Sunday, January 16, 2011

True Colors? Thoughts on "National Archives Blues"

A recent item from the Literary Review of Canada floated to the top of my infostream and captured my attention. The article, "National Archives Blues," is by journalist Susan Crean, a self-confessed admirer of archives. I don't really know much (ok, ANYTHING) about Canadian archives, but the subtitle of the article spurred me to read more: "Is a precious Canadian asset being digitized to death?" I'm not a member of the "digitize 'em all, and let God sort 'em out" camp of archivists (if there is such a thing). I do believe, however, that there is a place for digitizing archival resources, so the idea of "digitizing an archives to death" struck me as an interesting premise.

I don't want to replicate Ms. Crean's entire piece here, but you should go read it. I'll cut and paste enough to comment on here and hope you will contribute your thoughts, too.*

Shall we begin?

"Archives are, after all, overtly dull places. Never mind the swanky marble entrances; they actually consist of a bunch of nondescript rooms with big tables, straight-backed chairs and large windows, and very little going on other than an attendant or two dispensing information at the reference desk and a few people sifting through papers. And this is the exciting part."

Not much to argue with there. I will say that I'm not a fan of large windows in archives, though, just because of the damage that can be done to the documents by sunlight and water. But we'll save that for another post.

"It did not take long to discover the great truth about archival work, which is, appearances to the contrary, that it is utterly absorbing. In the first place, it is unpredictable: you never know what you will find, even when an archive has been worked over by generations of historians, writers and relatives. Despite the sense of order and rational purpose implied by the tidy boxes and numbered files, archives do not follow rules and are not reducible to a system like the Dewey decimal as books are. You cannot put in a search for a missing memo as you can for a missing book. Moreover, be they institutional or the papers of individuals, archives are never complete or comprehensive. What floats up from the past is largely a matter of serendipity, which means that archival research is pretty much a crapshoot."

Yep. All true. We do follow our own rules, but she's right about the lack of an overarching system like Dewey.

"My first foray into the National Archives was in 1977.... Right off the top, I encountered the all-important corollary to the truth about the irrationality of archives—that the real treasures are the archivists, the clue givers. ... With collections that are not used enough to merit the expense of developing finding aids, they can be your only hope."

I feel like Obi-Wan Kenobi! Again, though, Ms. Crean is correct. Ladies and gentlemen, please be nice to the archivists.

"What I am describing here is a partnership rather like that of violin maker and violinist, both m├ętiers depending on hours and hours of highly skilled labour and a devotion to the non-monetary rewards implicit in their art. Although they may never meet, artisan and artist are inextricably connected—the accomplishment of one depending on the craftsmanship of the other. Similarly, the work of archivists and writers (academics, government researchers, students, independent scholars and creators) operates interdependently and on an intellectual level, and insofar as the resulting creation—book, film, policy, painting, lyric or theory—reaches other minds, it feeds into the stream of ideas and knowledge that constitutes living culture."

I like the way she thinks. And writes.

But what is this? Something has changed. Our tale of intrepid researchers combing through boxes of loose pages takes a sinister turn. Where are the native guides who will show us the way?

When Ms. Crean returned to the National Archives in 2010,

"it was to Libraries and Archives Canada, which had amalgamated in 2004, and a building on Wellington Street rattling with ghosts. When I was last there in 1994, the archivists had already been moved to a building across the street; now they are a 40-minute bus trip away in Gatineau.... [T]he only remaining occupants are general reference staff and the genealogy department."

Even in the university archives where I work, we help a number of genealogists because of the kinds of records we hold. Nothing wrong with that. But Ms. Crean now arrives where the title of the article has suggested we will go: the digital graveyard.

"The biggest pressure, however, comes from the digital revolution, which has transformed the world of documentary production—and with it the work of archivists—while irrevocably changing public expectations. Digital access is now seen as a quasi right and digitization as a means of mass democratization. So it is no surprise that this has become the central preoccupation of LAC and has apparently led to a radical reassessment of its purpose."

Hmmmmm. A "quasi right," eh? "Mass democratization"? I'm not arguing with Ms. Crean; I agree that these are the perceptions of some in library/archives administration and surely of some of our patrons. Yes, I have been asked, "But isn't it all online?" and had students stare at me when I explain that most archives do not have the time, money, staff, or server space to digitize even a fraction of their holdings, much less to provide persistent and consistent access to them for the foreseeable future.

She goes on to describe Daniel Caron, "the first chief archivist not to have a degree in history, but rather a PhD in economics," who "spoke of the 'public memory monopoly once exercised by archives.'" Apparently Dr. Caron has described archivists as existing "within an anachronistic time and space," instead of where he would like for us to live, capable of providing information that "needs to be ubiquitous, instant and unmediated."

Again, hmmmmm. Let me say here that I do not work in a government archives, especially one in Canada. I'm sure the missions of our institutions are different. However, I bristle at the thought of archives holding a monopoly on public memory and at the thought of archivists as anachronisms. Isn't the "public memory" just that? Public? Of the people? Shared as part of our collective cultural being? Of course there have been archivists who have hoarded documentary treasures in sealed vaults behind closed doors, just as there have been plenty who have created displays, given talks to school and civic groups, and thrown open those doors to share the wonderful things we have beyond our "swanky marble entrances." Certainly we walk the tightrope between preservation and access. Yes, we're happy to provide access to you, but in order to preserve it for the next user, there might be some limits. Our patrons seem to understand this and appreciate it.

Ms. Crean continues, describing the "Modernization Papers" issued by Dr. Caron in 2009, strategic plans for the LAC "
written as if staff and the archive-going public do not exist, as if senior management, in its headlong rush to find favour with a new generation of users—and masters?—has become disconnected." She makes a valuable case for the importance of archivists who help lead researchers through the maze of holdings, both print and digital, and reminds us that digitization cannot "guarantee accuracy. Scanning does not necessarily capture all the information on a paper page, and with handwritten records, one entry misread and your entire family can disappear."

The LAC's emphasis on digitizing has led to cuts in its acquisition budget: "The fear is that LAC is being reduced to collecting government papers and not much else." Ms. Crean describes Craig Heron, a historian who has his own concerns about the future of the archives. "Heron ... found scant appreciation among LAC officials for the nature of historical research, or the role of archivists in delivering access. 'The implication seemed to be that people doing long-term research are elitist and marginal,' he told me."

By all means, government records must be preserved. However, I hope other institutions in Canada are picking up whatever slack the LAC is leaving in its digital wake.

Ms. Crean concludes: "If I have the blues, it is for the absence of this kind of conversation, and for an intellectual tradition under siege because of the undervalued work of the archives in general and archivists in particular. But it is also a lament for an institution caught in the backdraft of digitization and losing its way."

I suppose this article made me feel like those that say we don't need librarians now that we have the internet. I think archivists have value to researchers beyond what we provide when we scan and add metadata to documents. We help find connections within and among our collections. We can, with the consent of those involved, point you toward others who are working on similar topics. We know what we have that isn't online, and we know other archivists that have wonderful things in their collections, too.

So please, LAC, don't go digital at the expense of your patrons. Providing access online isn't a bad thing, but I hope you don't lose the depth of service provided by trained, knowledgeable, helpful archivists. Interpretation is, in my mind, as valuable as the sources we share.

*I quoted more heavily than I intended to but hope it makes sense.

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