The Documentation Strategy and its discontents

Photograph of Betty Ford interviewed by Irv Kupcinet, 1974.NARA identifier 186769.

We effectively know and take for granted The Documentation Strategy; 25 years down the line its then-revolutionary practices have been woven into our daily acquisitions behavior. The only thing odd about The DS is that we must — in order to distinguish between the historic, revolutionary set of collecting practices that emerged after 1986 and its descendant, taken-for-granted documentation strategies plural — keep that annoying definite article in there. What’s up with that?

Go hunting American Archivist and you’ll find a big blowup of work on The Documentation Strategy beginning in the late 1980s and tapering off by the middle of the 1990s. Many of our new-ish ideas about collections, from Terry Cook’s appraise-everything-in-ism, to community or participatory archives, to the post-custodial archives, are either The Documentation Strategy in brand new drag, or are its logical outgrowths. I mean, we’re certainly not living in a parallel universe where The Documentation Strategy never happened. So reading archivists’ recent past against the grain is tough for us to do but worth doing, since so much of The Documentation Strategy informs our work without us knowing it. Here are three scattered thoughts, (written, sadly, over the course of months, forgive me) about The Documentation Strategy.

1) The Documentation Strategy totally wiped out Let it Rot; why is that? The Brutalist period in archival science I mean I still kind of admire, the way I admire the spiny echidna, like WHOA YOU LAY EGGS THAT’S WILD. We used to respond to the overwhelming bulkiness of mid-twentieth century collections with passivity: Do less. Become the uncarved block. Process upon request, if at all. The paper will be fine on the shelf. Thermofax? What thermofax? Preservation photocopying? Shyeah. Do you know how much it costs to run a Xerox? Half this stuff is duplicative or of temporary value anyway. Whatever.

And then all of a sudden we have to turn active? I blame, first of all, Reagan. By 1986 he had crushed the air traffic controllers, screwed the UAW, and ferried weapons to the Contras — and archivists in positions of influence by 1986 are children of 1968, they’re running urban archives and labor archives and immigrants’ archives and so on, and documenting the crises in labor, cities, and Latin America precipitated by the Reagan presidency ascends in priority. Relatedly, Reagan’s rise is a clear dog-whistle for the American left: the great revanche has begun, these are the end times, Gilded-Age capitalism is back for all your stuff AND WE WEREN’T WRONG WERE WE lending an unspoken urgency to our work. The fearfulness of theorists of The Documentation Strategy is nevertheless weird to behold. Their hearts sweat. Their teeth grind.

It’s not like the 1970s were without crises of archival inflection. Iran-Contra, meet Watergate. Even if we presume that the rage over White House emails and internal correspondence during Iran-Contra might have led archivists to want to complement and undermine official channels of records-keeping by getting ordinary folks to document their work in a kind of para-officialdom, well, why didn’t Rose Mary Woods’ foot capture our imagination the decade prior? The 1970s by all accounts did suck; did it just take another decade to shake off the malaise?

2) The Documentation Strategy is a response to the sudden rise of the personal computer and the waves of technological change headed toward all information specialists: if offices do their business on magnetic tape, if we can’t rely on reams of paper just being around, then archivists have to get in users’ faces and collect by retail. Virtually all the 1980s literature contains this element of datapanik. Helen Samuels figures [SAA paywall, sorry] that Arthur C. Clarke’s vision for space-data centers is impossible to execute, and presents the Documentation Strategy as a selection mechanism for born-digital records. Cox and Samuels reiterate [SAA again] that new automated description systems need to emerge to match the growing quantity of born-digital records. Businessweek had heralded word processing as a harbinger of the paperless office in 1975, and while techno-utopians haven’t managed to do that yet, they could then and now attempt to eliminate labor as an input.

