Personal Digital Archiving Conference – Interconnectedness

This is my presentation developed for the 2017 Personal Digital Archiving Conference at Stanford University.

I had to shorten it for the conference, but have now recorded it in full. I also adapted it to fit with an online presentation. It is a PREZI so please click using the forward arrow to listen to me explain each screen.

The key ideas in my research is how personal memory systems (such as those that exist in how we manage stuff on computers, tablets, mobile phones and in online spaces such as social media) help to form collective memory (this term can include various conceptualisations of ‘collective’ but in this research it is primarily focused on what we might call traditional memory institutions).

In looking to explore the formation of memory systems from personal to collective I examine how value is constructed and contextualised by individuals who create and share digital content. By understanding value at the creator level it can provide deeper and richer insight into whose memory is being captured and preserved.

As a final note on terminology, I do not use the terms personal digital archiving, nor personal information management. I prefer to use the term recordkeeping and memory-making. These latter two terms encompass various aspects of what it means to create and manage information for various purposes, including to remember. I see information management is a form of memory management and control. Recordkeeping provides a way to construct the systems to manage and control. And recordkeeping is not necessarily about producing or managing authentic, reliable records or evidence in the sense of what is usually done by governments and organisations. We all do recordkeeping in some form or another using various tools and processes to do so, some more effective than others. Archiving activities or processes are just another kind of recordkeeping process, regardless of who does them. Recordkeeping is a process where recorded information is managed according to its value. The value could mean retention for an instant or forever (although the latter is highly unlikely in practice, but rather is an intention). Value is assigned or identified at various times. This is what this research was looking to find out more about.

Computational archival science – what is it?

Recently, I submitted a paper to the Computational Archival Science (CAS) workshop about my research exploring ways to develop tools and methods to support and undertake automated appraisal for cultural heritage. The project is at the conception stage and I am exploring the existing methods and tools that identify data from documents and map them as networked contexts. I am starting with a pilot project focusing on the Zoetic Walls street art project in Cleveland.

The project is heavily conceptual and explores what it means to document and manage cultural heritage that exists physically and virtually, and has significant ephemerality issues. The goal is to explore how it is possible to do this work in a way that engages with multiple stakeholders and various contexts that contribute to a social phenomenon that has been given some meaning and value. The ultimate goal is to design appraisal tools that might be able to be used in a much more participatory way. It is heavily conceptual right now and right at the beginning. A great place for some feedback from people who are interested in archival science and data. Or so I thought.

My short paper for the workshop was rejected, although the reviewers said it was well written. From the comments and then a closer reading of the workshop history and goals, I realise that I was trying to pitch a research project about archives to mostly digital humanities scholars who have their own particular view about what CAS is as well as what archival science is more broadly. I wrote an email responding to the reviewer comments, but it bounced back as it one of those email boxes that are not read. I could not find an email address for them either, so I have copied the email I wrote below.

The main issues that the reviewers seemed to have was that my work was too conceptual and that the conceptual aspects I was talking about are not “computational archival science.” Not just not suited or not part of the conversation, but actually not CAS. The email I wrote addresses comments from the second reviewer mostly and while I have not copied the second reviewer’s comments here, I think you get the gist from my email.

I feel like I must have missed a conversation somewhere about the relationship between computational archival science has with the actual discipline of archival science (or archival studies as it is also called here in the US). Are there any archival scholars out there who have been involved in this CAS that can enlighten me? I have read the definition listed on the website and wonder primarily about how the term, “archival thinking” has been used and its relationship use of “archival science.” I checked and I believe my work fit into the notion of Computational Thinking (CT) as being “the thought processes involved in formulating a problem and expressing its solution(s) in such a way that a computer—human or machine—can effectively carry out”. Of course I am happy to receive feedback and improve on my work and I can see where I could improve on the paper to expressly address CT, especially at this pilot stage. However, my concern remains this issue with what “archival thinking” means and how this is carried out in CT contexts as CAS.

To the workshop organizers;

Thank you for the feedback. From the reviewer feedback it is clearer to me that this workshop focus is on data science and machine learning from digital humanities perspectives.

It is unfortunate to hear that while engagement with archival science theories and principles is being asked for, engagement with archives and archival work is not suitable for the workshop. I am of course engaged with exploring what it means to document cultural heritage from an archives-as-institution point of view as this one of the ways that big data and linked data gets created. However, my research also attempts to grapple with alternative conceptual, practical and technological approaches to appraisal via crafting and testing methods to identify data as context (and then what that data tells us about the social phenomenon). I do see that I did not explore the notion of automation enough from an archival processing point of view and the potential role it can play for digital humanities research.

