Archives and Manuscripts, Weekly Journal
Final Blog, December 9
My Future and Archives
I have always loved going to archives to find interesting information, unexpected images, and cool stuff in general. After taking this class, impossibly, I love archives even more; to the point where I feel brave enough to enter the more intimidating archives of which I know: the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia City Archives, and maybe someday, the Swedish National Archives, or Riksarkivet.
Going forward, I have a new library of books and articles about archives, most notably is the O’Toole and Cox text Understanding Archives and Manuscripts that grounds me in the fundamentals of archiving practice. Next is Registration Methods for the Small Museum and Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections that will guide me as I help the board of a small house museum document its forty plus year stewardship of this property. Methods for the Small Museum is like O’Toole and Cox in that it gives theory for devising a registration method for a collection. In Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections, the author offers hands on advice from the start to the finish of an archiving process, everything from first entering the archive and assessing its condition (leaky roof, mold, vermin, jumbled or reasonably ordered, and so on) to writing grants to secure funds for the preservation of a collection, to learning from inevitable mistakes. I obtained copies of Methods and Managing through Temple’s inter-library loan and like the books so much, I am buying copies for my own library. In Managing, the author suggests another valuable book focused on caring for a small, previously unmanaged collection:
Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation, by Cinnamon Catlin-Leguto and Stacy Klinger
Many of the articles about archival theory, methods, and practice we read for the class were interesting, but one stands out for me as the confluence of my greatest interests in history, and historiography, and the formation (prediction, if you will) of future archival vision:
Terry Cook “What’s Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift,” in Archivaria, Spring 1997
This is an article I have already re-read once, and will likely read again until I not only have it memorized, but I’ll also fully comprehend the authors final two assertions about ‘past and prologue’ of archival theory that create the future of this practice. I am fascinated by “the evolution of archives over the last one hundred years,” and this article has already inspired me to purchase yet another book for my library: Samuel Muller’s edition of the Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives, a text I can read to understand the earliest contributions of Dutch archivists in the form of a series of articulated rules defining the “nature and the treatment of archives.” (Past is Prologue) For now, however, I rely on Cook’s thorough article for the historiography of archival thought, an evolution that follows major trends in mainstream historiography, but through terms particular to archival theory and practice.
Refreshingly, “Past is Prologue” accesses the maintenance of electronic – or machine readable — digital records as a forty year necessity, and not a recent need that helps somewhat to make this longer term task seem less immediate and daunting. However, I will need to revisit Cook’s two main categories of conclusions (“what is the past that forms our prologue” and “what is the prologue from our past”) especially now that I have finished the course and have embarked on two small archiving projects of my own. I will be interested to see how Cook’s theories compare to the practice in which I recently engaged.
Catlin-Legutko, Cinnamon and Klinger, Stacy. Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation. (Book 6, Small Museum Toolkit Series, AltaMira Press, Lanham, MD, 2012)
Cook, Terry. “What’s Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift,” in Archivaria, the journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists, 43, Spring, 1997. (http://www.mybestdocs.com/cookt-pastprologue-ar43fnl.htm) Accessed, 12/8/16.
Kipp, Angela. Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections; A Practical Guide for Museums (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2016)
O’Toole, James and Cox, Richard. Understanding Archives and Manuscripts (Archival Fundamentals Series II, Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 2006)
Reibel, Daniel. Registration Methods for the Small Museum, 4th Edition (AltaMira Press, Lanham, MD, 2009)
Special Entry: Swedish Cabin and Friends of the Swedish Cabin Archive Taking Shape
Our new president of the Friends of the Swedish Cabin (FSC) returned my recent e-mail, and agrees that having a written policy will be helpful going forward, and may encourage others to come forth with items that need to be retained. He also agreed that the Friends of the Swedish Cabin should re-inventory a collection of archaeological specimens currently housed at Collenbrook, that haven’t been looked at in years.
From a book I am reading for my final paper for Archives and Manuscripts, titled Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections, A practical guide For Museums by Angela Kipp, I have a good idea what to do when confronted by the items at Collenbrook. I will consider this visit my first glimpse of the collection, and according to Kipp, I should access the physical conditions in which the items are stored. Additionally, I should only take photographs and touch nothing, and approach these things like an archaeologist as “some items might have a connection to each other that is easily destroyed by moving them; some might be damaged because of poor storage.” (Kipp, p. 16) More to the point, I must be careful to not change the original order by rifling through these things. (Ibid) Also, I plan to at least bring nitrile gloves and a mask, in case there is dust and chemicals about.
Our president let me know that there will be challenges finding cabin FSC materials, as the older members who have pictures, minutes, and legal documents have passed on and the board hasn’t had much luck recovering anything from their families. FSC doesn’t currently have minutes from the beginning of the organization, and there is a set of slides somewhere out there in the world (location is approximately known) that were taken of the cabin’s entire rebuild from the foundation to the shingle roof. These images are my new ‘holy grail.’
I am hopeful that with the help of our FSC board, I will be able to contact the families of members to find archive-able materials. My hope is that the board and I can influence folks with a good plan, my title ‘Professor,’ and the fact that I’m getting my MA in History at Temple University. I hope to start with a well written letter I will run by the president first, requesting materials. The list of things we will seek is pretty standard in the archiving world.
