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.

A cultural continuum

It has been a while between posts. And what a while it has been. I have been undertaking major research commitments and curriculum work during this semester all while trying to teach two new courses and help plan this year’s AERI. I feel like I am in a whirlwind of excitement stabbed with anxiety. I have, in the past, been the master of organization, but this is stretching my skills. BUT the sun is shining today in Ohio and spring feels beautiful. My window is open in my study at home and I am writing a blog post for the first time in a while. I updated my research page and I am thinking again about the cultural continuum. Things are OK.

I wanted to share a video I found where Geneva Gay is talking about “Variables on the Cultural Continuum.” There are some wonderful parallels with my work and in particular the Mediated Recordkeeping Model that encourages me to explore it in more depth. There are several points that Professor Gay makes that are key to understanding how the information continuum works (as it exists in the records continuum models and other continuum models).

 

  • Essentializing and identity.  Geneva talks about how “everything has some essential dimensions to it” and talks about what is held as being core. I take this to mean essential elements of how we define ourselves via our identities. What we think is important to us – our essential being. This makes me think of the sociological concept of habitus and the writings of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu refers to habitus as a “system of dispositions” that contributes to the creation of individuality and in turn helps to form the conditions that will impact on further iterative development of identity (1984, p. 2). These are productions of knowing, power and identity, yet they can be unconsciously enacted. My identification as a continuum theorist in the research and in the subsequent thesis served to highlight this as my cultural area and the primary source of production and authorisation. That continuum theory has been developed and applied to archival science also plays a significant role and ultimately influences and contributes to the construction of how I understand and apply knowledge in research.

These kinds of understandings are also apparent in the Research Design Model, another continuum model that came out of the PhD research. I have written a book chapter on this model (this is a thesis chapter) but have not published on it very much, instead focussing on the Mediated Recordkeeping Model. I have two papers in draft related to the Research Design Model as a reflexive model and their use in informatics. But these are on the back burner.

  • Multiplicity in the continuum. Geneva refers to “varying degrees of elaboration” related to our identification of components of our essential selves.  She explains that there are various components or elements (or the kinds of data captured in demographic research) such as race, socio-economic background, age, gender and so on that “have an impact on how the core features of a given culture are manifested in expressed behaviour.”  As an example, each member of her “nuclear” family unit expresses “different layers” along a continuum of African-American culture “because of the fact of who we are.” She refers to her brother expressing African-American culture differently and proposes that there is likely a gender factor, but also refers to the age difference between family members as being relevant to a different expression. Yet, all these expressions exist along a continuum of African-American identity.

Geneva’s examples are very micro – her family, but this is the point of multiplicity and continuum thinking – that very small parts contribute to a whole (continuum). What is also relevant here is the points of intersection are not just singular, but are multiple. Her brother is both a male and a different age. The continuum models express these intersections and multiplicities in various ways in relation to recorded information. On the Records Continuum Model identity is only represented by grouping from individual to institution, but is intersected by ideas about memory and evidence, as well as activities and parts that contribute to how records are formed. So, by taking Geneva’s example of her brother, his contributions to memory via recorded information will be informed by his identity as he perceives it, including what roles he might play within groups and organizations (included or excluded) as well as in relation to the activities he performs related to how he captures and manages memory.

My work says that OK, this happens, but there are also more factors and complexity than that. Identity must be understood within the context of how and what we communicate as part of our identity and the impact of power on this, as well as how we interact with our social and technological environments. Plus, memory and evidence are linked but not so linked that that are the same and that memory-making or the need to remember is a vital aspect of cultural identity and transmission (heritage) over time. This is what the Mediated Recordkeeping Model proposes. What my research suggested was that there are multiple factors and ways that people decide on what is of value and how they then encode that value into what they create and communicate. These factors and ways or interactions are quite complex and have multiple intersections between various identities over time, including how community norms and values impact on decisions.

I want to do some more research into the cultural continuum and memory-making but looking at how technology engages and mediates these transactions. My immediate goal is to explore distributed identity on social media and in particular decision-making related to significance and value across social media platforms related to memory-making. I am interested in what people decide to create so that they can remember or create memory and who that memory is for and if use of different social media sites is at all relevant.

I also recently proposed a research project related to how people experience the internet and what it means to capture memory of this and whether or not this would be relevant to manage as archives and, if it is, how it is useful and who would care about it.

Sometimes, when I stop and reflect on what I am doing I wonder why exactly I care about how people make decisions and construct ways to remember. In a way I think it is me trying to make sense of the immenseness of the world and how individuals carve out our place in it.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Paper review: Information Science is Neither

Furner, J. (2015). Information Science Is Neither. Library Trends, 63(3), 362–377. http://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2015.0009
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. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-015-9244-6
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?

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!