The Archive as a Memorial

The collected personal papers of an individual can tell an intimate story about their life, their beliefs, and the legacy that they leave behind. For the archivists processing those collections, it provides a unique opportunity to understand the creator through a different lens than those that knew them personally. The collection of physicist and UFOlogist Stanton Friedman, donated to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, is a perfect example of this. While the archivists processing his collection see its value as a research tool and a source of knowledge, they have also used it as a way of getting to know Friedman as an individual. The collection is extensive, already over 300 boxes have been received by the archive and more are expected to come. Notably, Friedman kept thousands of letters sent to him by believers and non-believers alike, including drawings and accounts of extraterrestrial encounters, in addition to his own personal collection of notes and research. Yet the scope of the task ahead has not daunted those tasked with processing the collection, instead there seems to be a sense of fondness for the man, whose records reveal him to have been “an outstanding researcher, highly intelligent and had a great sense of humour.”

While plowing through files in pursuit of a single document, or the answer to a specific question, it becomes easy to forget that, many times, the boxes we dig through are the remnants of a life lived. Archival collections can serve as memorials as much as depositories of information, and, at least for the archivists at Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, they have the ability to breath life in to the memory of a person, if only temporarily.                           

What Does an Archivist Even Do?: Public Awareness and Outreach

The archival community struggles with public outreach; even within the brief conversations I have been privy to this semester, that much is clear. Efforts such as Archival Awareness month and Ask an Archivist Day are rooted in the best of intentions, but there is debate surrounding their efficacy. There is an understandable concern that, instead of engaging with the intended audience, only those already familiar with archival work tend to participate in these programs, resulting in further insulation of the profession. Of equal concern is the apparent lack of recruiting tactics for the field. Due, in part, to the glamorization of STEM fields, archival work is difficult to market to students, but the relative lack of awareness of most of the population with respect to what an archivist actually does certainly doesn’t help the process. 

The question boils down to this: How do we make people aware of archival work in a way that is both engaging and an honest representation of the field? Media tends to glamorize the process, obscuring the level of labor and detail that goes into a single project. Yet the knowledge of terminology and extensive training required for archival work can be intimidating for those new to the profession.  The blog ArchivesAware, started in 2016 by professional archivists in association with the SAA, is an attempt to generate awareness while maintaining transparency and true-to-life representation. Their series, Archives+Audiences is an engaging look at how archival work has been applied to projects by people outside of the field, such as authors, filmmakers, activists. The series makes archival work more accessible while also providing examples of its real world applications in a condensed format that lends itself well as a teaching tool.  While the blog is relatively new (it will be reaching its fourth year in January of 2020) it strikes a happy medium between professional development and public outreach that seems like it could be an answer to the current conundrum.

Job Satisfaction Doesn’t Pay Rent

Having spent much of my career in graduate school deconstructing the methodology and practice of history and, more recently, public history, it is easy to become mired in the theory of the work and to lose sight of its lived realities. Amy Tyson’s The Wages of History gently reminds readers of a concern in the field of public history that I would have thought to be the most obvious, yet had failed to consider entirely: its toll on the workers, particularly frontline interpreters. 

I have worked in customer service my entire adult life and previously understood my career in the historical profession as a sort of respite from retail; a realm comfortably removed from rhetoric of “the customer’s experience” and expectations that I drum up an emotional response for the benefit of strangers. The further I engaged with Tyson’s work, however, the more apparent it became that the gap that I envisioned between public history and retail was the result of my own preconceived notions of the two fields rather than a reflection of reality. Tyson’s descriptions of the emotional labor expected from interpreters in combination with the meagre pay these positions typically offer resonated deeply with my experiences as a sales associate. There is a common language associated with the corporate side of customer service that Tyson speaks fluently, and for those of us seeking to distance themselves from that world, The Wages of History may cause some discomfort. For me, discomfort became something akin to genuine concern as she went on to explain that the personal investment that often comes with interpretive work, an investment that I had regarded as a foregone conclusion, further ties an employee’s sense of self to their cultural institution in a way that makes poor wages and long hours somehow more acceptable. It is a cycle that, once pointed out, seems obvious and I admit to feeling somewhat naive for not realizing it sooner. 

To her credit, Tyson does not leave us without hope. She points to unionization and the value of of interpretation as labor as paths forward, and encourages the inclusion of a range of perspectives in formulating solutions. Yet, knowing that these the pursuit of these paths is a form of labor in and of itself, these possible futures feel like a bit of a cold comfort. There will be a day when I find the mental and emotional energy to continue struggling to answer a seemingly endless list of ethical questions about what it means to practice history and what kind of system I am helping to perpetuate. But, for today, all I can be is tired. 

