Category Archives: archives

Tomorrow’s History & the Role of Public Libraries

I’ve been thinking about digitization and history; specifically the trusim that history is written by the victors (aka the privileged), and what that means for our current era.

With literacy and war-conquests-slash-oppression on the part of literate groups, orality became devalued as “official” history in most of the mainstream, dominant, Western societies.  Non-literate or illiterate people and groups have largely either been written out or written *about* in what we now deem to be literature and history. (Please forgive my rushed-through and simplistic history of the conquests of literacy-based-culture here…this is just the context part of the post!) With mass printing, the privilege bar to produce, distribute and preserve was reinforced, perhaps nudged a bit, right?  Certainly by the 20th century just writing something down was rarely enough to incorporate it into official narratives of “history”; the writing had to be adjudicated and then reproduced by a professional publisher, preserved by an archivist, or otherwise selected by someone with societal power.

I went to undergrad in 1994.  It was a heady, exciting time, especially if you worked in a library, as I was fortunate enough to do.  The Internet had just gone public!  Netscape and Mozilla were battling it out!  Web 2.0 was already being foreshadowed by innovators like Crayon (remember CraYoN – Create your own newspaper?  Early mashup, back in ‘95!). All the street-level activists in my circles were xeroxing radical zines on their temp job office photocopiers, and the Internet was going to democratize the world! Anyone could publish their work and reach the whole world! Well, anyone in the portions of the world that had electricity at least.  Or at least the literate portions of the world that had electricity…

< – -time warp here- – >

Now, we have these amazing Open Access repositories forming, and we have increasing numbers of people creating and sharing content online. I’m particularly excited about and interested in the community-based archiving projects that are popping up. (**Note to self: write a post about some of these cool projects soon**)

BUT, I have a big concern. I think we’ve all outgrown the “the Internet is going to democratize the world!” phase by now (yes? no?), but I don’t think we’re paying adequate attention to the fact that this migration of “scholarship” and preservation – basically the bulk of what will be tomorrow’s “history”  – is reinforcing the exclusive nature of historical preservation.

We are beginning to see documentation of the same type of hierarchical dynamics in online content generation as we do in printed matter.  I’ve seen recent scholarship focused on the male-female gender gap both in scholarly self-archiving and in creative digital media sharing.

I know most of us aren’t purposefully torching the libraries of our enemies and competitors.  And I don’t want to question the very sensible move of scholarly communication into online, open access format.  But I would like to talk with more folk about how we can hark back to our idealistic 1994 mentality and regain those ideals, if not the naïveté, relating to the potential that digitization holds for the whole of society.

Academic libraries are working fast and furious toward digitally archiving their institutions’ scholarly output.  I think there’s a place for public libraries to serve an organizing function in the community in terms of creating public history. A public history project, perhaps.

Public History Project…I kind of like the sound of that.  Too bad the acronym’s already pretty much “taken.”  Maybe if we slap a “Canadian” on the front end or some such…

Of course, it’s easy to spout off about, and much harder to actually figure out the nuts & bolts: How to you ensure broad community representation?  What do you do with communities that don’t want to participate? How do you select what is of long-term value – or do you at all?  Is that up to the communities themselves, perhaps?  Do you allocate more space to groups under-represented in formal histories and scholarly communities?  Is there content that is unacceptable? What about illegal stuff?  Who’s responsible for the maintenance?  And where does all of this…stuff…reside, anyway?  What formats can reasonably be accepted and preserved? Should the government be involved in this?  What about private funding?  How do you keep things impartial?  Should you strive to keep things impartial?

Despite all of this chaos in my mind about the details, I do think that public libraries are uniquely suited to facilitate a public history project: something technically based on open source software, and developed in coalition with community groups.  And, frankly, perhaps in collaboration with academic libraries, who are doing TONS of work already getting Institutional Repositories up and running.

What are your thoughts?