Kipp, Angela. Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections, A practical guide For Museums. (Rowman and Littlefield, New York, 2016)
Special Entry: Towards a new Acquisitions Policy
In a recent communication with the new president of Friends of the Swedish Cabin, I initiated the process for creating an Acquisitions Policy that would allow the organization to archive materials relevant to the history of the Swedish Cabin, and to this Friends group founded to maintain the little building and promote its history.
I asked the president to think about the things he would like to have archived. I suggested a collection of cabin artifacts from an archaeological dig should be cataloged in more detail. When gathering documents, I asked the president to consider including documentation that tells the story of both the cabin and the Friends of the Swedish Cabin. Also, I asked him to go only as far as getting boxes of papers from people, and resisting the temptation to go through them before having an acquisitions policy in place. From our last meeting, I’m thinking he and the other board members could collect:
• Correspondence about the cabin
• Relevant collections of significant photographs and other papers from past board members and organization members. Papers could include board meeting minutes, fliers, membership lists, newsletters, project budgets, and supporting documentation for cabin maintenance and landscaping. Deeds, if there are any.
• I also asked for documents associated with the founding of the Friends of the Swedish Cabin, the effort to gain PHMC recognition, the grants to restore and maintain the cabin over the years, the grant to have the landscape around the cabin changed to divert water away from the building, grants to build the smokehouse, create trails, plant memorial trees, and so on.
• Documents that show the relationship with the Township and other organizations.
• Any rare books or pamphlets or special publications featuring the cabin.
I asked that once all this material is gathered, board members can consider it in total — without going through it yet, and decide what the acquisitions policy should be. I will go to the Cabin “Trim-a-Tree” party this coming Sunday and hopefully have a chance to discuss this in person with the new president.
Creating an Archive of my Personal Papers, the First Cut
I spent several hours last week opening old storage boxes that had not been touched in fifteen years. The passage of time, and what I have been learning recently, allowed me to view the material as just that – material, some of which could stay, most of which could go.
I am hopeful my decisions were educated ones. I removed personal data such as outdated financial records, but I kept personal material such as entire folders marked “Correspondence,” that included letters from friends. As I culled and kept materials, I made mental notes that I later wrote down, such as ‘put all the correspondence in one box, order by year but separate by decade,’ or ‘go back later and take out all the birthday and holiday cards.’ I understand these notes are the beginning of a finding aid.
I am also aware that in going through these materials (which I reduced considerably), I developed something of a collection policy, albeit one that is more based on what I want to toss as opposed to what I want to keep. Here is what was discarded:
• Multiple copies of drafts of two novels I wrote but never published. Of the second novel, I kept one copy of the more important drafts including draft one, four, seven, and nine. These drafts were the ones where I made the greatest changes to the work.
• Xerox copies of general genealogical research I did over 20 years ago that went nowhere, means nothing to me now, and I can find better information online today. Xerox copies of research articles and book chapters for unfinished projects; and early downloaded copies of articles from the internet of dubious quality that I used for dubious research.
• Old newspapers and magazines with articles that interested me at one time.
• Queries for presses when I was looking for publishers for my work. I hesitated to keep or toss the file of rejection letters, and then I let them go.
• Old financial and health records – all shredded before being discarded.
What I kept:
• Tidy notebooks of drafts of published short stories where I honed my craft of writing. I kept two drafts of the final collection, never published as a collection as I had hoped.
• Transcripts of interviews that were published.
• Acceptance letters for my published work. Acceptance letters for jobs to which I applied.
It was easy to quickly evaluate the material because I remembered it all and understood how it fit into my work. Because my family is small and diffuse, I don’t care a whit about ‘legacy,’ and I could especially care less about being open with my life choices, political, and religious beliefs.
I have one regret — that I re-read some of the letters from a close friend who died in 2002, who I didn’t know died (his family didn’t bother to contact me) until ten years later. The letters were from 8 years before his death and captured a moment in time when we were on separate trajectories in life, blissfully unaware of much else other than that which we wanted to achieve. The touching and sad part of this was how close we were, and how despite our distance and separation, we were still supporting each other as best we could given our circumstances.
Mistakes? Perhaps this:
• I tossed out as many old folders and boxes as I could and put the materials into two boxes. In reducing the size of the correspondence files, I put all the letters into a couple of large files and kept every scrap – figuring I could sort though the mess later.
I am glad to sort through this stuff and leave less of a mess for someone who might happen across it all after I’m gone. As I have said before, they will read a finding aid and sort through an orderly arrangement – warts, secrets, bad decisions and good, and all – and decide to keep it all or load it onto the back of a trash truck. It’s my ‘note in a bottle’ tossed into the ocean of time.
This is also a good exercise that is preparing me for the task of creating an archive of materials for the Swedish Cabin, in Darby PA. This past November 15, I was elected to the board of this cabin and the new president, David Anderson (The Tall, also elected at the last meeting) knows I am interested in taking on this task. In fact, this past summer – during a pleasant summer’s afternoon conversation at the cabin — he suggested the creation of this archive as something that needed to be done. At that time, I told him I was not prepared to do this. Today, I don’t feel quite so lost.
Our first step, this week, meet to begin drafting a collection policy, but more on this in a future post. I get a huge kick out of working with this group of folks, and I am hopeful I can do a good job for them.
This is what I tossed out, personally the next day, loading half of it on the city recycling truck myself:
November 11, 2016
Archiving a Moment in Time
Last night, I spent four hours traipsing the streets of downtown Philadelphia, surrounded by a few thousand fellow residents as we protested the shocking results of the 2016 Presidential election. This was the second night of protests, and tonight, the protests continue.
