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Introduction January 11, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Introduction.
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Well, I think the Introduction gives us much material to discuss. I’ll offer a few observations to get us started, but I’m sure many of you will have new perspectives to share as well. (I’ll put the post up kicking off discussion of Chapter 3 on Wednesday.)

— Any extended metaphor, such as Jimerson’s discussion of the archives as temple, prison and restaurant, is inherently problematic as it is a virtual invitation for people to find ways in which the metaphor breaks down—which it will, of course, since no metaphor will apply in all situations. How effective do you think Jimerson’s use of these three metaphors was in introducing his theme—the power of archives?

— One issue I had with the initial discussion of the power of archives is that it did not differentiate between the power of the archives as an institution or organization and the power possessed by the archivist.  It may seem to be hair-splitting, but to me these are quite different kinds of power. In the discussion of “archives as temple” for example, the architecture selected for the building to house archives applies largely to the archives as institution, and is in many ways a reflection of the status given to archives by the society it documents. The process of selecting records for preservation in the archives is clearly an expression of the power of the archivist (who makes the selection), but often also of the archives as an institution (which defines the values that should be reflected in the selection process). And in the last paragraph of that section, yet another kind of power is introduced (which will be discussed at greater length in Chapter 3), the power inherent in the records themselves as evidence of actions. Similarly in the last section, “The Role of Archivists in Society,” all three of these different sources of power (archives as institutions or abstractions, the archival records themselves, and archivists) are intermingled in the discussion.

I agree with both Richard Cox’s observation that archivists need to “transfer some of the power contained in the records to the records professionals and their repositories” (p. 18) and Jimerson’s call for archivists to embrace their own sources of power both for their own good, the good of the profession, and the good of society. I doubt there are many archivists out there who will take issue with this goal. However, I am hoping that as we read the case Jimerson presents for how this can be accomplished that these different sources of power—the institution, the records, and the archivist’s role—are more clearly delineated and discussed. Was this an issue for anyone else, or am I off on a tangent?

— Because of my personal biases, I couldn’t help but consider how much of this discussion does or does not continue to apply when we are talking about people interacting with archives on the Web. There continues to be selection and often some form of mediation, but many of the other barriers presented by the “prison” and the “restaurant,” as well as the cultural signifiers of the physical setting of the “temple,” are gone. Although Jimerson seemingly dismisses online access as a viable way to fully experience archives (p. 17), for many non-scholars (and increasingly for scholars too, I’m told) their only experiences with archival collections may take place on the Web. In what ways does a virtual archives on the Web (and by extension the archivist, too) lose the kind of power Jimerson discusses here? Does it gain other kinds of power?

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Comments»

1. Ruth Cody - January 11, 2010

This is a very good post and brings up a few ideas that have concerned me in my studies.

I am not in favor of using a metaphor, and certainly not three, to introduce the power of archives. One of the major challenges of archives and archivists today is that the majority of the public does not have any idea ( loose or clear) what an archive is. Though being an archivist and working in an archive may sometimes be a complicated thing, the actual concept of an archive is not complicated. By using metaphors, Jimerson continues to obscure exactly what an archvie is, what an archivist does and the use of archives (as records). This is not beneficial to his instroduction of the concept of archival power. It is not necessary for those who are already familiar with archives (from the archivist’s point of view) and is perhaps a disservice to those who are not.

While I agree that there are different components to archival power as mentioned in the post (archivist, record and institutional), Jimerson not differentiating between the three distinctly helps to create a cohesive concept of this power. Archival power requires an understanding of all three components which cannot be divorced from another. I believe that Jimerson (in congruence with Cox) wants to keep the focus of the power on the archivist who is the active source of power. I think his examples (yes, I read ahead) show that the archivist has, could have or should have control over the other two sources. Of course, there is a fourth source of power which is not mentioned outright, but is perhaps the entire purpose of this book. This source being any other human element that abuses (either deliberately or accidentally) the power of the archive as institution or record.

I am very curious to hear what other’s think about Jimerson’s ideas so far.

2. Robin C. Pike - January 11, 2010

Much of the discussion in the Introduction was not new to archival literature, though Jimerson decided to highlight particular points of agreement, setting up his “call to action for archivists.” (p. 4)

Other interesting points made:

P. 10 “Before examining the role of archivists in society… it is important to review the role of archivists within the archives.” Jimerson goes on to reiterate the basic functions of an archivist, but goes to state that archivists have been “struggling to define their role in society (p. 22).” This point is highlighted on page 18, and as Kate mentions in the original post, “I doubt there are many archivists out there who will take issue with this goal.” Unfortunately, I think that there are more archivists in the community who are afraid of taking a stand and becoming more relevant, and are more comfortable passively ignoring the chance to claim power in social society, than we want to believe. These archivists will probably not participate in this discussion, and generally are not active in the social Web culture.

