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…

St. Valentine's Day Hop at the National Archives, 14 February 1975, NARA identifier 35810664

St. Valentine’s Day Hop at the National Archives, 14 February 1975, NARA identifier 35810664

I am here to dirty the clean room.

I have never fallen in love with archives per se, and this is probably at the root of why I prefer to think/spiel about archivists, what they like, do, and need, instead. I have, however, a couple/three times, fallen in love in archives, had erotic encounters in archives, and so on, so there’s a literal component to why I see archives through the lenses of desire, romantic love, compassion. Or, as we had it in the deeply abridged and mixed-up Catholic teaching on love we got as kids: eros, amor, and caritas.

(All philosophers of Christian love should abandon ship here, because any consideration of who thought what about love in what way in the first couple centuries of the Common Era and what words they used basically lands Christians at C. S. Lewis and he frustratingly counts up Four Loves, which is no good for me because I need three things for my Lacan, Freud, Marx, etc. Seek shelter elsewhere is all I’m saying.)

My work is reliably physical, so again, it’s only a hop and a skip to see the handling of sheaves of text, or skins, substrates, emulsions, as ways of enacting desire. To get any knowledge about what I touch, there’s a lot of opening, paging or thumbing through (thumbs are erotic, says the palm reader, but I understand ymmv), and so on. The initial contact and exploration, the first enticing hints of what might be deeply and sustainably important about the collection or corpus, the discovery of its quirks and kinks — accessioning is the kingdom of Eros for archives, and that’s where I live all day.

Work in accessioning is like bringing a thousand houseguests into your bedroom every year: establish names, addresses, relationships, remove outer enclosures, pile your puffy coats on the master bed, add new enclosures, triage, decide who gets to stay, put them to bed. The first thrills of desire are I can’t help but think likewise a kind of triage: how does this work, what works, does everything work, is this at all real, are we just blinded by newness? The first stages or opening gambits of a love affair are all about acquisition — I want you, I need you, I have you — and appraisal — You will be mine and I want to keep you close.

Amor, as the dads of CCD had it, is romantic love, eros for them denigrated into something more like cupiditas, a fleeting, wayward, unreliable, momentary bliss. You may bring things into your holdings which don’t deserve to stay. Amor is the business of naming what will stay, and doing the work to keep it whole. All of this blog is an overextended conceit, but this is the greatest overreach: processing is a series of acts of romantic love. We undertake to remove from the body we want anything that will harm it, we pull metal, we breathe rust, we scrub dust, we house the new beloved body in clean clothes. Having gotten a grasp on the corpus, we achieve physical control. More significantly, we ask the newcomer about himself, we do a deep dive, who really are you after all, what are your contents, what is your scope, help me to name it, help me to name it.

Certainly all of you have seen and thought about that slightly annoying article in The New Republic, o which one you say they’re all kind of okay well here:

Go read, there’s enough rage-inducing stuff there to fill a whole other blog, but I was struck over and over by the outsiders’ — we all know that humanities Ph.Ds’ experience of research in primary sources is, well, variable — focus on the bodily presence of the archives, of its mutability and permeability: narrow stacks, well-worn handles on drawers, jeans, the fugitive poisonous adhesive of post-it notes, self-destructive cellulose nitrate. And if the author promotes a kind of fetishization of ordinary care, well hell so do we right? Our author even gets a little monarchist, but I don’t know, man, Eros rules me like a sovereign does a serf, so even this dankness didn’t faze me:

This is the sort of thing that the New-York Historical Society saves: flotsam, jetsam, things left behind. The curators follow closely in the wake of the city’s human activity, collecting the materials left behind by protests and vigils and attacks. The museum treats these items with a reverence rarely seen in any part of our culture. The archive turns objects into art the same way that a devoted servant might turn everything the king has touched into treasure.

It’s fine to acknowledge that new users come to the archives by way of bodily connection. I guess the only difference between them and me, in Accessioning Which is the Kingdom of Eros, is that I lack reverence for the bodies becoming guests in my house. I do not wrap them in muslin or mylar. I do not shield my hands with nyplex from their pages. I do not breathe in their vapors. That way lies a neurosis your boy Nietzsche diagnosed in 1874, in Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie fur das Leben:

Man envelops himself in an odour of decay; through his antiquarian habit he succeeds in degrading even a more significant talent and nobler need to an insatiable craving for novelty, or rather a craving for all things and old things; often he sinks so low as finally to be satisfied with any fare and devours with pleasure even the dust of bibliographical quisquilia.