I was accompanied by a fellow history graduate student whose specialty is Digital History. As we marched with the group from the Municipal Services building, down JFK Boulevard to 30th Street Station, my friend and I discussed how we might document this protest as one of a series that began, really, in the fall of 2008 as the Occupy Philadelphia movement. The movement has since evolved to include Black Lives Matter protests, The Baltimore Uprising of 2015, as well as this week’s nationwide election protests. This movement to take to the streets isn’t going away anytime soon, and it’s anyone’s guess as to where it will lead.
As we marched, we self consciously recorded images of protest posters, the size of the crowd, general sounds and particular chants, law enforcement presence, and moments of an impromptu drumming concert held beneath the portico of 30th Street Station. I have a small collection of images from this event.
Today, I wrote down additional elements that could be collected and preserved to try to recreate a fuller presence of this event:
- Short digital clips of: the crowd gathering, the beginning of the march, the size of the crowd as it moved down JFK Boulevard, the arrival of the police, the music and drumming at 30th Station, the eventual end of this part of the protest (another protest started back on Broad Street as ours died down).
- Had my friend and I recorded interviews with marchers, we might have collected some oral history of participants.
- Had we written down our experience afterwards, we could provide a first-hand recollection.
- This particular gathering was called together using Facebook, so that page should be somehow preserved but I’m not sure how to do that other than to take screen shots, or copy and paste text from this feed.
- Secondary sources should include articles and news reports of the Philadelphia protest, so viewers can see the dissonance between what happened and what the media said happened.
Oh, and there is the midnight tweet:
“Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!” (Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2016)
To which I say this:
All of this could be brought together as an open, interactive online archive for people to view and augment with their own materials. I suggest this archived moment become one of many moments that could be eventually combined to create a larger archive that documents the evolution of this street protest movement in America.
This wouldn’t be a traditional documentary, however, because it won’t be curated with a particular story arc or narrative holding the elements together.
There is a precedent for our digital documentation idea, known as the shared history website titled, “Preserve The Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project” with the mission to “Preserve the Baltimore Uprising is a digital repository that seeks to preserve and make accessible original content that was captured and created by individual community members, grassroots organizations, and witnesses to the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015.” The site asks people to “Share your stories. Upload photographs. Show us what you’ve seen. Show us the sign you carried. Tell us what you witnessed. When were you there? Where did you stand? Together, we will tell a more complete story.” (Baltimore Uprising, About Us)
USA Today, “Trump calls protests ‘unfair’ in first controversial tweet as president-elect” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2016/11/10/trump-tweet-professional-protesters-media/93624612/
November 3, 2016
Visit to a Philadelphia Archive
I had the pleasure to visit the Heritage Center at The Union League of Philadelphia, and speak with archivist Theresa Altieri who gave me a generous and thorough tour of the compact, state of the art archival space that houses 4 collections:
• The Union League Archives
• MOLLUS and DOLLUS Records
• Papers from The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
• The Torresdale-Frankford Country Club Collection
These collections are managed by The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of The Union League of Philadelphia (ALF). The ALF is housed in the Heritage Center, located on the ground floor of The Union League.
Managing Collection Growth:
According to Ms. Altieri, the ALF was lucky because they were given the opportunity to design their vault according to their needs, as part of the 2013 renovation of the kitchen and ballroom at the Union League. MOLLUS/DOLLUS, and The Civil War Museum collections will not increase, however, Union League and Torreasdale/Frankfort collections are growing. The ALF collects specific records from the Union League (membership magazine, annual reports, board minutes) that will help future archivists and historians reconstruct the history of the League. The Torreasdale/Frankfort Country Club collection is also growing, as ALF staff works with current and past members, and the Frankfort Historical Society, to deepen what is known of the history of this place.
The ALF has begun digitizing their collection and offering it on the Heritage Center website, through their Past Perfect online database that is especially useful for showcasing their art and object collection. The Civil War Museum offers a finding aid for their collection as a downloadable PDF. Additional collection finding aids are in development and will be offered online in the near future.
My interview with Ms. Altieri, combined with the tour of the Union League archive, helped further clarify and cement my understanding of how archives operate – essentially the material we’ve been covering in this class all semester. The compact nature of these collections, combined with the straightforward, thorough, and professional way they are managed through the ALF, has helped make the science of archiving more accessible to me. In short, the Union League collection is a terrific example of a fine archive in Philadelphia that demonstrates best archiving practices.
October 28, 2019
My Personal Archives: from collection policy through a material retention policy
I have 2 main categories of my production that I’ve been accumulating now for close to 30 years: papers and artwork. My papers include my writings (published articles and short stories, unpublished works, research), my professional correspondence, some personal correspondence, and business records. These ‘papers’ are also in various digital formats that will be housed separately from the papers in more climate controlled containers. My artwork includes drawings, prints, paintings, and sculpture as well as sketchbooks. Only in the past 6 months have I decided to get into this stuff and do something with it, cull it, slightly arrange it, and document it in some way to make it more manageable for my future self, or for someone else who is left the task of dealing with it all.
Surprisingly, the passing of my spouse’s parents over 5 years ago did nothing towards getting me to reconsider my accumulating stuff. Rather, it was admission to graduate school, the acquisition of an entirely new library for this work that got this process going. The process has accelerated because I now need the space in my studio to accommodate new activities, and I’m thinking of my future after grad school.