Filed under academic libraries, archives, censorship, community development, digitization, gender, globalization, media democracy, OA, preservation, public libraries, publishing, racism, technology

Community Archives Workshop in Los Angeles

For any readers who are in Los Angeles – or more broadly as a discussion prompt for anyone interested in community-based archives

I’m helping to coordinate a workshop on skills for community archives on Saturday, March 1st, at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research (SoCal Library), located at 6120 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (, from 11am to 2pm. The Los Angeles Radical Reference group ( is hosting this workshop to teach basic archival skills for community and activist groups. I’ll be leading the workshop alongside two incredible L.A. colleagues doing work in libraries, archives and community organizing.

We’ll use the workshop to begin processing a collection held by the SoCal library: records from the (now defunct) Los Angeles-based Communities Against Police Aggression. We’re especially excited to welcome current activists interested in learning more about these records. We’re hoping that this can foster ongoing cooperation between the SoCal Library, L.A.’s Radical Reference librarians, and community activists.

Some food for discussion/thought: are there others reading this who have worked on fostering collaborations between archives (or libraries) and activist groups? Can historical records be of benefit to the current work of activists? We’ll be talking about this more on Saturday, but I’d love to hear virtually from far-flung archivists or others with experience in this area.



Filed under archives, community development

Social Justice in The American Archivist (!)

I’ve been home with the flu, which has provided time to catch up on some reading (ok, also television. But that’s not for this blog.) The latest issue of The American Archivist crossed my desk about a week ago, and I was pleased to see an article worth writing about here: Randall Jimerson’s “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice.”

But first, a note. I’d love to link to this article here, but despite the fact that this is supposed to be the first issue of AA published online, I can’t find the online content anywhere. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the archivists, but I had no success finding their new online holdings.

Even if the article is available digitally, it’s still locked down for three years to subscribers (SAA members). Because it’s not widely available, I think it’s even more important to draw attention to Jimerson’s article. Jimerson is a former president of the Society of American Archivists and the editor of one of the major anthologies used in archival education. The fact that he’s writing about social justice and archives is a big step for the Archival Establishment in the U.S. (notoriously slow to wake up to archives and social justice – the Australians and Canadians are way out ahead of us.) So, first, three cheers for a social justice article in The American Archivist!

Jimerson addresses some aspects of social justice in archives quite well. He’s eloquent and thorough on archives’ role in accountability: a hot topic right now considering ongoing U.S. government recordkeeping scandals. He also revisits amazing and important work done by U.S. and international archivists, including ongoing attempts to use records to hold the U.S. government responsible for the Tuskegee syphilis study, and Verne Harris’ work using records to bring justice to oppressed groups after apartheid in South Africa.

Jimerson also makes a great argument against the supposed, impossible neutrality of archivists and archivists. He couches this argument, however, in a discussion of the difference between neutrality and “objectivity.” This difference seems a bit contrived to me. Jimerson would like to see archivists be objective rather than neutral, but the small difference between these terms seems like a semantic distinction that will not translate well into practice. Archival objectivity may be just as impossible as archival neutrality. I’d like to see archivists own their biases, limited standpoints, and political agendas, and better, mitigate them by increasing non-archivist participation in records collection and description. I’m not sure that calling for ‘objectivity’ is so different from calling for neutrality.

My major criticism of the article, however, arises when Jimerson gets to the “diversity” part of his platform. Jimerson calls for creating “racial, ethnic and community-based repositories” (p. 266) and “collecting and preserving the records of ordinary people,” (p. 269) which I support and advocate. But creating more collections that document people of color is the end of Jimerson’s vision of diversity. There is no talk of the marginalization of existing “diverse” collections within current repositories; of the political economy of funding for “diverse” collections; of the power imbalances when outsider archivists decide what records to collect and describe; of the ethics of removing collections from creating communities and placing them in elite institutions. There is also no discussion of documenting the ever-shifting nature of race, ethnicity and identity (hardly static entities), no discussion of democratizing participation with archival materials, and no discussion of the risks of tokenizing through “diversity” collecting.