Regards literature on conceptual modelling, I am not addressing or using conceptual modelling, rather context entity mapping and network analysis using existing archival science standards and methodologies. It is possible to explore links between conceptual modelling from a computer science and information systems point of view, but it is really the topic for another paper. In archival science there is not much literature on conceptual modelling other than possibly the OAIS model (which is a functional model, albeit from a computer science idea of conceptual modelling) or the models developed from InterPARES (mostly business process models), or the records continuum model (conceptual and activity model) and other entity models developed by the Records Continuum Research Group (context entity models), so I am not sure what was expected in relation to this.

Regards the comment about being heavily influenced by critical theory, I do not refer to or engage in any critical theory literature or frameworks in this paper. As was mentioned clearly in the paper, my paradigmatic approach is social constructivism. The comment about being heavily influenced by critical theory in archives indicates a lack of understanding about engagement by archival science scholars with critical theory.  

Finally, it is regrettable that a workshop on archival science does not want to engage with the “four walls” of the archives and provide a space to engage with challenges that can be made from within and outside of this context. I do not work within those four walls, but I study them and what they mean in various conceptual, technological and practical ways, and any engagement with archival science, computational or not, requires exploration of their impact and meaning.  

Thank you for your time.





Ngrams of Information Lifecycle

Researching the information lifecycle

Had a little play with Ngrams again today for a paper I am writing. I have several issues with the limitations of Ngrams (books from western traditions, written in English, only those scanned, only those scanned full text are useful, context and association issues with language). But it is fun.

I was looking to see when lifecycle (or life cycle) appears first in relation to information, records and archives. Interestingly enough, archive[s] lifecycle does not appear in the literature. This made me realise something that I had been pondering in my head quite a bit over the years. The lifecycle model is actually not about archives at all. This is therefore both freeing (archives as new things aka. Schellenberg), and a bit odd at the same time. Aren’t records in archives about contexts and relationships? The relationships and contexts are not just about the records themselves either, but about their various roles during which time they were in the life cycle before getting to the archive. They do not get a new life, but provide evidence of the sum of their old one, as well as have new parts to play. I do wonder to what extent this thinking about archives as being something ‘other’ plays a role in how they are conceived of in the US tradition. And by conceived I mean created, studied, used and so on. More pondering needed.

As Schellenberg, often associated with the life cycle model, did not actually use that term (he used life span) I wondered if this turned up anything interesting in Ngrams using the same prefixes above. Answer = no.

However, record life span did achieve a result.

Upon reviewing the books for this result however it shows up the use of the term record (as in achievement) life span, mostly related to biology and population studies (where the use of the term life cycle is also derived).

One last fun Ngram on records management, information management and information governance. Revealing yes?



I also note that in my research into this there has been a LOT of plagiarising from the 1998 Philip C. Bantin paper (quoted in the SAA Glossary). So many others have copied word for word what is written about life cycle without attribution. But also, Bantin says: “Schellenberg and others…” without any reference. Who are the others?????

Multiple Stories of Cultural Heritage: A Conceptual Model

Conceptual Model Making…to Testing

Last year I published a model called the Mediated Recordkeeping Model, a systems and activity-based theoretical model that explores and attempts to explain the formation of cultural heritage via narrative, identity, memory, technological and evidential systems. I created this ‘thing’ and for a while I have not really know what to do with it. I know how it came to be, but what now?

The first thing I did to explore what this model can do was to re-engage with a YouTube video I often use in presentations. This video, the first featured below, can be found in the Australian National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). I wrote about it in a 2009 paper and often start presentations off with showing what the NFSA catalogue description of this video documents (and what it does not). I mention this description in that 2009 paper and there is an image of the entry, but also search for it yourself in the NFSA collection catalogue. The purpose of highlighting the NFSA catalogue entry is to show how metadata does not explain much, if anything, and can actually be quite judgemental and incorrect.

My first test of the Mediated Recordkeeping Model was to go back to this video and to identify what description might look like if I was to use the model labels. So, I put the model labels into a table format and added metadata to each. What I realised when I was doing this process is that I was crafting a story. Then I realised I was creating more than one story.


  1. The sum of the analysis/description is my interpretation of the video and its role as cultural heritage.
  2. As I built up the metadata and for each element described a different story was being told with multiple potential endings/contexts that were not described.
  3. The relationships between each element as they were documented and mapped was not just linear or entries on a table, but were part of a movement or mapping that could be done on the model. The process of this mapping is as important as the mapping itself.
  4. I was creating the potential of multiple stories. By documenting my own story or interpretation of the model I was also providing a process for others to create their stories. These stories might be built the same way, or in different ways. Stories could be critical, ancestral, visionary, contemporary, individual, collective, antagonistic, conflicting, incommensurable as well as many other kinds of stories.
  5. That in seeing one story, there can exist a way to see many more, as well as what is absent.