This past Wednesday night — Trash Night in my neighborhood — an opportunity presented itself to me:
So I dragged this home, repaired it, and it is waiting to be moved into my attic. I will transfer some documents (chosen with my newly developed collection and retention policies — a little more on that later) from boxes that have been chewed by squirrels. I will also figure out some way to secure this lid to keep out squirrels and bugs. In this way I can either 1. create a treasure chest of late 20th and early 21st century documents or 2. create a handy trash receptacle that someone can toss in the trash with one good ‘heave ho.’
To begin this archiving process (after I build a stronger floor in the attic and clean the space, then haul the wooden box up there) I will compose a collection policy as well as a material retention list. I will only store papers in this box — likely in archival boxes inside this wooden box — and separate out more delicate materials like photographs, CD’s, 3.5 inch floppy discs, thumb and hard drives that will be stored in a small container, most likely in my studio or office closet. I will make decisions to sample things like drafts of short stories and articles (keep all 10+ drafts, really? How about 3, from the start, middle, and finish of the drafting process), and I’ll toss random articles I copied as research for topics I never developed. I will keep all the personal stuff here: love letters, correspondence with family and friends. I will not cull this material much as I have nothing to hide and about the personal, on some deep level I really don’t care. I will follow my original arrangement, meaning I won’t sort things but I’ll transfer folders from one box to the new in the same filing order. And there it shall all stay. And I’ll keep interesting documents from my varied career such as letters I wrote for jobs I got, or letters I wrote for publishing or other opportunities that worked out. Failed attempts at publishing: only the rejection letters. Failed attempts at employment — best shredded.
When this box is filled, I will create for it a finding aid. Then I will start wishing for, searching for, think of building perhaps another box if need be.
The idea is that someday, some clean out expert (just grab it and toss it) or some archivist or researcher will thank me (long after I have departed this mortal coil).
Who might my future audience be? Could be tunneling rats in a landfill. Or maybe, a descendant who would be interested in knowing what Crazy Aunt Laurie got up to at the turn of the last century, or 200 years ago. In terms of legacy outside of that, I don’t dare say. I honestly don’t think my intellectual or artistic contribution to the world is as yet that significant, or may ever be. But if nothing else, I could be creating a box of interesting stuff that a future Laurel Thatcher Ullrich could use to re-create the context for the life of one 21st century woman who was decidedly not representative of the norm. Or maybe, that idea is my present day conceit, which my box of papers will expose while offering context for a life richly lived, that was somehow wonderfully unexceptional.
Here, I am thinking of a box of photographs I have from my Great Aunt Flora and my Grandmother Fitzpatrick. The images are interesting to me because in them I view times and places foreign to me, yet familiar because my relative is standing there, mugging or looking serious in the midst of a captured moment. I don’t feel nostalgia, but I do miss these people. I also feel grateful for their lives, and I’m glad they had these moments of enjoyment, and that I can in some small way, see them there, in those moments where they had no possible clue I would someday be looking at them in the picture. No one outside my family could have this relationship with these photographs.
And there, I stop with the realization of the fragile quality of not only these images on paper, but my connection — the human connection — to these objects. They must stay with the family and take their chances on the river of time to keep this meaning, lest they wash ashore to be culled, discarded, and lost; lest they get chosen and removed to a wholly alien context of some historian’s research.
Okay, that was just the papers and photographs. When will I ever get to the art?
October 21, 2016
Holding on while letting go: the anxiety of permanence
In the 1989 article “On the Idea of Permanence,” author James O’Toole states that archivists instinctively regard their “collections as … the permanent records of an individual or entity,” and he further asserts that “…the idea of permanence offers nonetheless all the comforts of any absolute.” (O’Toole, pgs. 11-12) O’Toole explains how human record collection evolved from oral culture that maintained records through mnemonic tools, to literacy and its objective methods for recording information, which in our contemporary post modern culture, this objectivity has come into question. (Ibid, p. 14) Still, this idea of the permanence of the written word forms the foundation of archival repositories. (Ibid, p. 14) For example, O’Toole points out how the archival repository, The American Antiquarian Society (established in 1812) announced it “provide[d] a fixed and permanent place of deposit, to preserve such relicks of American antiquity as are portable …” while asserting optimistically that “all things … are in their nature durable, if preserved from casualty and the ravages of time.” (Ibid, p. 15). This statement of purpose was written when carefully preserved human material culture was far closer to the ravages of nature (fire, flood, mold, vermin) than these objects are today. This early vision of permanence reflects an inability to provide protection for cultural treasures. Today, we have greater protections afforded by more advanced preservation technology and methodology that have arisen from our 200 year history of this activity. Still, despite our abundance of safety precautions for valuable things, impermanence haunts our stuff, but more from micro threats such as rough handling and the internal fragility of unstable materials that arises from weak or volatile atomic bonds of the electrons, protons, and neutrons of the object.
Through my artistic practice, I am hyper aware of the minuscule yet pernicious enemy: decay. As an artist, I was trained in the use of archival materials. As a modern American, daily cultural messages remind me to be concerned about invisible threats that can be thwarted by everything from financing my retirement, to preserving the quality of my urban life by opposing XYZ building development down the street, to knowing the local origin of the organic heirloom vegetables I eat.
Also, as an artist, I was trained to use the best materials I can afford, and employ sound art manufacturing practices. As a print maker I developed a nearly unhealthy obsession with fine paper, in that lesser paper was somehow ‘unclean’ and it spoiled my enjoyment of that particular artistic production. Also, better paper tended to be more expensive, which created deprivation and sometimes debt. The worst product of my archival obsession was – once the work was finished – I had only a few copies (even though crazily I had 10 or more) and the preciousness of the materials plus my great care in producing the work inspired me to archive my prints in portfolios.
