Standards for Digital Archives webinar

Last Thursday I went to another SAA webinar…I say “went” because enough people were interested that instead of doing it in the board room of Library Hall we moved across the street to Franklin Hall. It was sort of overkill but worked well, and I was amused by the big giant rendering of straightforward bulleted PowerPoint slides.*

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Archon webinar

Last Thursday, a bunch of local archivists gathered around the table in the APS conference room for a webinar. “Archon™…making it work for you!” was, perhaps, a somewhat giddy title. But it did provide a solid overview of Archon. There were frequent, sensibly-placed pauses in the PowerPointy core of the presentation, which allowed for live demonstrations* and Q&A (by phone and chat). It was a pretty broad subject, with a broad audience: some folks were already using Archon and had specific questions, others were simply aware of its existence. (I’ve never used it, but I’ve read the documentation, so I felt like I had a decent feel for it going in.) As a result, the presentation was neither fish nor fowl, but there was still enough protein that I’m glad I was there.

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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.

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.