Caritas, always presented last, is for the dads of CCD, the highest form of love, and I disagree. Caritas is the love that lays down its life for a friend (John 15:13), meant to be the semi-literate Catholic dad’s version of ἀγάπη, abiding, boundless, and unconditional love. Perhaps there exists a love without conditions or boundaries, preset terms, default entries, perhaps between people ἀγάπη exists, perhaps between people and their god, but I’m not sure we have this in archives. Nothing lasts, the future is the obsolete in reverse, in the very long run we’re all dead: as an archivist you have to bend your mind to the idea that your world is material and entropy is its governing force. For outsiders this is an ironic stance: the people most dedicated to making texts (broadest possible sense) persistent don’t really think any of their work will succeed. If there is agape anywhere in our discipline, it rests in exactly this kind of humility, it lies in offering our bodies daily to an insurmountable task, to the presence of failure and loss, and at the end there won’t even be dust left to devour.


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.

A civilian employee of the air station's Personnel Support Detachment waits on a sailor at the customer service desk.

A naval customer service desk, 1987, NARA id 6455480

Let’s end reference. Let’s not do it again. Anymore. When someone comes along later and says, “You know what was fun? Finding answers to questions for people,” let’s silently shun that someone. Let’s end reference.

Let’s end reference, I should specify in archives, although everyone everywhere is free to continue to do reference, and great librarians do reference, and even the rudimentary “The bathrooms are down the stairs, around the bend, to the right” is when and where necessary a true and worthy public service. Let’s end it though for real. Because finding people with the real and active desire to help others and then to ask those people to spend 40 hours a week indoors under fluorescence is backwards. Let’s end reference because it is a silly thing to hire for, like trying to hire a spiny echidna, “I need eggs, but I want a mammal to lay them, please.”

Let’s end reference because it is for older whiter people a form of entertainment, like a Word Find, or a Scavengers’ Hunt. People cold-call us. They fucken wander in off the street because maybe this place has some things. Old white people don’t use the discovery tools we build. They don’t read our fucking newsletter. Old white people don’t read the descriptions we write. Old white people write emails with no subject line and no introduction and just jump into “Can you tell me what is the capitol of South Dakota thank you my phone number” end, end of email, sent from my iPhone by the unending Grace of God. Let’s end reference because Sergey Brin and Larry Page made a magic box that answers numbnut half-baked unfollowupable questions already. I am not your magic box. Go away. Let’s end reference.

Let’s not end reference for people with an actual thing. If I have the burial plot for your grandpappy’s grandpappy, and I have not put it up on the internet already, and goodness me you’ve done a shit-ton of fieldwork, gosh just look at that, please come on in, tell me your story. If there is an unprocessed collection in my dankest lair that might get you the footnotes you need for tenure, come to me, I am your huckleberry. If you need to prove that your tiny private school actually owns the land it’s on and you need to tell a developer to go screw, I am your Friday. If you need to prove that your government exposed you to Agent Orange, damn I should be your huckleberry but I probably am not, and that’s maybe another reason to end reference.

If you need me to scan a photo, or send you a PDF, or send motion pictures off to the telecine men, and by gosh look at that you used our catalog, despite its flaws by Jehovah you fucking did it, then please send me a note. But, if you have an abstract, what-if, I-thought-I-saw-a-thing-once, or Hey-do-you-remember, or What-was-it-like-in-the-olden-times-ass question, or Why-are-there-no-photographs-of-Jesus, then let’s end reference for you and turn that shit over to Quora. Or Ask Reddit Anything. Or your friends, or to strangers, or to a passing cloud. Pray for understanding to come to you. But let’s end reference.

Let’s end reference because it exacts an emotional toll to field randos’ queries and to actually conduct research, and should only be conducted for real. Let’s end the reference encounter for anyone who yells, or huffs, or gets off-topic or in any way out of pocket. Get your answers from the comment section of every Breitbart article.

Let’s not end reference for the poor, the desperate, the curious, the mind-blown, the wind-blown, the disheveled, the lost, the tired, and the broken. Reference is the literal least we can do. Let’s for them end capitalism.

