On the political economy of archives

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.

1 comment
  1. Too big for Twitter. I’m going to hold this question to the fire a little longer. Historians’ research is obviously a value-add — if we continue to accept a metaphor I’m growing weary of and yet am stuck with and I feel like there’s a handy bird metaphor for _that_ feeling and let’s ignore it — but “relevant” is going to need some definition. Nothing comes pret-a-porter for one’s dissertation, because we don’t classify, we don’t transcribe handwritten text, and to belabor a dead horse not everything is going to be CTRL+F-able, so “relevant” meaning “something worth quoting and/or citing” is something each user has to imagine for herself. (Sometimes the imagination runs wild, as with good old Tom Lowry: http://www.archives.gov/global-pages/larger-image.html?i=/press/press-kits/lincoln-pardon/images/1865-l.jpg&c=/press/press-kits/lincoln-pardon/images/1865.caption.html)

    But I submit that that’s not what “relevant” means in this transaction, that basically You Didn’t Build That, that the feeling of relevance is put together from good description, processing, representation in an OPAC, and subject-experts’ or reference-archivists’ guidance. All that work at the back of the supply chain gets the historian within range. And I’m pretty sure nobody gives a shit about that. If my most intimate users underestimate the depth of the archives supply chain, then forget what Ordinary People think, archivists are _done_. And I think archivists’ natural constituencies in the humanities do exactly that. The more research in languages and literature and history is based on n-grams, e.g., the less records matter — there was a great piece on the unnatural scale of quantitative study of literature — the super-fast and the super-minute are well-handled in digital humanities projects but the reader-author scale is not — a lot of threads get tugged here — more some other time no doubt

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