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Paige's Public History Blog Posts

Archives in the News

This week I’ve been looking in to archives in the news, and specifically the interaction of former President Donald Trump and the National Archives and Records Administration. The few articles I’ve read are illuminating as to public perception of the functions of archives, and how federal archives are subject to laws that other institutions don’t necessarily have to abide by. I learned that the Presidential Records Act of 1978 mandates that all presidential records automatically transfer to the National Archives as soon as the president leaves office, and they are then owned by the public. One article referred to NARA as “the nation’s filing cabinet,” which leads me to believe that the popular conception of archives is simply as storage for documents. Another article pointed out that judges arbitrating over Trump’s case against releasing his documents claimed that they were not interested in determining what each document contained, wanting rather to rule on the documents as a whole. It seems to me that no archivists from NARA were consulted during this process, and it is curious that a subject so involved with the archives appears to leave them out entirely. I would venture to say that this press coverage perpetuates public perceptions of archives as simple storage systems. They do not detail what the archives actually do with the information, other than that citizens can request certain documents via FOIA requests. I would like to hear the opinion of someone actually on staff at NARA, because the information on NARA’s involvement is rather bare-bones right now. 

https://www.voanews.com/a/why-trump-is-suing-the-nation-s-filing-cabinet-/6332246.html

https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/30/politics/trump-archives-white-house-documents/index.html

Archivist as Educator vs. Archivist as Records Manager vs. Archivist as Historian

This week in my research I encountered arguments both for and against the teaching of archival research methods to K-12 teachers. In “The Archivist as Educator: Integrating Critical Thinking Skills into Historical Research Methods Instruction,” Marcus C. Robyns argues that being a teacher goes beyond the mandate of archival management and that the responsibility for teaching thinking and research skills should be left to properly trained faculty (364). On the other hand, in “Archivists as Educators: Integrating Primary Sources into the Curriculum,” Peter Carini asserts that archivists need to step away from archival neutrality and recognize that archivists are “guides who are uniquely qualified to teach those unfamiliar with primary sources how to use, judge, and evaluate these materials for themselves (49).” While some argue that archivists should act as teachers to K-12 groups in a classroom format, others think that archivists should be educating teachers on archival methods and the importance of archives, and they can then impart this knowledge to students. I’ve seen mixed opinions about the level of involvement on the part of the archivist, although most argue that there needs to be some degree of collaboration between educators, archivists, and historians in the development of primary source curriculum (also, archivists are rarely considered as historians in these articles). I understand that committing to teach upwards of 30 students on a rotating basis is taxing on the archivist, and I tend to agree that archivists should aid in developing primary source guides for teachers to use while leaving the teaching up to the teachers. I think that the collaborative aspect of these learning guides is vital, and that is something that I am going to have to work towards while completing my own thesis project this winter.

Vanishing Archives

This week I’ve been considering the role of born-digital documents in the archive, and the potential drawbacks of a purely digital archival record. This blog that I’m currently writing, for instance, will eventually vanish when the lifespan of this Temple-based website runs out. To keep it I would have to copy each post into a document for my own use, or re-post each entry onto a site that is hosted by another platform and managed by me independently. Eventually, after I graduate, my Temple e-mail will cease to exist and I will have to apply for an alumni e-mail address, potentially losing over seven years of correspondence from my time at the University. While losing my observations during my time in the Public History department as well as my scattered e-mails may seem fairly inconsequential, it leads me to be concerned about the volumes of potentially usable archival material that will be cast into the ether purely due to time limitations on web-based servers. In speaking with Grace Schultz at NARA I learned that eventually they will move entirely to collecting digital material, but the parameters of that kind of collecting are unknown to me. Roy Rosenzweig writes about the tenuousness of digital materials in “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” Unfortunately, it seems that there are not many viable answers regarding the maintenance and stewardship of digital materials. Rosenzweig mentions internet-based archives that log websites, but that is subject to conflicting copyright laws, and the form of the archive – digital – is in just as precarious a position as the material it catalogues. I can’t imagine that bloggers and internet personalities are concerned about the preservation of their materials over the longue duree, and that is something that archivists are going to run up against in the decades to come. While the same was likely true for diarists in centuries past, there was a greater chance that a physical record was preserved by serendipity and not subject to erasure by the governance of internet timelines. 

