cheese sandwich — more than enough for this paper-pusher to handle in one go.

"Digitization projects" in Google Images, 2014.

“Digitization projects” in Google Images, 2014.

I have heard board members of my archives say “Why can’t you just digitize all this and get it online and let people do their own research?” and before lifting my own brain out of its very casing and gnashing it in my jaws only to disgorge the bolus of stewy brainflesh onto said board member’s horrified face, that is BEFORE DOING WHAT IS THE ONLY REASONABLE RESPONSE TO SUCH MADNESS I think about the ways to address people who think computers are magic, and there’s lots of them, the ways I mean although there are also lots of people sufficiently baffled by their own phones to presume that physical laws SHIT LIKE TIME AND SPACE don’t apply to digitization projects, lots of ways to address these people like: The digital archives doesn’t run itself, its public face and its dark storage have hardware and software and intellectual infrastructure; Oh, the Cloud is something we rent from Amazon and give away to the NSA; Stuff you post online doesn’t need description and classification and contextualization because it really doesn’t matter, stuff we do does because it matters; I know you think this is a Knowledge Management™ problem to be handled by a corporate IT department, but you will find that model fails the humanities majorly, where content needs foragers, guides and interpreters, that is, archivists; Also — and this has seriously been bruited in my general direction — you can’t digitize archival materialĀ in order to shred the paper and no longer have an archives of things because remember microfilm in the 1920s and how it would lead to a paperless office and then we shredded or burned miles and miles of paper and then discovered that leaving acetate in tightly-sealed metal cans is bad and we basically lost everything yeah that’s not happening again WHY IS YOUR DEATH DRIVE SO STRONG; Or, an easier way of saying this is researchers surprisingly frequently want to see the real thing, and whatever its virtues as a class of being, “the digitized” is not the “the real,” and for most of us the world is not perfectly simulacral. No, I don’t say any of those things. I just say, You don’t have the money or the patience to do that.

Now comes the New York Philharmonic with a big awesome program reviewed in theĀ Times with the same OUT OF THE DUSTY-MUSTY INTO YOUR IPAD tics and tropes we’re used to but which, read carefully, helps me out immensely, viz.:

The Levy Foundation’s first grant of $2.6 million in 2007 put 1.3 million images/pages up by 2011. The new grant of $2.4 million intends to put up an additional 1.7 million images/pages, to cover the whole archival holdings of @nyphil through 1970. A timeline isn’t mentioned but let’s just figure that doing 125% of the last project’s work for 90% of the funding takes the same amount of time — we get better at this stuff over time, after all, I’ll happily grant that, I mean I’m a Marxist, not a jagoff — and the archivists get 3 million images/pages up by this time in 2017. Figure that’s 6000 images/pages per cubic foot, so 500 cubic feet. That’s $5 million, over ten years, for five hundred cubic feet of text and images. $10,000 per box. You don’t have the money for this.

Let’s also consider although this is really minor and nitpicky and I ALREADY HATE MYSELF FOR BEING THIS WAY WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE that invariably stuff we did a decade ago isn’t the greatest — GIF access images? Stuff in grayscale? At 300 dpi? — and some refreshing might have to be done on the 2007 stuff by the time 2017 rolls around. And let’s not forget LET’S NOT FORGET that this is a well-tempered clavier of collections: small, nutritious, informationally dense, weeded, secure, globally significant, fairly old. Think briefly of all the collections you’ve run across that are unweeded, physically insecure, intellectually uncontrolled: now multiply the per-box cost of the digitization project by every bad attribute those collections have. Good, got a number? Multiply by the size of your holdings because you did say “all this stuff” didn’t you, you smug jagbag. There’s your total figure. Is your archives 1000 cubic feet, and is maybe a quarter of that in need of weeding and feeding? $15 million please. How long will it take you to raise that? How long will you pay for refreshing, post-production, and permanent storage and accessiblity of all this stuff? You don’t have the patience.

Magical thinking is abundant in donor/board/one-percenter circles, and why not I mean suppressing wages by offshoring and making up for the slackening in demand with easy credit is in effect magic and it worked FANTASTICALLY WELL WITH NO PROBLEMZ UNTILL OBAMA, so this whole post is in a sense an exercise in pleonasm THIS WHOLE BLOG IS AN EXERCISE IN PLEONASM BRAH but what scares me is that just as our funders have lost touch with archives’ means of production, in aiming to please our funders we recapitulate their blindness. I have a colleague who’s bringing in a terabyte of images every month from her scanning vendor because that’s what funders want and in the meantime begging for a regional digital archives to get up and running so that she can get cheap near-line storage. We’ve ceded control of the means of archival production and are in effect intermediaries between imaging vendors and money men. Which means maybe we reconsider what the product of an archives is with a little more specificity than usual so that we can talk about structures and functions and how we can get a hold of them.

Miners tested for black lung, 1974, via NARA, ARC#556566.

