MySpace and urban renewal

Apparently MySpace deleted everything and hopes to rise from the ashes, newly branded and relevent.* This of course horrifies me, from the perspective of an archivist, historian, and user of cloud services. But, when juxtaposed with the web as architecture metaphor and digital self-segregation it feels like a social justice issue. Did a minority neighborhood just get bulldozed?

* I haven’t looked into it too deeply yet, so my initial reaction may be off base. I suppose I technically still have a MySpace account, but I only used it to display a feed from a site that’s been down for years; not exactly deep or current familiarity with MySpace from a user’s perspective. So while I have a philosophical dog in the fight, it’s not personal.

Names and invisibility

I’ve recently been thinking about the visibility of women in archives. (The material, not the profession, which is a separate question.) “Archives for All,” the Russ Pledge,* and my current processing project bring the issue immediately to mind.

The papers of Isaac and I. Minis Hays date from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They are largely concerned with medical publications and practice, the study of natural history, and the business of various organizations of a generally scientific bent. Not, in short, corners of the past generally welcoming to women.

But women are represented in the collection—peripherally, but they are present, and speak (write) in their own voices (hand). My task is folder level description and rehousing, repurposing and modestly expanding upon pre-existing data that organized the collection primarily by correspondent. Even this straightforward task illustrates some of the ways in which women’s representations are problematic.

Let us take Isaac Hays’s wife, I. Minis Hays’s mother, as an example. She was born Sarah Ann Minis. After her marriage, she went by Sarah Minis Hays. She was affectionately referred to as Sally. And sometimes letters were addressed to “Sara Anne” or “Sallie.”

So, how does one refer to this woman when organizing correspondence? Sarah Ann Minis and Sarah Minis Hays? One or the other only? This is precisely the sort of scenario in which the Library of Congress authorities can provide guidance…but there are no entries for Sarah Ann Minis or Sarah Minis Hays.

Should the issue be sidestepped, so that wherever possible her correspondence is filed with a more recognizable (male) name? How likely is it that a researcher will seek out material related to her, rather than her husband or son? One could, if seeking to relieve one’s guilt for making that decision, rationalize that letters written from her future husband could appropriately be placed with other outgoing letters from Isaac Hays.

I deemed the sidestepping solution unappealing. Aside from the social justice aspect—I did not want to make women more invisible than was already the case—I wanted to keep the organization and description of the collection as consistent as possible. After consultation and a search for internal authorities (no dice), I opted to standardize on the name Sarah Minis Hays: she spent most of her life as a Hays, held a curatorial position as a Hays; and since the collection is Philadelphia- rather than Savannah-centric, it seems unlikely that casual Minis family researchers will make use of it. I relied upon descriptive fields, in the hope of making the presence of the materials—and their creator’s identity—transparent to researchers.

Note that Sarah Minis Hays is actually less problematic than other women I have encountered. As a member of a prominent Savannah family and the subject of a Thomas Sully portrait, she is more googleable§ than many women of the period. At greater remove from their famous male relations—whose work and reputation are, after all, the reason for a collection’s existence—their identity and significance are obscured.

* See the original post; follow links, google or use your imagination to explore the varied, generally unsurprising responses.

I would not be surprised to find she had a more active public life, but I’ve only done the most cursory online search.

Much of the woman-generated or -directed correspondence I have worked with takes the form of friendly letters, with greetings and signatures often consisting of only a given name, nickname, “cousin,” or some such. Thus a researcher already familiar with the family’s genealogy would probably recognize the individual, but (like previous archivists) I am often not in a position to provide helpful identifying notes.

§ Somewhat ironically, thanks to Isaac Hayes and Isaac Israel Hayes, in this case googling the collection creator is unusually troublesome. I do not mean to imply that visibility via Google, Wikipedia, etc. is the only metric of an individual’s visibility…but it is a pretty decent, and very quick, way to find general information and get a sense of sources (and their accessibility).

Pondering a career in archives (or, I heart Randall C. Jimerson)

I read “Archives for All” after seeing a couple posts about MARAC.* It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy…well, no, not quite. Jimserson talks about the power of archives in a social justice context. I have never had the focus or drive to be an activist: there is just so much that is deeply, deeply wrong and needs to be fixed, I don’t know where to start or how I could remain sane while engaging daily with the sheer lunacy on display. Feeling “warm and fuzzy” implies comfort and contentment—feelings that are semantically contraindicated by social injustice. But the article holds out the possibility of bringing about social change in a non-adversarial fashion, of changing the game while the opponent isn’t paying attention. It is the possibility (for me personally) of activism with less risk of burn out. It’s a field where I might wear the sexy lingerie of a social justice warrior§ with the fuzzy slippers of a gainfully employed person happy to go to the office.

* I was hoping to get to the next meeting, because not only is it generally a Conference I Should Go To™, but in the fall incarnation I Know People™ who are involved. But stupid friends are having a stupid wedding that weekend. Stupid love and commitment.

This is actually one of the reasons that I scrapped the law school plan when I was in college. I don’t think I’m at my best in adversarial environments and they certainly don’t make me happy. And aside from issues of personal comfort, I have deep reservations about adversarial systems…but Why I Didn’t Want To Be A Lawyer™ is sort of off topic.

Archivists as Illuminati players? (See especially page 9.) Just with more ethics and fewer servants of Cthulhu…which is really something to strive for in any profession.

§ Whether it’s the metal bikinis of Frank Frazetta or the fishnets of Zack Snyder, we all know the female warrior must be sexily underclad.