Those of us who have come to know the power of the “dark side,” that is methodology that goes beyond the traditions of archival management, have found that our traditional skills are greatly needed in the bright new world that is coming our way. There will always be a need for someone to preserve the elements that make up the historic record, to make those elements available to researchers, and to help provide context that researcher may use, if they so desire, to better interpret these elements. The problem is not that these elements of the historical record are in different formats than those we are used to, or different media, or even exist in far greater numbers with potentially millions of identical “records.” These are challenges that many archivists have to face and which many will have to bow before. That’s okay. Transition takes time, in spite of the accelerated pace at which change seems to come in today’s world. There will still be plenty of traditional archival work available to do for a long time to come. These people will be needed and relevant regardless of the changes happening around us.

Before we go any farther, let me call attention to the fact that I used the term “archival management.” I use various terms to describe the profession as I strive to avoid being redundant as well as repeating things. I rarely, however, use the term “archival science,” and when I do it is just an attempt to vary the terminology to spice up the writing. (Changing management to science; if that doesn’t liven things up, nothing will.) I do not believe it is a science and actually like the term “archivy” that seems to imply something practiced as if it were a science but is not (as in “alchemy”.) I often find my colleagues view our practice as one in which the rules are carved in stone. I have read codes of ethics for archivists, museum folk, and other public historians that clearly deny reality. They make it clear, for example, that the professionals must avoid for-profit organizations, as if the non-profits do not wield any power to influence the profession as they provide resources, missions, and, of course, our salaries. Such ethical codes supposedly keep us free from undue influence. “Coca-Cola may shape the way we view the history of their product but you will never find a board of people with social or political views that are similar to one another influencing the practice of a museum or archival repository. Therefore, we are free from the nasty influence that for-profit institutions wield.” Uhh-huhh.

We have best practices that are established by leaders in the field. Well and good. But these best practices tend to be a one-size-fits-all type of thing. Of course, no one expects the small church archives with no budget to come anywhere near the level of best practices that the National Archives and Records Administraton does, but they should strive to get as close to it as possible. But why? Are the records of a small institution necessarily that related to the generic record groups of large institutions? Since they are by definition unique, and may have been created and used in very different ways, is it not possible that best practices for these should be different? And who gets to decide these things. The whole world does not accept the best practices voted on by the elite of the Society of American Archivists.

No, these are traditions, not scientific models, and they are not even sacred traditions at that. Many of the best practices of the archival world have come to be accepted (where they are accepted) during my lifetime. The way in which the profession treats our rules is much like the way a church I once belonged to treated music in worship. They didn’t want any of the new music that the younger folk wanted to use in worship. They wanted to use the music the church had always used. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The trouble was, when I started looking up a lot of the music our solid core of church leaders wanted to keep in the worship service, most of it had been written when they were very young. I found that the definition of status quo was the way things have been in “my” lifetime, regardless of the change that occurred to the previous system to make it what I am familiar with. As archivists worry about their relevancy or the oncoming changes being wrought by the digital world, we might do well to remember that people struggled to change an older system into what we have today. Neither Adam and Eve or Homo erectus worried about records being viewed without context or heard about the concept of provenance. (Okay. I don’t know that last part for certain, but I would be willing to bet on it, and I don’t even gamble.)

So what does this have to do with archivists surrendering their profession? A good bit. The deal is this. Technology does not only change the media of communication, it changes the thought process involved in communication. The younger generations in this country no longer create documents with a strong expectation of privacy. Their communication is not necessarily targeted at an individual or group, but rather the world at large. They stumble upon documents and chunks of information, or a third party leads these folk, both the creators of records and researchers, to a specific place in the chain of communication. We may never know what outside forces determined who someone communicated with and where the content of their communication came from. We have no context to apply to the record.