Calling for “diversity” is not a nuanced view of archival social justice; it’s an easy platitude. Archivists must move away from advocating diversity in favor of rethinking and transforming archival practice. We must question – and then reconfigure – entrenched structures of inequitable cultural collection, description, and preservation.


Leave a comment

Filed under archives, racism, The Profession

Records as Spoils of War

This is just depressing.

The Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank associated with Stanford University

…signed a deal on Monday with the Iraq Memory Foundation—a private, nonprofit group that has had custody of the documents since just after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003—for the transfer of about seven million pages of records and other artifacts from Saddam Hussein’s tenure as Iraqi president. The deal came despite recent impassioned calls from Iraq’s national archivist for the collections’ immediate repatriation back to Baghdad.

These records were taken from Baghdad just after the start of the U.S. invasion in 2003, and their presence in the U.S. has been debated ever since. The American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table initiated a resolution condemning the seizure of these documents at the recent ALA Midwinter meeting. That resolution was approved by ALA, and while it’s not yet online, should be available soon (I am told) at the Social Responsibilities Round Table site:

This is a very similar issue to the repatriation of Rwandan genocide records that I wrote about in an earlier post. The same arguments are in play: as an Iraqi expat and professor at Brandeis puts it in the Chronicle of Higher Ed article (linked above), “Baghdad is just not ready for it.” My opinion – and that of the entire American Library Association – remains the same: records belong with the people they belong to.

But how convenient that the Hoover Institution – specializing in the records of other countries undergoing “political transformation,” (their words) – should have these documents. I’m sure their first concern is for the Iraqi people. The whole thing just reverberates with the phony justifications and the clandestine interests of the U.S. in the war itself.

In fact, if you read alllll the way down in the Chronicle story linked above, there’s a hint of a bigger issue:

By all accounts, the largest collection of Baath-era documents resides not with Mr. Eskander or Mr. Makiya, but with the U.S. Department of Defense.


Thanks to Lisa Hooper for alterting the SAA student listserv to this issue.


Leave a comment

Filed under archives

Tagging in Archives

The U.S. Library of Congress’ new Flickr photo tagging effort The Commons is getting lots of attention from info studies folks and the wider blogosphere. The upload of historical photos owned by LC onto such a popular “Web 2.0” site has generated talk about possibilities for incorporating user tags into library and archive collections. The Commons tagline underscores this possibility, reading: “Your opportunity to contribute to describing the world’s public photo collections.”

The Commons is but one example of growing attention to the possibilities for user-generated content in museum, library and archival settings. Projects such as Steve.Museum have similar goals. But as RLG’s Hanging Together blog points out, the LC effort seems to be as much about publicity for LC’s digital collections as it is about incorporating descriptions provided by taggers into LC records. LC, much like Steve.Museum, seems to be testing the water on tags without full commitment to including user descriptions in collection metadata.

The effort also raises questions about the nature of “participation” in collection management and description. Tagging – the practice of users labeling online content with descriptors – seems to many info professionals a promising route toward increasing participation. As someone particularly interested in increasing participation and representation in archives, I’ve often wondered what tagging could do for description of archival resources.

But the more I learn about tagging, the more I question the assumption that tagging = description. Taggers have a wide range of motivations for tagging, and they span far beyond organizational and descriptive practices. Taggers use tags for personal retrieval and time management (tagging a webpage “to read” in tagging giant, and for self-expression and performance (tagging “favorites” or “I hate this” on, or as my colleague Alla Zollers cites, “Maybe that is why i sometimes still don’t feel like a grown woman-music” on music site*

Rather than user-generated description, tagging is something more like user-referential content: tags express a relationship between a person and a digital object. This means that tagging is most meaningful when a relationship between a user and an object exists. If users don’t feel a connection to the content in the LC Flickr collection, they won’t tag. I wonder if LC has considered their intended tagging public and their relationship to a photo collection in choosing collections for display? And if so, how did they define this public?

