One really, really belated finding aid

The archives class I took last spring had a group project component. Several of us processed a collection in the Charles L. Blockson collection at Temple. Blockson doesn’t have much online at the moment, but groupmate Tim Horning posted the PDF some months ago. So, for those of you interested in Temple’s holdings on the Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School, voila, all laid out by (Sara’s) hand, sans XML.


When I was outlining my paper for Archives, I scrawled myself a little note about Step 3: Profit! My note was in reference to early promotional writings about America. Substitute emigrate or invest for the initial step of collecting underpants and it fits nicely.

It turns out it also applies to the paper itself. I tried to make the leap from colonial-era materials to historical societies with a bridge of popular historical writing. With more pages and discipline, I could perhaps have done so more effectively. With more time and discipline I might have decided to winnow down the focus of the paper. But it was still a perfectly cromulent paper. I’m actually flirting with the idea of revising it. I’ve never done that before. Papers have always been fire-and-forget (or at least fire-and-abandon: I did make sure to ask for feedback on this one). But I am wondering if doing a second draft (as opposed to rolling revisions) would be instructive and/or yield something a cut above cromulent.

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Randall C. Jimerson: “American Archivists and the Search for Professional Identity”

Ambivalence abounds. Jimerson’s introduction to American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice offers a thumbnail sketch of the SAA’s late twentieth century efforts to articulate professional standards as well as a sense of international archival thinking (e.g. “What are those crazy Americans thinking?”) That’s quite useful to me, because before January I didn’t know anything about the archival profession; even my user experience was limited to Temple’s Urban Archives and, more recently, Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections.

Jimerson makes his pragmatism clear: theory should inform practice, but it is good practice which should be celebrated. I don’t object to this per se—Schellenberg himself gave me the willies, but Green and Meisner did not, and I’m okay not only with the idea that you can’t save everything but that you probably don’t want to (more on all that later). But there is something weird about reverse engineering theory based on daily practices which are based on modifications of older traditions partially discarded. That’s different from deriving practice from theory, and different from deriving theory from practice. I know nothing happens in a vacuum, but in this case the theorizers were very aware that they weren’t in a vacuum.

I feel a bit of tension when I consider the pragmatic approach as part of theory. Pragmatism appeals to me as a means for negotiating real-world concerns: the allocation of limited resources, institutional missions or legal departments that consign cool stuff to the shredder, etc. But that’s vocational; it’s job training; it’s a Master’s instead of a Ph.D. Theory comes from the ivory tower; theory is Amber, and all practical implementation merely its shadow. Commenting on practice, sure; being informed by practice, okay. Consisting of practice that has percolated up? That’s just a weird mechanism.

Coming back to Jimerson, I also had some issues with language. Any time the word “egalitarianism” is applied to Revolutionary America…well, I was reading aloud to my daughter and, despite the fact that she’s only six months old, I felt compelled to note that such statements were problematic. But I’ll certainly concede that the myth which entered American consciousness involves democratic and egalitarian ideals; nor will I argue against the existence of anti-intellectualism or the articulation of individualism as part of the American character. Right now I’m also reading Michael Zuckerman’s Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century, in which he argues that American individualism is bunk. Colonial authority may have become decentralized, but it was very much concerned with consensus and communal values. Town != Individual.

Jimerson was only writing an introduction to a book (and a pretty dense and useful introduction at that), so there’s a limit to how much I’m going to hold any of this against him. For purposes of this book, these things just sort of kicked me out of the reading for a second. But now I am thinking more about the construction of the archival profession in a different way, and the extent to which it is built upon a strange concoction of myth and pragmatism. In addition to getting a rendition of the SAA’s greatest hits, thanks to this intro I think I’m closer to zeroing in on a paper topic.

Martin L. Levitt: “Ethical Issues in Constructing a Eugenics Web Site”

Earlier in the semester Levitt mentioned the Image Archives of the American Eugenics Movement as an illustration of the complexities of publishing archival material on the web. I was a little ambivalent after that discussion. Yes, without a note of the context of the material, it’s possible for it to be misused or misunderstood; but if access is available to everyone on an equal basis, then that means neo-Nazis get to use materials, too. Defending access maps onto discussions of defending free speech. Other data points indicated that Levitt was not a Luddite, but I wasn’t sure why the web should be singled out as a complicated medium. Yes, it’s more easily and widely accessible than a physical depository, and things float around context-free…but context can also accrete in the online environment. I wouldn’t cite Wikipedia in a scholarly paper, but it is still a day-to-day go-to site for consulting the hive mind.

Just like it says on the tin, this article deals with the construction of that web site. Some of the ethical issues seem clear-cut, such as the decision to maintain confidentiality despite there being a very strong legal argument that confidentiality had never existed in the first place. (A student interviewer is not a medical professional, so privilege does not attach; but a student interviewer in a lab coat might look an awful lot like a doctor.) Other issues are resolved in a manner that more or less mirrors pulpspace solutions. I have a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, from a box of books a friend didn’t want to cart off to medical school. That edition has an introduction that basically says the book is bunk written and used by reprehensible people. The Eugenics Archive crafted essays that serve a similar purpose.

Last night in class we were treated to some anecdotes about a previous Librarian at the APS. When he was introduced to newspapers on CD-ROM in the 80s, he was initially skeptical. Why bother to look at that version when the physical object was available? Ten seconds after hearing about keyword searching, he understood the utility and took it a step farther: the introduction of new tools transformed the digital version a completely different animal.

