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?


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?

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.

For the last time. I will not repeat myself. I will totally repeat myself because there’s only so much I give a shit about, and within the tiny sphere of my giving a shit, one of those things is the popular association of the terms “archives” and “scummy basement.” Et tu, Popular Mechanics? “Decaying in archives” “race against time”. Et tu, SAA for dropping that into my Face-Book feed with a billion up-thumbs? THEY THINK WE’RE OBSOLETE WHAT ARE YOU DOING. Smh.

Cory Arcangel wants to keep dry-humping the corpse of Andy Warhol and that’s fine. But let’s not lump his grave-robber’s desperation in with real archives’ preservation and access problems WHICH ARE LEGION and some of them even get a “What’s up?” in Popular Mechanics. Open-reel video or reel-to-reel tapes of a format susceptible to sticky-shed, yes are in crisis mode. Nitrate film stock should be in cold storage, or just not stored. But my acetate reel-to-reel audio tapes are trucking along fine after 40 years of bad storage and 30 years of good. My VHSes, Betacams and U-matics are legible. My open-reel video shows no signs of sticky-shed. Let’s not run around with our hair on fire.

Finally, briefly, we also suffer here from the “If I’ve never heard of it it can’t exist” bias, which if you know the clinical name of, please educate me. Marion Stokes’ family dumped her WCAU tapes on the Internet Archive. That’s, I dunno, I mean, didn’t the Internet Archive advise them that the Penn Museum is the repository for WCAU-TV? Maybe the family called Philadelphia’s big universities, hunting for a good place to land Stokes’ videos, and maybe they refused.

The barest knowledge of who archives are and what they do, can we get that?

Carney Library, UMass Dartmouth, 1968-1972.

Carney Library, UMass Dartmouth, 1968-1972.

Kate Crawford in TNI has written about the lived reality of big data, and it’s great, and there are abundant lessons for archivists, since like the spooks at NSA and GCHQ, we’re collecting broadly in order to generate a political and economic product, and like the spooks’ our mission is a kind of cultural preservation though their fires are fast and our fires are slow, and like the spooks we prefer the politics of covering our ass to the politics of truth and reconciliation.

Like the spooks, we find our modes of comprehending the world breaking down, and we crave synergy with other disciplines — the ironic reversal is that the NSA is bringing in humanities people to winnow its data trove, and humanities people are bringing in data-crafters to handle their culture-troves. But the deepest link between espionage and archivism, or between web-scraping and analysis, is that pace Daston and Galison, “all epistemology begins in fear — fear that the world cannot be threaded by reason, fear that memory fades, fear that authority will not be enough.” We’re two little Fausts.

Epistemology begins in fear, and I’m pretty sure that the people who make The Data Science aren’t the ones with the frantic, insatiable, indiscriminate cravings. Garbage in, garbage out. I feel like they have control of scope — the collection is functional. If one batch of words gets you an English-like automatic transcription, or a cure for cancer, or a heads-up on a dude who bought a bunch of ammonium nitrate, then the collection has worked. So define the function of a collection narrowly, and problem solved, it will stabilize at a size which lets it work. Thus do our friends with the audio-transcriber-machine test blocks of text and scrap useless ones. Thus do archivists bring in 50 feet of grandma’s personal papers from her garage and process them down to 12. THAT WAS A LOT OF MAGAZINES GRANDMA.

Which is what archivists’ literature relates, mainly, but our literature also relates secret epistemological fear only in a different dimension. The NSA may be on some horizontal panic level — we must sweep it all in from everywhere, collecting an inch thick and a mile wide — but archivists manifest vertical panic — we can’t possibly be getting all the records that are out there. I know they’re out there. Hiding from us in attics and basements. Those sons of bitches. COME OUT COME OUT WHEREVER YOU ARE and so here, for example, is Susan Grigg in 1985 [PDF; SAA paywall] writing about the horizontal panic response of the Golden Gophers’ Immigration History Research Center:

Because the collection was founded on the idea that an important segment of historical documentation was generally neglected and needed urgently to be saved, the initial stress was on “gathering in” as much as possible in a short period of time. Notwithstanding the continuing deficiency of all existing collections even after twenty years of effort, it is now clear that except for the early years, a great deal more material has survived than is ever likely to be collected. The gaps in the collection are a challenge to the collecting policy not so much because they are large as because so much is available to fill them.”

…and kind of manifesting her own vertical panic response with that “so much is available to fill them.” There’s no doubt that to have a comprehensive collection, an archives can’t collect from all the genres of human knowledge and experience and endeavor, on this you and I and Susan all agree. But it’s rare for us to interrogate the meaning of comprehensive.

Take the embedded cravings of the otherwise ordinary position [(1983)|SAA paywall] held by James Fogerty — namely that oral histories provide a sound complement to personal papers — again, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s transparently correct. But read these lines to yourself as if Fogerty were a CIA analyst:

Collections of personal papers are especially weak in the information they provide on the formative years of their donors–years that often hold the keys to perceptions that influenced their subsequent actions. Even correspondence does not betray the author’s inner thoughts […]

Let’s review. We desire not just a comprehensive corpus of all the works of a given person, family or corporate entity, we’re looking for the anima within her. Not content with the actions she took, or the perceptions that precipitated the actions, we’re hunting for the keys to the perceptions. We’re after the letters which betray their author. Our definition of comprehensive pace Fogerty drifts way into the realm of psychoanalysis, if not fascist surveillance — if letters won’t betray the truth, surely three hours of interviewing will deliver us the subject!