I now have 4 large portfolios stuffed with old lithographs, weighing over a hundred pounds with the cubic size of half a kitchen table, occupying a significant portion of my studio — pretty much forever I guess.
According to O’Toole, throughout the 1970’s, a post-modern “preservation apocalypticism set in,” as conservators and archivists began to understand the magnitude of their preservation problem that was soon complicated by the introduction of digital technologies with their own preservation needs (storing computer based magnetic tapes and disks). (Ibid, p. 20-21) O’Toole noted how archival repositories retreated from the absolute insistence physical permanence in archival practice to embrace instead “appraisal and preservation in much more relative terms” that is driven by new “a renewed consideration of intrinsic value.” (Ibid, pgs. 21-22) We seem to be hopelessly mired in a dystopian idea of an archive without permanence which seems complicated by the mixed promise of digital technology (it creates as much as it preserves, and it’s still unstable and expensive).
Digital preservation through large-scale digitization initiatives (LSDIs) offers interrelated access and preservation goals as it creates “access to scholarly materials [that] depends upon their being fit for use over time.” This first implies the creation of digital surrogates that are used instead of their material counterparts which are then rarely touched and thus further protected from decay introduced by human use. (Reiger, p. 1) However, it is a mistake to assume the term “digital preservation” can be reliably interchanged with the term “archiving.” Although these “terms refer to a range of managed activities to support the long-term maintenance of bitstreams to make sure that digital objects are usable,” as digital preservation protects but does not absolutely preserve the material object, likewise digital preservation does not yet protect itself. (Ibid, page 3)
A few years ago, I opened one of my print portfolios and found that prints from 30 years ago that look as fresh as if I had made them yesterday. But this is their condition during my lifetime. I have no way to know what condition they will be in 200 years from now, if they are around at all. Thus, by my selfish act of accumulating my own production, I understand my desire for permanence as ridiculous. And this knowledge has become the greatest impetus for selling my art because now I know that: 1) people should be allowed to enjoy the work today as well as in mu imagined, vague ‘whenever’ future, and 2) work that gets out of my studio has the same odds of being preserved.
O’Toole’s observations about the decline of archival permanence bring to mind two fictions about how we are able to consider objects from the past:
False: the way things come down to us is not random but wholly systematic – think of Viking silver hoards that we have today because of the accident of their preservation (the person who buried the hoard likely died and took the secret of the location with them to their grave). Because:
False: the fastidious accumulation of material objects is normal and expected, and thus critical to our well being – consider how our act of saving large amounts of objects, then privileging some as important then restricting access creates the illusion that we can and should have such access, and thus contemplating a world without such access creates anxiety.
Should we get rid of archives altogether (um … no), or more to the point, how should we deal with accumulations of stuff that need to be preserved? There will always be a need for the selective preservation of both material and digital objects, but I’m thinking of an archival methodology that considers sustainable practices (costs, community interest in preservation), perhaps a hybrid model that is digital and decentralized, with small, locally repositories that are managed through standard practices but are scattered across America. In the way Ikea created cheap and portable housing for refugees, maybe archival pods with standardized collection and appraisal functions, and standard preservation features could be developed for small American institutions?
O’Toole, James. “On the Idea of Permanence,” in American Archivist, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Winter, 1989), pp. 10-25.
Oya Y. Rieger, “Preservation in the Age of Large-Scale Digitization,” from the Council on Library and Information Resources, February 2008, (http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/reports/pub141/pub141.pdf) Accessed 5/23/16.
October 14, 2016
Chapter 5 in Cox and O’Toole offers me the most interesting arguments of this book because this chapter examines a topic about which I am most anxious: archiving in our “post-modern” era, where we are floating in a sea of digital information around neatly maintained islands constructed of centuries of books, documents, objects and ephemera from our material past. Herein lurks my fascination with the archivist’s problem, as stated by Cox and O’Toole, “Postmodernism… has certainly influenced the ways in which cultural objects are identified, chosen for long-term maintenance, and interpreted over time.” (Cox and O’Toole, p. 134) The writers accept the unsustainable nature of the archival project as, “objective, neutral, passive … keeper[s] of truth,” while accepting the lessons of postmodern historical scholarship that asserts archives are essentially biased by virtue of their creators who selected and arranged the materials they house. (Ibid) I’m actually pleased with the new postmodern archival spirit of admitting new voices or creating greater transparency through accessibility, but I am anxious about what the archivist must do with all this new digital stuff that is accumulating globally, minute by minute.
And this is why I find sanctuary in our local, messy little community archives because the information they curate connects to simpler times in terms of material culture, when there were physically fewer people who had less stuff. However, thanks to our postmodern perspective on archives and the information they curate, contemporary researchers can know that these past lives were no less difficult than our own. So weirdly, for me its not so much about the romance of examining a 3oo year old handwritten document, but relief I feel from the fact that I need to consider less actual stuff.
