I have sat through meetings and presentations, read a good size mound (perhaps I should say a sub-series worth) of literature, and participated in seminars, where the primary subject was the relevance of the archivist or some other topic examined in light of the relevance of the archivist. Feel free to substitute “archival management,” “archival repositories,” “archival collections,” or whatever related category seems to fit. We word the subject differently, but the general gist is that we are worried that the rest of the world will no longer value us, and (gasp) our collections, enough for the resources to remain for the equipping and maintaining the archival profession and the archival collection.

At this point I will say that, as with posts in the past (it has been awhile since my posting; sorry) I will a) draw comparisons between my experiences in archives in general and my experiences in the church or working with other professionals. And b) I will likely have another installment as more thought gels in my brain that is developing noticeable gaps in its gray matter. I truly would appreciate comments that may expedite that gelling process, by the way.

To me, the archives professional seems to fit, for the most part, into tree categories when it comes to the subject of relevance. There are the Cleopatras, who have failed to recognize that denial is not just a river in Egypt. There are the resistance cells that work continually to resist the coming changes that create an impact on the relevance of the archive and the need for adaptation to many changes, giving ground slowly and reluctantly. There are the collaborationists, who feel as if they are meeting the changes half-way and therefore will somehow preserve a semblance of the archives profession as we know it today and therefore give more ground than the resistance fighter. In addition to these three, there is a small group, size depending on who judges the individual in question, that may be described as going over to the Dark Side. I am the only one I know personally that has gone over completely, though I hasten to add that the term “Dark Side” has nothing to do with my morals or Christian beliefs but is rather a tongue-in-cheek reference to the way many people I deal with on a professional or volunteer basis view my ideas as being quite beyond the pale.

To elaborate a bit on these groups, I will start with the Cleopatras. These are the people who are convince that, because we will always have traditional documents and records, we will always need the repositories and “traditional” archivists. At the very least we will need them for their lifetimes, so there is no need to worry. The most active of these people, those who do worry that the rest of the world will not recognize the value and relevance of the archival repository, seem to believe that the real problem is that the populace in general, and those who make decisions regarding resource allocation (money, personnel, records disposition) in specific, are just not properly educated as to the value of the profession and the collections. They believe advocacy is the solution and once people realize that we are as valuable as wee think we are, things will be okay. Oddly enough, most of the people who I hear preaching this in discussions concerning “archival relevancy,” spend little time on advocacy. They have to process and deal with researchers who have managed to track them down somehow. These are, after all, core functions of archivists. (What are advocacy and outreach. chopped liver?) It is my opinion, well informed or not, that these folks are in for a very rude awakening very soon. Based only on my personal experience (personal conversations, reading, correspondence and conferences) they tend to be the ones that express the greatest bitterness and sense of defeat over the current state of affairs in the profession. Welcome to the Little Big Horn, Col. Custer.

The resistance are those who have gradually somewhat succumbed to the onslaught of change, but at an exceptionally slow rate. These are the folk that continue to refuse to consider accepting electronic records into their collections and have finally given way to the idea that some digital records may need to be available on the Internet, but only as a means of enticing researchers into their archives. They firmly believe that records and documents have so much value as a collection, that there is an obligation to do everything possible to only present them in the context of an arranged unit rather than allowing researchers to see just individual documents. These folks see themselves as gatekeepers, morally and ethically required to be sure that researchers see the records in the way that they are “supposed” to be viewed. Most, if not all, of these folks I know believe that the concepts of respect des fonds and original order are universally accepted and applied principles that have been part of archival best practices for centuries. They do not read or accept the attitude of many other archivists regarding these principals and avoid the history of the evolution of the archives and manuscript collection field in the United States. They have their story and are sticking to it. They accept digital records in the repository, albeit often reluctantly, but do their best to transfer them to paper media or to store them without trying to provide access. They recognize that they will eventually driven to further accept aspects of technology that affect their profession, but they view this as a loss to both the profession and the researcher. They give ground, but reluctantly, and only because others in the profession are retreating and leaving their flanks unprotected.

The collaborationist is the one who believes that he or she has embraced the new technology. These folk have belatedly accepted and become excited about Web 2.0. They see the wonderful abilities to use social networking and online communication as a means of not only promoting their collections but providing reference services and even online access to documents. They do not have a consolidated view of how far they should go in stepping outside the usual view that actual presence in the repository is necessary to do “serious” research, but believe that new technologies and communication trends offer advantages to archivists that are not being recognized by the profession. They tend to support, again to varying degrees, the concept of “More Product, Less Process (MPLP).” They accession databases in their collections, often have email collections in digital formats, and occasionally attempt to capture Websites or social media for archival retention. The problem is, they really know nothing about the technological processes involved, and have not thought about ways to provide access or preserve the collections. They are still grounded in the belief that traditional archival management practices are, and should be, the core of the field, and when all is said in done they still try to tie their views into the traditional practices. Most of what they do with this new technology is access related, with a nod to the fact that record format is changing. Their lack of knowledge of how these electronic records were produced and used makes it impossible for them to properly apply concepts of appraisal, arrangement and description, or many other steps in the process of preserving records and making them accessible to other. They come closer to stepping beyond the pale, and seem to have actually have done some to other archivists. In reality, however, they have not made the final step of yielding to “the dark side.”

In Episode V (really Part 2 but parodying a rather confusing format of a movie series that has no respect des fonds) We will discuss the power of the “dark side.” I will also explain why this is really the “Bright Side” and how this also applies to organizational structures through using the church as an illustration.

The Heretic

I am working on another degree. Computer Information Systems. Working full time as an archivist, part time as a volunteer archivist, and trying to live makes this interesting, but not undoable. The thing is, this is very much an archives related degree. It is the business side/user side of the technology as well as some of the design of systems. Quite enlightening.

I have been for some time advocating that archivists pay attention to the world of “Web 2.0,” social networking, cloud computing and the like. This is not because they offer us opportunities to serve our users and reach new patrons but because these things are part of the context in which the records are created. The “virtual original order,” if such exists, would be found here. Regardless, we can better place the records in the context of their use, part of our jobs as archivists.

What I am coming to discover is how much more there is in the context of the record creation than I had previously realized. While we have argued and discussed what to do about digital records, I find few of us discussing the importance of the digital records behind the paper record. In a recent school project, we created many versions of electronic records on a variety of software that was used to work out problems and create a set of “deliverables.” The final product, the deliverables, were issued at various steps of the project and on the surface look like the documentation of the project that will eventually be archived.

In fact, that is true. The problem is, each deliverable is a final product of a complex process that is not understood by the end user. Without knowledge of that esoteric process, the documents are misleading. They are the single answer to a user’s question with no context provided, no provenance or order. In short, no intellectual control. It will not be found by appraising the collection and following standard methods to arrange and describe because the other records of the “original order” do not exist anymore.

It is not just electronic records we should be struggling with, but paper records created in a digitized environment. Knowledge of the collection could once be gained from the records themselves, a core principle of appraisal. Now, much of the printed material is the end product of a long, detailed system. Without knowledge of that system, which may be documented in an entirely unfamiliar way or not at all, appraisal becomes very problematic.

For those of you who tell me that it is only a record if it is physical (I say baloney) you may wish to think about what you are going to do with the physical records that have no meaning. The digital systems that helped create the records are like the Rosetta Stone.

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.