Deaccessioning Secrecy

Anyone familiar with the work of Dan Brown, of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code fame, knows that the Vatican archives are shrouded in secrecy and layers upon layers of protective and security measures. According to an article in the Washington Post, however, Pope Francis is taking steps to combat this perception. The Pope has formally changed the name of the Vatican archive in order to distance it from the reputation of secrecy and exclusivity that has persisted. The former name of the archive, the “Archivio Segreto Vaticano,” stems from the latin translation of secretum, meaning private, but the common connotations have been with secrecy. The new name, the “Vatican Apostolic Archive,” is meant to convey the accessibility of the archive. The Pope reminded the press in a statement that the Vatican archives have been open to scholars since 1881, and he has personally worked to make the papers of Pope Pius XII accessible ahead of schedule, as early as March 2020.
That said, access to the archives still requires a thorough vetting process. As of the time of the name change, only an estimated 1,500 people make use of the archive annually. Additionally, because there is no publicly accessible finding aid, even researchers who gain access to the archive are limited in what they can request to view. While the decision to change the name of the archive appears to be an act of good faith on the part of the Pope, it is worth asking how far changing the name goes in actually increasing the accessibility of the archive rather than just its public perception.

The 5% of Records Management

Most records management best practices estimate that only 5% of the total amount of material created by an organization is worth archiving as permanent records. While that may seem like an incredibly small number, when one considers how many duplicates are created and how many versions of the same regulations are circulated, it becomes less surprising that such a daunting mass of material can be whittled down fairly quickly. However, the 5% standard is by no means universal. The United States Coast Guard keeps nearly 25% of their material as permanent records, though their website does not make it immediately clear what their policies and procedures are with respect to records management and whether or not those policies are as efficient as they could be. 

Ultimately, the volume that is retained or destroyed is determined by an organization’s records management system. Organizations that design their document creation process with records management in mind frequently have a much easier time determining what is to be retained and what should be held temporarily or destroyed. The three-tiered approach described by Marty Heinrich and Tim Shinkle is an example of a creation process that all members of an organization participate in, whether they are familiar with records management as a concept or not. By crafting a system that does the majority of work on the front end, the later work of making decisions about what is to be done with a document becomes not only easier, but more secure from a legal standpoint. Records management is not glamorous work, but it is essential at all levels of organization, from private, small businesses to the federal government. And for the layperson, understanding the importance of these policies and how they function allows one to recognize when an organization or individual has intentionally tried to hide records and when they were simply following established procedure. If the standard of 5% was more commonly known, it would become much more difficult to create a news story from a deleted email or destroyed document.

A Timely Reminder

While reading Cathy Stanton’s The Lowell Experiment, I saw many of the same feelings of frustration and concern that I have experienced over the last few months echoed on those pages. She criticizes programming in Lowell for its lack of reflection, its unwillingness to engage with the present as well as the past, and to ask hard questions of its visitors. As I grappled with my own questions of gentrification, narrative, and ownership of history, it felt as though Stanton had put my internal conflict into words, and seeing it on paper only served to reinforce my feelings about the inherently contradictory nature of many public history projects. That is, until the epilogue. 
Stanton does what few historians are willing to do: she admits she was wrong. She is even glad of it. The Boott Mill exhibit defies her expectations, engaging visitors in difficult conversations and encouraging them to think critically about capitalism, labor, and their own role in an increasingly globalized society. She celebrates this, even as she professes her own surprise at the outcome. This frankness is a breath of fresh air in a number of ways. It reminds readers that it is okay to be wrong, that it is essential to refining our interpretations and conclusions. But, maybe more importantly in this case, it is proof that, in spite of our cynicism towards the profession, (well deserved as it may be) things can get better. People can continue to surprise us, and it is those rare instances of triumph that motivate me to continue this work.

Digitization on the Large Scale

The digitization of archives is a resource heavy endeavor. Not only does it require the human labor to perform the process of digitization, but it also requires the money to fund the labor and pay for the equipment and space to store the finished project. When taking into account all the steps of the project, it becomes rapidly apparent that this is no easy task. 

So, when Jisc (a source of technology for research and education) and Wiley (a publisher) announced their intent to team up to digitize a million-page archive of scientific history belonging to the British Science Association, the question of how  should be among the first to be asked. This question becomes even more pressing when the project invited British universities to include their own materials in the collection. Though the invitation is claimed to be “ the first time universities have been given the opportunity to influence what material is digitized by a commercial publisher” there is precious little information readily available about the process and how the project will be funded. A call for interest released by the project reassures prospective universities that the digitization will be at no cost to them, and invites them to participate in their test of a “new approach” to creating history.

