This is a guest post from Greta Suiter, Collections Archivist, MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections and member of the informal Archives and Digital Curation Reading Group at MIT Libraries.
The primary readings for the month of March were both originally presentations turned into articles. The first was “Your Code Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum” by Becky Yoose, originally presented at Code4Lib held in Portland, OR in January 2015. The second reading was “We are what we keep; We keep what we are: archival appraisal past, present and future,” by Terry Cook. To accompany these texts we also looked at the SAA code of ethics, websites created with indigenous people’s needs in mind – such as the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, and community archives, in particular some RRCHNM created websites that serve as an “archive” for material, often related to a tragic event (Hurricanes, 9/11, Boston Marathon bombing).
We started the conversation with Yoose’s talk. Since Jessica attended the conference we were eager to hear her take on it. She said the general reaction was one of taking it all in. To me the talk read as if an anti-rallying cry, or rather a rallying cry that said (I’m paraphrasing) “hold on, let’s think before we act, we are librarians with limited resources, we can’t burn through the few resources we have without knowing the outcome.” In her words: “the tools that libtech reaches for come with baggage that we haven’t fully inspected, thus putting us back to the state of technological somnambulism.” I can’t argue with that, but it is of course also dangerous to do nothing, or to spend years planning and testing but never implementing. I think the biggest truth that came out of discussing this article was the fact that libraries and the tech industry have little in common when it comes to gender distribution, financial resources, and career goals and that adopting a strategy from the tech industry and using it in the library may be not as easy as it seems.
When it comes to lack of resources I know that it can be incredibly frustrating to work or volunteer somewhere and not have the equipment, coding skills, knowledge of how to even start, IT support, or money that you know you need to not just make a great website or online exhibit, but to be able to have intellectual control over your archive and to let others know what you have. It is also incredibly frustrating to be constantly questioning the decisions people made in the past. I have seen archives that are perpetually redoing arrangements of collections, folders, and items. What is worse, coming upon an archive in shambles that has been added to over the years but never organized, or coming across one that has been organized, cataloged, processed, in a way that makes little sense? One of the stumbling blocks about transparency is how do you let others know your frustrations and limitations in a way that makes sense, doesn’t overwhelm, and still inspires confidence and trust?
When discussing Cook’s article we focused on the desire for more transparency of archival decisions, especially when it comes to accessioning. This led to thinking about how to document appraisal and accessioning decisions and how that should be shared among staff within the archives, within the library, and to the public at large. Arizona State has an interesting way of sharing their accessions by having a finding aid available for the public to view, they also expressly state that these are unprocessed collections.
I especially enjoyed this discussion because it was a way to get feedback about how appraisal of archival materials in the archive looks to those in other parts of the library. And it does not look transparent. There are other ways to increase transparency of the archives’ actions. We discussed many ways the archives could become more involved in outreach and inreach to the library and offices around MIT. One thing we would like to have is some type of marketing materials – handouts with FAQ and contact info for different services we offer for different audiences. It seems that even simple questions like how departments can get in touch with us, what we collect, and how the archive is organized can be multi-layered and less than straight forward but they are of course what people want to know. Finding ways of communicating answers to FAQ effectively is a challenge worth taking up. Even if the fail mantra from the tech industry doesn’t quite work with libraries, I don’t think we can be expected to not fail. If we are to embrace a more transparent ethos, it means we can’t be afraid to fail and fail publicly.
We also discussed archivist activists, one of the main themes of Cook’s article, in relation to proactively collecting materials that provide narratives outside of the “top down” approach. Being aware of events taking place and being open to assisting in archiving projects is a way to engage with people in a productive way. I’m thinking of one example – the Sean A. Collier collection which consists of condolence materials left at a makeshift memorial after Officer Collier was shot and killed on the MIT campus during the Marathon bombing in 2013. Items from the memorial and the MIT Police were collected and received preservation treatment by the Institute Archives and Curation and Preservation Services. I think this example points to being aware of current events and being flexible to shift resources and attention to unexpected collections at unexpected times. It is not possible to document and collect everything and I don’t think archivists should be expected to be collectors, but being more aware of who is collecting and being proactive in encouraging and aiding collectors in best practices is something archivists can do and make gains in becoming activists for the profession.
Overall, these articles emphasized the importance of making explicit time for observation and reflection that can help to place work functions and daily tasks within the larger context of our profession and our communities. Yoost, quoting Langdon Winner, asks: as we make things work, what kind of world are we making?
The reading notes posts found on this blog are intentionally question-filled and causal. This particular post serves as a sort of open journal record of the Archives and Digital Curation Reading Group. We welcome suggestions for future readings—current or archival!