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.

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.

Digital archives future?

I pitched an article about digital archive(s) to the Conversation recently, and was rejected – sort of, the idea was good, but apparently my writing had a bit too much jargon. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.* I find it a real challenge to be able to accomplish academic writing for journals and developing conference presentations. Plus tweet and blog, and update the various academic websites.  The Conversation is part of strategy to develop a public intellectual profile, but I am just not sure how to write for this medium – I am not a journalist after all. So, whining over, I thought I would share the piece I wrote here and perhaps it might generate its own conversation and readers can give me feedback via the comments. It would be appreciated.

Memory, evidence and people

Technology is everywhere in our lives. It is equally disruptive, transformative and indispensable. We use screens to view, share and transform the past, present and future all at the same time. We explore new ways of seeing, capturing and remembering with apps, games and augmented reality. We are so much at one with our digital technologies they are like extensions of our memory and sense-making functions. Our technology is us – it is part of our evolving social and cultural identity. Researchers have already suggested that we already are cyborgs. What does all this radical change mean for archives and memory-making? If the internet is our collective memory, then whose remembering is it?

In my recent research on how people used YouTube as a memory-making space revealed how connected people are with the various technologies to create, upload and share video, but also used these same technologies to remember for themselves, for their community and for the wider groups of people who interact with online video. How they used the technology influenced what they wanted from it and how they evolved their online identity to support their narratives. This research outcome has two important implications for collective memory and the future of archives.

Firstly, people co-create with technologies, and that interaction is now part of culture – it is part of the narrative of society.  Technology is clearly evidence of us, but without being used, it is only technology. Related to this implication is an understanding that it is the interactions plus the outcomes that tells the story of an evolving society engaged with technologies. Yet, when we think of cultural heritage, archives and collective memory we think of things – artefacts. Objects are collected, described and displayed as evidence of culture, but there are some significant problems with this concept of proof, heritage and value, especially when it comes to co-created interactions and outcomes with technologies. How is the transformative use of technologies going to be remembered – what is evidence of culture?

My research into YouTube identified that archives and other memory institutions create their own evidence of culture by making decisions about what they think are significant as heritage. This practice is based on a history where institutions document events by collecting everything about them (often referred to as special collections), but it has some serious failings that are amplified in a technological era. In the YouTube research I found out that co-creation is not just about making video and uploading it, but is also about making sense of and participating in community decisions and values over time. Consider how people use Twitter and re-tweeting to inspire revolution, as well as socially execute. Gamers whose interest in the game extends beyond playing it modify code to share and play a game of their own devising. There now exists social media that allows people to document and share memories, such as HistoryPin and Collectish, but these has an equally as important role as YouTube and Instagram in capturing and organizing memory.

Essena O’Neill’s recent Instagram revelations and subsequent changes to her account highlights how social media is a space for multiple and changing memories, a documented identity and an evolving narrative. In recent years, there has been a significant research movement in the archival discipline to explore the hidden, marginalized, and absent voices from official records. This work is linked to an already evolving conversation about records, people and power, and how archives have been used to subjugate and make invisible communities of people over the ages. In part, this movement explores the idea that evidence is not within the object, but rather in the stories shared by people and their evolving contexts. Archives and archivists, have a role to play in helping people make sense of these contexts, but traditional role of being selector and custodian of heritage is no longer feasible, nor ethical. Archives and archivists need to be able to facilitate the connections between different ways of experiencing and constructing evidence. This means connecting what is already out there (in archives as well as already online, plus what is on our computers) to help make sense of it over time.

The new kind of digital archive my research hints at enables the creation and management of evidence by providing the technologies and the intellectual framework to allow people, including archivists, to add, manage and link metadata. Metadata is the lifeblood of the archive – it is the description of what happened, who did it, how it was done and why. The archivist is therefore not a selector, nor custodian of cultural heritage, but rather preserves the systems that support wide, diverse and multi-layered understandings of value and evidence. In this distributed, non-custodial archive, anyone can decide to remove something they are responsible for, but the archivist manages the evidence of its contribution to the network of memories – the metadata and the links. The story continues to be told.

The ideas presented in this article are specific to what are referred to as special collections, often managed by libraries but called archives. Archives, in the true sense of the word (as understood by archivists), particularly organizational and government archives do include mechanisms to document and manage context over time, but the lessons of this research and the concept of co-creation is equally applicable. In Australia, we have an entity called the National Archives of Australia, but it only manages federal government records, which is only part of what it means to be the nation of Australia. Archival legislation across Australia does not recognize the notion of co-created records and what it might mean in relation to rights in the records – not just in access, but in how they are created, captured and managed over time.

Archivists should be facilitators of remembering and embrace the complexity of evidence by enabling people to tell their own stories so that the multiple truths that exist in our world can be heard. There has been talk of losing memory because archives are not digitizing materials fast enough, but this is not the most critical problem for archivists. What is critical is moving beyond the models of the archive imbued with power, prestige and control. Digitizing the world’s information is a fabulous idea, but how will it be managed brings a heavy responsibility. Being digital means more accessible, and the ability to crunch data and mash content. Is this for everyone? Who makes decisions about descriptions? How will people be able to make sense of evolving contexts? How can all peoples have a right or a say in collective memory? Who controls the archive controls the future.  In our technological world the archive is evolving, diverse and beyond the confines the institution. The role of the archive and the archivist needs to change to face these new challenges.

* My SEO program tells me: The copy scores 41.0 in the Flesch Reading Ease test, which is considered difficult to read. Try to make shorter sentences, using less difficult words to improve readability. Yikes! It must be true!