A different but equally interesting criticism of tagging is that the practice creates “flat” descriptions: tags like “grain elevator,” “baseball,” or “painting,” without dialog about what those descriptions mean. It is also a way of expressing one’s own view without recourse for discussion or the need to consider the view of others. (Tagging political items could really suffer from this lack of dialog). Could we instead envision a system that, instead of asking for one-word descriptions, asked questions like “what does this mean?” or “What is important here?”

For archives, projects like LC’s Flickr collection are a reminder of the question of how to meaningfully increase user participation in collection description. Tagging is appealing for its growing popularity and emerging accessibility. (Still unclear are questions about the demographics of the tagging population – who tags – and whether tagging is, at the moment, culturally widespread.) Tagging can be a step towards user involvement in archival description. But I do not think that tagging, in itself, can increase meaningful participation in archives.

What about all of you? Do you tag? Do you find it useful, accessible, interesting? Do any of the information organizations you work with use Web 2.0 technologies to experiment with collections?


A cool side note about The Commons: the pictures are all widely usable under the statement “no known copyright restrictions.” Fodder for a different post….

* Zollers, Alla. “Emerging Motivations for Tagging: Expression, Performance, and Activism.” Proceedings of WWW 2007. 2007.



1 Comment

Filed under archives

Why did I become a librarian (or, archivist)?

In response to Greyson’s audience-participation post about why we became librarians, I thought I’d chime in with thoughts of my own. It’s been great to read the comments from others, and I probably should have put this in the comments, as she requested, but figured it might run to post length. So here it is, taking up a lot of its own space…

I first worked in an archives for Greyson, actually, at a cooperative summer camp. I was in college, with little idea that “archivist” was a job title. Instead, what I saw was an attic with lots of papers, and kids. And over the summer, those papers became records, and some of those kids became interested in history. And I saw the direct link between shaping of the way we understand history and the interest of people in that history.

Another college job in an archive followed that, but was, again, just a college job. I left, worked in fundraising, but kept thinking back to both the impact of archives, and the injustice done when the experiences of groups or political viewpoints are left out of The Historical Record.  I also have to admit that I looked back fondly on the relative peace and quiet of working with records. For some reason, that seemed very appealing during the time I spent cold-calling and schmoozing donors at after-work events.

The peace and quiet part is funny now, three years into library school and on my way to a degree that will allow me (hopefully) to teach and do research about the social impact of archives. Because as soon as I got an archive internship in graduate school, I realized I didn’t want to the peace and quiet of archival processing. I wanted to tell people about archives, and ask people about archives, and question how we build them and why. I realized archives were growing in an area I had never considered: who tells our stories and how they will be told looms large as we increasingly record our history in digital forms and distributed digital places.

The definition and formation of archives are being reinvented in the digital era. I had no idea that this was happening when I began school. Shaping digital archives has such potential to, as Arjun Appadurai writes, “restore the deep link of the archive to popular memory and its practices, returning to the non-official actor the capability to choose the way in which traces and documents shall be formed into archives…”¹ But issues of inequitable digital access, inequitable digital literacy, and the logistics of digital preservation plague digital archives. I had no idea of the scope of this when I entered library school, but that’s why I’m still here.

I am at times delighted with the thought that goes into building just, equitable archives (and digital archives) in my program: there are a number of students, and a wonderful faculty mentor, focused on just these issues. But as Greyson and the posters in the comments have pointed out, it is certainly not universal to library school or librarians/archivists.  Yet another reason I want to go into archival education – I think a lot of this work has to be done in library school.

1. Appadurai, A. (2003). Archive and aspiration. In J. Brouwer & A. Mulder (Eds.), Information is Alive (pp. 14-25). Rotterdam: V2_Publishing/NAI Publishers.



Filed under archives, LIS education, The Profession

Housing and Accessing the Record of a Genocide

Over on Feministe, contributor Anne has an interesting post on the fate of the archives documenting the proceedings and findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). These archives include case files, transcripts, confidential records and audio/visual materials that document the brutal history of the Rwandan genocide.