This led me to consider some things:

  • Is it possible to see absence only when something else is present?
  • How can multiple stories be told? And are there different ways to interact with stories? Can the process of the storytelling be represented in different ways?
  • How can people, including archivists, use this model to help tell these multiple stories?

I have been dabbling with visual presentations of theoretical models for a while now which led me to do some Google Sketchup work a few years ago, see video below, as well as influenced my redesign of the classic continuum model shape as shown in the Mediated Recordkeeping Model (and contrasted with the image shown on the Wikipedia page of the Records Continuum Model). I was also given the opportunity to develop and exhibit a visualisation of data and this led me to think more about how the Mediated Recordkeeping Model might look like visualised.

The result is the sun ray or flower representation of the video description I laid out in the table. For the exhibition I recorded myself talking about the model, what it shows and how I created it. I have now uploaded this to YouTube. I showed some people at the recent AERI held at Kent State and their feedback got me intrigued about how to use this model and visualisation such as this in a practical or operational way.

  • What does this way of modelling (the sun ray) bring to archival description?
  • Does the sun ray and the Mediated Recordkeeping Model include or address what is important about archival description?
  • Can the sun ray move in 3 dimensions? How would it move?
  • And what would it look like if I was able to add additional stories?

I am preparing to write a paper on conceptual model making and the use of theoretical models for critical archiving.

I delivered a paper recently on What it means to teach ethics to students: exploring the complexity of representation and equity in records, recordkeeping and archives. I also referred to the Mediated Recordkeeping Model in this presentation and plan to include something of the lessons I outlined into the paper.

Lessons from the presentation:

  • How we, as educators, can help to teach our new archivists what the power of technology means and what it means to act?
  • How technology affords reaction rather than action and how individuals can be made aware of the difference?
  • How ethical standards and statements of principles sit with an increasing awareness of activism not just in our profession, but globally, and the continued tension with the position of an impartial view?
  • Is it ethical to document or manage any records without consent or allowing them to have an active, collaborative role in the processes including decisions about access, rights and description over time?

So, finally, in thinking about modelling, theoretical and conceptual frameworks and operationalising them in various contexts, its seems there are many things to consider. Some of these issues are already being explored in the archival discipline including what is being represented and how, what is missing or in conflict, and how the processing of recordkeeping (including use of the model) influence and impact on representation. Another issue I think equally important is how it is possible to evaluate and build on the theoretical models. It is great to operationalise them or show how they can impact on practice, but what does this also mean for the theory?