If there is a record. While I still see sessions in conferences on dealing with archiving of email, more and more people are communicating with text messages. Who is archiving those? I know the data is probably on a server somewhere, but the chances of any of it ending up in the hands of archivists any time in the next several decades is slim to none. And while we either ignore the issue (Cleopatras), make a few steps towards dealing with the problem, albeit reluctantly (resistance members), or embrace a part of the change so we can get along with the others (collaborationists), we still haven’t “got it.” The farthest I have seen any reasonably significant number of archivists come to dealing with the world of the digital is the handful that are beginning to embrace “Web 2.0” as a means to do outreach and promote their collections. Some are even going so far as to put parts of their collections online so the researcher may access them without traveling several hundred miles to examine a piece of paper that may not have what they’re looking for on it anyway. Even then they lament the poor researcher missing out on so all the treasures they could have have if they had only come to the repository in person. And some folks are using digitization to produce backup copies of material, just in case, It’s all a step in the right direction, but still not radical enough.

As I said earlier, many of the records, particularly “correspondence” such as text, are not saved at all. Few archive Websites or social media. For that matter, privacy concerns, oddly enough existing in a world where many think nothing of sending a picture of themselves without any clothes out for the world to see, make users of social media resistant to archives of their records being kept by others. And that is the crux of the matter. Control. People who use text messages, Twitter, Facebook, who blog or use other social media, expect that the material they choose to make public will quickly move beyond their control and be available to the world. What they also expect is to be able to choose what content is put in a place where it can be made public. They do not want data mining, changed privacy settings or agreements, or people keeping copies of their information without their having initiated the process. Organizations are the same way.

In many organizations records are controlled by records managers. In the case of electronic records, they are usually in the hands of the Information Technology (IT) folk. IT is not interested in the historical record. IT needs to increase efficiency in response to ever increasing demands from management. IT needs to free up server space. IT needs to purge records. Not deaccession, purge. IT and records management barely speak a similar language. IT and archivists are from totally different worlds. From a professional standpoint, they use different sides of their brains, have different priorities, and have nothing in common other than the fact they work with records. Yet to the archivist, IT represents the force of rapid change into a digital world that is forcing archivy (like I said, I like this term) to change or become outcast. It is the powerful “Dark Side” of the records/communication force.

How do we fight the dark side? We cannot. Besides, it is not really the dark side at all. Digital technology has opened a myriad of ways in which records are produced or communication engaged in to add to the  historical record. The question is, who will answer the call to preserve it for future generations? Right now, it sure isn’t the archivist. We discussed in part 1 (okay, I pontificated in part 1) of these posts the responses of the profession to the change in records and communication. In our church, the committee that is responsible for maintaining those records is rarely if ever consulted about them. They are kept by the communications and administration divisions. As long as entities that generate records are responsible for their ultimate disposition and archivists cannot handle them, the likely place they will go is oblivion. The archivist will have surrendered their profession, laying down their part in the decision process. They will work with what they have until everything is processed (granted, that could be a long time.)

Of course one of the possible solutions would be for archivists to go where the records are. Become part of the records management team rather than sit at the end waiting for their next shipment. They could learn how the organization works, better understand the context in which records are created, advocate for means of retention of records of enduring value. It would mean adjusting to the individual sets of circumstances, and archivists would likely have less physical control over their collections than they do now. It is a if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em strategy, but beats unconditional surrender. It means the profession must evolve. Rapidly. That could hurt. But such is life.

In the world of the church, many of the younger people do not relate to the same things as do people of the generation before. Nothing new. But as I said earlier, new communication has allowed a change in the way these folk’s minds work. They do not define relationship the same way as their elders. Physical things often mean less to them than intangible concepts. To someone like this, attending a worship service from hundreds of miles away via computer can be a meaningful experience. It requires believing that the Holy Spirit can and does work without restrictions of time, space, or the will of mankind, but none the less is quite feasible. Such experiences may be very real for the people who participate in them. When the church in general fails to recognize this, fails to recognize that technology has become a part of the way new generations think rather than just be a tool to convey old messages, she surrenders. If she assigns the way people function and think to the dark side because they do not understand how much they are tied in with new forms of communication, they will lose relevancy. It may be that it is time for this, that the church needs to undergo a very radical change. I don’t know. I do know that once again, I observe in both my work with my church and my profession very similar situations. Worry about their future relevancy and an inability to make the changes necessary to assure that relevancy.

