Finding Aids Under Late Capitalism

Nixon in a hard hat

Nixon in a hard hat, NARA ID 16916291

This is a long divagation from @meau’s request for comments on the proposed new DACS guiding principles or more specifically, only to part one:

Archival description expresses professional ethics and values.

Professional ethics and values drive archival work, including descriptive practice. Archival description is an iterative, ethical practice that requires  continual engagement with core values. Rooting standards in values helps archivists enact these values consistently and makes them explicit to our user communities.

Ethical description:
produces trust in and between users, archivists, and repositories
encourages a diverse archival record
promotes responsible and responsive descriptive practices
holds archivists accountable to users and to each other
privileges equitable access and accessibility

So I recently moved house and now walk by my kid’s preschool every day. The school has four windows in front, and the teachers have put up four posters TEACH / LOVE / TEACH / RESPECT. My first question for the new principles was, Can virtue be taught? Because the principles clearly attempt what Socrates considered impossible — you will not educate the narcissism out of Donald Trump — kind of by the back door. That is, even if we can’t pour virtue in to systems that are innately unvirtuous, we can develop standards of behavior so vanilla and taken-for-granted that subsequent generations behave virtuously without meaning to. Establishing ethical description as a norm — placing it first in the list — is to elevate description to the level of pure ideology.

Do your Žižek voice if you need to. Okay.

It’s worth noting that TS-DACS has to model this for us because no other American archivists’ entity can or will. We don’t write ethics case studies inside SAA anymore because there’s no capacity among us to take risks for the historic record (in contrast to the learned people of Timbuktu who hid their texts from AQIM  or the Hoover institution’s preservation of Ba’ath Party records, yeah that’s right, don’t @ me )

I suspect TS-DACS is aware of its situation of influence. In the current ethics-power vacuum, of course, all any group need do is grasp power outright, but the power of technical language in our discipline is particularly overwhelming. The mass of professional archivists is exhausted by listening to the exhortations of woke LIS professor after woke LIS professor, but let one technical subcommittee issue rules or one expert lecture on codecs or something and we’re all just brought to orgasm. TS-DACS is leveraging our worship of rules and more significantly our worship of rulesmaking in order to get us to do good. It’s of course mind-bending that we have to resort to this kind of totem-and-taboo to get traction on decolonizing our description, but selah.

The principles therefore subject to bounding an ethical zone of exclusion — the heroic, extralegal, fireable offenses that got us Warren Harding’s love letters, for example, are instances of archivists claiming sovereign power. Under the principles, all description, if ethical, is heroism; and since heroism now comes as standard equipment, the notion dissolves of its own, it withers away…

And so the daring move “Ethical description produces trust,” read appropriately, is an extension of this act of including-exclusion. It’s absurd to think that a technical standard for writing finding aids could inculcate something like love among “users, archivists, and repositories,” but that’s precisely what the principles aim for: a common front of mutual aid and mutual reliability. People become subject to one another.

Insha’Allah they’ll succeed but it perplexes me that in order to get the mass of archivists to really engage with how our work affects the arc of history we have to embed a polemic on archival values inside a technical standard. It’s as if “What Is To Be Done?” or “Murderers Who Have Yet To Be Clubbed To Death” could only reach their audiences via railway schedules or actuarial tables.

And the fault of course lies not in TS-DACS but in ourselves. The ethic of servant-leadership, unstated and still plain as day, contained in the new principles is not typically archivists’ modus. More typically we empanel ourselves as Savvy Knowers Who Deliver The Archival Science — which boxes to buy, mostly — to the unwashed hordes. Our only calls to the barricades occur when NARA’s budget is threatened, as occurs ritually. I hope it turns out that standing on principle portends more effective advocacy than Save Our Jobs or May Day For Conserving Stuff ever could. Certainly it couldn’t be worse….

Imagine any other lobbying organization: AMA, APA, AARP, the National Rifle Association. Any appeal they make is couched in terms of ultimate values — health, life, self-defense — and aimed at a constituency of users — not doctors, psychs, investment bankers, and gun dealers, but their users. To center the principles on service to the user, is in addition to being plainly Christian in a primitive sense — though I have questions about this too; are we ready to lay down our DACS for a friend? — good politics.

I dream of an SAA which takes everyone who drafted the new DACS principles and empanels them as the board of overseers of our new 527, designed to raise funds and distribute them with the aim of gaining political power. I am totally sanguine about receiving dark money from Hollinger and Iron Mountain. We labor under conditions not of our own devising, and the tactics of our party should be as flexible as the end goal is immutable…

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