A few years back, I recall hearing something along the line that there were more images created of President Obama in one week than there were of President Kennedy during his entire presidency. I looked for that quote (couldn’t find it) but located instead information about the history of White House photographers that offers a more detailed view of this assertion, and backs it up. Cecil Stoughton was the first official White House photographer, and during his tenure as Kennedy’s photographer, he shot around 12,000 negatives of the President. (Profiles) This was the day of cameras and film and darkrooms, and in today’s world of digital images that use a computer, special software and nice printers, image production has increased exponentially. President Obama’s official White House photographer, Pete Souza, has estimated that he will have created nearly 2 million images of Obama during his eight years in office. (Cade) If my math is correct (Kennedy had 4000 images made per year he was in office, and Obama had 250,000) represents an approximate 812.75% increase in the amount of images generated by a White House photographer from 1963 until 2016.
According to Cox and O’Toole, this increase in digital stuff has created the need to think of the archiving process as taking place during “Internet time,” as opposed to our normal daily experience of time in which the archivist processes non-digital materials. But I don’t think of this as time speeding up or down, but as the volume of information increasing. And in terms of time (which can equal money or resource allocation) the digital archivist will need to draw upon digital tools to quickly process these new massive collections of digital material. I can admit that in my research, I both add to and take advantage of this ‘digital’ problem: I generate images of objects while taking high definition digital images of archived objects with my phone – because it is both convenient and inexpensive. However, the increase in the amount of stuff, of digital stuff, is a matter of technology and not necessarily a product of post modernity, although it presents a funny little physical yet non physical condition to which we must adapt. The post modern problem for archivists of digital stuff lies in their long standing method for deciding what information is worth preserving, and what information can be discarded. And here, digital information poses two problems for archivists:
• Because digital information is cheap and easy to produce in abundance, there might be the perception that this information is dismissible
• Because digital information is massive, how can the archivist know or sometimes even find the best information for preservation
Understanding the importance of the sheer amount of digital stuff that is worthy of archiving creates interesting new problems. However, the problem of processing this digital stuff is still seated firmly in the need for archivists to make ethical preservation decisions, albeit governed more by laws and regulations than increased accessibility (as threatening and irritating as this might be) that is a feature of the Internet.
But let’s pause here to compare the material object with its doppelganger, the digital incarnation of that object, or the digital object in and of itself. As I stated in another recent blog:
“Objects [are] saved because they [evoke] feelings in the people who preserved them. But these [aren’t] concrete, feelings about specific people or events, but instead a general sense of having experienced something important, of having lived through something, and to ‘lose the feeling’ could mean you were losing something of yourself. In this way, the object becomes a surrogate for the moment that has passed, and with it, any attendant emotions and physical sensations.” (Fitzpatrick)
In this context, I was reflecting on objects such a diary and a musical instrument that followed its owner through World War 1. So to entirely sidestep arguments that tie the value of digital information to current trends in producing websites that celebrate “American Memory,” I go straight for the digital object as something with the same sense of presence as a material object. (Cox, O’Toole, p. 144) For the digital archivist, I wonder if there is already an attachment to older forms of digital collection devices and the digital information they produce. To me, personally, this might not be as romantic as a seventeenth century handwritten document, but to a digital archivist of the future, who knows? Just the way we enjoy tin type photographs, future digital archivist might really enjoy the crude digital productions of the turn of the twenty first century and uphold them as romantic and quaint, and most important, worthy of exhibition as part of their interpretation.
Cox, James M. O’Toole and Richard J. Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006.
Biographical Profiles: Cecil Stoughton (https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/Biographies-and-Profiles/Cecil-Stoughton.aspx), Accessed October 14, 2016.
Cade, DL, 2 Million Photos in 8 Years: Pete Souza on Photographing President Obama. (http://petapixel.com/2016/06/16/11-years-2-million-photos/ ), Accessed October 14, 2016.
Fitzpatrick, Laurie. Blog: New Sweden in America, 2016, Readings in Managing History, Fall 2016. “U.S.S. Olympia Label.” (https://sites.temple.edu/lauriefitzpatrickhistoryma/readings-in-archives-and-manuscripts/), Accessed, October 14, 2016.
October 7, 2016
“I have always depended upon the kindness of archivists…”
My archival adventures of the past two days only reinforces why I love archivists and the archives they manage, but also why I love the study of history. I understand that historians and archivists are kindred spirits, and I for one am grateful our society has the good sense to pay someone to curate and care for the information (objects such as books, photographs, and papers, digital records, film, maps, and so on) generated by our culture. For without access to this information, we as a society would be left utterly vulnerable to more powerful forces who would rewrite history to suit their needs.
Yesterday I contacted the archivist at the Independence Seaport Museum, Terry, and asked her If I could possibly get copies of two diaries of World War I sailors who served on board the U.S.S. Olympia. Not only was I grateful that she had the time to make copies of these diaries (her time + copy expense), but we arrived at a deadline of this Tuesday when I could pick up the documents. I received a phone message later that day, letting me know the documents would be ready sooner, and this morning I had these diaries in my hands.
In addition to the two full service diaries, Terry gave me an excerpt from one of the sailor’s accounts of his war experience that he had recomposed sometime after he had left the Navy, a neatly typed manuscript aptly titled, “My Life.”