Ku Klux Klan marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., 1928

Ku Klux Klan marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., 1928. NARA identifier 541885

In the giant universe of unforced errors and semi-comedic malpractice we archivists and our institutions engage in, partnership at any level with Ancestry Dot Com has to be the most bonechilling. Ancestry uses prison labor. Ancestry binds workers to intolerable quotas, leading some in desperation to weed superfluous paper just to catch up. Ancestry pitches its services to state and national governments as a replacement for state-funded reformatting and digital-archives work, and puts records of the state up behind a paywall. They send DMCA takedown notices to people who distribute United States government records. Naturally, Ancestry is a major sponsor of FNARA.

This is all evil and bad and it’s the means by which archivists become accomplices to our own ass-whipping, but even if none of the above were true, the business Ancestry is in is uncool and bad and we should no longer make it easy for the people who like this business, or who think of it as a harmless past-time. This business is genealogy.

“Genealogy” you say, “A fuckin snoot-ass archivist is going to write a blog post about how genealogy sucks OH YOU DON’T SAY /inserts that lame meme with the owl in it/.” Dear reader, this bears one clarification: typically, we snoot-ass archivists bitch to each other about genealogists which I mean yeah I’m HELL OF GUILTY of doing this, but I really want to stress that it’s not the people themselves (totally) but the practices, technologies, and the ideology of recreational ancestor-namin’ that are fucking up our shit.

Genealogists, for as long as my shop at least has been keeping metrics, are the solidest block of our users, from 20 to 25% every year. This, for me and my house, means two things: 1) They are a strong political bloc, and 2) They are not nearly the plurality of our users, much less the majority. Now why, just to blatantly extend my shop’s metrics to the industry as a whole, would entities like NARA, the New York State Archives, etc, all engage in deeeep strategic partnerships with a corporate entity which aims to serve maybe a quarter of our constituents? It is because, like fans of Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, or Donald Trump, individual users have become aware of their status as a bloc. They know that the realm of the Rest of All Research Topics in History is gravely fragmented (footnote: And much of this fragmentation is intentional! You and I both know this story, but because archives have always served as the romper room for future Ph.D.s, and because future Ph.D.s are just intolerable twats we’ve always closely guarded the paths they take through the archives. My shop’s patron registration includes “May we share the topic of your research with other researchers” which my god kill me end this) AND SO they can present a united front. Directors and funders see us dropping all sorts of time and effort to help the names-gourmand and naturally see the Ancestry hook-up as a means to take knucklehead stuff off our plate, so I dunno, we can get back to making twitter bots or blogggggging or something–

You can see how this becomes a feedback loop. Presented as a cheap and fast solution, Ancestry swoops in myriad tonnages of content. Bringing new content on-line allows it to hook new subscribers and to keep old subscribers hooked. People get Ancestry subscriptions for Christmas, try the crack, like the crack, and then start banging down archives’ telephones to see “is there anything in there that haint been digitalized,” whereupon we start Phase X of what becomes less like a partnership and more like the relationship ants have with aphids, or Exxon has with the Gulf of Mexico.

This is all bad for archives, but LA DEE FRICKIN DAA how is this bad for society? I’m certainly not one of the goons who says that archives are necessarily Good For Everyone (Stalin: /raises hand/) and so damage to them is damage to us all, and so I’ll start with that story we all read in the fall, from this young woman’s tweet:

Genealogists think of themselves as a class because they share material conditions: records of their ancestors were kept accurately and transmitted unshorn to their children. (By the way, this is one of the chief differences between genealogy and family history: genies are basically playing Bingo with the census, with church records, with county clerks and probate courts etc. Family historians, out of historic and political necessity, have a steeper mountain to climb.) In this country only white people’s material conditions permit the existence of genealogy as a past-time. To expand the class of subscribers, Ancestry is counting on successive waves of white retirees needing something to do, and is planting the genie seed accordingly. So here’s the thing, simply by trying to become profitable, Ancestry is exporting into a broader audience of white people the pursuits, habits, and desires of a pretty small subset of those white people.

