Tag Archives: Archives–Philosophy

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.

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?

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.

In lettuce fields along the Colorado River, Mexican worker carries boxes to field pickers, 05/1972. via NARA, ARC#549084

In lettuce fields along the Colorado River, Mexican worker carries boxes to field pickers, 05/1972. via NARA, ARC#549084

So if anything is archives’ product it’s historical writing, right? This is the classic view, reading rooms open only to known scholars carrying out their business with ancient texts in stunned, holy silence, and I can’t imagine that this view is wrong, not yet, or else not possibly. What else could be the one inalienable outcome of archives work?

It’s not access to information, because everything. It’s not cultural patrimony, though that’s a better candidate because it makes me feel French and man archivists love to be French RESPAY DES FONDS, because many archives just don’t operate in the sphere of heritage. Many of us are hired goons for vicious people who test herbicides on Africans and then try to kill poor George Clooney to cover up their nefarity I mean yaa lots of us are basically risk-managers for Tilda Swinton. Similarly, I think we can scratch out community, emancipation, liberation, and reconciliation as products, though I’m sympathetic to the lattermost, not just because archivists though mostly of Zion invariably work for Babylon, but because it’s cheap, alienating and silly to conceive of those ideas as quantities much less as products. It’s easier to think of exhibits or curation as our product, I mean because we definitely do that, but those things aren’t inalienably ours since you know there are still museums and galleries and the whole interwebs now is building itself on users tumblr™ing and Pinterest™ing collections of their favorite GIFs from Korean soap operas and every outer-borough party DJ five years ago was calling himself a music curator, so either we abandon curation as skunked or we reconceptualize curation as something other than cool mashups and stuff and that’s not to diss good curation at all, I mean my soul too would swoon if I heard someone spinning “Israelites” into “96th Nervous Breakdown,” it’s just if we’re going to insist on the idea that archives make something exclusively archivish, curated content — feel free to at every instance of this term which by itself proves the insufficiency of late-stage capitalism exaggeratedly sigh, facepalm, do a shot, or throw steak knives at your Elon Musk hand puppet — ain’t it.

But the thing we clearly still do and do alone is prepare the field for historians, and yeah, Newspapers, I said it. Because your first draft of history sucks, mainly, but also because the action on history — by which I mean now the tides of human events we all swim in and please don’t make fun of me for getting all Hegelian, whereas usually here I’m using “history” to mean the discipline, the body of techniques, practices, rhetorical modes whatever — that newspapers are part of emerges extemporaneously. Contemporaneous “research” is reporting. You got that, still, kind of, in a way. Non-contemporaneous research is history-writing. We got that.

Here’s the supply chain of archives: creator bodies ⇨ (optional records management / appraisal, usually nothing) ⇨ archival description ⇨ reference archivists ⇨ researchers ⇨ dissertations. Framed this way, some interesting things happen. You can see I’m being SUPER NORMATIVE UP IN THIS BITCH because OMG not all of our interactions follow the chain. Sometimes historians or journalists do a bunch of work with creators first and then dump incriminating content onto archives /cough/ BELFAST /cough/. Sometimes archivists go out and get oral histories straight from creators and put them up online. Sometimes IT and Legal get together and install a keep-everything-forever email-vaulting-system that they will call an “archive” and that real archivists somewhere down the line will have to deal with WHICH IS CRAY-CRAY. But those are comparatively small branches in a big supply web, and when you break them off you get archivists doing labor on primary source materials for the benefit of people who write secondary source materials. I feel like I’m only stating the obvious here.

What’s significant about our supply chain is that just as in any other chain the work in the middle is obscured from the end-user. Until in maybe 2009 I realized that textile workers’ strikes were happening every summer in Dhaka I really didn’t care where my socks came from; even if I did care, I’d never see the rest of the chain beyond point-of-sale. And historians have nearly the same haptic impressions of archivists’ work as we in the West and North have for Bangladesh’s textile workers, only with one crucial difference: we don’t get ALL UP IN THE GRILLS of Bangladesh’s textile workers and write about how we found all these socks lying around and no one had done anything with them in the dusty-crusty old mustinesses and hidden fastnesses of the sock factory AND HOW AMAZING IS THAT I AM A FINDER. Exhibit A in all of these conversations, for me, is the Times writing about the “discovery” of a copy of “The Machine Age” in the Norbert Wiener papers at MIT: “It was a vision that never saw the light of day.” Yes, except insofar as Wiener was processed to the item level in 1980 and the whole shebang was dumped into Archivists’ Toolkit in 2009, so yes, this essay has been visible in some form for at a minimum four years and at a maximum 33 years before you ran across it, Times.

This happens over and over again. Five hundred fairytales outside the Grimm canon, published in three editions in the 19th century are “discovered” after being “locked away in an archive [sic].” Google it. Historians “discover” women scientists, dance lineages, jazz gems, prospectors’ diaries, photographs, reel-to-reel tapes, and everything. (Gallingly, sometimes archivists “discover” things that were “lost,” which is why #IFoundItInTheArchives is the worst, and why the term “trove” is suspect, and there WILL BE A TEST ON RECAPITULATING THE TERMS OF OUR OWN SUZERAINTY.) Naturally, historians insist that their information-seeking is serendipitous, that they find things by accident because archival description is so hard to navigate, and I’m sympathetic to that I mean we’ve all seen crazy kinds of legacy description, and Duff and Johnson were writing in 2002, when all we had was HTML, and PDF, and EAD 1.0, and APPM in MARC, and DACS was just a glimmer in our eyes, and OH WHATEVER SHALL I DO I CAN’T MAKE SENSE OF THIS DAAAY-TAAAH, but there’s no real difference in a user survey between serendipity and bald-assed ignorance of the political economy of archives. Mostly I think historians just like to pretend they’re entering the Temple of Doom instead of the reading room. They’re engaged in a retail experience, which frankly most of us under late-capitalism view as a kind of foraging, I mean day-um I feel like I just persistence-hunted a deer every time I drive back from Whole Foods, so it’s not surprising that they’d see processed, weeded, carefully tended collections as virgin territory met by their conquering pioneer hands.

