Tag Archives: Archives–Economic aspects

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; gouvernmentalit√© 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.

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.