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S novym godom / Happy New Year. Woodburn poster collection, National Library of Scotland.

That’s it really. If you’ve been reading Archivists’ Twitter this week you’ve read #WhyIAmAnArchivist and felt good, probably, about the profession and the people in it. We’re clearly care-workers; our for-the-love vibrations are mega-strong, and that just GETS YOU RIGHT IN THE FEELS. This posture also sets us archivists up for another round of gendered self-exploitation in the economy of care-work, right alongside nurses and teachers and motherworkers, but we’ll bracket that for a sec just to roll around in the feeeels.

This is an unscientific count, but most like two-thirds? of us responded to K-Roe with something to the tune of “Because history is important.” Sometimes it was “too important to crumble away,” sometimes it was “to be preserved for the future,” sometimes it was the “stories of people speaking to us.” Very few of us actually didn’t talk about history as a substance that could be passed along, or could crumble, or could be misplaced, like a fuggin’ sock or fugggin’ car keys. Only a few of us actually said WHY HISTORY WHATEVER THAT MEANS MIGHT BE GOOD OR WHATEVER:

That’s good, I mean that, and I feel you, but I want more, Archivists’ Twitter:

There we go. Yes. Now we’re getting some hot fyah:

I’m going to distract myself, if no one else, if I start to talk about how erotic that tweet is. That is high on the list of best erotic archives-history language ever. I mean, both in a highbrow Eros and Civilization or Life Against Death kind of way, but also almost, for me anyway, in a YA novella sort of way. Baring, undermining, leverage. These words, for moles, are virtually pornographic.

Man that’s good Twitter. Now we get to the crux of the matter:

I mean, once you read the tweets excerpted here, and then read a typical “because history is important” tweet, both of these flavors of thought coming from professionals in our discipline, you get a funny feeling, right? Like some of us don’t see history as an active continuum which includes and comprehends the present. Like some of us know history is important but won’t or can’t say why. I mean I get that your boss is looking over your shoulder, okay. But we really can’t answer “Why are you an archivist?” with “Because history is important,” that’s just displacing one absolute with another. Okay, why is history important? You can get all essentialist about it and be like “patrimony” which you might just as well render “family jewels” so why are those pearls of wisdom important? I hate to be the one to break this to you, but wisdom comes and goes. A lot (fuck, most?) of the West’s “wisdom” is a cabinet of curiosities — worth preserving as a reminder that learnèd gentlemen can be amazingly wrong; worth preserving to keep us KEYBOARD WARRIORS humble.

And more to the point, why do we want to be the vestal virgins, or the keepers of the crown jewels, or the little Dutch dude with his finger in the dike? See what happens when you conceive of history as a substance, with brittle paper its metonym? History is important –> History is crumbling all around us! –> I can save History! –> MY NEW ARCHIVING TECHNIQUE IZ UNSTOPABBLE. Suddenly history and its remains and universal human access to them are not the point. The point is our powerz. And I mean, I get giddy about having teh powerz too, but I try to keep it in perspec-

-yeah, never mind. But you get what I mean. When I’ve been called upon in my job to do something like this, I’ve given punt-responses too — my favorite is about democracy; nobody argues with democracy! — the real responses are either too real — involving heads on pikes, usually — or are just too long — involving dialectical materialism, usually — but you know, the people above have thought about what they want to do with archives, and they’ve done it without patting themselves on the back, so it can be done. Second round: Why really for-real for-real are you an archivist? Go.

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.