By the way. I also believe that the change in technology and the way younger generations think is a two-way street. They are not slaves to technology. Much of the technological change has been driven by the desires of the end user. I have written of this before in one place or another. I will again.

The Heretic

The old tradition exists to the effect that, in olden days, when a monarch received bad news via messenger, he would have the bearer of the news executed. We have a saying today that one should not kill the messenger, meaning don’t criticize the bearer of bad news because one doesn’t care for that news, particularly if it is true. (In the public debate this often comes in the form of ad hominem attacks on the messenger so that others will not believe the unwanted or ill-timed news.)

People who know me or have read this blog know that a constant theme of conversation or debate in my world is that “technology” seems to have become an entity that is under attack by those with whom I associate. But it usually isn’t the technology itself that is under attack, but what it represents or what it is helping to bring about. Most people I know who don’t understand certain technologies ignore them, at least until they find the majority of the people around them using the technology and speaking its language, at which point they feel a bit lost, a bit old, a bit out of touch, and go about their business. The ones who attack it fear the loss of control or coming change. At best, (from an ethical point of view,) they feel that they will no longer have the desired control over their own world, at worst, they fear that they will no longer be able to control others. Either way, technology is just the messenger that brings the change, while freedom of information and the ability of others to control things they have not been able to in the past is the cause.

I recently was at a lecture session for librarians where the lecturer made clear her belief that the way libraries are structured and how they will be used in the future will be radically different than the way most in the room wished. She recommended that librarians just accept this fact, that because of advances in technology, “that train had left the station” and folks should make the most of it. She stopped short of suggesting that they embrace it, or look at the changes as having positive aspects, something I found odd as this was actually a stress management session and one would think that, although there are often things that are stressful that we can do little better than accept, many of the advances in technology are not among them. These advances bring about change, yes, but as I have argued elsewhere, the change often precedes rather than follows the advances. They are the messengers of change, in some cases, rather than the causes.

These were librarians, generally a more accepting lot when it comes to technology, (a pretty wide term that allows the user to cast many things in the mold of a demon since the criteria for inclusion in this category varies from person to person,) yet there was a lot of grumbling about how our world, meaning professional world, was at risk because of that technology. And besides, there was so much false information out there! We were the ones who must filter it!

Of course, this was nothing like the attitude of the archivists I know. We archivists are not even that open to the change. We have finally begun to recognize, in some formal settings anyway, that the world of “Web 2.0,” including collaborative and social communication through electronic media, provides opportunities for outreach, and in some cases we acknowledge that there is a change in the way we will have to do “business” (if I may be excused for using such a commercial term,) but rarely do I find archives folks who recognize the changes for what they are, not to mention embrace them. They fear the evil “technology” and I have actually heard a member of the profession wish out loud that we could find a way to “drive a stake through its heart!” Technology is bringing about change, change that threatens us, or at least as profession as we practice it. In reality it isn’t the technology itself, but the way people behave because of it. Still, technology is the messenger. Kill it!

The problem here is that we misunderstand the relationship between human beings and technology. Technology, whether it is simple machines from ancient times, such as a wedge or lever, or modern microcircuits, is designed by humans to meet human needs. While it is true that modern technology is very complex and designed by people with specialized skills, they still do so to meet what they perceive as the needs of individuals or society. The fact that the technology, once it is accepted by a large enough or powerful enough cadre, then tends to become the only practical way to accomplish a task and therefore draws more people to it, makes it appear that the technology is ruling the human beings. In the archives world, where we work a lot with very low tech (by today’s standards) items such as handwritten records in old bound volumes, the encroaching desire for the use of more advanced technology is something that is being thrust upon us and technology is often viewed as the enemy.