Archival Miscommunications

This week I was surprised to read about the dispute (miscommunication?) between the American Historical Association and the National Archives and Records Administration. I happened upon SAA’s response to AHA during my reading this week, and I decided to look into AHA’s statements from this summer. I agree with SAA’s position on the matter of equitable access to archives, with the understanding that public health metrics cause differing circumstances for the availability of in-person research. After speaking with Grace Schultz from NARA this past week I am inclined to believe that they are doing their best as far as providing access to the public in a timely fashion. It is my understanding that digitization efforts have increased in order to help researchers quickly and efficiently, despite budget cuts and staffing limitations. This situation causes me to wonder what the acceptable course of action would have been for AHA, and if they are directing this same energy towards other archival institutions. This pandemic has no doubt had a detrimental effect on access for research patrons, but it is my belief that the archivists at NARA by no means wish to exclude anyone from fulfilling their research goals. This leads me to question what the upper structures of the NARA administration look like and who is involved in making decisions about reading room availability and opening metrics. I plan on having conversations with Grace in the future regarding my own research, but I will be sure to ask about her position, as well as NARA’s, regarding AHA’s action. 

Copyright and Creative Commons

This week was heavy on copyright-related content for me. On Tuesday I attended a virtual workshop at the Charles Library titled “Can I Share That? Copyright and Creative Commons.” This workshop applied to publishing in a broader sense and did not cover archival works specifically. I understand the basics of copyright vs. public domain vs. Creative Commons, but I am still a bit hazy on how it applies to archival materials. I understand that it is not at the discretion of the archive to grant copyright permissions, but it is unclear how one would obtain permissions for documents with more obscure origins. For example, Special Collections holds a number of manuscripts and letters where the author is clear, and maybe even the death date is known, but the document is still within the period of time where it falls under copyrighted material. In that case, is it possible to publish the material at all? Does the responsibility for the material then fall to the donor? I understand how the search process for Orphan Works is supposed to run, and that seems to be almost clearer than works with an identifiable author. I generally hesitate to put pictures on my own student blog because of my inexperience with copyright. I think after this week I feel a little more comfortable finding sources through Creative Commons that I can use in my public work, but it may take a few more lessons until I feel comfortable working with copyrighted material in an archival setting. 

Being a Leader and Teaching Leadership

While reading Mariz et al. “Leadership Skills for Archivists,” I was struck by Randall C. Jimerson’s contribution on archival leadership as interactions with the public. Jimerson heads an archival education program, and I plan to use other articles in which he has contributed to inform my thesis project on archival education in K-12 students. Jimerson emphasizes that interactions with the public are exercises in leadership – a concept I had not yet considered. SAA guides on graduate programs in archives emphasize the value of teaching leadership to students, but their K-12 guide on archival literacy does not. How can I potentially build lessons in leadership into my grade school lesson plans? This question remains unanswered, but the research I am conducting currently will hopefully lead me to that end. Jimerson asserts, “The essence of leadership is a sense of purpose, vision, and creativity about what we do—and why.” (119) Given this definition of leadership I think that building context and a sense of a larger meaning into the archival lessons for younger students would foster the exact purpose, vision, and creativity that Jimerson argues for. Jimerson also emphasis the need to focus more attention on user needs by “identifying and providing information that is useful and necessary for people from all segments of society.” (120) He specifically mentions the need for diverse representations of all voices in society, and I think exploration of the North Philadelphia neighborhood in K-12 learning would fulfill that need. While my thesis is still in the early stages of research and development, Jimerson’s ideas about engagement and public-facing archival leadership will definitely inform how I move forward.

A Meditation on Ethics and Access

In “The Ethics of Access,” Elena Danielson describes the conflicting relationships between donors, archivists and librarians, and researchers in the pursuit of unadulterated sources. Danielson points out that the vast amount of collecting policies in regard to privacy stem from notions of privacy from decades past, such as mentions of homosexuality censored from the record. While thinking about the ethics of privacy and donor relations, I myself tend to side with the researcher, rather than the donor – but the issue here is that, as a researcher, I think like a researcher. I have not been in the position where a family member’s personal papers ended up in an archive, therefore I am not entirely sympathetic to the standpoint of a family member with stewardship over sensitive documents. If what Danielson asserts is true, that “papers are preserved so that they may be used,” how are we as archivists to limit access to resources (53)? I suppose it boggles my mind that papers may be donated to an archive in order to be restricted for years, or potentially decades. Danielson also points out that archives “may wittingly or unwittingly have custody of documents that could damage the reputation of a profession, an institution, or a political career. (53)” My historian’s mind automatically jumps to the conclusion: so, what? This conclusion, I understand, is not entirely fair. It is a privilege for archives to have the documents that they do and the choice of the donor to allow them that privilege. I had not previously considered the delicate nature of archival-donor relationships, and how this affects researchers, but moving forward I will make my best effort to shift from my researcher viewpoint to a more balanced approach.