In both diaries, I have met young Midwestern men who were secreting thoughts to imagined audiences – their sweethearts or mothers who were back in the United States – during private moments on a crowded naval vessel engaged in active duty overseas. The Olympia was an older, Victorian era naval vessel, and this crew deployed near the end of World War 1. Her mission was largely a humanitarian one. During the time documented in these diaries, these men faced foul weather, hostile and friendly Europeans, awful food (when the cook ran short of supplies), tedious ship maintenance duties, the occasional sighting of the enemy, and a brief outbreak of the Spanish Flu on board the ship. The writing in both diaries is surprisingly touching. For example, when describing the Orkney Islands, Lloyd “Cranky” O’Kelly observed, “I think that the condition under which those people lived is the best demonstrated of the loving kindness of God that I can think of.” (My Life, p. 31)
Although my focus is on the flu outbreak on board the U.S.S. Olympia from February 10 through March 1, 1919, I can observe the event from two perspectives: the dutiful, almost daily yet brief notes of Marvin Rosefeld Keck — a Navy musician who recorded a few names and occupations of his more familiar crew mates who got sick at the beginning of the outbreak; Cranky O’Kelly, one of the ship’s electricians, expressed early concern over getting sick, noted a few individuals who got sick or died and corroborated Keck’s observations. But more interestingly, he reported that by the end of February, 58 men were sick with the flu. Both men wrote of this epidemic in passing, as it intruded into their daily life aboard ship but did not overwhelm it. They had too many other duties that demanded their attention.
From reading these diaries in their entirety, I understood who their audiences were: Keck was given his diaries by his future wife, Rose Nelson; O’Kelly first wrote to his “Bluebird Trio” of Gyp, Pig, and Pinkie, then later to “Diary” he imagined would be read by his main sweet heart Jessie Lee and his mother (O’Kelly, Book 2, page 49). I also came to understand that the flu outbreak, while concerning enough to write about in the limited space of these tiny books during rare private moments, nonetheless was an event that did not overwhelm these men.
Lloyd “Cranky” O’Kelly, Excerpt from My Life, pages 25 through 44, November 1914 through October 1919. Independence Seaport Museum Archive, Philadelphia, PA.
Marvin Rosefeld Keck, USN, Gibralter Naval Base #9 and U.S.S. Olympia, World War I Diaries. Independence Seaport Museum Archive, Philadelphia, PA.
Lloyd “Cranky” O’Kelly, Shipboard Diary of Lloyd Thomas O’Kelly, Electrician, U.S.S. Olympia, Books 1 and 2. Independence Seaport Museum Archive, Philadelphia, PA.
October 2, 2016
This week I attended two lectures at Temple by Dr. Mireya Loza, the curator in the Division of Political History at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. She is the author of the 2016 book, Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political Freedom, which documents the experience of Mexican guest workers who were brought into the United States legally from 1942 until 1964. Dr. Loza’s work was of particular interest to me because I recognized her work as a social history curator, she had by virtue of her research also become a digital archivist.
She spoke of her archiving activity in a way to which I could identify: in the Mexican villages she visited, she solicited from her subjects any oral histories, documents, and objects they wanted to contribute. She collected all these materials digitally: the oral histories were as recorded conversations, and the documents and objects were scanned. Very nearly all the objects remained with their owners, but their digital versions are now housed in the Smithsonian’s collection as the form the basis of Dr. Loza’a Bracero History Archive: http://braceroarchive.org/
This archive has become the basis of her recent book, Defiant Braceros, but it is also the “backbone” if you will for what she described in Friday’s lecture as a series of small exhibitions that were held in the American Southwest and Northeast. In the small Southwestern exhibitions, one time Braceros and their descendents celebrated this history as a story of uplift and contributed by loaning objects to the exhibitions. Likewise, when the exhibition ended, the physical objects remained with their owners, while their digital copies might be incorporated into Dr. Loza’s growing archive. In other words, Dr. Loza collects objects in the same way she collects oral history, digitally, and in that way, as stories.
Dr. Loza’s object collection follows the trajectory of her oral history work, and it creates clarity about how digital archiving can bring value to historical work. Her digital collection of objects isn’t so much about saving time, space, or precious institutional funding (transport, insurance, preservation, security) as all these commitments are likely diverted into the digital collection enterprise. But rather, Dr. Loza’s collection of objects as stories, bring levels of multivalence offered by new freedoms and restrictions on the digital objects bestowed by virtue of their collection method. Because the objects are digital:
- Their originals remain in their contexts, so this history can better resist the decontextualization and subsequent recontextualization of the collector/curator
- The digital copies are more widely available to a range of historians and folks interested in this history
- Each digital object is its own museum (with its full context referenced and attached) that is easily inserted into new exhibits, thus increasing their richness as cultural objects
September 28, 2016
The more I get into this class, the more I feel a certain anxiety about archives that is increasingly focused on what I have come to know as appraisal and description of collections. With appraisal, one faces the terrible decision of what to preserve and what to reject. I visited an archive this week where the director characterized this as process of choosing (rather dramatically) as the “house is burning, grab what you can save” rule. I have a personal experience with this where a local house museum has a series of artifacts from an archaeological dig that took place on the premises. A well meaning historical expert advised them to keep the items that support the founder myths surrounding the place, and discard the objects that tell the subsequent history of the house as part of an industrial complex. Luckily for me, the group never got around to throwing away these items. I can now approach these items with an eye toward sampling some of these objects. In other words, why keep 1,000 unfinished buttons but instead keep a representative sample.
A member of this group has loaned me a series of research materials he used to create his interpretive history of the little house museum, as well as several binders of photographs that rather touchingly show him and members of the non-profit as they sharing the history of the place with others in the form of events and reenactments. My urge is to describe these materials as a recent use in a series of uses for this house museum. As I think of my description, I consider the current, digitally enhanced interpretations of the historic little house. Part of this involvement of the digital (imaging, web presence, relevant articles searched and downloaded online) is a new use of volunteer time. Not too long ago folks held peas soup dinners and decorated Christmas trees in the little place.
