Monthly Archives: January 2015

S novym godom / Happy New Year. Woodburn poster collection, National Library of Scotland.

That’s it really. If you’ve been reading Archivists’ Twitter this week you’ve read #WhyIAmAnArchivist and felt good, probably, about the profession and the people in it. We’re clearly care-workers; our for-the-love vibrations are mega-strong, and that just GETS YOU RIGHT IN THE FEELS. This posture also sets us archivists up for another round of gendered self-exploitation in the economy of care-work, right alongside nurses and teachers and motherworkers, but we’ll bracket that for a sec just to roll around in the feeeels.

This is an unscientific count, but most like two-thirds? of us responded to K-Roe with something to the tune of “Because history is important.” Sometimes it was “too important to crumble away,” sometimes it was “to be preserved for the future,” sometimes it was the “stories of people speaking to us.” Very few of us actually didn’t talk about history as a substance that could be passed along, or could crumble, or could be misplaced, like a fuggin’ sock or fugggin’ car keys. Only a few of us actually said WHY HISTORY WHATEVER THAT MEANS MIGHT BE GOOD OR WHATEVER:

That’s good, I mean that, and I feel you, but I want more, Archivists’ Twitter:

There we go. Yes. Now we’re getting some hot fyah:

I’m going to distract myself, if no one else, if I start to talk about how erotic that tweet is. That is high on the list of best erotic archives-history language ever. I mean, both in a highbrow Eros and Civilization or Life Against Death kind of way, but also almost, for me anyway, in a YA novella sort of way. Baring, undermining, leverage. These words, for moles, are virtually pornographic.

Man that’s good Twitter. Now we get to the crux of the matter:

I mean, once you read the tweets excerpted here, and then read a typical “because history is important” tweet, both of these flavors of thought coming from professionals in our discipline, you get a funny feeling, right? Like some of us don’t see history as an active continuum which includes and comprehends the present. Like some of us know history is important but won’t or can’t say why. I mean I get that your boss is looking over your shoulder, okay. But we really can’t answer “Why are you an archivist?” with “Because history is important,” that’s just displacing one absolute with another. Okay, why is history important? You can get all essentialist about it and be like “patrimony” which you might just as well render “family jewels” so why are those pearls of wisdom important? I hate to be the one to break this to you, but wisdom comes and goes. A lot (fuck, most?) of the West’s “wisdom” is a cabinet of curiosities — worth preserving as a reminder that learnèd gentlemen can be amazingly wrong; worth preserving to keep us KEYBOARD WARRIORS humble.

And more to the point, why do we want to be the vestal virgins, or the keepers of the crown jewels, or the little Dutch dude with his finger in the dike? See what happens when you conceive of history as a substance, with brittle paper its metonym? History is important –> History is crumbling all around us! –> I can save History! –> MY NEW ARCHIVING TECHNIQUE IZ UNSTOPABBLE. Suddenly history and its remains and universal human access to them are not the point. The point is our powerz. And I mean, I get giddy about having teh powerz too, but I try to keep it in perspec-

-yeah, never mind. But you get what I mean. When I’ve been called upon in my job to do something like this, I’ve given punt-responses too — my favorite is about democracy; nobody argues with democracy! — the real responses are either too real — involving heads on pikes, usually — or are just too long — involving dialectical materialism, usually — but you know, the people above have thought about what they want to do with archives, and they’ve done it without patting themselves on the back, so it can be done. Second round: Why really for-real for-real are you an archivist? Go.

Four months into the Archivists’ Year seems like enough time to have gathered thoughts about Kathleen Roe’s SAA keynote.

I mean, there’s nothing objectionable here, but since we’ve now spent a third of the year talking to each other and reading and writing about “advocacy” we should maybe clarify what we mean by that. At virtually every level  — from individual archivists’ conversations, to the Issues and Advocacy Committee — “advocacy” is some amalgamation of: speaking up for archivists’ jobs and funding priorities; speaking up for our collections and repositories as stuff; speaking out on issues close to archival practice — jurisprudence, privacy, copyright, usw; and speaking out on issues of social justice regardless of how related to archives these may seem at first.

I can talk about the easiest part first: as human beings, archivists cannot but find ways to bend our work over the long arc of justice. End of sentence. Depending on where you work, though, this might make those funding conversations a little more difficult than they were last year, before you did that giant exhibit about how your board chair’s father invented Agent Orange. So asking archivists (some of whom might not be thus inclined in the first place) to both get out in front on Ferguson or Occupy and get money from Donald Sterling or Donald Trump is you know like sort of Type A. (As an aside, and this deserves and will get much more than an aside here, later, but archives are — with the right argument I can be talked down to a “may be” — structurally governmental; gouvernmentalité is kind of our schtick. There’s something off about acting within them as if they/we are plucky underdogs battling oppression WE CONSTITUTE TECHNIQUES OF DOMINATION FOLKS.)

Speaking out on issues close to our practice, on the model of how het up ALA gets about censorship, trying to find the archives’ equivalent for Banned Books Week, is you know a little fraught. Christine George thinks that archivists’ privilege is something all archivists need to get on board with, and I don’t. Lukewarm SAA action on Belfast is a reflection of the diverse polity of archivists. Pick your issue wisely, folks. Because I at least am totally okay with starting SAA splinter factions. The Real SAA, the Provisional SAA, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Archives (Marxist-Leninist), the world’s our oyster.