The first overt desire embedded in genealogical practice is to prove your whiteness. You could be the wacko white supremacist who will take DNA test after DNA test to refute allegations of his African lineage. I mean yeah if you subscribe to the ideology of racial purity genealogy suddenly becomes a big deal. If your Prophet says “any man having one drop of the seed of Cane in him Cannot hold the priesthood,” you’re going to break out meemaw’s old Bible tout de suite. Pace Robert Taylor, interest in genealogy spiked in the late nineteenth-century, as “native” white folks sought to distinguish themselves from the unwashed hordes from Eastern Europe landing at Ellis Island, congealing in the eugenics-and-Palmer-raids-infused 1920s: “The Wisconsin Magazine of History advised its readers in 1923 that ‘the only hope of improving the race is through “selective breeding” and that questions dealing with racial superiority and traits ‘may often be considered with the aid of data compiled and worked out in genealogical study.'” It’s not for nothing that the two versions of white supremacists’ Fourteen Words are about women and the family; it’s not for nothing that the baby photo becomes a universally cherished object during reconstruction. White supremacists fetishize the whiteness of white babies and the whiteness of white mothers to create “a future for white babies”; genealogists run the line backward to “secure” it.

In the 1920s the desire to prove whiteness using names in the past masks itself or repackages itself in the genealogical practices of whites outside the northeast and upper-class African-Americans as a desire to be related to power. Follow, for example, the Iowa Daughters of the American Revolution, as they slowly come to understand that Iowa didn’t have all that much bearing on the war of independence, and by 1925 shift from locating revolutionary soldiers’ gravesites to just straight red-baiting — disseminating spider-web charts, “yellow lists,” usw, all “to bring about a clean cut cleavage between un-American subversive forces and the constituents of Patriotic societies.” Genealogical practice informed the frankly eugenic aspects of African-American racial meliorist publications (!) — follow Daylanne English in Unnatural Selections as she acquaints us with (me certainly; I mean I’ve read Nella Larsen but I never heard of the) Crisis Children’s Number prize-baby contests.

To review: genealogical practice originates in and in turn sustains white supremacism; that white supremacist package is exported to new groups as they practice genealogy. Genealogy is supremacist and exports supremacism. So where are we headed?

The obscene, disavowed other of genealogy, and the natural wellspring of the acknowledged desires above, is incest. White power groups and royals are of course, famously ahem endogamous, but it’s not like genealogists are all trying to keep it in the family. It’s more like genealogical practice is incest by proxy. The structure of genealogical practice is to plug names into a giant root-and-branch diagram, starting with yourself. By this diagram you can envision yourself splitting mitotically into your own forebears, and, once you have All Teh Names, run the threads chronologically and think of all those dead bodies, fucking.

Juicing retired white people into passing enthusiasm for this junk in a time of rising nativisms and exclusion-based political movements around the world is, I submit to you Dear Reader, actively evil. Ancestry isn’t on the hook of course for Donald Trump and Golden Dawn, but even if it doesn’t know it, it’s riding the same wave, and it’s convincing archives and archivists to hop on, and because of that ancient stank, as if we needed another reason, it’s high time we hopped off.

So yeah I’ve been re-reading my Capital, and that means first of all expect a lot more twittering and snickering about Bubbee Marx’ funniness, which is too little discussed, but also we come to this:

Moreover, only so much of the time spent in the production of any article is counted, as, under the given social conditions, is necessary. The consequences of this are various. In the first place, it becomes necessary that the labour should be carried on under normal conditions. If a self-acting mule is the implement in general use for spinning, it would be absurd to supply the spinner with a distaff and spinning wheel. The cotton too must not be such rubbish as to cause extra waste in being worked, but must be of suitable quality. Otherwise the spinner would be found to spend more time in producing a pound of yarn than is socially necessary, in which case the excess of time would create neither value nor money.

That’s chapter 7, page 52 in the 1906 edition, and this is a link to the lol Library of Economics and Liberty so we can all follow along. Whether Marx himself subscribes to the bourgeois cult of efficiency, let those who would speak as learnèd men speak, but we can all agree that to produce use-value to say nothing of surplus-value, you have to have tools of replacement-level efficiency. Agreed? Agreed. Which is why our man throws some excellent, if prima facie silly, shade at slavery in footnote 17:

Hence the principle, universally applied in this method of production, only to employ the rudest and heaviest implements and such as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In the slave-states bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, down to the date of the civil war, ploughs constructed on old Chinese models, which turned up the soil like a hog or a mole, instead of making furrows, were alone to be found.

