reading notes: dynamic modes of recordkeeping

Anderson, Kimberly. 2013. “The Footprint and the Stepping Foot: Archival Records, Evidence, and Time.” Archival Science, 13:4, p. 349-371. DOI: 10.1007/s10502-012-9193-2

If archivists can learn to recognize records in all their forms, perhaps archivists can stop trying to acquire or create records that can be separated from their community of origin. If we move towards the citizen or community archivist model, the archives becomes a clearinghouse of sorts in which seekers are referred to the community for access, rather than capturing or translating records for use in the archives. P. 361

Article Overview

There is so much going on in this article! I recommend taking some time to read the full article if it’s of interest to you. Here goes my attempt at summarizing the article as well as my take-aways:

This article proposes a redefinition of what constitutes an archival record. By bringing into focus non-Western modes of thinking on concepts of time, record keeping, and relationships between creator/expert and record, Anderson questions the inclusiveness of archival collections (in the United States) and calls for archivists to acknowledge the need to begin identifying records without imposing Western concepts of ‘recordness’ on dynamic practices of recordkeeping. An example of a dynamic practice of recordkeeping would be dance or ritual (Anderson refers to this as kinetic or oral records, see p. 364).

Most often, in archival practice, we think of records as physical items resulting from social interactions or activity. As Anderson states, “Transactional records are believed to represent an actual historical activity, event, or moment in time. The record is the natural, unconscious result of the completion or processing of the event or activity” (p. 354). The record exist for immediate use and is, over time, available (by way of the archive) to “serve as evidence other than was originally planned” (p. 354). In archival theory this is discussed as primary and secondary value.

Anderson suggests that the problem with this concept of a ‘record’ is that not all records come about in fixed forms that can or should be collected physically (p. 355-57). Not all record keeping practices approach time in a Western mode that allows for separation of past-present-future in a linear fashion (357-60). Too often, Anderson notes, kinetic or oral records are “translated” to a fixed form (video, image, text) inappropriately in order to fit the Western notion of “recordness” (p. 356). The translation of the original record results in loss of some level of context or experience.

The main focus of Anderson’s work seems to be encouraging professional archivists to respect and understand indigenous cultures and diverse modes of recordkeeping. Respecting the recordkeeping practices of communities operating in ways different from the norms of Western culture is critically important. In the end, she highlights three kinds of records to focus on (documentary, oral, kinetic). The combination of records can, perhaps, provide a more inclusive and accurate archive. For example, kinetic records are preserved both by documentary forms (video of the ritual) and continued “reporformance and adaptation” of the kinetic record (p. 368). This kind of archival practice will be most successful with direct collaboration with the communities or instances of community led archives (p. 369).

My Take-Aways & Questions

Trust! Trust in communities to maintain their own kinetic or oral recordkeeping pracitces. Work with them to understand context and their goals for documenting their heritage.

If a community ceases to perform or adapt kinetic or oral recordkeeping — do translations of those records (documentary items- photos, video) become more meaningful?

Did Anderson work with any communities in developing her redefinition of  archival records?

In my current position, I don’t anticipate working with records from indigenous cultures, but this article also brought to mind the difficulties of archiving other kinds of dynamic content—such as websites or collaborative digital documents. This isn’t to suggest that indigenous rituals are similar to websites–websites are mediated by technology and are largely textual/visual in a way that makes them more tangible than live performance or live storytelling. But consideration of the function of time, fixity and qualities of “recordness” might be useful in thinking about how we capture and represent websites or content created by collaborative digital platforms/documents.

For example: If a website is personalized across time and geographic space—how can a crawl of that site by me for my archive really represent the site or the entity the site represents to users? A ‘community of origin’ for a website might be thought of as the technology used to render the content–if we have to separate the content from the technology, is that okay? When we crawl websites, we are effectively creating a fixed instance of the dynamic interactions/recordkeeping happening there. Is that fixed instance an accurate enough representation or simply a “translation” that loses context? Is content or documentation created online ever really done enough to archive neatly as discrete objects? If meeting minutes are captured in an internal web platform (e.g. wiki) — do we need only the pages with minutes or should the entire wiki become a web archive collection? Can content created and used online be parsed out into discrete objects for archiving in the way that meeting minutes are designated to be archived over other meeting materials? What’s the best way to maintain the relationship between live websites and archived ‘translations’?

Am I over-thinking this? Maybe! I could ask these kinds of questions all day, but there really isn’t a good way to generalize about web archiving or about understanding diverse kinds of recordkeeping practice that aren’t neatly tangible with discrete outputs. As with so many other aspects of archival practice — it all comes down to case by case decision-making based on the retention schedules or collection policies!

Today’s coffee: New England Coffee — cheers to remembering to bring coffee from home!

The reading notes posts found on this blog are intentionally question-filled and causal. Each notes post serves as a sort of open journal record of my professional development reading as the MIT Libraries Fellow for Digital Archives. See the introduction post for more on this series. I welcome suggestions for future readings—current or archival!

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