Jobs-panic, as the handmaiden to datapanik, was certainly on the radar of SAA’s committee on the image of archivists (1984), in which archivists’ paymasters called our work “frivilous” [sic, sadly]. The Levy report argues that increased outreach, specifically about the time- and cost-saving power of archives and archivists — in responding to discovery, in settling contract disputes, in serving ad campaigns — could safeguard the profession. In this environment, The Documentation Strategy takes on a plainly subversive character: You want outreach, fine, you got it. I’m writing a people’s history of the university, and we’re going to tape EVERYBODY, the janitors, landscaping, housekeeping, food services, ALL OF THEM so suck on that! Think again about the other recommendations in the Levy report, namely that archival education programs begin to focus on

[…]communications techniques; motivation training; managerial techniques; personnel management; nature and use of power; negotiation in the work place; and strategic planning for public programs; and personal representation.

which is to say etiquette and Bizgrish, and you can begin to understand why archivists felt both the need to justify their continued presence in large institutions and to undermine received attitudes about their work.

3) Even if the present economic conditions of archives rhyme with those of the 1980s — and they do, not in any fancy Yeatsian way, but because our paymasters remain in thrall to the post-1979 neoliberal consensus — something more than the use of the archives as a site of resistance, or the practice of archives as a neurotic response to technological flux is going on here. We’ve come a long way from writing AMC in MARC, storage of text in relatively stable formats is relatively cheap and relatively easy, and these are the kinds of statements that need big giant “CITATION NEEDED” placards, but we’re no longer in the condition of abject ignorance and helplessness that comes across in the writing of the 1980s. Our fear of gaps in the archival record is, I’m postulating, no longer about our fear of rapidly-proliferating “automated formats,” but is ideological or psychological or both.

Enough of us have collected in the absence of a records management program or institutional or bureaucratic mandate that by now we should be able to imagine that every collection carries its own lacunae, and the more you collect, the less you know. We can take oral histories from Minnesota miners, but did we interview their wives and children? Why did we interview the Swedish Lutherans and the Italians and the Poles, but skip the Magyar-speakers? Now our project has covered the 1940s, but what about before, and after? Less than preserving a comprehensive record, para-institutional collecting unfurls into the paranoid style in acquisitions.

Like any repression, our disavowal of archives’ lacunae is itself repressed. In a 2004 review of an Alphabet City issue which overall embraced archives’ liminality/contingency/etc. — roughly speaking, learn to stop worrying and love the gaps — the American Archivist holds up the issue’s interview with Gregory Hartman, English professor at Yale involved in the Fortunoff Video Archive. Asked about Derrida’s and Agamben’s writing on the figure of the archives, Hartman sees both names as a flag for “theory,” interprets “theory” as “passive,” and “practice” as “active,” and leaps into a virtually prefab “We can’t just sit around reading books and shit”-diatribe:

At the moment, I don’t think the implications of this ‘archive fever’ are very clear […] I am somewhat suspicious or wary, not of the power of their minds and the stimulus of their thought, but of certain generalizations made without a hands-on (that kind of main-tenant) experience.

Tellingly, this book review is the only hit in American Archivist for “Agamben.” Not only do we fully disavow that philosophers have anything to tell us, we disavow their differences. Having done this, we can disavow “theory” and get down to the business of doing things. Nevermind that — describing the project closest to Hartman — because no Holocaust-denier will ever be swayed by a video archives of testimony, no matter how total or comprehensive, the virtue of capturing survivors’ testimonies is moot at best and obscene at worst, reminding interviewer and interviewee and audience alike of every human sacrifice represented by the figure of the survivor, indeed, styling the survivors “survivors,” given the arbitrariness of their survival, an arbitrariness which many of them — Jerzy Kosinski, Primo Levi — could not endure after the fact, is its own obscenity. Nevermind that, in context, using these fragments to shore against the ruin explicitly denigrates the flipside of the Shoah, which is the Naqba. In context, “don’t just stand there, do something” isn’t an intellectually defensible position. In context, why on Earth would anyone be “wary” of the power of another human being’s mind?

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