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.