Wood, S., Carbone, K., Cifor, M., Gilliland, A., Punzalan, R. (2014). Mobilizing records: re-framing archival description to support human rights. Archival Science, 14, p. 397-419. DOI 10.1007/s10502-014-9233-1
Stewardship then, becomes a vital concept, defined in contrast to traditional understandings of custodianship. … Stewardship implies a long-term, trusting relationship between entities, eschewing models of ownership that assumed that a resource rich institution would automatically know best. (p.411)
In my short time as an archivist, I’ve found that it can be easy to forget the larger implications of the work we do each day. It can be easy to just zone in on individual tasks and getting things done. Then one day you read an article… like “Mobilizing records: re-framing archival description to support human rights” for example… and the big picture comes back into view (Wood et al, 2014). The individual tasks of documenting workflows and procedures or moving through basic processing cease to seem basic.
Wood et al (2014) make a strong critique of the archival principle of provenance as well as other descriptive practices in the context of human rights issues. Through this act of “consciousness raising,” the authors challenge us to consider how we might include diverse perspectives in description of materials and in creating documentation that describes not only the various strains of provenance, but also our own actions in working with the material. They make a call for revisiting description overtime and creating audit trails of revision. The authors also emphasize the importance of listening to and accepting descriptive accounts and terminology from effected communities. Beyond the actual creation of metadata, the authors also highlight the importance of being sensitive to issues around language(s) used to render description. For example–awareness of potential issues around language and conflicts between ethnic groups. Or asking whether English alone will be accessible to enough of the users interested in your archives.
Of course this is critically important, but … what about funding? What about staffing? Wood et al don’t discuss how funding and staff time fits into the practice of meticulous and highly customized metadata and resulting documentation. The authors do highlight the success of the Murkutu CMS, particularly the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, for dealing with duel priorities of respecting indigenous cultures and enabling the desire to preserve and access cultural knowledge online.
Lastly, the authors note the importance of archival literacy and education for users. This seems like one of the best option for dealing with descriptive issues. If it’s not possible to revisit finding aids or dramatically change processing workflows, it might be important to design archival literacy outreach in a way that promotes transparency by giving the user tools to assess not only records, but to assess the descriptive context surrounding the records.
This topic and the article raise many challenging ideas that can’t easily be summed up in a blog post! I haven’t even fully delved into how digital archives specifically fit into this conversation or how my work as a fellow might intersect with these ideas. This is the kind of article that leads to further reading—starting with the work cited page!
Today’s coffee: New England Coffee
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!