Can this be true? Discuss among yourselves. There are bigger fish here. Slaves have no incentive to not break tools, nor to treat animals decently, I mean clearly this is nonsense, slaves worked in the home, they cared for children, never mind go on, here’s Marx quoting Messr. Olmstead:

And I am assured that, in the careless and clumsy way they must be used by the slaves, anything lighter or less rude could not be furnished them with good economy, and that such tools as we constantly give our labourers and find our profit in giving them, would not last out a day in a Virginia cornfield—much lighter and more free from stones though it be than ours.

We will pause briefly to consider the Virginia “cornfield,” which by the 19th century was most assuredly not a thing. Two and a half hundred years of slavery had made into a deal the following things: cotton (a lil), peanuts, pigs (fed on peanuts), and tobacco (the biggest of big deals). This is like when that NYT plagiarist dude wrote about the tobacco fields of Palestine, West Virginia. NEVER MIND ON WE PLOUGH WITH OUR ROUGH-HEWN IMPLEMENTS:

So, too, when I ask why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given, and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment that they always must get from the negroes; horses are always soon foundered or crippled by them, while mules will bear cudgelling, or lose a meal or two now and then, and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick, if neglected or overworked.

Marx is clearly aware of the internal rhyme of the spinner’s mule and the slaver’s mule. One is a technological innovation which permits two minders to manage like 1300 spindles, replacing (optimistically, with the neoliberal gloss of Marx, “liberating”) the labor of, say, 1300 Penelopes. The other is the rump end of feudalism, strong enough to survive all abuse, creeping slowly across the broken earth. A tool that hangs around for no reason really than that it’s around, it hasn’t been turned into a non-tool, and crucially, that it limits the ingenuity of its user, the worker.

Are you picking up what I’m putting down, Dear Reader? Are you ready to see how this passage of world-historical significance applies to the little-shits-given-about sphere of archivists and their descriptions and the managements thereof?

Behold, APPM (1989) on descriptions of “non-textual” materials, from Rule 1.1B4, footnote 4:

4. For cataloging individual nontextual archival items, see the appropriate alternate rules noted above.

oh man which refers to 1.0B1 footnote 2:

2. For book-like manuscripts (e.g., literary manuscripts and codices) and other manuscript material for which a more bibliographically oriented description may be desirable, see chapter 4 of AACR 2 and Bibliographic Description of Rare Books (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1981); for photographs and other graphic material, see chapter 8 of AACR 2 and Elisabeth Betz, Graphic Materials: Rules for Describing Original Items and Historical Collections (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1982); for motion pictures and videorecordings, see chapter 7 of AACR 2 and Wendy White-Hensen. Archival Moving Image Materials: A Cataloging Manual (Washington, D.C. [1984]); for maps and cartographic material, see chapter 3 of AACR 2 and Cartographic Materials: A Manual of Interpretation for AACR 2 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1982); for machine-readable and computer files, see chapter 9 of AACR 2, Sue A. Dodd, Cataloging Machine-Readable Data Files (Chicago: American Library Association, 1982), and Sue A. Dodd and Ann M. Sandberg-Fox, Cataloging Microcomputer Files: A Manual of Interpretation for AACR 2 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1985).

I submit that this is basically Steven Hensen taking whatever was at hand and hitching archivists to it. Why give archivists a thoroughbred when we’ve got all these different mules already under harness? No doubt this impulse came from a desire to maximize efficiency, and to promote cooperation across systems — if the universe is AACR2 in USMARC then bah gawd you know, we operate under conditions not of our own devising.

Ahh but it still just sucks. Some of the rules just suck. And maybe you don’t live with a lot of legacy APPM in your shop but it just fucking sucks. Every single goddam title is “Papers, 1701-1789 [bulk 1776-1789]” and we can have another sidebar about the idiocy of my personal beef with bulk dating, and if you want to automate that shit, like say, take 100 or 110 and copy paste into 245$a and find-replace capital “Papers” for “papers” and capital “Records” for “records” and pray that you can identify where your dates are and get them out of $a and into $f and oh godDAMNIT 245$g, then you will still have gobbledegook like “Reagan, Ronald, 1910- [Jelly beans and miscellany], [1950s-present]” and you will have to rewrite this by going and looking at the original stuff all over again, which begs the question, why in the everlasting fuck did the NEH pay for the creation of APPM? You mean to say we were somehow doing things WORSE BEFORE THIS WAS A THING?

