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"Reopening archives"

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 9 months ago

Meeting #2: July 18, 2007, 4:30-5:30, SML 409


Tom Nesmith, "Reopening archives: bringing new contextualities into archival theory and practice," Archivaria 60 (Fall 2005), 259-274.


Discussion leader: Bill Landis


ABSTRACT: The opening of an archives is often an exciting occasion when access is gained to once inaccessible or previously unknown records. Archives today, though, are being reopened through growing interest in the history of records and archives. Approaches to this history have taken some radically new directions, influenced by postmodern insights. The profound implications for archival work of these new directions are still in conceptual infancy. This article offers an overview of this reopening of archives by outlining how archival ideas and work might be reconceptualized in light of these changing perspectives on the history of records and archives.

Nesmith quotes Christopher Butler in positing that "postmodernists are very good critical deconstructors, and terrible constructors." This article begins a conversation on what, practically, we can extract and apply to our work as archivists from the postmodern critique of archives in which many scholars, theorists, and practitioners have engaged over the past decade. In addition to the questions Nesmith raises in his article, we'll hopefully explore the following broad question: If we can't salvage something practical and applicable out of pomo critiques of our profession, are those critiques really at all worthwhile, or do they just serve to make us less transparent and more navel-gazing than we already are? (Bill L.)
Belated addition of some of my notes on this article, which was requested at the July 18 YARG meeting (2007-09-05, Landis)

Contextual turn = deepening appreciation for contextual knowledge about records in the course of our professional work (p. 260)

  • accompanies renewed interest in provenance
  • developing more contextual descriptive work (have we really done more than scratch the surface in this?)


Pomo insights

  • more expansive, wider view of relevant contextuality
  • from uncovering a single 'appropriate' or true context, to ackinwledging various relevant contextualities


Two key questions for Nesmith -- need to "work out further the implications of the contextual and post-modern turns"(p. 261)

  1. Dimensions and characteristics of expanded notions of contexts?
  2. How to incorporate it into our day-to-day work?


Key concept: archival work as ongoing process rather than fixed/finite step in a process

  • Important metadata implications -- we need to parse out our own basic descriptive requirements for supporting our duty to control and find stuff (which arguably is fixed and finite) from various interpretive acts and expostulations of contextual significances, or which the contextuality of provenance is just one
  • Difficult concept for many archivists and a lot of librarians that one tool (the finding aid) serves both functions in the archival profession -- technology has gotten us to a place where we should be able to separate out these two functions/purposes of a descriptive apparatus -- BUT -- and a big BUT it is, doing this requires fairly tight analysis of which metadata supports which functions!


Records/archives (p. 262) -- passive, acted on vs. participatory, contributing actively to action and resulting analysis of archivists and users in maintaining and using the stuff


Nesmith gives us a beautiful framework in which to think about metadata elements in archival description and their functionalities (maybe need to add 'where' to account for and support our duty to control/find the archival materials for which we're responsible?). He makes the point that records are an evolving "an evolving mediation" striving for understanding, and that that mediation comprises "social and technical process of inscription, transmission, and contextualization."

  • inscription (answers who, what, when -- basic identification relating to the records)
  • transmission (answers how -- how did the records get here)
  • contextualization (answers the variety of whys associated with creation and use of the records by those who created, used, and maintained them over time)

Nesmith also throws in the notion of interpretation. Does that really belong in terms of our specific professional responsibilities for records/archives? Understanding, perhaps, falls outside of the realm of metadata that we supply, whereas inscription/transmission/contextualization are not solely functions of archival processes of arrangement and description. Nesmith draws our attention to how the way that we capture information about inscription/transmission/contextualization in our arrangement/description activities shapes/impacts/influences future understandings of the records/archives.


Nesmith also introduces concepts of traces (p. 263), very interesting for archivists to chew on:

"Archiving, as the multifaceted process of making memories by performing remembered or otherwise recorded acts, transmitting such accounts over time and space, organizing, interpreting, forgetting, and even destroying them, prduces constructions of some prior activity or condition."


 Some thoughts on various segments in the Nesmith article:

  • Notion of creation in an archival framework (p. 263) -- not just inscribing, but also transmitting and contextualizing. Authenticity as an unadulterated link between the record and its inscriber is a seldom encountered ideal.
  • Appraisal (p. 263-264) -- action of researching contextualities of the records -- research by archivists should provide enough contextualization to support decisions about selection and retention as part of bringing the collection in and processing it, important to acknowledge the role of the archivist here in creating and shaping the archival record.
    • Interesting correspondence here with the Appraisal/Destruction/Scheduling element in both DACS and ISAD(G), one that I'd wager gets little use in most repositories' finding aids -- what is it that we collectively fear about being transparent in this critical process?
    • Factors other than role of archivist that shape appraisal about which we may be able to gather/transmit information: choices made by inscribers/custodians about what to document and what not, and also what to destroy; what is offered to the archives vs. what is held back; larger institutional mandates constraining appraisal and acquisition decisions (Yale alums, for example).
  • Arrangement (p. 264-265) -- Pomo challenge to archivists' conceptualization of order of records -- our appraisal/arrangement work impacts order (e.g., things we remove) -- received order is frequently not original order, though we often say it is -- how often can we actually know much about original order, knowing vs. speculating and being honest about which we're doing, danger for future users of our being too cavalier in how we describe order -- Nesmith, after suggesting dispensing with concept of original order, suggests that physical ordering in records is still important and that received order should perhaps not be thoughtlessly disrupted
  • Description (p. 265)
    • May frequently just be "explaining various orderings," where does a straight, un-analyzed inventory of received order fall in the spectrum of description vis-a-vis saying something about arrangement?
    • Nesmith notes the "impact [on arrangement] of the transformation [of records] from an operational environment to an archival one," potentially much more of a dramatic impact for electronic records than for paper
  • Fonds (p. 265-266)
    • Suggests replacing traditional concept of fonds with something like an aggregation resulting from a "series of record-keeping activities and archival interventions"
    • Rather than focusing on concept of the fonds in description, Nesmith (and Landis!) would like to see a greater focus on creator history (Administrative/Biographical History element in DACS) + records history (Scope and Content element in DACS) + custodial history (Custodial History element in DACS)
  • Reference and public programming (p. 266-267) -- Nesmith suggests replacing claims of "the truth" with a sense of evolving reality/truth in understanding of the contextualities of records, and enhancing understandings of the social and political power of records/archiving.


Practically speaking, where do we go from here?

  • Focus on robust description at collection level -- action, mediated by archivists, of researching/representing multi-faceted contextuality of records/archives.
  • Existing metadata standards frequently lack or ineffectively use key components of information about context(s) of records
    • missing information on "related societal, procedural, record-keeping, and organization cultural contexts, or anomalies (the way things work)"
    • lack of documentation of subsequent (to inscription) custodial history of records prior to archiving
    • lack of documentation of interventions of archivists
    • lack of information about use and impact of records across time
  • Focus short term on getting additional contextual information into descriptions without feeling like we have to perfect the wheel before we do anything.
  • In the context of DACS, seems problematic to me that there are no rules or an element for processing information -- doesn't really fit into current scope of Description Control element -- more likely need a set of rule for this specific application of the Note element -- something that should be addressed during first review of DACS

Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 12:05 pm on Jul 20, 2007

Thanks to Bill for leading the discussion.

One thing I wanted to learn more about is the division between access metadata and control metadata (and the problem of those being so interwoven in our finding aids).

Are there any useful models for the separation of the two? I know that in bibliographic cataloguing there is the descriptive record, which is then linked to a mfhd. I'm curious to learn about other examples.

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