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Assessment: What did you think of the book and this process? March 10, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Administration, The Whole Book.

Now that we’ve come to the end, I’m interested in your reactions to both the book and to this “group read.” If you were writing a review of the book, what would you say? For what audience would you recommend it? What kind of follow-up do you think it calls for? Has it made you think about how you carry out your responsibilities in your own archives?

And, what did you think of this group read? Did the blog format work well for the material? Was the pace too fast, too slow, or just right? What could be improved? Do you think there are other kinds of professional readings that would benefit from this kind of discussion? And please, if you’re one of the people who hasn’t finished yet, feel free to comment and share your thoughts–what got you bogged down?

I hope the conversation on this blog about the book and the topics it raised will continue. There is no reason why people who are coming to this for the first time or who fell behind in the reading can’t continue to comment and be part of an ongoing discussion. If you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to the comments for the blog (see RSS link at the bottom of the sidebar at right).

My thanks to everyone who contributed, and most particularly of course to Rand for being open to participating in this discussion and sharing his thoughts with us. One of my motivations for starting this project was to provide an incentive for me to work my way through the book and I’m very glad I did. I learned a great deal from the book and having people to discuss it with–even if only virtually–added even more to the experience.


Conclusion, “Rethinking Archival Ethics” March 8, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Conclusion.

I will confess to finding this concluding section a bit hard to summarize. It appeared to me that Jimerson presented evidence that the role of ethics in the archival profession in the United States should be reconsidered, but I did not see him make strong specific recommendations presenting an alternative, which is what I was expecting to find.

The volume concludes with some observations about the value of codes of ethics and the potential conflict archivists may face between adhering to a code of ethics and advancing social justice. Jimerson argues that codes of ethics can present problems for practicing archivists because they emphasize “abstract concepts with little context for analysis, such ethics codes can be interpreted in numerous ways and often provide only the vaguest sort of guidance for archival practitioners.” (348) He then presents the argument that for archivists responding to the call for social justice, codes of ethics may “interfere with this obligation to personal morality.” (349) For example what if your code of ethics compels you to comply with an unjust law? Should one follow a code of professional ethics or a higher moral calling?

Jimerson seems to be calling for a stronger code of professional ethics than the current SAA model (p. 350), in part to “help bridge the gap between the archival profession and the public it strives to serve.” He concludes this section with, “This will not resolve moral dilemmas, but it will establish a solid basis for individuals to make ethical choices and to explain the resulting decisions to the rest of society.” (351)

He then presents the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials as “a test case” of the tension between archival ethics and social justice (354-358). The protocols challenge traditional archives practice and ethics, and Jimerson concludes that in this test case, archivists should respond to the higher call for social justice and “support the essence of the Protocols.”

I’m only highlighting some of the contents of this section, but do you agree with my general impression of this chapter, or am I missing something? I also wonder how Jimerson thinks future revised and rethought codes of ethics should be enforced–see for example Richard Cox’s lengthy post “Not Enforcing Ethics” on the sadly discontinued Reading Archives blog. I admit that I am somewhat disappointed that a book called Archives Power didn’t end in a more powerful way. Given the inherently complicated nature of discussions of ethics, I’m not sure that the book could have concluded with a powerful statement on the topic, but I do feel as if it’s missing a more complete summation of all the themes of the book.

Chapter 6: Professional responsibility and advocacy, pp. 328-341 March 3, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

I had originally given this post the title “Professional responsibility as advocacy?” but I thought it was too much of a stretch.

In considering these last sections of Chapter 6, I see Jimerson describing a range of possible actions an archivist may take to support a social justice agenda. The most unusual and personal of these would be taking action yourself to address malfeasance involving records, becoming at some level a whistle-blower. Jimerson provides several notable examples of archivists putting their own professional lives at risk to “do the right thing.” Cases such as these sometimes result in proper actions being taken regarding the records, and sometimes they don’t, just as they sometimes result in positive media attention but are just as often ignored by the press.