Paper review: Information Science is Neither

Furner, J. (2015). Information Science Is Neither. Library Trends, 63(3), 362–377.
I read with this paper a review Furner did of the English translation of Briet’s French text: What is Documentation? The purpose of reading Furner, the review and the 2015 paper is part of my quest to understand documentation and concepts of the document.
Furner, J. (2008). What Is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text. Libraries and the Cultural Record, (1), 107.
I was introduced to Buckland’s 1991 Information as thing paper in 2006 when I first started my Masters, but never really went into it or explored the notion of the document any further. In archives I recall discussions about documents related to structure and content (of a record) and how to undertake a document reading using multiple components that make up content and structure. This would help to arrive at context – somewhat. The definition of a record also includes metadata – the capture of context – which is important to understanding where a record is located in (any) time and space.
Record = content + structure + metadata
I have begun to explore documentation in more depth because of Helen Samuels and documentation traditions, but also because this is now part of what I teach and research. I investigate, write about and critique collections/acquisition/appraisal policy from a complex, evidential point of view within a continuum philosophy, but what other ideas might be of interest? I note that definitions of the document in Furner’s review, as he compares different translations, refer to representation, reconstruction, demonstration (proving) something. This is very similar to my thoughts about ‘records as trace’ as described by the continuum, drawn from Derrida’s work. What is implied in this definition of the document is that a document cannot be the thing, but is only part of something. I have written about then and now and understandings of time within the context of records and will dig this out and post it. I am of the camp that claims that all documents are records and that all records are evidence of something. If they are good evidence, or represent good proof, well, that is another matter, completely subjective, dependent on purpose and context of use. There is something else here in relation to meaning and memory (or memory-making) that I think is missing. This is what the purpose of the document or the record is, whether it does it successfully or not. Representation, demonstration and reconstruction all point towards a greater purpose – remembering. And I would also link identity, defined in various ways including individual, group, organizational, institutional, but also cultural, societal etc. Memory and identity cannot be separated from each other and the intersections of these are as important as considering each on its own.
Furner’s paper, Information Science is Neither, drew me into another thought bubble about conceptualisation and I see that he has written another paper I need to read:
Furner, J. (2004). Conceptual Analysis: A Method for Understanding Information as Evidence, and Evidence as Information. Archival Science, 4(3), 233–265.
I had a discussion with a colleague yesterday about how to do research into theory as I am very interested in exploring conceptual positions within the archival discipline. It seems odd to me that continuum theory is positioned next to or opposed with lifecycle theory when the lifecycle is not a theory but a work process. I want to know if there is a theory that underpins the lifecycle, if it is shared between all people who refer to the lifecycle, and whether it can be related to current paradigms. My proposition is that the lifecycle approach to archives and records is a positivist view but is not a consistent concept and that people actually think about and implement lifecycle positions in quite diverse ways.
Onto Furner’s ideas about information science, a discipline I am unclear about. In Australia, the school and the faculty talked about archival systems and information systems. I also tried to figure out the meaning of archival science without much success and in the end use this term to describe that people do research in the area of archives. Epistemology, ontology and methodology.
My thoughts are random and may be developed more later:
  • The first thing I wondered is if there is a philosophy of archives and is Derrida the only (known) person in that club?
  • I laughed.
  • Information is something people (do not) search for. People use information to search for something. Some other meaning or goal. Or to make sense of something. People do not search for information as the goal.
  • Same goes for retrieval. The end goal is not to retrieve information, but to find something.
  • I am already thinking that how stuff is defined and how language is used to communicate these ideas, contributes to how solutions are understood and evolved. For example: if I think that people are interested in searching for people’s names then I will have a search field of author. And I will structure the database so people can search via author. But what if I think that people are interested in searching for stories, or how something is made, or what connections it has to something else? These are sometimes built into databases and it is possible to see the medium, format, linked subjects and so on, but this is not necessarily what people are interested in. Or wanting to find. Something else I have been thinking a lot about lately is how what technologies are created construct the meaning of how they are supposed to be used. For example: Facebook works in a particular way, there is a timeline, posts, etc. But I cannot search my own or anyone else’s timeline. I cannot represent my information in different ways. Facebook apps do this, but again, I cannot do what I might want to do. People create work arounds or create new software/apps/platforms.
  • People create, communicate, search for, share, access and develop meaning and meaningful ways to interact with each other using various tools. Meaning-making is about culture as the transmission of ideas. Memory is part of culture and in particular, remembering. Without remembering there is no transmission of something over time.
  • Can a philosophy of information include philosophy of archives? The more I think about this the more I think that these are separate. But looking at the idea about people and meaning, this includes archives, so maybe not.
  • Furner explores the idea of activities of representation and results of representation, and positions them as separate. I disagree. In the same way that people use technologies in expected and unexpected ways, activities of representation must include how results impact on activities.  Furner might think this too, but does not make this clear as his argument moves on towards explaining types of representation.
  • Collection, access and preservation studies. I don’t like it. It does not articulate very well the social and cultural aspects of interacting with and generating meaning and memory.
  • I agree with the idea of situating information studies within a cultural understanding of how information is used, but my mind keeps trying to fit in the idea of dimensions of memory and the action/outcome system in relation to memory into a cultural understanding. I have been talking to people about a cultural understanding of recordkeeping and archives for a long time with varied success. My position comes from the idea that people make decisions about things related to records all the time. These decisions are necessarily influenced by culture at various levels and forms part of the complexity of how recordkeeping gets done. For example: a collections policy is only ever implemented as far as an individual interprets it. The interpretation is always going to be cultural – from their own understanding of meaning-making, the bosses, the organization, etc. There might be processes in place, but these are also interpreted via these cultural frameworks. This is also then related to memory. So many times I heard from employees that NFPs do not do business. This is absolutely not true, but it depends on definition, which is interpreted. Interpretation is cultural. Furner refers to a resources continuum that influences decisions and I think this is particularly useful. It also makes me think of needing to explore cultural theory more.
  • “We want to know about the ways in which individual people construct representations of the natural and cultural world with which they interact, and we want to understand the very nature of representation and interpretation.” p. 375. There is more Furner has written here in his last paragraph which is wonderful. I like that he mentions that we want to know the ‘ways’, ‘how’ and ‘about’ in relation to various activities related to people and stuff.
  • I prefer the terms, meaning-making and memory-making in relation to stuff. Although these are problematic.

In case you were wondering, my reviews of these articles are in fact my notes and thoughts rather than an evaluation. This paper is so well written and logical and I have read it twice now, and I think there is more for me to learn here. This may be another post. Or not. As a wise woman once said to me (actually she said it lots) – everything is process. I am going to add – so live with it.

