A case study in archival practice: The Algebraist

The Algebraist

This summer I read an excellent case study about archival practices: The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks.

The case study centered upon the discovery of an appendix to the first volume of a work of poetry entitled The Algebraist. Said appendix detailed the existence of a Transform (included in a subsequent volume) providing the location of wormhole portals in relation to gas giants included in the Dweller List (a widely circulated work, popularly deemed apocryphal). Given the high informational value of the material in question, significant sections of the case study dealt with the political and military maneuvers of various stakeholders: Fassin Taak, who initially acquired material related to the Transform and was later tasked with follow up research; the catalogers who initially identified the significance of the appendix; the various Mercatoria officials who dispatched Fassin Taak; and Valseir, the Dweller who donated the information.

The first systemic failure was not dramatic, and all too typical of institutions competing for limited resources. The accession was not comprehensively inventoried by donor or receiving institution, much less processed adequately. Had the Mercatoria embraced an approach of “more product, less process,” it is possible that the valuable information would have been identified (and possibly effectively researched) successfully.

The Mercatoria made a series of disastrous security decisions. Central to the case study, and of greatest interest in a discussion of archival practices, is the issue of personnel. The most cursory of background checks should have revealed Fassin Taak’s detainment following a Hab 4409 demonstration and that, coupled with Sept Bantrabal’s suspected defiance of the Mercatoria’s strict AI ban, surely ought to have disqualified him from high security work. (Trusting the abilities of a single minder, operating with limited resources in a war zone, was a decision of striking optimism or naiveté.) That Fassin Taak was, in fact, working as a spy for the Beyonders rendered a questionable hiring decision even more devastating for the Mercatoria. As a result, the highly valuable wormhole coordinate Transform was delivered to their enemies.

Though not prominent in the case study, the behavior of the Jeltick raises ethical questions.* Given their reputation as historians, their specialization as catalogers, and associated qualities—”timid, cautious, deliberate and very inquisitive (at a safe remove)”—deemed non-threatening by the Mercatoria’s Shrievalty, the Jeltick were tasked with analysis of the initial acquisition. They subsequently attempted to act upon information yielded by their analysis and withheld from the Shrievalty. Banks does not delve into the precise nature of the agreement, but whether the Jeltick were engaged as subcontractors or equal partners it would appear that their behavior toward the Shrievalty was unethical. It seems likely that, at a minimum, there was an expectation of confidentiality and sharing of information. Had the Jeltick discussed their findings, they might have benefited from the Mercatoria’s military resources, avoiding the devastating Zateki defeat and, perhaps, partnering to decode the Transform. (Though given the ethical issues surrounding decisions taken by the Mercatoria, this is not a foregone conclusion.)

The donor’s actions compounded the debacle. Valseir did not have adequate intellectual control over materials in his care and disseminated information he (and Dweller society at large) might have preferred remain confidential. It must also be noted that the structure of Dweller society—a reputation economy wherein traditionally core governmental functions (e.g. the military) as well as intellectual pursuits are controlled by enthusiasts, with no meaningful oversight from a central authority or the populace in general—complicates the standard understanding of the role of archives and archivists. Issues of intellectual control, security, accessioning and deaccessioning policies, and so forth remain entirely at the discretion of individuals. (It was thus completely appropriate for Valseir to distribute sensitive information, and equally appropriate for another Dweller, Setstyin, to violently attempt to suppress it.)

However horrified professional archivists following in the footsteps of Jenkinson and Schellenberg may be, The Algebraist serves as a reminder that archival theory and practice do not exist in a vacuum, but emerge from the complicated context of the time and place of their creation. The breakdowns in the case study could, in many cases, be addressed by modern American archival practices, and thus The Algebraist affirms the value of those practices. But it would be a mistake to arrogantly assume that those practices, in whatever manner they are codified, are ever complete or universally applicable.

* Once more, the Mercatoria’s judgment vis-à-vis security may also be called into question. Some number of Shrievalty decision makers were sanctioned for turning information over to the Jeltick, but it is unclear whether this was a systemic response to a violation of internal security procedures or the selection of scapegoats in a politically charged environment.