ACIS Conference – digital cultural artefacts – who owns them?

An interesting project from Brett Leavy using gamification to preserve songlines in a digital cultural artefacts.

Brett tells us in this conference session that he works in a do-first, ask for forgiveness later practitioner-focussed way. He says the IP belongs essentially to the community (communities), but what about the game? If is a product – a commodity. What if a museum or archive wants to acquire and/or use the game? What about beyond Brett’s lifetime? Admittedly, the technology may not last that long, but the potential for preservation by an institution seems reasonably high.

I found this presentation and project particularly interesting because decisions about how preservation can be conceptualised and carried out can be widely different. The Monash Country Lines project is about a similar topic, but is conceptualised in a different way. Yet is also about preservation.

What both make me wonder if the digital artefacts, created from a perspective of cultural heritage and preservation, actually become the archive. The externalisation of stories presents an interesting idea about how it fits into the notion of cultural heritage within the community the stories come from. Listening to Shannon Faulkhead from Monash about the Country Lines at CIRN Conference a couple of weeks ago I got the impression that in this project the artefact is part of an ongoing archive (and narrative), not the embodiment of cultural heritage.

In the context of my own work what I am interested about is how these artefacts contribute to evidence – what are they evidence of? Whose evidence are they? One of the most interesting things about it is that they are evidence not only of indigenous stories, but also of use and knowledge of digital technologies. In the context of Brett’s game, it is evidence of the role that games play in current society in relation to learning, for access and to communicate. Brett harnesses the power of the game to present information. Is it preserving it though? What exactly is being preserved? Whose memory is it? It would be great to explore in more detail the construction of this project, as well as the Monash Country Lines project. Not to compare, but to explore how the decisions made in their inception and ongoing activities contribute to a diversity of cultural heritage and how.

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!

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.

A lesson in taking your own advice

The silly thing about being an archivist and records management professional is that when you misplace records/information it reflects poorly on you. You even loathe yourself for your own lack of foresight.

In July this year I was visiting my relatives in Western Australia, giving them some of my good attention vibes as I was packing up to live and work in the United States. While at my sister’s I organized my tax (swore a bit as well) and then packed up all my business files. These are secure (never fear) in at least three places. I was very good. But…I was not so clever about my website.

My Rhizome Digital website had been going in various incarnations since 2010. I had some great comments about the kind of writing I did and the topics I explored on my blog. I had already transferred/migrated it twice – successfully. When in WA I shut down my digital business footprint and did what I had already done at least twice before – exported the website content to an xml file so I could upload to my evolved Rhizome Digital website I was planning.

Where is that xml file? Did I save it to the same place I saved the Rhizome Digital business records? No. Did I save it onto one of the various USB sticks I deliberately made sure I brought with me on the plane? No. Where is that damn file? I had planned to have this blog up and running a while ago, but was looking for the file so my blog would look more complete somehow.

Now, instead, I am faced with an empty blog and a lesson on humility about how even records professionals can mess up backups and disaster recovery (it is a disaster OK). Now I start again. Thinking about it, it is not necessarily a bad thing, the starting again. I have done this already with the move to the US. I am looking forward to posting about my research and what interests me beyond that which is relevant to marketing my business (although I was never really that great at the marketing side – lets face it).

In celebration of this new opportunity I have to express myself, and frankly, blow my own horn (I was a horn player), I officially launch my new blog and share a photo of my new office – the Kent State University Library building – Third Floor. Come and visit!

Kent State University Library building

Rhizome Digital is back – but different

I have moved to the US to take up an academic position at the Kent State University in Ohio. I am renewing Rhizome Digital as my blog. It is my identity after all.

I am trying to migrate my blog archive from previous work – but am not sure where I put it. Great archivist I am!

Watch this space for blog updates. Twitter just is not enough words. Really.