Monthly Archives: November 2016


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.