I am of a conspiratorial bent about APPM. I think that people with a very strong catalogers’ streak, and (to absolve them of some of these crimes) people subject to early data-frugality — “Cnnt prt this many chars to s/l cd. Use abbvs.” — found a discipline which needed flexibility and creativity in description — my favorite is when I get to describe a collection created by a person about another person: Homer J. Simpson Starshipiana, 1974-1991. 520$aCollection consists of Homer Simpson’s Jefferson Starship memorabilia — and sold it on a phantom of interoperability instead. I think we got sold on APPM because of professional insecurity, a perception of diminished status, subalternity whatever. Elsewhere, Hensen laments that there’s no ISBD for archives. THERE’S A REASON FOR THAT. ISBD exists to make sure that you and I are not trying to sell copies of each other’s books, by accident, or for profit via piracy. It is a disciplinary regime. There could never be, can not be, and will never be an ISBD for archives because, dog, you don’t sell those shits. The only reason to lament that there isn’t an international standard for punctuation — PUNCTUATION DAWG — in a description of an archives-thing, therefore, is that the international standard assigns its own legitimacy. IF ONLY WE HAD THE BAR EXAM PPL WOULD RESPECT US MOR. And this was a kind of insanity that infected the minds of thousands of archivists working in the 1980s and 1990s, the people who ask in meetings convened about metadata — FUCK END MY LIFE NOW FOR REAL — “Can you do that though?”

Goddamn, fortunately for us living in the present, there are skilled people in SAA’s description section, and skilled people working with Teh Softwares, who are designing delicate, sturdy tools meant to be used by people with ingenuity and brilliance. Tools meant to transform the workplace from an abyss of tedium into a canvas of delights. ALL IS PERMITTED. To paraphrase my grandfather, if your description can’t be good, it can be careful; and if your description can’t be careful, it should be sanitary.

I’m really not being sarcastic — or comprehensible — here. But I don’t meant to shitbag Hensen. Hensen was — I dunno, arguably? I was like 10 years old lol — responding to a crying need from the profession for stability and guidance, doing the yeoman’s work of turning a billion isolated fiefs of description into a polity, and so APPM reached for the iron shirt of AACR2, without considering leather, or worsted. Something homespun, even.

Recent development at Great Kills, Staten Island, 1970s. from Documerica, NARA which is down right now 😦

Some things happened recently that made me think about the figure of the archivist and the figure of the neighbor, and here they are, in no real order:

1) A call went out over a listserv from a community organization in an affluent neighborhood, calling for volunteer archivists to come in and arrange/curate/preserve their A/V and ephemera. Something like two dozen archivists showed up and a great day was had by all, and the community’s memory, hitherto imperiled, was secured. Earlier that month, the same group of archivists got a request from a poor-neighborhood high school to come and work on some records from the school’s old site. Two of us went.

We move among strangers, and we cleave to friends, and the neighbor is neither of these things — close enough to us not to be fully alien, far enough from us not to be intimate. Think of the Louis CK bit where his neighbors watch his kids while his sister goes (apparently) into labor — neighbors care about us enough to help in extremity, but don’t care about us so much that they share our suffering in extremity such that they’re crippled by it. Good neighbors are at one remove from our domestic pathos.

The line from Mark about loving your neighbor as yourself, which gives us the Pauline command that in Him there is no Jew or Greek, no master or slave, that there no longer, with the coming of Christ, are strangers at all, nor even neighbors, but only friends, is obscene. It stands outside and overturns all social relations, more than any other text from Christendom. It overrides even the neighbor’s interest in being loved. Seriously, what if your neighbor does not want to be loved as yourself? What if that is icky? What if the person scavenging outside your restaurant knows he’s a human being, thanks very much for putting that in your sign, and as a human being sees the offer of free peanut butter and jelly every day as more demeaning than it is nutritious. Moreover, as a human being, conceivably he sees your sign as a public demonstration of piety, ultimately more about declaiming your own goodness than helping him, usw.

2) Seems like archivists have, since Ferguson, got turnt for the oppressed, impoverished, the marginalized, and the subaltern, right? There are analogues to the Documentation Strategy period here, but with important distinctions. Chiefly, much of the work of the Documentation Strategy sought to compensate for the reality of some ethnographic disappearance which was already virtually complete — be it the assimilation of language communities into the whitebread mainstream, the loss of a town’s mill jobs, the erosion of a faith tradition — thereby effectively sealing the deal. Current work, on the other hand, publicly disavows the ethnographic character of documentation, and is deliberately about affirmation — preserving the texts of activists so that they may not be misunderstood.