In my pleasure reading, I strive to remain format-neutral, treating differences between e-books and paper books as matters of aesthetics: sometimes I want a trade paperback, sometimes I want hardcover, sometimes I want to read off a screen at my desk, sometimes I want to read a mass market paperback in the tub, recently I’ve started reading on my phone the el, etc., so initially some part of me rebelled that the statement was a bit extreme. (And in some cases it might be: a .gif of a scanned page is largely interchangeable with the original. But that’s an oh-god-why-would-you-do-that corner case.) A keyword search is pretty modest functionality, and pretty ubiquitous. Yes, it’s possible to do a keyword search using meatspace tools: scan the pages, note the location of the word, repeat as necessary. Even if you’re only freeing up bandwidth—doing a keyword search in seconds rather than weeks—that’s bandwidth that can be used for something else, refining intellectual arguments or going off on completely new tangents because of the luxury of time.

Last year, I used the 19th century British newspaper database to do research for a term paper. How I loved that thing. (And how weird it felt. I’m perfectly comfortable poking around on the web, so it didn’t so much feel like a tool as, well, Tuesday. But when I was an undergrad, such tools weren’t ubiquitous, the web wasn’t as populated and certainly wasn’t considered a good place to find sources for your social science papers, e-mail was elm or pine, Mosaic was an optional thing to futz around with, and we walked uphill both ways.) I was able to scan numerous papers spanning decades in less time than it took to skim two years worth of The Gold Coast Nation in Special Collections. And yes, they were two completely different research experiences.

To bring that digression back to the subject of the Eugenics Archive…the site is not a digitization of archival material. It is an online resource that makes use of digitized material. This holds true for the legacy HTML, which is what Levitt referenced in his article at the beginning of the decade, as well as the new version. The new version incorporates Flash, which makes me shudder in a way that I choose to believe demonstrates good taste as surely as it dates me. The new version also adds social networking features and a blog, further emphasizing the goal of commentary upon the subject matter and making it easier to add certain types of fresh content…notably original content, as opposed to existing material drawn from the APS, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives or other repository. This continuing accretion of information in cyberspace mirrors the accretion of material in physical archives. In short, the Eugenics Archive is an entity in its own right, a secondary source. As such, all of the ethical concerns Levitt originally voiced make perfect sense. This isn’t a case of simply reproducing material to make it available. This is the creation of an intellectual work, using a variety of sources, with a specific (and clearly stated) agenda.

I still like the idea of scanning everything and slapping it up on the web, organized in more or less the same way as the physical collection. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s a way to make access easy. (My sympathies are firmly with Web Tech Guy: my professional experience is geared, engineering-style, to just finding a solution, and the scan everything approach appeals to my packrat nature in the same manner as Jenkinson’s lofty statements of purpose.) I concede it’s incredibly impractical, just from a resource allocation perspective; much as it’s not feasible to keep everything, it’s not feasible to get it all into cyberspace. (At least, not till the Singularity hits; and really, won’t we all have better things to do when that happens?) The materials in archives and collections aren’t everything, but a consciously-constructed body of information. The materials they post online are a further step removed from the raw data, even more consciously selected and perhaps more obviously tailored for a specific purpose.

Frank Boles: Selecting & Appraising Archives & Manuscripts

This was quite the readable text. Surprisingly so, for something billed as a manual and dealing with process rather than the stuff itself. I am vaguely curious if the moments of corniness are common throughout Boles’s writings or if they were inserted especially for this book.

I appreciate the overview of archival thought. The focus is primarily twentieth-century (dipping back to Jenkinson), primarily U.S. (with several Canadian and Australian examples). That makes it eminently practical, from a professional perspective, and sketches out some lively theoretical debates. (My impression of earlier periods in much hazier: it’s a long way from the Library of Alexandria to the French Revolution, to say nothing of divergences within a formerly well-lit empire. I am curious, and may end up doing my paper on an earlier period. But my sense remains that while it would be interesting and perhaps informative of the nature of available older information, it probably wouldn’t relate very strongly to professional thinking.) I now have a better sense of where to plug writers in, and now I have some context for readings in the Jimerson volume.

One semi-divergence from class lectures is the matter of selling weeds: disposing of material for pay rather than consigning it to the dumpster. Boles allows for the possibility of this being an ethical practice; Levitt has thusfar taken a harder line.

Boles also seems to be using a subtly different definition of “archives,” with “institutional archives” and various other types of repositories as subcategories. In class discussion, those “institutional archives” are “archives” and other things (e.g. manuscript repositories) are other things…with the acknowledgement that the lines between such institutions blur and overlap, and similar techniques may be used to manage them; but the dividing line is the manner in which they grow (organic accretion for archives or a proactive collection policy for manuscript repositories). This distinction seems to make no pragmatic difference, but I am curious if it’s just a matter of preference, background, or simplification. Boles’s choice of umbrella term may also be a means of accommodating American exceptionalism (in the matter of archival practices, the term seems warranted): the National Archives came along a century and a half after independence, and public opinion of the meaning of archives (both the word and the broader concept of collections of stuff) doesn’t line up with the stricter professional definition.

On the reference front, the layout of the book is very clear, with extensive use of subheadings within chapters. I suppose that’s to be expected in a book by and about a profession deeply concerned with taxonomy and organization, but it’s still nice to see. Class lectures map pretty directly onto this book (also unsurprising: we’ve had the nitty-gritty overview, for the most part).

I’d originally been planning to transcribe some of my notes (admittedly in much the same way I intended to transcribe my notes from the class I took last year), but now I think that’s probably unnecessary. Thank you, Frank Boles, for providing a concrete example of the value of summary information and, incidentally, enabling my laziness.