And this brings me to my second anxiety about archiving: good description. O’Toole’s definition of description sets a high bar for me as the setting down on paper (or some other media) the archivist’s activity, extracted from their head and recorded as a finding aid that makes the material available to a user. (O’Toole, p. 123) A well pruned and described collection is as much an historical work as any book.
Members of the house museum have hinted around a bit that they want to create an archive. At this point I feel that the more I know about archives, the less I really know about archives. It’s as simple as that. What I am learning in this class is purely academic, and it won’t equip me for this job. I need to devote some time working in an archive with a professional archivist before I can begin to entertain the idea of this project.
Cox, James M. O’Toole and Richard J. Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006.
September 21, 2016
As this course develops, I move further away from my indistinct idea of an archive as a repository of important (to someone) documents, photographs, maps, and so on, towards an archive as an expression of values (of a well-trained archivist) applied to caches of significant information. According to O’Toole, in addition to arranging the objects of their work, or ‘the record,’ archivists “place a special set of values on their work that distinguishes them from records creators and users.” (O’Toole, p. 111) This statement clarifies for me another responsibility of an archivist which is to first competently evaluate the records, and then second make this material available for use in ways that protect privacy but do not censor the records in their care.
Historical knowledge informs the values of an archivist, and I was surprised that it had never occurred to me that the process of archiving has an intellectual history of its own. Of this past week’s readings, I was most engaged by the evolution of thinking about archiving I learned in Terry Cook’s Spring 1997 article in Archiveria, volume 43,“What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.” By examining the evolution of archives, the author asks, “upon what basis, reflecting what shifting values, have archivists decided who should be admitted into their houses of memory, and who excluded?” (Cook, p. 19) Cook begins this history with a review of the 1898 Dutch Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives, which immediately brought to my mind Ann Stoler’s 2009 book, Along the Archival Grain, which was an examination of Dutch colonial power and governance through a novel reading of materials from Dutch colonial archives, caches of information recorded and stored according to precepts outlined in the Dutch Manual. Stoler’s thesis demonstrates how – despite the built in bias of an archiving scheme of the Dutch Manual — a researcher can look past so-called important events ‘known’ through information preserved and arranged by archivists (in this case, Dutch colonial officials) to examine instead ‘non-events’ or moments in-between, such as colonial concerns for the relief of poverty experienced by colonial people of mixed ‘European and Oriental blood to more fully understand colonial governance from a subaltern perspective. Thus, understanding the history of how archives develop helps researchers understand the hidden bias inherent in the archives they consult.
Cook concludes by asserting that for the future, “archivists will continue to shift their emphasis from the analysis of the properties and characteristics of individual documents to an analysis of the functions, processes, and transactions which cause documents to be created.” (Cook, p. 47) This articulation of a contemporary archival approach immediately brought to mind the murky, fast moving confluence of digital and social media. Herein people search online and find their communities and then gather in physical or virtual spaces. They generate documents, printed or digital, and other forms of digital cultural expression like music, you tube videos, web sites, twitter posts, and so on. Figuring out what to keep and what to ‘let go’ is the easy part – people will ask an archivist to save something or an event will earmark material as important and worthy of preservation. But how will contemporary archivists deal with that complexity, or more to the point, store yet make accessible something as ephemeral as a series of related (by community) digital materials that preserve a sense of the transactions that generated the material, which would I think, give researchers clues to the experience of the community whose presence is the focus of their work.
Cox, James M. O’Toole and Richard J. Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006.
Terry Cook “What’s Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift” http://www.mybestdocs.com/cookt-pastprologue-ar43fnl.htm (originally in Archivaria, Spring 1997)
Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, (Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2009)
September 14, 2016
It has always been a pleasure to work in an archive and I have had three categories of experience:
- The quiet and cool academic archive housing special collections and is staffed with helpful professionals; a place much like Temple’s special collection in Paley library (a nice respite from the summer heat of an afternoon).
- A homey and charming community archive cluttered with 19th century objects and maps, with a helpful community archivist with an amount of information in their head that rivals the information to which they tend. Make no mistake, these are professionally maintained archives, but they feel wholly accessible and this is an interesting contrast from the nature of other archives.
- The brisk self importance of a collection holding items of great intrinsic value, such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania where American Colonial history is “Writ Large.” The researcher is struck by an administrative bureaucracy as complex as the collections they maintain.
I understood the difference between these places intuitively, and now I am beginning to understand why these differences exist, which leads to the single most obvious yet unexpected quality of an archive:
An archive grows organically from the nature of the material it is seeking to preserve, interpret, and make available to the public.
In the South, we would say, ‘If it was a snake, it would have bit you.’
Further, it had not occurred to me that as archivists understand and organize collection of materials, they do so from “their perspectives … [where they] develop a way of looking at records that is peculiarly their own, different from others,” as they seek to literally build a coherent, easy to navigate structure that will permit scholars and the public to access information that lies within a mass of documents or other materials. (Cox and O’Toole, p. 87)
Another seemingly obvious feature of archival work is that, aside from the arduous task of organizing a mass of material, the archivist is privileged to “vicariously experience otherwise unfamiliar places and events, learning things they would not otherwise have known and expanding their sense of the possible.” (Ibid, p. 89) To this I would add the archivist can work on the frontier of re-discovery, and be the only person to know certain information, long since lost, before they perform the important service of bringing this information back out to the public.
Cox, James M. O’Toole and Richard J. Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006.