I see the next level as taking action to lobby or advocate regarding a specific records-related issue. Again, Jimerson devotes some time to discussing how individual archivists and our professional organizations have taken action on issues in the past, most notably government secrecy. We could also include in this category taking action to support the whistle-blowers and others who “do the right thing” as discussed above. Again this is a combination of professional responsibility with more general advocacy on behalf of archives. Often providing support on a records-related issue involves a certain amount of education as well. One has to explain why it matters, and this in turn is an opportunity to reinforce the importance of archives, records, and the role of the archivist.

The top level, which I think is only touched on, is more generalized advocacy in the form of outreach or public relations either by individual archivists on behalf of their own organizations or by our professional organizations on behalf of all archives. This would include working to build relationships with allied organizations, which Jimerson notes is an important part of broadening support for archives. It’s appropriate, I think, that Jimerson spends less time on this aspect since it has the least to do with social justice. Some would argue, however, that it is at this level where we have the most to gain from making a case for “archives power.” The individual and collective actions we take to support social justice in archives are powerful expressions that can illustrate the importance of records and archives, but I think it would have served the argument of the book better if Jimerson had concluded this last chapter of the book by recapping the various sources of “archives power” that he has described in previous chapters. I think what he has here is great, I was just looking for a more comprehensive wrap-up of the themes of the whole book. But I haven’t yet read the Conclusion, so perhaps I’m speaking too soon.

How did you think these last sections worked?

Chapter 6: “Embracing New Technologies,” pp. 319-328 March 1, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

Well, as you’ve seen, I’m quoted in this section and I gave Rand some advice about it, so I was a bit anxious to see how it turned out. This topic is near and dear to my heart so you’ll have to indulge me if I write about this at one at greater length.

After observing that fundamentally electronic records are no different from non-electronic records, Jimerson provides a brief discussion about the new requirements electronic records bring to traditional archival practice (need for involvement at the beginning of the life cycle, new skills needed for digital archives, etc.), He then provides some useful reminders about a few of the realities of “Web 1.0”–increasing user expectations and demands (well, most of us don’t need to be reminded about that one), and also:

Despite these signs of progress toward greater access, however, “web pages are nonetheless a very powerful form of mediation and gatekeeping,” according to archival educator Helen Tibbo. For many researchers the website may replace the physical archives as the repository of information they will access. This means that content made accessible on a website is privileged over the vast majority of archival records.  (322)

He then gives a pretty good overview of Web 2.0 tools and how they are being used in archives, concluding: “the central thrust of using Web 2.0 for archival purposes focuses on enhancing access, particularly for researchers who have not previously used archival collections.” (325) He then references two recent Archives 2.0-related articles, Max Evan’s “Archives of the People, by the People, for the People” (American Archivist, 2007) and Elizabeth Yakel’s “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise” (American Archivist, 2003). He notes that both articles describe collaborative efforts between archives and the users, taking advantage of the inherently interactive nature of Web 2.0 tools.

What I question in this section is the assertion that “in order for users to use archival sources effectively, however, researchers need to understand archival systems, principles, practices, and institutions–what Yakel calls ‘archival intelligence.'” (325) I don’t question Dr. Yakel’s findings in her study (although it has been a long time since I read it), that this kind of “archival intelligence” is currently required for successful use of archival resources on the web. What I challenge is that this is an assumption we should continue to hold moving forward. How can we expect to successfully expect to attract new users to archives when we require such a high level of commitment from them? Should we not be looking for ways to create systems or methods of access that make implicit this kind of “archival intelligence” or perhaps be re-examining our own methods of practice. Is it a good thing that users need to understand “archival systems, principles, practices, and institutions” in order to successfully use our holdings?

Jimerson then talks about “An Archivist’s 2.0 Manifesto,” which I posted over on ArchivesNext back in August 2007, and uses a quote from me talking about the culture that Web 2.0 promotes, observing that this development supports archivists and archives interested in achieving “democratic goals of inclusiveness, diversity, and community.” (326) Naturally, I’m on board with this part, but you don’t have to be. Did you have any issues with this rosy view of Web 2.0?

Well, speaking of clouds on horizon, Jimerson then raises some valid points about potential pitfalls: the continuing disparity in Internet access among different geographic regions and socioeconomic groups, the risks posed by information presented without “gatekeepers,” manipulation of social media by governments and corporations, and risks to personal privacy, as well as reminding archives to be wary of entering into contracts (such as digitization agreements) that limit access to archival materials on the Web. Jimerson ends this section by concluding:

However, in the applications thus far employed by archivists to enhance their services and empower archival users, such dangers seem relatively distant. With a wary eye on the horizon, archivists can embrace these new technologies as part of a reorientation toward a user-centered approach to archival practice.