In reality, particularly in the “2.0” world that so rapidly came upon us, much of the technology is being designed specifically in response to the real (not just perceived) needs and desires of, or even by, the end users, in response to demand made amply apparent in a variety of ways. They, rather than just a small group of inventive folk, are the ones in charge. More than ever in the digital age, a tech savvy user base is calling the shots. Technology is evolving to meet their needs. Technology is the messenger of the change in the way people think and the the priorities they choose. The process begins with them.

There have been many examples in history of change in communication styles and technologies being criticized as dangerous to things near and dear to the hearts of mankind. The telegraph was thought by many to be a detriment to the world as the landscape was strewn with poles and wires for a dubious purpose. There was a strong belief that the telephone would destroy the practice of writing letters, though it did not. (Of course, e-mail has all but done that, if you do not call e-mail letters.) Yet the new uses of the Internet seem to more closely resemble the advent of the vernacular Bible, the printing press, and the broadside. These media and content were attacked because they were seen as threats. The reality is that they were not the threats, but the ideas they conveyed were the threats. The Bible in one’s own language allowed the individual reader to read and discuss, unfiltered through the priests, the scriptures. The reader was then free to think, to question and express his opinions. The printing press and the broadside made it possible to rapidly disseminate opinions and thoughts. These media were roundly condemned by the powers of the day, religious and secular. What these powers feared was the loss of control that came when men had decided they wanted their own control of information, a desire that led to the technology in the first place. (If the inventors had not seen a need, they would not have invented. In those days there were not the resources for such work just for the fun of it.) What the powers blamed was the technology itself. They attacked the messenger.

In today’s world various media, politicians, practitioners of arts, and those who are used to controlling and disseminating information, (teachers, librarians, historians, writers, musicians, journalists, political commentators, archivists, etc.) rail against the excessive access to information through new technologies. There is too much “wrong” information. Any one can put anything they want out there! No one controls the context. Think of all we will loose if we change the way we do things!

Of course, as the lady said the other day, that train has left the station. The fact is, people have already demanded and received more access to unfiltered information than they had before, and likewise have demanded and received the ability to express their own opinions as they see fit. We can argue all we want about whether they have good information, use it in a beneficial (to whom?) manner, or whether we will loose something because things have changed. The truth, I believe, is that the change first occurred in the thoughts and hearts of the people. Although facilitated by technology, it was not caused by technology. Much of the technology was inspired by the change, and its subsequent use inspired further change. Technology is the vehicle, the messenger. It is useless to rail against the messenger, just as, in the bygone days, killing the messenger didn’t change the bad news.

I was searching the other day for information I needed to get my name off the graduate students of history e-mail list. I still had the instructions I had been given when I subscribed some years ago. I had not tried to get off the list for some years while I fought battles with various forces, both within and outside the academy, to finalize my thesis. I had remained connected, even though my coursework and thesis research had long been completed, but after the thesis was done I tried to remove my name. I did so, however, to no avail. It seems the instructions I used to get on the list did not work to get off the list, as they sent me to the address of a server that has not existed at the school for some time.

I contacted one of the officers of the organization and all she knew about it (other than that she had no idea who I happen to be,) was that she got on the list by giving her name to someone, she didn’t recall who, when she went through orientation. This, she believed, was still the case for new additions and she did not know how students got off the list. (As an aside, I recognize enough comments from students who had been at the school since before I started that I am not really sure that anyone does get off the list.) She asked around and came up with the same set of instructions I had used with no effect. I had e-mailed the department head, the head of grad students for the department, the student list sponsor, my former thesis committee and the head of my concentration within my discipline, but I received no response. I figured I could contact the school IT department and get things taken care of, but decided instead to search the Web site for more information. I was astounded (well, mildly surprised. Okay, having been a student in the department for several years, “had my suspicions confirmed” might be the appropriate thing to say,) to find that following links to the various graduate student resources brought me not only the instructions for contacting the formerly-existing-now-nonexistent server as the way to get on and off the list, but that I could also find information that suggested that this group of students was involved with a professor who is now (God rest his Soul; I mean that) dead! There were officers that were listed as current even though they had not been officers, or to my knowledge students, for 4 and 5 years. There was nothing on the Web pages to suggest the date that they had been updated. I am left to assume that either there are few ways to verify the current validity of some of the data on the site, or that time travel has been both discovered and implemented at my Alma Mater. (This last would either revolutionize or destroy the history professions, depending on your point of view, but either way, it would be some trick!)