According to Anne (who attended a conference on the subject), there is pressure to move the physical archives out of Rwanda and to The Hague. This is a common archival dilemma: what are the ethics of moving the records of a community (or in this case, nation) into another community for ‘safekeeping’? This is enough of a problem in the local cultural communities of Los Angeles, where moving community records to a major institution (say, UCLA) can set up cultural and physical barriers to access. In the case of the ICTR archive, the problem is greatly magnified by factors such as travel distance, travel cost and visa requirements. Though The Hague may be the safest place to keep the records, moving the records to Europe would present huge barriers to access for Rwandans, to whom these records belong.

Anne mentions in passing, however, a potential way to address to ongoing questions of responsibility for documentary records. Apparently, digital copies have been made of most, if not all, of these records. A digital copy of the record allows physical as well as virtual access to the records. In this case (and in an increasing number of cases, as more of our records are ‘born’ digital), Rwanda could continue to house the physical records, keeping the evidence of history and its victims where its citizens can have access. But these records are also available virtually for access around the world.  Virtual access can facilitate ongoing research by the international community, and an (curated, preserved) virtual record can counter any government attempt to ‘expunge’ the physical records. (In light of my last post, experience shows that this is possible everywhere.) In a world of digital records, our notions of ‘ownership’ and ‘safekeeping’ of the record should change to allow for negotiated, flexible responsibilities. In the case of the ICTR records, the physical evidence can remain in Rwanada, where Rwandans can have the first and best access to these records of this difficult past.


1 Comment

Filed under archives

Archives, accountability, and the deleted CIA interrogation tapes

News about the deletion of CIA tapes of “harsh” interrogation techniques is getting a lot of coverage in U.S. papers. (See The Washington Post and The New York Times). Why bring it up here? Because it directly illustrates the tensions between memory, forgetting, and accountability in records.

The CIA’s public justification for the deletion of these tapes is the protection of the CIA agents involved in these interrogations/torture. As reported in the Washington Post article linked above:

“…the decision to destroy the videotapes was made to protect the identities of CIA officers who were clearly identifiable on them. … [An agency spokesman said] ‘Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the program, exposing them to and their families to retaliation from al-Qaeda and it sympathizers.'”

This justification seems to invoke a desire for forgetting and protection on the individual level. If I remove the social and political context of the jobs these agents do, I can understand why the agents and their families would want these tapes destroyed.

But sometimes (often, I’d argue, in the case of government records) a greater need for accountability trump the desires of individuals, or an entire agency, for forgetting. This is a question archivists have been dealing with for generations.  In just one example, a 1970s lawsuit prevented the FBI from destroying files which provided evidence of the FBI’s unlawful intrusion on groups such as the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers. And U.S. government archivists have faced this battle more recently, standing up to President Bush’s Executive Order 13233, which gave presidents and vice presidents the ability to withhold, or delay release of, their administration’s records. And prickliness about evidence in records is not just a hallmark of this administration. Archivists – even those sensitive to privacy concerns – must continually push back against a government’s inclination to secrecy.

Something else for the political archivist to ponder about this particular case of government secrecy: the illustration of the different levels of security that can be provided within a set of records without destroying the records’ ability to promote accountability. Instead of destroying the tapes, could the CIA have kept them classified and secure? Surely the tapes could be shared with members of Congress investigating CIA interrogation tactics without putting individual agents at risk. For example, the identities of the operatives could have been secured (faces blurred, etc) without destroying the tapes and their evidence. After all, it is the upper levels of the CIA that should be held accountable for the actions documented in these tapes. Protecting the identities of operatives seems a weak excuse for destroying a record entirely.

Privacy, secrecy, and forgetting form a continuum – as do evidence, accountability, and openness. Decisions about memory and forgetting should rarely be an absolute choice between one or the other. Archivists (and agencies holding records before archivists get their hands on them) owe it to the public to be responsible about the importance of both of these continua.