I agree, but would also add that there are many issues to consider as we gain more experience using social media, and that it’s important for the profession to begin reflecting on what we’ve learned. I think Jimerson was wise to include a discussion of the potential presented by Web 2.0 for enhancing “archives power.” Social media present unprecedented opportunities for archives to create engaged communities of users which may cross geographic and other boundaries, but these tools also allow groups of users to create their own communities without our sponsorship, or even participation. This is perhaps an area for Jimerson and others to consider in future works on the relationship between archives, social justice, and social media–how archivists can (or should) participate in and document online activities that relate to their collections in a manner that supports the goals of social justice. Are there new issues to consider, or do the “rules” remain the same?

Chapter 6: And don’t forget about description and reference! (pp. 309-319) February 25, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have used such a glib title, but it’s my personal view that issues of social justice are so often considered in conjunction with appraisal that they may be overlooked in relation to description and reference.

Archival description, just like any form of cataloging, is part of a process of control and a conscious or unconscious expression of power and political views. It is, as Jimerson notes, “inherently subjective.” (310) We choose what we describe and how we describe it, and all those decisions have implications. Just as in the previous section, Jimerson assembles some recommendations for his readers in regard to description:

  • “In preparing finding aids archivists should be alert for subtle shadings of bias and privilege in how they refer to social groups and individuals.” (312) (I found this section quite strong)
  • Description of holdings should include highlight gaps in the records–“the ethical archivist tells the user when the information is fragmentary, and clearly distinguishes what the archivist does not know from what she does know. Full disclosure avoids misrepresentation.” (313)
  • Inform the researcher about the circumstances of archival processing and description through methods such as additions to the finding aid (i.e. annotations or colophons) or supplementary materials that describe the institutional context and approach to processing taken at the repository. (313-314)

In regard to reference and access, the ideas Jimerson proposes seemed to me more like reminders of good professional practice—necessary and good, but not surprising:

  • Archivists must withhold from access all materials in accordance with legal requirements and the rights of “third parties” affected by archival disclosure. (314-315)
  • All materials not being withheld must be provided to all researchers on an equal basis, giving no special consideration to any class of researcher. (315)
  • Reference services must also be provided an equal basis to all researchers. [with caveat listed below] (316-317)
  • Public programming and outreach should reach out “into new venues of social policy and practice.” (317)
  • Efforts should be made to reach out to potential users who may not know about or feel comfortable using the  archives. (317-318)
  • Archivists should encourage the use of exhibit areas and other public spaces to open up the archives to people from all parts of the community, thus, as Verne Harris describes, transforming them “from a domain of the elite into a community resource.” (318-319)

At the close of this section, Jimerson goes further, calling upon archivists to “take sides”–“particularly when someone stands in front of the reference desk seeking information to secure justice.” (317) Archivists should also intercede, providing “unequal services” when users seeking social justice are unfamiliar with how to conduct research in the archives. In these cases, the archivist should step in and provide more assistance than is usually provided.

What were your reactions to this section. Does Jimerson go too far or not far enough in the areas of description and reference–or does he get it just right?

Chapter 6: Capturing the voices of the “voiceless populations,” pp. 298-309 February 22, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

I’m skipping over pages 295-298 (“Accepting Professional Responsibilities”) although I think they are a very strong statement about the goals of the book. I almost wish that this section had been the kick off for this chapter, because it provides such a good summation of Jimerson’s aims.