So let’s make a deal. I like you, historians, I really do. When next you plan on theorizing the archive, let’s theorize across the supply chain, let’s be up-front that there’s a long distance of labor between records and you, and let’s start by theorizing your styles of consuming archives before conceptualizing my styles of producing them. Do that. I gotta get some vittles.

Radar in snow, 1968, via NARA, ARC# 6506387

Radar in snow, 1968, via NARA, ARC# 6506387

Evgeny Morozov led me to Remo Bodei, whose brief notes here bring the clinical definition of delusion to bear on the acts of memory and the practices of history. There’s a lot to chew on here for archivists.

Speaking of the classical delusional subject, Bodei lays out for us some stuff: I’m going to replace “his” here with “the archivist’s”:

[The archivist’s] psychic apparatus does not only raise smoke screens or secrete ink, like cuttlefish, in order to hide from itself: to dazzle and confuse it also uses light.

The style I’d like to call white redaction emerges when we dazzle and confuse with light. It isn’t always a matter of overwhelming potential researchers with an abundance of worthless bulk, the way your lawyer will passive-aggressively respond to a discovery request with photocopies of everything JUST EVERYTHING HAHAHAHAA. It’s more akin to what David Foster Wallace gets at in The Pale King: an iron triangle of information, transparency and apathy. Any system in which our capacity to read records outpaces our capacity to understand them, where access outpaces description, is essentially a regime of redaction.

For the better part of a two decades, archivists with a thing for information technology have been shoehorning narrative content into structured data with the aim of enabling researchers to drill down into a collection to get at the couple parcels they knew they needed, doing for the old print finding aid what the print finding aid did for collections, making sure no one has to read things that they didn’t ask for. MPLP and flipped processing, though in good hands they shouldn’t, similarly enable a style of archives-work that deprecates description. We’re counting on users to know what they’re looking at when they see it, and to know what they’re looking for before they see it.

What if we’re wrong and better known-item search is not better research? The glory of an archival collection is that it’s a collection, a whole tangled bolus of curated passages into historical fact, each reflecting and illuminating every other. Really great known-item search is like digging out individual carbon molecules from an ingeniously cut diamond. Even calling archival known-item search known-item search is oxymoronic: an item in an archival collection can’t be known except as part of a whole. In the name of facilitating access we’ve deployed our technologies to the task of alienating researchers from archives’ contexts. This is our old unacknowledged wish irrupting into daily life, and our compensatory act for indulging the will to opacity is to desperately try to re-embed context into data. And I mean we can BRO DOWN WITH EVGENY LATER about how the response to the ills brought by technophilia is to apply more technophilic solutions, BUT THAT’S FOR LATER. Following Bodei, I can see a world in which EAC-CPF implementation is like stress-eating, or the itch you get when you’re depressed; a technical response to a deep psychic wellspring.

We’re now going to replace “acute schizophrenia” here with “archives”:

Overinclusive thought, frequent in [archives], consists in the inability to choose the pertinent elements of a concept, eliminating the ones that are less relevant or completely unrelated

Delusion, for Bodei, is hyperawareness, “the result of an unsuccessful attempt to interpret coherently the incoming collection of data,” which is the kind of thing so broadly misused as to diagnose all of modern life as schizophrenic, and is this close to being just warmed-over Future Shock, dumbed-down Eros and Civilization, or lobotomized Civilization and its Discontents, but if we confine ourselves to the tiny sphere of archival description and its encodings, and we think about who’s writing new descriptions, and whether those young people are well-read enough to write a good historical note, or to identify events of significance in 20th-century collections, then I think it’s fair to say at many institutions we see unsuccessful attempts to interpret large bodies of information coherently at least after every summer internship if not ALL THE TIME HAVE YOU EVER READ A BOOK and so here’s a fun aside:

Archives comrade: So when are these due? December 7? How will I remember that?
Old Mole: Um, it’s Pearl Harbor Day?
Archives comrade: [baffled, in all seriousness] Oh okay, like that’s gonna help. You’re so obscure.

Now, I might have said “That reference is obscure,” because it’s just my style coz I dunno if people other than Jude can be obscure per se, but ultimately the larger point is SO MUCH FOR LIVING IN INFAMY hahahha I mean, WHO REMEMBERS WHAT ALL THE FUSS WAS ABOUT ANYWAY and as you can see my aside and my main theme dovetail neatly [/brushes shoulder off]:

It’s important that researchers get as broad a view of the historic record, or cultural patrimony, or the sources of art history, or the scope of old business operations and human resources practices, or whatever it is we’re curating as possible. We have to replace immediate if fragmentary access with knowledge born of real work in history; to get people a wide-angle view of a collection, to see peripherally. One of the ways we defeat information-delusion is to deliver to our seekers something like a collection’s gestalt, the undergirding sensation of being situated in space and time.

We can read another path to defeating information-delusion into the phrase “choose the pertinent elements,” and I really think this should be etched in everyone’s mind in screaming capitals: RECORDS MOTHERFUCKING MANAGEMENT. And on and on. There’s a lot more in that little address to pick through for anyone interested in how human beings might behave in the so-called information age: “insecurity exits,” the feverish work of maintaining delusion, delusion as dense interconnection — or why networks don’t always cure cancer or solve economic inequality or make a better grilled cheese sandwich — more than enough for this paper-pusher to handle in one go.