Paper review – Self-determination and archival autonomy: advocating activism

Evans, J., McKemmish, S., Daniels, E., & McCarthy, G. (2015). Self-determination and archival autonomy: advocating activism. Archival Science, 15(4), 337–368.
This paper is a really important part of the growing discourse and awareness of the active role archivists in the profession and in academia can take. It illuminates the particular situation in Australia, as well as references examples around the world. The authors make it clear what needs changing – access, discovery, rights, appraisal, description and disclosure. Some of these are key archival terms that all archivists are aware of. But the key aspect of this paper that shines brightest to me is the continuum perspective. The authors state that they have taken a continuum point of view and they talk about recordkeeping, co-creators, multiple provenance, but the key to what they mean by continuum is in the use of the concept  – the system.
There are several ways this is mentioned in the paper and one of the first is the goal of addressing identity, memory and accountability needs that also includes redress, recovery, emotional, medical and psychological health, financial security and right to legal restitution of individuals and communities. This statement might make you think about context and yes, these are contexts, but these ideas are really about understanding the systems that underpin why and how records are created and how they become archives. Archivists often talk about ‘contexts’ and how context provides information about how records are created and managed before they get to the archive. Legal, organizational and social contexts. But these are not just impacting on the record, but are part of the record
A systemic view of archives acknowledges that records are not just things but are part of systems of many things – linked to activities, interaction, people and mandates. Recordkeeping is a term that embodies this notion of a system of records – not just the things themselves, but why they are created and how, as well as how actions related to the record (or records at various aggregations) impacts on what role the record might play. This is why the term archival systems is important and the notion of systemic issues is a vital position within the archival activism discourse, but also within a wider archival discourse.
From a social perspective, referencing Giddens (as the continuum models do), the notion of systems refers to the interconnectedness of things and processes, but also to how these enact and influence the evolution of the systems. How the system works is not just what the system does, but how it is adapted through various mechanisms, particularly power. This is why the concept of archival autonomy, which is raised in the paper, is so important. It is not just about understanding or advocating for rights in records such as access or privacy, but to change the system so rights are inherent in how records are conceived of within the system.
I have been working recently in articulating the core principles or theory that is continuum theory, or perhaps information continuum theory, as developed by the Australians. Yes, it references various other theories, including structuration theory, but what about information continuum theory is theory? One of my first suggestions is that information continuum theory posits that records exist within a system of interconnected networks. These networks act as contexts to help position the record within spacetime. The networks can be micro and detailed, such as an individual making a decision about deleting an email because it is spam, to macro and expansive, such as how archives build collections because they have a mandate to preserve memory. The macro point of view is inclusive of the micro – they are always connected in some way. Context can include technology, law, community, social norms, culture and so on. Incidentally, this is my fractal explanation of multiple complex realities existing in different planes. I have written about it in my PhD and am thinking about writing a paper on it.
The system and the network documents multiple complex realities. The archival autonomy concept in the system (or the fractal) means that at any point in the network an individual has a role to play and a voice to be heard. The paper refers to individuals and communities and although I understand the concept of a community having an identity and memory, I believe that only the individual can articulate that community identity through remembering and action. Shared memory only exists within individuals. Ultimately, what this is about is power and the individual right to power within a complex system.
So, two important things can be drawn from these ideas. Firstly, if information continuum theory therefore also posits that if there are multiple complex realities then there are also multiple ways to comprehend recorded information, including those that are yet to be discovered, or those that are hidden, as well as those that appear to be incommensurate. Secondly, if records exist within a system then the concept of the archive as being a stage or past a threshold does not make as much sense. Although, the threshold idea can be seen within the context of the fractal view and within an understanding of movement of power – part of the contexts or network. This is why the idea of archival autonomy is important because it recognises that the systems that support the archive need to include the idea that an individual is part of the network of contexts and are as valuable to design and decision making as the societal mandates for preservation of memory, or legal obligations etc. How the concept of archival autonomy plays out within the system is something that this paper explores. The case studies presented demonstrate very clearly what it means for an individual to be part of the system.
Two final thoughts:
  1. Can the concept of archival autonomy be considered within a cultural heritage framework, such as in my own work with understanding social media as cultural heritage?
  2. From this perspective, is all archival research activist? The paper mentions two archival research projects that are about particular communities in Australia that have strong advocacy identities. Is the topic what makes them activist? The research goals? Engagement with critical theory? Engagement with action research methods? Identification of change?

What is archival theory Pt. 2

I am back in the US now, although still not home. Today I am giving a talk to the UCLA student chapter of SAA. I go home tomorrow. Right now I am living off caffeine. For some reason the trip across the pacific going back in time really knocks me around, but going forward in time is not as bad. Time travel is not as fun as you would imagine.

I have had time to spend thinking more about this archival theory issue. I have been reading Anne Gilliland’s book; Conceptualizing 21st Century Archives and it helped me realise a few things:

  • Archival theory is born from practice. In particular, I am referring to the principles of fonds, provenance etc. The principles were formed from understanding and reflecting on practice.
  • New archival theory is born from reflection on existing archival theory and practice taking into account new environments.
  • Not all models represent or ARE archival theory. Rather they reflect a philosophical position. But the theory has yet to be explicated.