The archivists’ role in these documentation-as-affirmation scenarios is Paulinian: we are not strangers, we are friends of the record creators. This is problematic. Where the archivist is a Paulinian friend, the communities with the richest variety of friends, or indeed with the richest friends, will have the richest documentation, the deepest records. This is a problem the digital humanities has all over the place: Why, just to pick on one city, does the University of Richmond publish products like this coolish 3-D map through its Digital Scholarship Laboratory, while VCU Libraries has a more modest — arguably more useful — version of the Baist atlas up, and Virginia Union University has squat? Because UR is rich and lily-white, VCU is a big public school, and VUU is a small historically black college. If you accept that digital humanities works (unintentionally, sub rosa) to reinforce privilege — and I mean, you don’t have to accept that based on one example, do what you want, live your lives — surely you should fear the specter of archivists reinforcing privilege in the same way, with the same good intentions. I mean, I just watched two dozen archivists clamor to do spring cleaning in a rich neighborhood, and beg off of work in a poor one. We’re choosing who our friends are, I mean, because that’s what you do with friends.

3) I’m not sure I need to belabor the idea that conducting archives transactions at the level of friendship jeopardizes archives and archivists in real ways, but: One reading of the Belfast scenario is that it’s all about friendship: Ed Moloney, as a friend of Boston College, gets to publish from a collection that no one else gets to; Anthony McIntyre, as a friend of Queens University Belfast, gets to publish from closed sources; all their interviewees thought they were working with friends. Then along comes the PSNI, the state, investigating the murder of a neighbor — not a friend, but a snitch — and all the friends swim in the tout boat. A little professional distance, a little less familial privilege, at any point in the chain would have served everyone admirably.

Probably as you’re reading this you’re thinking this is far more an exercise in psychoanalysis than in archival-or-any-other theory, and at this point you would be right. Basically all my bêtes noires have to do with boundaries between and you’ll forgive me for dropping into digital-speak creators and stewards of content being poorly drawn: lawyers who think that archives are a vault; University presidents who think they own their email; archivists who want desperately to be loved doing favors for their friends. None of this stuff — from Penn State, to Oregon, to the Diocese of Rockford, to Hillary Clinton — happens if we’re just neighbors to the collections, just neighbors to the creators.

4) The sovereign and the archives go hand in glove. We tend to think that the archives has been the province of the archons, following Derrida, the ones with the hermeneutic power and the right, and we tend or poop I tend to style myself as an anti-archon — through description and reference and outreach and access I am relinquishing control of this stuff to you the user and you should make it mean what you want it to mean. But my work, and yours I’m saying, isn’t really like that.

If you read your Agamben, and you have, or you’ve at least watched this ehh video while making the fiddly-so-so hand motion, you recognize that the power the archons wield is sovereign, we work in a zone of exclusion, yes, but that the material we have power over also lies in a zone of exclusion, that the collections are as a body, bare life. The collections come to us, they accrue to us, in an almost environmental fashion. They accumulate, like snow, but snow that you have to ask for; they multiply, like rabbits, but rabbits that aren’t that into each other. The collections have no anima, no direction, no polis; though they’re the product of human political life, we regard them — at accessioning, appraisal, processing, as zoe as natural life. Readers see the collections differently, using (or, and this annoys me, leapfrogging over) our descriptive regimes to reanimate the bios. When we cull or weed — even our common verbs for appraisal, records management, and deaccessioning are about extinguishing vermin, or separating the weak from the strong — our archives are simply exposed to death without significance, without being sacrificed.

I’m probably theorizing away what’s really just a tic of the profession — proceeding deliberately, moving gently — and I’m not a pox-on-both-their-houses left-anarchist, I LIKE GOVERNMENT AND I WANT THE POWER, but I can’t ignore the harmonies Agamben conjures between bureaucratic liberal democracy and bureaucratic fascism, and if that boils down to the bureau being the culprit, well then, what then for us the neighbors to collections, for those of us who clip the coupons from other peoples’ shares and have glasses on our nose and autumn in our soul?