Miners tested for black lung, 1974, via NARA, ARC#556566.

When “the archives” does violence to a historic group, what do we mean by “the archives,” what do we mean by “violence,” and how does the violence get done? I’m asking Deborah Thomas because I don’t think she’s considered this stuff; to her credit, I don’t think any historian out there blithely “theorizing the archive” has, and Thomas at least uses “archives” as a singular, and has done research in them, and I trust does not use the nefarious verb “to archive” which we’ve somehow inherited from gamers backing up their playthroughs like “ZOMG I AM ARCHIVING THIS” and which is now accepted language and which as you may or may not see below because I don’t really know fully where this is headed elides the relationships of creation, stewardship, inquiry and justice which archivists are bound to make plain.

Let’s for a second pretend I didn’t ask any of the above, and let’s assume that we all speak the same post-Foucauldian language, that we can recognize a panopticon at 50 paces, or contend that my son’s Melissa-and-Doug safari truck is a metonym for the carceral bodies of Africans, and so forth. I like the figure of the archives as a prison, a lot. So I’m hip to this. And I also refer to my son’s toy as Caucasian wood-people pillaging the continent for trophies LET’S DRAG THIS PURPLE HIPPO INTO THE TRUCK so again, I think we’re all receptive to the carcerality and the panopticisms.

(I’m also skipping over what I think for @meau is another whole thing: ICA calls the collections or the archival holdings “the archives.” And how of course can boxes of papers “enact” anything? And even if you buy my “it’s structural, dude” position, doesn’t that let agents off the hook? To which, yeah, but it’s more like we agents — creators, donors, subjects, archivists — are the woven hook, and how do we get to be I don’t know a needle or a shovel or something? How do we take the overlapping ties of responsibility and rebind them to better ends? All of which is by way of saying, I use “archives” to mean the styles of behavior of archivists, their technologies of the self, and the cultural practices found in archives — meaning places, sites, institutions.)

With terms given, I can give you an example of how archives enact violence. I have a body of personnel files which contain Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory results for people applying for jobs in medicine, education, and so forth. Applicants knew they were being personality-profiled, but they couldn’t have known that their tendencies toward hypochondria, psychosis or homosexuality were being measured. (There are or could be nested layers of violence here: the MMPI and its descendants are copyrighted by the University of Minnesota despite being developed under a Works Progress Administration grant, which is theft; the original MMPI was keyed to rural, middle-class, white Minnesotans and so classed everyone who grew up poor, or in a city, or black as aggressive, psychotic and sexually deviant, which is slander. In this instance, the people being profiled were predominantly rural, white, and midwestern, so ignore first possible instance of violence above. But they were predominantly bookish, which in MMPI makes you sexually deviant. I am not even joking.) These folks are still alive. The creator-body I serve needs to hold these records as a liability shield; when a student or patient comes along 70 years later and says Dr. Florence Engobe was a deviant and deviated her, the creator-body needs to say, “We tried our best to flag deviants and keep them in the library WHERE THEY BELONG.” Subjects of the archives have a compelling case for excision of records from the archives and repatriation, because of the right to opacity. Agents of the creator body have a compelling case not to repatriate, because of liability. It’s a classic double bind.

What’s interesting is that this isn’t really what Thomas contends at all. Following the trend of the 1990s — I’m looking at you Terry Cook and your appraise-everything-in illness — she sees fragmentary or insufficiently evidentiary collections as violence. For which the contemporary response is to make sure that everybody makes all kinds of things and keeps them somewhere which is great so long as someone else is responsible for keeping them forever, which again, calls into question the original premise, because somehow a communal or participatory or relational archives will have gotten over its predisposition to violence. I’m just guessing here, because that’s a default position. Maybe Thomas is cooler than that.

See what happens there? Theorizers of “the archive” on the one hand lament the centralized power of archivists to deny entrée of materials into the archives, to marginalize peoples’ histories. On the other hand, the presumed solution is a unitary “archive” thought of the way college freshmen think of “the commons,” a revivified pre-lapsarian vault for all the stories of all the peoples.

There isn’t of course a way back because there never was such an Eden to go back to. Any anthropologist should have read David Graeber’s Debt, which one prays has dropped the final nail into the coffin of utopian socialisms, so that Thomas should anticipate my “it was ever thus”: archives are bodies of order made by creators in a position of dominance. Their structural position by itself enacts violence. They are this way because our civilizations order themselves through violence. (Which, you know, I’m also hip to the idea that we’re talking here about differentiated evils. Yoking Haiti to reparations for its revolution is far, far more evil than anything any archives could do. No comparison. PERSPECTIVE.) The question clearly isn’t, How do we make a big, peoples’ vault which appraises everything in and which nominally has no archons but for real though has like five or six Grand Wizards? because that’s the Interwebs. The question also isn’t, How do we get new things into archives to make them righteous? The question is, How do we arrange social relations such that archives are not structurally violent?