This last point got me thinking about the life cycle model which has only been around for a short period of time. In Australia, we all exclaim how strange the life cycle model is because it treats records as if they were a living thing, i.e. have a life/death. It sounds odd because records are not living things, but then again in Australia we talk about living archives, so this seems to be a contradiction in my mind. In fact I believe the issue is more about the focus on processes and stages rather than evolving context and use – the “living” is articulated from the archivist’s point of view, not the records. Records are and conceptualised constructed before they are created and continue to evolve and change over time according to multiple contexts. What this leads me to believe is that the life cycle model is born from a particular worldview and specific philosophy. This philosophy has been articulated in the context of archives and records, but has it been explored, analysed and discussed as a worldview in the abstract? What is the paradigm that supports this view? And should people working in it state their position? Of course people do say that they are in the Schellenberg or Jenkinson camp, and this is totally valid way to articulate a worldview in the archival discipline. But what are the principles that articulate these world views? What is the theory? What does it mean to have a Schellenberg worldview? Is it the same as being a constructivist? I have not read much on how Schellenberg’s work is contextualised as theory so if there is something out there you think I should read that provides answers to this, please let me know.

These thoughts lead me to explore other areas of archival theory and ask what the worldview is. For example: I can quickly explain macro-appraisal as a top down approach that seeks to document or appraise according to a totality of human experiences. Yet, what is the philosophical position here? Other terms in the archival vocabulary also articulate a worldview. I am thinking of the concepts in particular of the archival bond and archival threshold.

In my own research I position myself as a continuum theorist (a researcher using continuum theory and models as a framework). The continuum lens is my habitus, using Pierre Bourdieu’s term for his concept that refers to how an individual “becomes” through developing values, judgements and approaches to social interaction (their habitual state), but also to how individuals participate in practices: their predisposition to action (Bourdieu, 1984; Webb et al., 2002*). My interpretation and application of continuum theory also assumes that social actors have multiple, non-linear and non-hierarchical ways of seeing and knowing. Social transactions and interactions are activities that provide meaning across time and space that can be communicated in various formats and utilising a range of technologies. These assumptions are closely aligned with an interpretive research paradigm. However, there are many positions within this overarching paradigm and I have yet to explore them in enough detail to identify with one or more. I will leave myself as a continuum theorist for now.

External to the research world is there a way for an archivist or anyone else to articulate a worldview? There is an assumption I think that all archival theory comes from the same place and is just different articulations about records. I am not sure this is entirely true. But then again I am not entirely sure how not true it is. Why this is important? To me, to be able to contribute to the profession and the discipline it is essential to be able to explain and defend ideas and decisions so that they are transferable and able to be articulated clearly by anyone. Why is it so hard for people to understand the records continuum model? Maybe because it is a different worldview and there has not been good enough explanations of what kind of worldview it is. Another way to explain is to apply and use examples, but this can only be successful if the principles underlying the ideas are easily transferable. I am working on this for continuum theory by exploring continuum informatics.

These thoughts also bring me back to the idea about what archival means in relation to archival theory. Can there be an archive without records? Why is it not then called records theory? Because surely records can be archives at any point in time?

I am interested in when, why and how records become archives. And how long archives as being records of continuing value actually is. This is often referred to as appraisal, but I do not want to get involved in the archival terms for this process. I am interested in how anyone makes these decisions. I am not interested in whether or not people do create records and archives or not, but want to speak to those people who do or who want to. People who would not identify as archivists. Or even use terms such as record or archive. I am interested in how these people use technologies, specifically social media as part of their own documentation strategies as personal recordkeeping. I think this would help to reveal something of what it means to archive, to record, and what worldviews people have in relation to this.

Wouldn’t it also be interesting to then talk to archivists who create archives because they want to? Rick Prelinger would be a great person to speak to. Brewster Kahle would be another. There are archivists who helped to create archives such as the People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland who would be great to speak to. There are non-archivists creating archives as well such as those who created the Digital Archives and Marginalized Communities Project.

Others such as those people who create Facebook groups to support a community would also provide great information about why people document and how they think about ongoing work in relation to it and what this means in relation to archives. There are some complexities here in relation to what an archive might mean and this would be the exciting part of the research. Although, I can already see the work growing exponentially.

The ideas I share in this blog are in progress and are not necessarily formed. I welcome any comments and feedback.

*From the dissertation. If you want the full references, please let me know.





What is archival theory?

Here I am in Adelaide, Australia, sitting and thinking about archival theory.  As you do. This week I gave a speech to the Doctoral student consortium at the Australasian Conference on Information Systems about my experiences undertaking a PhD. While I was writing my presentation I realised there is not much in the way of methodology or research design in the archival literature about how to build theory. I think there are two reasons for this: firstly, that archival theory is assumed to be somewhat static or the principles are set in stone. Even new ideas stem from old ones such as “new provenance theory” or “macro-appraisal theory.” The second is that there is very little research in the sense of systematic, rigorous, reflexive research as a science that has resulted in developed theory for archives. I had to figure it out myself and this is in part the story I tell.

