How to research decision-making in the archival discipline

Finally I have some books in my office!
Finally I have some books in my office!

There are a couple of things that have been on my mind for a while – the concept of an ‘archival record’ and how people make decisions about what to archive. In my recent research*, I examined some of the activities and interactions that occur in the formation of cultural heritage. My work looks at online social spaces (social media – specifically YouTube), and so in a way looks closely at technology. In the model I developed I specifically dedicated one area of it to mediated memories – a term I borrowed from José van Dijck’s book of the same title that I spotted on the catalogue of new items coming out when working in a bookshop and so bought and then devoured it and then started a degree in research – and well, here we are.

José van Dijck’s book is about memory in a digital age, and I did apply it in that way within my model, but I think about mediated as being not just about technology and what it does, but the systems that support decision-making in relation to technology. Because, technology does what we tell it to, but how we do it is shaped by how the technology does or does not work. In my model the contexts of mediated memories concerns the tools that support memory-making – tools, local systems, shared systems, collaborative systems, archival systems. These are not just places for stuff, but active systems that support memory co-creation, capture, organisation, curation and pluralisation. More about those terms in a future blog post.

This gets me back to the concept of archival record. As a records professional (encompassing all activities related to recordkeeping), I am confused by this term. I must have read it already many times, but I am now thinking about it in relation to building a new archival course – how do I explain what this is? Why is there a difference between a record and an archival record apart from it has been identified as one and perhaps managed in an archive? Can people who are not archivists decide something is an archival record? Is its inherent archival-ness important in making this decision?

Back to mediated memories – the only part of my model that mentions archives at all. Archival systems however, in my mind, is not about archives though, but about the ability to make a decision related to how a record is managed. Yet, a local system can also be an archival system – they are not mutually exclusive. I looked up “archival” on the SAA Glossary (such a great tool – thanks Richard) and note that it mentions “enduring” value. The definition of the term “archival records” also mentions “enduring value”. This is an interesting term and one I will explore again later, but in the meantime, thinking about mediated memories and the role that decisions have in making memory, and how it is managed, I wonder if the term archival records, is defined only in relation to the physicality of the record – that it is tangible and located in an archive? An archival system will have records – as much as a local system will have records. The differences are about how enduring the records are (as decided by someone), and how much organising they go through in order to be managed over time. Does this ultimately mean that the more “archival” a record is, the more metadata it has where the metadata shows its enduring value through time?

The concept of archival and archival records as being enduring, long-lived, permanent, is problematic within a social media context. Social media is inherently ephemeral (defined in the SAA Glossary as: Useful or significant for a limited period of time. Ephemera are things generally designed to be discarded after use). The idea of ephemera implies there is no enduring value, and this is not necessarily true. Of course archives, libraries and other memories institutions collect ephemera, but it is treated differently from records – for various reasons.  Yet, the networks and systems that provide contexts for ephemera are not necessarily captured – the decision-making that goes on in relation to ephemera as archival record really begins at the archival “door” (some refer to it as the threshold – a term I am not comfortable with). But there are decisions that are made about ephemera, and in social digital spaces, these decisions are part of the network of systems – local, shared, collaborative – the tools that are used.

I am not sure exactly where this line of thinking ends. I am interested in how decisions – by anyone, determine value over time. I am also interested in how the network contributes context to understanding something like enduring value. I wonder that if the archival system is linked to but separate from the record, then something of the decision-making and an understanding of enduring value remains.

My research in this area looks at how individuals and communities make decisions about memory – the making, the tools, the stories told.  This links to how people make decisions about their own identities, and the value of their stories – the making of (personal and community) memory.  My previous research (get the published copy here) indicated that archival and other cultural heritage institutions when collecting digital content from the web in particular do not capture or manage all the context that contribute to how the thing/document/content/record was created in the first place – the decisions made about value, story and memory by the people who created it.

*OK, it was my PhD, but I am trying to get away from saying that. I really feel like I need to move on.

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