 Finally, the partnership claims that the digital archive will be freely accessible, initially only to universities in the United Kingdom, but eventually to everyone. This commitment to user access is commendable, but leaves me anxious. The project rings as “too good to be true,” though that may be my own suspicions at work, but I have a hard time believing that such an enormous endeavor can be undertaken entirely altruistically. The project is set for online publication in March of 2020 and I am more than happy to be proven wrong.

Preservation and Community

 In the conclusion to his book Beyond Preservation Andrew Hurley provides public historians with a road map of how to use use public history projects to revitalize urban communities without resulting in the eviction of the current inhabitants. As part of a larger plan, he emphasizes the importance of involving the community in the project and ensuring that those living in the neighborhoods in question are able to contribute to and take ownership in the future of the project. 

While this methodology is worth keeping in mind for any historical work, it must be applied differently to public history projects in which the community has already undergone gentrification. The concern towards ensuring that current inhabitants are not priced out of their “revitalized neighborhood” is less pressing when those inhabitants are of a wealthy, upper class. Instead, the question becomes how to re-incorporate members of the community who do not fit into that socio-economic status? 

To some degree, the project of mapping the story of Elfreth’s Alley allows us to do just that. Using an interactive, digital map of Philadelphia, we can show users how information about Elfreth’s Alley has been dispersed. By marking the locations of traditional archives, it becomes very apparent how information has been disseminated along formal avenues of power, particularly through universities or other institutes of higher learning. However, these places alone tell only half of the story. The second half must be told by the community. By allowing residents to map their own deposits of knowledge, including oral histories, family records, and community or personal archives, claim to ownership of the history of Elfreth’s Alley becomes attainable, even to those who don’t live there. In this way it is possible to reverse engineer Hurley’s strategy to preserve without gentrifying, instead using preservation and historicization to, in some small way, reverse the process of gentrification, if only on paper.

Ethics in the Archive

How do archives determine what to do with material that was acquired by force or was stolen? In recent years, the general best practice is to return the material to its legal owner, frequently at a loss to the archive. But, is there any situation in which it is acceptable for the materials to remain in the archive?

An article published in March of 2019 outlines the story of Bulgarian archival materials that had been seized by the Soviet Union and brought to Moscow in 1944. After being questioned in 2009 regarding the return of those materials to Bulgarian archives, the official stance of the Russian government is that, while Bulgarian researchers have access to the records in Moscow, Russia cannot return the materials based on a law passed in 1998 regarding public material acquired by the Soviet Union during World War II. The article then goes on to explain that, while it is true that Bulgarian researchers have access to the archives in Moscow, the cost of reaching the archive and making copies of records is prohibitive to the point of restriction. Additionally, the records were acquired and continue to be held in violation of international law that prohibits wartime damage to or theft from religious, charitable, and academic institutions. 

But how are the archivists in Moscow supposed to proceed? Even if they feel that withholding the record from Bulgaria is unethical, they are still beholden to the law. In this case, however, state law is in direct contradiction with international law. This leaves the archivists responsible for maintaining the Bulgarian collection in Moscow in an untenable position, one that does not seem likely to change in the coming years.

Tension and Trust: Challenging Visitor Expectations in Museums

What do museums owe their visitors? What is the understood relationship between a museum and those that pass through its doors? If Ken Yellis’ piece “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me” is anything to go by, both those working in museums and those attending them have been unable to agree on an answer to either question. On the one hand, those working in museums face an incredible amount of tension between catering to the visitor and challenging their preconceptions in order to impart information. On the other, visitors come bringing expectations of what a museum is and they experience what feels like a breach in trust when those expectations are not met. Is it possible to reconcile these two realities, particularly given the fact that most museums rely on public goodwill, if not public funding, to exist? 

These questions are particularly relevant when considering the future of Elfreth’s Alley. The Alley’s reputation as a “the oldest continuously populated street” as well as its association with a very specific colonial aesthetic means that visitors come carrying a particular set of expectations. Should their experience not meet those expectations, or worse, challenge them, I don’t think it would be particularly surprising if they reacted with the same anger described by Yellis. Yet that does not mean museums are doomed to fail, or to regurgitate the same narratives year after year. Yellis points the way forward, “We can start by thinking long and hard about who we are supposed to be in this moment. When we know, it will be clear how we should act.” Easier said than done, to be sure, but at the very least he gives readers an actionable set of instructions and places the power, and the responsibility, directly in the hands of museums and the individuals who staff them.