I thought I would have a look at Wikipedia’s definitions of archival science and archival theory to figure out exactly what archival theory means. This kind of thinking for me is linked to a conversation I had many years ago about what was an archival research question. And now I see that the FARMER conference is taking Anne Gilliland‘s idea about what archives do that nothing else does. I reckon that the idea of archival identity in relation to formulation of research questions and an understanding of the discipline are linked.  Continuum models, my field of expertise, did not exist more than 25 years ago as a coherent theoretical contribution, but now they are part of the archival discourse and archival theory. So what makes archival theory archival theory?

I see the first line of Wikipedia’s entry on Archival science states that first of all archival science is synonymous with archival studies. This might be the case for some people, but in Australia we do not call anything archival studies. Along with archival records, archival theory, and archival research questions, I am not sure entirely what this means.

Secondly, Wikipedia says that archival science is the “study and theory of building and curating archives.” Archives in this sentence links to another article that says that an archive is: “…an accumulation of historical records or the physical place they are located.” This I also have an issue with as it excludes the practice of constructing archives, which contributes to the theory as much as theory informs practice. The idea that archives are built is at least recognition that construction takes place, but it also implies that once an archive is “built” it is finished (conceptually), which is something I disagree with. It also implies that the building and curating of archives as a practice is studied, rather than the conceptual foundations of what contributes to the construction of the archive.

The next thing I notice is that it says “An archival record preserves data that is not intended to change.” This is problematic as well as what data is being referred to? Contextual data (metadata) is part of how a record is defined and this will change over time according to what and who is accessing the record and how it is used. So, not static at all.

In my mind I translate these ideas to mean an archive is a place where stuff has inherent and time-bound value based on the information contained in the object. Once it is built then archivists organise the pickings so that people may be amazed at their content and marvel over their historical look and feel. Not true.

Archives do not even have to exist physically to exert power, fear or to silence.

Records can be deemed archival before they are even born.

The online dictionary defines “archival” (adjective) as being “of or relating to archives or valuable records; contained in or comprising such archives or records.” In an archival theory context this definition focuses on the grouping together of records (as archives), the identity (valuable records) and holdings (contained). Archival is therefore subjective understanding of value of informational content and context. How is the subjective value established? This identity is equally as part of how archival can be understood as the grouping or the holdings. There exists theory, but I believe it is entwined in an understand of grouping and holdings. 

continuum-diagThe term archive has been adopted by others outside of the discipline and practice. It would be interesting to explore in more depth how others see and understand the archive (not just Derrida). I have a feeling it is through this understanding of subjective value. This area of interest is something I want to explore in more depth. In my research and in the model I created I removed the archive (it appears in the Records Continuum Model) to look more closely at the concept of archival systems and how these fit into and are an extension of other information systems. My concept of archival refers to establishing continuing value by whoever at whatever point in time. It is not about the archive as a place or a collection but the application of subjective value.

In this context, archival theory is then about understanding the conceptual principles of how decisions (including what decisions and their implementation) are made in relation to subjective value. By anyone, at any time.

Time, Songs and Records

On the plane back from Italy earlier this month I watched the documentary on Amy Winehouse that make me think more about time, songs and records. I planned a blog post in my head but then forgot about it in the fog of ongoing back pain from long haul flights. Until today, when I saw an article about Adele (no, not the one where she pranks her fans), but an article with the tag line when it was posted on the NY Times Facebook page as: ““That’s how I know that I’ve written a good song for myself — it’s when I start crying. It’s when I just break out in [expletive] tears in the vocal booth or in the studio, and I’ll need a moment to myself.” The actual article is here.

Adele says that she gets involved in her songs – they move her when she sings them. When watching the Amy doco a similar thing was said about how Amy used her life to help her write songs. And what songs they are! The thing abouAmy_Movie_Postert the doco is that it paralleled her songs with events in her life. So it was really clear the affect her life had on her work. I cannot remember where it was in the film, or in what context, but Amy says something similar to Adele above – that the music takes her to the place she was when she created it. All I could think was how painful this time travelling must be. How it is must be a cruel thing to be made to sing something again and again when it takes to you back to something excruciating in your life.

Then I realised that songs are records.

I did know this already, or have a sense of this, but did not realise what kind of records they are until now. And I am not talking about the vinyl plastic. But that songs, as they are conceived, written, sung, recorded and performed, are records that are witness to a life, they document and are evidence of the process of song-writing, of the singer, of the performer – and in being created song tell multiple stories. This is the brilliance of the film Amy – it tells all these stories from all different points of view. Each story is a documentations of Amy’s life and are part of how to understand her songs. I think this is likely the point of the film.

