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.

 

 

 

 

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.