1 Comment

Filed under archives

Archives, personal records, and privacy

Greyson alerted me to an article from the Vancouver Sun detailing new access policies for British Columbian archives that contain private personal data. Researchers who want to access records with sensitive personal data are being subjected to security checks of their computers, offices, and even homes. Apparently such checks, which seem on the surface outrageous (not to mention expensive) are already being carried out on Canadian and US researchers.

Draconian rules on archives use cast a chill on researchers
Stephen Hume, Vancouver SunPublished: Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Part of the problem seems to be in the definition of personal information. As Hume writes, it is defined as:

“an individual’s name, address or telephone number; race, national or ethnic origin, colour or religious or political beliefs or associations; age, sex, sexual orientation, marital or family status; an identifying number, symbol or other particular assigned; fingerprints, blood type or inheritable characteristics; health care history including a physical or mental disability; educational, financial, criminal or employment history; anyone else’s opinions about the individual; the individual’s opinions, except if they are about someone else. In other words, it’s a big net with a fine mesh.”

But as badly conceived as these definitions and the resultant new policies seem, they echo concern for an important point: archives do contain some truly sensitive personal data, and the permissions for reuse of that data can be difficult to determine. If personal data is collected in government records for one purpose, and then stored and used by researchers for another, has an individual’s privacy been invaded? How can archives be sensitive to both the rights of the subjects of their collections, and the needs of future researchers?*

The problem with the approach described in Hume’s article seems to be that it places the responsibility for privacy protection solely on the researcher, and assumes that security checks are the right tool to enforce that responsibility. This errs in two ways. First, invading the privacy of researchers in order to protect the privacy of records subjects seems awfully counterproductive. Second, it it is the archive that has collected, processed, and made this information available, and the archive should therefore bear much of the responsibility for privacy protection. Archivists need to be much more proactive in setting privacy policies and incorporating an ethic of privacy directly into appraisal decisions (“appraisal” is the process by which archivists decide to keep or discard a record or group of records). If less sensitive data is retained in personal records, there is less risk to the persons documented in the records. Archivists should carefully consider keeping records with data so sensitive that they could not entrust it to an outside researcher.


*For a nice discussion of archival ethics of privacy, those with access to the archival journals Archivaria or Archival Science can see Cook, T (2002) Archives and privacy in a wired world: The impact of the Personal Information Act (Bill C-6) on archives, Archivaria, 53(Spring), 94-114 and Iacovino, L, & Todd, M (2007) The long-term preservation of identifiable personal data: a comparative archival perspective on privacy regulatory models in the European Union, Australia, Canada and the United States, Archival Science, 7, 107-127.

Leave a comment

Filed under archives, preservation, The Profession, Uncategorized

Blogging, Remembering and Forgetting

Blogging, Documentation and Retention

As I hemmed and hawed over my first blog post – changing topics, editing, deleting – I realized that behind my newbie jitters was lurking an issue I’ve been devoting a lot of time and space to over the last year. And that is: will this blog post be around forever? If I press ‘post’ and decide, in three years time, that the topic was all wrong, that my thoughts on the subject have now changed, that what I wrote was misguided or misinformed, will my text remain out there on the interwebs to haunt me?

This all stems from a series of talks, conversations, blog posts, etc floating around out there about ubiquitous memory. As an archivist, digital media’s promise for documenting communities from their own perspective is exciting. Projects like the Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive and the ReMap LA project are exciting examples of different, promising sorts of digital archives.

But at the same time, forgetting can be a useful process for personal and social growth. Forgetting allows us a new start, to protect private identities or reinvent those identities. This comes home to me as I sit here trying to perfect my first blog post, with the realization that whatever I say in print, even – or especially – digital print, doesn’t have a clear expiration date.

There’s been a lot of academic-y talking about what to do about digital technologies and forgetting, but not a lot of writing. I expect we’ll see more in the next year, but an accessible (both literally and technologically – you don’t need a journal subscription to read it) article which says all this better than I have:

Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School

More soon on a related issue: data retention legislation and its incumbent pressures on data ‘expiration’.


Leave a comment

Filed under archives, business, preservation