Now, I am poking a bit of fun at my fellow travelers in the history education boat, passengers, crew, or what-have-you, and this might cost me if I ever seek employment there or decide to work on another degree. The real issue I have here, though, is the importance of context. When someone gains access to information on the Internet, which is quite mutable, what is the context of its creation? Sure, those with access to enough of the codes and metadata could probably get an idea when the data was created, particularly if that metadata came from the machine on which it was created. When we cite something from the Net we cite the site (I love saying that, “cite the site,”) as well as when we obtained access, but we don’t always have the ability to determine if the data is original, (whatever that means today,) altered in some way, or contains errors. Context of data will become more vital and more elusive as technology frees it to be created, used, disseminated and stored by more and more people in more and more ways. Preserving that context will also get trickier.

Anyone who is familiar with Biblical textual criticism or just good old fashioned genealogy can attest to the difficulty in evaluating sources when one does not know for certain their age. Information from different sources gets mixed, so that some sources seem older than they are because they contain older information copied from older sources. The age of a document does not necessarily equate to the age of the information found in that document. A digital example might be that of following a link from a news aggregator site. One might read an interesting subject line and follow the link. The story is quite interesting and the URL of the site suggests that the site is that of a newspaper, but Franklin, or Johnsonville, or just the Daily News, tells one little about where that paper is located, and therefore little about where the story occurred. (“Just south of here” helps some, but in reality only technically eliminates the South Pole.) If the article says “yesterday” but does not give the date, one still has to guess since the articles in the edition of the “paper” and of the aggregator have no specific expiration date. In short, one has to guess about when and where the source is in the space-time continuum. (This really gets tricky when one wishes to by something online as well, as one can stumble on an item on sale from a company that has not existed for a few years.) If, as has happened, I find research presented by the same individual that varies, one source from the other, I cannot always determine which source is most up to date. Heck, I even found that I had the wrong time setting on one of my blogs the other day, so the graph of visits showed different shapes when I changed the date and some visits were recorded on different days than they had previously been recorded.

What does this have to do with archives? A lot. Nothing. Who knows? I think it bears keeping in mind when those of us in the archives/history/religious-version-of-either professions are involved with either the creation of records, interpretation of research, or as we struggle to devise new ways of preserving context of record creation. Remember, the format of the records will continue to change, as the methods and importance of different aspects of our profession will, yet we still will need to find out all we can about the records in our care, who created them, how they were created and used, and find a way to make this available to others for them to have historical value.

I do know that I am more conscious of making notes and annotations about when I change things in my own notes, publications, or other created data . I encourage those I advise to be meticulous about placing information about creation and change, or maybe other items that might otherwise be considered hidden metadata, where it may be read and cited by researchers. And I will try to point these things out to researchers using digital sources so they may be better able to interpret the validity of sources. It might be as effective a process as trying to explain to one of my grandmother’s cousins that Jesus did not likely speak 17th century English just because there are red letters in the King James version of the Bible, or explaining to the lady who comes in with a family Bible with 200 years of records all written in the same ink and handwriting (and with an edition date in the front that is 60 years old) that all the records of births and marriages were not necessarily written down at the time they occurred., Alas, such is the world of historical debate and archival reference services. Is it not?

In the meantime, I must contact IT and see if the correct server handling the e-mail list is still HAL 9000.

The Heretic

The Heretic is the nom du plume of a historian and archivist who works with the public and in religious institutions. He has been accused by others in his professional world of “heresy” as a historian, archivist and Christian (not formally, of course.) He does not zealously guard his identity, but on occasion voices opinions that he feels might embarrass others. It is out of respect for those persons that he uses the pseudonym. When he is convinced that it no longer serves a purpose, he will discard it. It is really just in fun, anyway. Most people who know him recognize the source of his words, or so he believes.