But the next three sections seem to form a natural grouping around the question: what can be done to ensure archives are including in their collections the materials necessary to document people or organizations who have traditionally been under-represented? Jimerson provides several possible approaches for this:

  • reconsider the principal of provenance in light of unequal power relationships (299)
  • seek to hire archivists from the culture(s) that are under-represented (300)
  • take into consideration the issues raised by documents such as the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (however, see caveat below)
  • “seek opportunities to preserve records of those often overlooked by their collecting strategies and recognize the broader concept of provenance for an entire community” (300, and 301-302)
  • consider going beyond our “custodial role to fill in the gaps, to ensure that documentation is created where it is missing” (303)
  • recognize the value of “oral transmission” by both recognizing the “primacy of oral tradition in some cultures,” and seeking to add to the completeness of the archival record by proactively creating oral histories (303-306)
  • seeking to ensure a more diverse archival profession. (306-308)

While I support his aims, I was glad to see Jimerson apply cautions or caveats in two places in this section:

However, concern for the rights of less powerful societal groups should not obscure the troubling questions arising from outside professionals intruding in these communities, nor the potential for over-compensation. [. . .] Professional observers who participate in these documentary processes must also remain alert to the dangers of overly romanticizing “the other,” and thereby either further aleinating and drawing cultural boundaries around them, or uncritically privileging their voices as more authentic or valuable than those of other societal groups. (300-301)

Institutional archivists will not be expected to overturn their legitimate emphasis on the needs of the parent organization-whether government, business, academic, or another type of institution–but there is room to broaden the perspective, to open up the criteria for archival selection, to review appraisal criteria, and to ensure that diversity becomes a deliberate consideration in writing finding aids, providing reference service, and conducting outreach initiatives. (pp. 308-309)

What did you think of the specific strategies Jimerson describes? Can you think of others? Did you find his arguments persuasive?

Chapter 6: “Objectivity is not neutrality,” pp. 290-295 February 14, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

I found this short section very rewarding. Before reading it, I would probably have said that the two words could be used interchangeably (and indeed in common, everyday use, they probably can). But I think Jimerson is right to bring up the discussion of the distinction between these words and the associated stances they represent for historians as well as archivists. As I understand it, broken down into the simplest terms this argument states that for an archivist to be “neutral” is to say that he or she (or we, as a profession) have no opinions or values about the matter at hand. To require this kind of neutrality in matters relating to our professional activities is not only unrealistic (we all have opinions, and we cannot help but have them affect our performance), but only unnecessary if we are “objective.” Although I could not find a clear single definition, it appears that objectivity allows an archivist (or a profession) to have a position or opinion on a matter, as long as the associated behavior is based on “evidence, logic, fairness, and honesty.” (p. 292) Does that capture it accurately?

Transparency should probably also be added to that list. Particularly in light of the commonly-held belief that historians and archivists are “neutral,” it seems critical to me that we make our positions clear up front and “show our work,” if you will. A good example of this is Jimerson’s preface to this book. As he writes (p. xv), “Before entering this discussion, however, the reader has a right to know something about the author and his perspective on these issues.” This kind of transparency, as has been discussed in terms of adding supplementary material to finding aids, is a way of revealing and admitting that we are, like everyone else in the world, not neutral, but that we are striving to demonstrate our own objectivity.

Chapter 6: Diversity and Respect, pp. 279-290 February 8, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

I’ve decided to take a different approach to Chapter 6. I’ll be breaking it down into smaller chunks covering one topic at a time. This chapter has a lot of ideas in it that I think could benefit from attention on their own. Also, given how many people seem to have fallen behind, I think this may also encourage people to get back in the discussion. I won’t say that you don’t need to read the rest of the book, but I will say that I think you can read just the pages we’re talking about and still not be completely lost.

Jimerson opens this chapter by returning to ongoing debate on how to define a professional identity for archivists, concluding with his observation that: “Archivists must not let their differences divide them, as they serve broad and diverse needs of society.” A while back, I wrote a post on my blog  asking “What is our core identity, or, can we all fit under one big tent?” (The answer I came up with is, “Yes, we can.”) So I am very much in agreement with his call for archivists to concentrate on what unites us rather than trying to create distinctions which create barriers.

