Tag Archives: Archives–Administration–Moral and ethical aspects

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.


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?

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.

President Nixon greeting and shaking hands with construction workers after his address at National Steel and Shipbuilding in San Diego, California. NARA ARC# 194751

President Nixon greeting and shaking hands with construction workers after his address at National Steel and Shipbuilding in San Diego, California. NARA ARC# 194751

I was talking to a friend about the imminent collapse of the unpaid-intern-economy, which is to say the economy, and I’ll refer you to the Fox Searchlight interns, the Gawker interns and the Conde Nast interns, and he asked “What do you care old man?”

Archives thrive on unpaid labor. We use unpaid interns to perform essential institutional business, from cataloging and description, to preservation and conservation, to outreach and access. And we get away with it because the standards for legal unpaid labor in the non-profit sector are slacker than in the for-profit world.

Archives are presumed to be inherently educational places to work, and this makes unpaid work legal. Anyone who’s worked in an archives long enough understands that archives primarily educate us about past generations of archivists rather than about history per se; we also understand that no amount of shelf-reading or copy-cataloging is going to legitimately prepare aspiring future archivists for the tasks awaiting them. Given that the activities interns do are less about gaining knowledge and skills and more about inculcating abstract institutional values, habits and rhetoric, and given that we use them mainly to run our Twitter and Tumblr, and given that unpaid interns dramatically underperform paid interns in future job prospects, we’re not doing them any favors.

Are we doing ourselves any favors? You shouldn’t expect interns to curate content, or assess intellectual value in context, but I’ve seen it done, and I’ve seen dime-a-dozen collections described as “highly valuable” and “from an important time” the 1940s, which you know is true but since it’s also a well-documented time, in a way that the 1640s aren’t, maybe curb yourself before writing.

So quality is one thing. Longevity is another. There’s nothing more dangerous to archives’ mission than to have a vagrant workforce. The values we inculcate are sure abstract, but it’s important to us to inculcate them. We need old things handled carefully. We need to respect the origins of collections. We need to demonstrate that things are what we think they are. It’s exhausting and self-defeating to try to get good habits into a new person every six months, and so we’re reduced to hunting for people with “instincts” or “feel” which I get but which you’ll agree limits the pool of potential participants in archivism to the Roy Hobbses of the world.

Finally, it’s about whether archivism is a profession, like the law, or dentistry. You would not feel great about an unpaid intern performing your root canal. If archivists are going to receive the professional respect which we’ve craved pretty much since the dawn of archivism and never really received, we have to make it clear that the materials which constitute the historic record are in good hands. Those hands, to ensure longevity and quality of labor, should be paid. The “efficiency” strategies pursued in archives — whereby skilled labor is replaced with underskilled labor plus software — are self-defeating. If anyone plus a robot can do this, what are we all doing here?

Where’s SAA Issues and Advocacy on this? Any takers?