Exploring the (Digital) National Archives

This week I am focusing on the digital materials available via the National Archives website (archives.gov). I began my exploration by browsing for finding aids, and I found a link to general research topics. The links, under titles such as “Foreign Affairs” and “Ethnic Heritage,” lead to webpages full of clickables that lead to smaller subject pages. As I clicked through it was difficult for me to find a comprehensive finding aid that detailed the collections, and I found the website to be more subject-oriented rather than document-oriented. I would consider this approach to be potentially more user-friendly for hobby researchers or those new to archives, but as a researcher that typically has a more document-focused approach, I found the layout to be a bit frustrating. There is a search bar that allows you to do more specific inquiries, but again the results are broader subjects that need sifting through. It appears that the National Archives wants to encourage users to spend significant time on their website, rather than simply collecting necessary data and moving on. A portion of the suggested research topics relate to genealogy, so I would assume the heaviest traffic is from family researchers. It is hard to say which finding aid approach is most helpful for researchers, whether it be document-based or subject-based. I personally find the finding aids with more specific collection information, such as those on the SCRC website, most useful but as someone with unclear research goals or little archival experience the approach NARA takes would likely be more helpful and encouraging. This finding aid style seems like something that would work with a large archive with more resources, especially a national archive, and it leaves me to wonder if the pared down document-oriented approach of smaller institutions is out of preference or lack of resources (potentially a little of both).

K-12 Learners in the Archive

This week I’ve been thinking about archives in terms of my own research goals. Over the summer I compiled research guides on monuments and memorials around Temple University’s campus, and I plan on using my internship experience to build my thesis project. My intended audience for the research guides was research historians like myself – individuals already versed in using archives and primary sources. I had previously failed to consider the use my research held for other audiences, namely K-12 students. How can I adapt my research guides for a younger audience? What educational goals can primary source literacy in school-age students achieve? Considering the SAA-ACRL/RBMS guidelines for primary source literacy I plan on expanding my research guides to include information on silences, authority, and bias, to name a few. Currently these themes are implied in the guides, and I will likely have to make archival research concepts more explicit. I have less experience when it comes to catering to audiences unfamiliar with archives and historical inquiry, and further historiographical research will hopefully illuminate more best practices for developing research guides in companion with teaching guides for K-12 instructors. The SAA-ACRL/RBMS guidelines include helpful bibliographic information on related topics, and these entries will be my introduction to completing my thesis project. I think the importance of primary source literacy is well-established within the field of history, but I am curious to see whether this translates to the broader field of education. Next steps include reaching out to Grace Schultz, an archivist at NARA and a graduate of Temple’s Public History program, because she is primarily concerned with the usage of archives in teaching and the development of lessons based on primary source learning. This project promises to be a significant learning opportunity for me, and I am excited to develop my skills as an archivist over the next two semesters.

Metadata is the Archivist?

In her 2009 article “The Metadata is the Interface,” Jennifer Schaffner argues that the primary role for archivists and librarians during discovery is “making the collections more visible and staying out of the way” (5). She also points to the greater success in exposing “hidden collections” by use of search engines, rather than direct interaction between archivists and researchers. This assertion was interesting to me because in the many research-driven courses I have taken, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, instructors encouraged us as researchers to consult with archivists during the discovery phase because they were the most familiar with archival holdings and could better direct towards helpful material. Schaffner discusses the successes and failures of research conducted exclusively by search engines in terms of the accurate description of metadata, but it seems like archives are torn between minimal processing with streamlined description and the use of extensive metadata that can bog down the digitization of materials but allow for increased collection visibility online. For myself as a researcher I find it useful to conduct online searches first, especially in the age of a pandemic, but there are countless times that an archivist helped me to find material not immediately apparent through keyword and subject searches. It is my opinion that increased metadata driven by subject searches, and what Schaffner calls Aboutness, can be effective for researchers working remotely, but the task is daunting and time-consuming for archivists. I believe that there is no complete substitute for the expertise of an archivist or librarian, but as online databases develop in the future this may change.