To support his argument Jimerson discusses the diversity found within the profession, as demonstrated within the Society of American Archivists. He uses archivists who work with religious and corporate archives as examples of the diversity of the profession, and also as object lessons for what I think is the secondary theme of this section–the need for archivists to respect the professional choices made by their colleagues. It is in this section that he addresses head-on a subject that has come up in our discussions here:

Before articulating the implications of the call of justice and the potential demands of a new concept of archival ethics, it is necessary to address the objection that many archivists will not be able to accept these new perspectives. That is true. Some archivists will be constrained by institutional policies, by their reluctance to endanger their job security, by time constraints in the face of new initiatives, or by their own ideological or personal opposition to such concepts. There should be no stigma or criticism for archivists who do not accept these recommendations as personal or professional goals. By the same measure of tolerance, archivists who do embrace these concepts should be accepted as practitioners of a shared professional identity. (p. 283)

Jimerson follows this appeal with a lengthy discussion of the tensions between private/corporate archivists and archivists who service “public” collections (primarily government, college, and university archivists). Although I was a member of SAA during “Raisingate,” I admit I didn’t pay much attention to it, so I appreciated the discussion of the issues involved. What the selection of the “Sun Mad” image revealed (unintentionally, I’m sure) is that there are sensitivities, rifts, prejudices, and divisions lurking beneath the surface harmony of SAA. (Or am I wrong that the surface appears harmonious?)

Am I right that there’s room in the big tent for all of us, as Rand suggests, or are there important differences that can’t be ignored? Does focusing on the differences distract us from achieving larger goals?

Chapter 5 February 1, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 5.

Chapter 5 presents a case for archives as agents or servants of “the public good,” focusing on four themes:

  • Accountability of political and social leaders,
  • Open government,
  • Social justice, and
  • Diversity and identity.

The discussion of these topics is supported by references to the uses–and misuses–of archives and records by individuals, governments, corporations, and political entities. I was familiar with many, but not all, of these examples, but I still found this chapter engaging.  I would be surprised if anyone argues that archives don’t derive power from their inherent ability to support these four goals (although, please, by all means, argue away!).   Although I don’t think I’m quibbling when I note that there’s a difference–not made clear in the text–between the power of records and the power of archives. For example, the records preserved on the backup tapes in the PROFs case, the Enron records, the Nazi records seized by Allied troops and the records of the Khmer Rouge prison system were never selected for preservation in an archives–quite the opposite. These were active records, still under the control of their creating organizations prior to being seized. They may have subsequently been transferred to archives, but they did not continue to exist because of the conscious decision of an archivist. (I think this issue has been raised in regard to previous chapters as well.) Does this detract from the larger argument about the power of archives?  I don’t think so, but what do you think?

For me, this was the most successful chapter so far, probably because the examples used are concrete and drawn primarily from recent history. And of course because I’m drawn to the notion of archives being used for the public good. What was your reaction to this chapter?

Chapter 4 January 27, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 4.

I am supposed to be kicking this discussion off to talk about how issues of power are presented and discussed in Chapters 3 and 4, but perhaps as many of you were, I am more interested in discussing the concepts related to Memory that Jimerson brings up in Chapter 4. So, forgive my digression.

There is, as always, much to discuss. You can pick virtually any paragraph (or even sentence) and that could lead to a discussion on its own. Upon reflection, there are two issues that stuck with me. The first is the way Jimerson deploys the concept of memory in this chapter. Perhaps like some of you, I had a class in graduate school about archives and memory, so I’m sure my reaction to this chapter was shaped by that. Memory is a nebulous concept, and here Jimerson expands and abstracts the concept to present four different types of memory—personal, social, historical, and archival. Perhaps because of the framework I am already bringing with me, I found this approach less useful than discussing the relationships between the distinct entities of history, archives, social or collective memory, and personal memory. What did you think of Jimerson’s presentation of historical and archival memory?

My second issue is one that has been raised previously in the comments, but it reverberated as I was reading the second half of Chapter 4.  Archivists work within institutions, each of which has a mission and collecting policy (at least it should!). Archivists serve the needs of the institution which employs them. While I agree with Jimerson’s concluding call for archivists to expand their collections to include materials relating to traditionally underrepresented people, I think this discussion would have been more useful if it had acknowledged and addressed the conflicts that arise when one attempts to do so in a setting where that is not a primary objective of one’s employer. While I agree that one of the audiences archives serve is the future, our actions in the present are very much governed by the present concerns of our employers and other stakeholders. Perhaps this will be addressed in later chapters (perhaps even in the very next one), but it is difficult for me to read calls for action in the abstract without thinking of the practical implications in the institutional settings with which I’m familiar.