And so we arrive at the paranoid style in acquisitions. History is powered by secret movers, unknown pleasures, leaving behind them a seam of records so rich no one could ever plumb it, and even if we knew who might have made them, or where they are now, or how to get our hands on them, we’d still be stuck with the intransigent fact that any sense we made of these keys would be our own, contingent, fleeting, tantalizingly incomplete.

Dictaphone transcribresses, 1920s, via NARA ARC#1633507

Dictaphone transcribresses, 1920s, via NARA ARC#1633507

The labor theory of value came in for a hiding in the Times at the hands of @michaelrstain of the American Enterprise Institute the other day a long time ago now, and it was pretty funny and some of us laughed at all the morans out there because for real my son has a better grasp of industrial capitalism from reading Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel than this dude has from umpty-ump years reading and writing polemics on behalf of the Wool Council or whatever.

Maybe go read the NYT Room for Debate on Marx, maybe not. The left is outnumbered 4-to-1. The fellah from Berkeley who talks about the grim future in which all workers do IT piecework, harnessed to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk nevertheless gets a weird hed about Marx discounting Capital’s ability to innovate, or something.

Maybe go read Mike Mulligan instead. You can borrow my copy. In it, a plucky lady steam shovel and her man, Mike, are forced out of work by the advent of new kinds of shovels. However, they find a tiny rural enclave where their services are still valued — even an antiquated steam shovel still digs “as much in a day as a hundred men can dig in a week” — and they dig the cellar of the new town hall. Cheered on by the townsfolk, they dig so hard and so fast that they forget to dig a ramp out. The cellar is effectively their grave. The townsfolk then decide to convert Mary Anne into a furnace, and to employ Mike Mulligan as the town hall’s janitor, where they live forever after. This is a deeply sad story and I read it to my son all the time.

Now, also this happened:

On the one hand, the managerial layer of archives believes that implementing technological solutions — just forgive me for using all three of those words in sequence, it’s horrid — does what Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne did to hand-digging, and what the new Diesel motor shovels do to Mike and Mary Anne. Managerialists believe that once a proper implementation is in place — once we’re all shoveling with Diesel, or once we have one six-year-old running a whole floor full of looms, or whathaveyou — labor’s contribution to value approaches zero, even if it never really hits it, and Marx is refuted. Why, look at the gains in efficiency created by using a word processor instead of a typewriter: in 1985 the University of Idaho dropped their per-foot processing time to 25 hours (PDF, SAA members) I mean dropped from what they don’t say or can’t know, but the machine made life easier.

On the other hand, each implementation tethers a kind of worker to it. Dictaphone recordings endeavored to make stenographers obsolete; portable recordings could be transferred to text in massive type-banks, where transcribresses like those pictured above would convert audio to text. It seems likely to me — and here I’m just parroting the ideology of the day, incorporating the language of the oppressor into my own speech, usw, and I don’t care — that Dictaphone’s economies of scale allowed it to sell dictation-as-a-service to subscribers for far less than the cost of hiring individual stenographers, typists, and secretaries. And the scale of the operation and Dictaphone’s ability to use workers who were not trained stenographers or secretaries — though they had to be awrsome typpists — surely reduced labor’s share of the value added to the product, namely, meeting minutes and suchlike.

But where the cost of error was serious, like in the judicial system — man, again, I’m just making this up, so apply grains of salt dear reader — the stenographer stayed tethered to her tools — shorthand, and later those funky steno-keyboards — while the whole new layer of technological efficiency tethered the transcribress to her tools — Dictaphone, headphones, typewriter. The labor applied to create value doesn’t disappear, rather it’s condensed or bundled such that the wages paid for it can be shorted. It’s not that the labor theory of value is wrong on its face, it’s that the managerial class can and largely has arbitraged it into apparent obsolescence.

Same deal with the AEI guy’s dumb example — Bruce Springsteen can write a song in fifteen minutes that’s better than the song I would take 15 years to write: well, of course, but that only makes sense if you don’t count Clarence’s work, and Max’s work, and the lifetime of work of the whole E Street Band, and the lifetime of thinking about songs that preceded that one “15-minute” spark of genius — and the same deal with Brad’s piecework EAD cleanup. Productivity gains only exist when you refuse — out of motives that are basically ideological– to account for labor’s value, when you dissolve everything solid into air.

Let us uncouple “technological” from “revolution”. The University of Idaho should be able to minimally process its archival holdings at a pace of I dunno six or eight hours per cubic foot instead of their 1985 pace of 25 hours per foot because we think about processing differently, because our ideas have changed, because the disciplinary regimes we create have changed, not necessarily because the tools have transformed us. And so long as we have some control over how we think about our tools we can avoid digging so fast and so hard with them that we forget to dig a way back out.