This is the thing with records – they are a portal into another dimension (in fact multiple dimensions). Archivists and recordkeepers call this context, but it is much more – MUCH MUCH MORE than just an understanding of context. Context in dictionary terms means circumstances around something that contribute to how it can be understood. How is it possible to understand the idea of time travel and the affect of the record? How is it possible to comprehend what it meant to create these songs, to be a friend, a husband, a manager, a family member? Each of these multiple dimensions are context. I remember a scene from the film when two fans ask for a picture with Amy, apologising for disturbing her, and she eventually makes a comment that if they were sorry they would not have asked. How is it possible to understand this context?*

Archivists are known as those that preserve records for the future so that others can use these records for various purposes. Most of the time it was thought the records would be used for research (primary sources they are called), particularly by historians, but as academic research expanded in the post-modern era, and deeper understandings of how society contributes to atrocities and inter-generational pain, and the role of records in accountability, archivists have seen the role of records and their use expand into areas of reconciliation, redress, social justice and as evidence in human rights abuses. In addition to this, archives are now being used more and more for documenting family histories and genealogy and I cannot help but think about the implications for this in relation to donor eggs and IVF. There has already been a case around this in Australia that of course involves records. In the Australian Story segment on this it also mentions others who have had issues with missing records because of private organisational control over these records.

1024px-Documents_stacks_in_a_repository_at_The_National_ArchivesThese evolving understandings of how records are created and used by society impact on the way that recordkeeping is being constructed. The thing about these stories that is important, but no one seems to mention, is that records and archives are not conceptualised by how old they are, but by their purpose and role in the lives of these people. Archival records, whatever that means, are not those that are in actual archival buildings, but are records that need to be accessible over time because of their continuing value. For people like Lauren who was conceived with donor sperm, records about this process were born archival – they always had continuing value for various reasons. How they might be accessed over time – that is another story that evolves and changes over time.

So, I wonder about cultural heritage and how these new ways of seeing records might have on an area where the archivist is still seen as the collector, custodian and protector of culture and its stories. At least in western societies as far as I am aware. And I also think about how in our digital society how much information is being created everyday, and that much of this information is created and managed within private corporation websites. Facebook has no national boundaries, no cultural distinctions – it only has Facebook rules and ever changing privacy statements.

How is it possible to understand the multiple dimensions of the records that make up our cultural heritage? The Amy doco is about people making sense of the records and their contexts within its current time frame. What about in 100 years time? What about 500? What contexts – what information – do we need to link to be able to provide context about what it was like for Amy, for her family, her record label, her fans…and so on…at the time? What about how these songs and Amy as their co-creator relate to the social and cultural world now, or into the future? Is it even up to the archivist to think about these things? If the song and its contexts are the record – then what is that needs to be in the archive? What lessons can we draw from the radical archives movement that will ensure that the multiple dimensions and the implications of records are managed over time?

For a while now there has been a counter archive movement in community archives. Some community archives, such as historical societies, work within the established boundaries to preserve community-based records such as those from local councils or governments, as well as records donated by people from the community. These are archives about place. In my experience local history societies rely on archivists to come and do the intellectual leg work from them. Archivists, either associated with the government, or volunteers, often come from a library background, and work on the intellectual organisation of the collections. They provide the frameworks and knowledge to appraise, describe and arrange, and contribute to ideas about access. Counter to this are community archives that reject these support mechanisms and sometimes the intellectual frameworks because they represent a dominant narrative. Community archives are formed through a need to document and remember lives, and provide a counter narrative. Often it is LGBT or women’s archives that are first mentioned in relation to these counter archives. But there are many more, as well as many more nuanced versions of these kinds of community driven, counter memory actions.

The lessons of these counter narratives and how they are constructed and preserved as having continuing value are not just part of the archival landscape, but have a lesson for all archivists in understanding what motivates people to keep records for memory (remembering) and identity. The concept of the counter archive and decisions related to memory and identity are being explored outside of the archival discipline.  So when there are so many different ways of understanding, constructing, using, accessing, interacting with records and archives what is the role of description standards? How is it possible to build multiple notions of context into an archive and across archives? Instead of collecting and preserving content why can’t archival institutions work on exploring what needs to be in place to support memory and identity needs where ever it exists? What is the core role/purpose of the archive? Perhaps societal memory, or cultural heritage, or accountability, or information access. There are more. What if archival design worked from flexible requirements rather than built on existing, rigid standards?


* Colleagues are exploring the notion of affect and the archive particularly in relation to critical studies.  And another colleague reminds me of affect in relation to corporeality in relation to digitization every time he finds more physical documents/letters in an antique store.

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.