So it might seem like speaking up for our collections as stuff is the easy one. I mean, dig deep into your soul: You would not be in this discipline if you didn’t really really like rooting through old boxes, or I dunno, sorting people’s email, or crossing your fingers while an aluminum dubplate goes under the needle to be transferred, or finding out how to get “FILE 0 3$ .qzl” converted to PDF AND THEN CONVERTING THE SHIT OUT OF THAT BAD BOY, admit it, you like the stuff. I have a love-hate relationship with the stuff, and you do too, but as long as there’s some love there, we can speak. Or our education and outreach departments can. What’s that you say? Your archives doesn’t have a dedicated education staff? You mean there’s no one certified as a K-12 educator and background-checked and cleared to enter classrooms? You mean your building isn’t designed, nor more importantly insured to cover visits by 40 schoolchildren? Fuck me you don’t say. Also you say you’re already blowing up peoples’ spot with social media, public exhibits, guest speakers, hayrides, ghost tours? And you’ve been doing that since time immemorial and it hasn’t stabilized your funding streams? Hunh. /scratches head/ Well NARA has sleepovers, why can’t we?

INDEED they do have sleepovers. How does NARA have sleepovers? NARA has sleepovers — which, man, these are cool, even if we’re ripping off museums, and even if the thing about museums that we’re ripping off is empirically bad, that thing being the commodification of the experience of pleasure, the transformation of just visiting and wandering into “appointment viewing,” whatever I would take my man to an archives sleepover if NARA had a nice building downtown instead of a warehouse in the sticks and had SOLD THE NICE BUILDING DOWNTOWN BECAUSE AUSTERITY hold on we’re getting there, wait for it — ahem. NARA has sleepovers because it has the Foundation for the National Archives, which was organized in 2010 to do education and outreach and to for example run a store, now brought to you by Ancestry Dot Com, originally called The National Archives Experience which makes some of you think Mitch Mitchell will be drumming in the back of it, but he won’t be, he’s dead. FNARA exceeded its capital campaign goal of $23.6 million to build the National Archives Museum, where they host galas, give awards to Steven Spielberg, get Ken Burns into our lives when we’d prefer his more talented brother Ric (that is my Burns Brothers Hot Taek).

Which is all laudable. Even if your major corporate donors include Boeing, the Carlyle Group, and Exxon. Fine. Money has to come from somewhere, all piles of money are compromised, every act of capital accumulation embodies an act of violence, yes. I don’t think we’ll be seeing anything about Vietnam in the National Archives Museum any time soon though, do you? We have seen stuff on Iraq — no, not about how we looted Iraqi documents and shipped them to the Hoover Institute — but about the noble rescue of treasures of Iraqi Jewry. And it is noble, and I’m really not discounting it, I mean it totally makes conservators tumesce, but that trove’s recovery for one thing has the surgical character of a hostage rescue on TV, and throws into sharp relief what we did and said about, um, Mesopotamian artifacts. Glad we could get Chabad Lubavitch to chip in. Perhaps next we can help rescue some documents from Hebron.

NO this is all fine, it’s the way the world works. The thing that really gets me about FNARA and Kathleen’s Year is that they are how liberals are conditioned to react to the ideology of austerity. We on your left facepalm and headdesk every time we see this happen, from charter schools, to privatizing public utilities, to bidding out contracts for snow removal and turnpike maintenance, and so on. FNARA allows NARA to pull education off of its books. That’s $5.5 million every year that the federal government doesn’t have to spend, because it’s got David Rubenstein’s money instead. In the CROmnibus for 2015, NARA’s operating expenses appropriation shrank from $370 to $365 million. Let’s look at appropriations since the sequester:

2015 ask: $360
2015 get: $365

2014 ask: $370
2014 get: $370

2013 ask: $372
2013 re-ask: $355
2013 get: $353

The transformation of the National Archives that David Ferriero keeps telling House Appropriations about looks like this. Take on debt to construct new, tourist-friendly job sites. Shutter old job sites and downsize old archivists. Defend your profession with education and outreach, which is paid for by corporate sponsors, some of whom need some reputation-laundering. You’ll notice that NARA’s budgets start with how much money they’ve saved, and FNARA’s annual reports start with how many awesome things they’ve done. What scares me about Kathleen’s Year is that its masterpiece is already up on the wall, a shrinking NARA and a growing FNARA is what it looks like.

The context of federal “austerity” renders the Year‘s exhortations obscene. Education and outreach is not unequivocally good. In my nightmare scenario, it is the tip of the knife, where private funding with designated goals replaces systematic public funding. Wedging neoliberal dogma into our practice will not protect and preserve anyone’s cultural patrimony, nor will it succor the widow, nor clothe the naked, nor free the prisoner. This is not how you become a revolutionary vanguard, nor, more mundanely, is it how you grow the profession. For the former, typically, you need a party. And for the latter, if you want that, well, you don’t need SAA. You need a union.