However, I completely agree with this assessment, and see evidence of this every day when spending time in the non-archives community. How do you justify your job, the standards you practice, and your place within an institution when people do not understand the profession? (I am looking forward to Chapter 6!) An archivist actively engaged in the world outside the cold storage room will have a fighting chance to succeed. Hopefully, this book will encourage more archivists to take action, leaving the comfortably passive ones in the minority.

Issues from page 16-17: Outreach is the key to any successful program. I agree that the future of successful outreach is on the Web, however, this will not be done through websites (as mentioned), but social media. In response to Kate T.’s final questions, I think that in the right way, the Internet can empower not only archivists, but researchers. Archivists are still looking to online finding aids to solve access issues, while some archives write blogs on their activities and collections. These are both first steps in utilizing the Internet, and can give a sense of loss of power to an archivist—the archivist doesn’t know they can monitor usage of their materials, and they feel the materials have lost context and provenace. Through web analytics programs like Google Analytics, an archivist can monitor not just how many times a site, page, link, or object are visited, but where their users are (geographically), how many unique users visit the site, how long they spend on the site, and how they get to the site. Some libraries are already using sites such as Flickr, which allows users to comment and enhance the context and provenance through comments. (This topic is discussed in Chapter 6 so I won’t discuss it now.)

3. terryx - January 11, 2010

I liked the metaphors (the poet in me, I guess) as means of studying the three themes of power — creation of archives, preservation/control of archives, and mediation. They were more effective in RJ’s Presidential Address, but they work for me here, too. I especially like the restaurant one — looks like my kind of reference. “Here’s some stuff; make a meal.”

Couple points regarding Kate’s post.

I agree about the whole power thing. The value of this entire discussion might be a better understanding of the nuances of power. There are the individual and corporate dynamics that Kate mentioned (groups might have power as well). But there are different types of power, too. I was thinking of this ina recent discussion of the protocols and the ALA-TCE. Decisions regarding things like these often come down to power. Who has it and who’s willing to exert it. That’s not nearly as noble as the sort of “filled with the spirit” power RJ encourages us to embrace.

The second relates to the web 2.0 sense. I disagree somewhat, Kate. All web 2.0 has done is added a drive-thru, takeout, and delivery to the restaruant. The archivist/archives chooses what activity to emphasize and that choice usually (absent limitless resources) involves winners and losers. So the archivist is still confronted with the responsibility of what to make available, to whom, and how. I think the metaphor holds, its just more complex in a web x.o world.

Jim Gerencser - January 12, 2010

I’m not sure drive-thru, takeout, or delivery fit here. Those would equate, to my mind, the distance reference experience as those still imply some interaction between some food service employee and the customer (archivist and patron, via phone, email, chat, etc.). I think a more appropriate metaphor for the unmediated experience of individuals accessing archives online would be a supermarket (in keeping with the food theme). One finds raw materials, semi-prepared materials, and fully prepared materials, but you can only select from among what is on the shelves. But I do agree that there is still power there. Just as the store manager will stock the shelves with what he thinks will sell, so too the archivist will digitize and share online that which he feels will be of greatest value to his perceived audience (or, perhaps, what he most wants his audience to see). And, of course, both the store manager and the archivist have checks on their power – selection decisions are not theirs exclusively.

4. Cynthia Tobar - January 11, 2010

I also liked the metaphors. I think they’re a great way of illustrating to non-archivists what it is that we do.
Regarding Kate’s comment about interaction with archives on the web, even though the physical barriers are gone, barriers exist nonetheless and the issue of control/power begins to take a more insidious form, due to digitization costs and institutions having to cull from their collections the “content value” of materials that eventually make it online to the public. This is where the different sources of power, mainly the institutional, comes into play. The lack of discussion on the online access aspect by Jimerson did strike me as surprising, and I’m hoping that these issues are addressed, either upon further reading of the book or throughout the discussion.

5. Julie Carmen - January 11, 2010

I am still reading through the Introduction, but so far, I like the analogies used for archives; temple, prison, and restaurant. The temple aspect spoke to me about the lack of reverence that is given to many archives. How many archives are found in basements? Although, now that we know what sunlight can do, I guess not having windows in our repository is good. It did cause me to consider the concept of archives and their worth from the average person from outside archival knowledge. More later – Julie

6. Joshua Zimmerman - January 11, 2010

I completely agree with Ruth about the use of a metaphor to explain the various uses and values of archives to people outside the profession. If we reduce archival repositories, archival materials, archivists, or our profession to a single metaphor (prison, for instance), we run the real risk of obscuring what we do. I believe that clarity in explaining archives is the best policy. Too often archivists let metaphors stand in for in-depth explanation.

That being said, I think that Jimerson’s use of three metaphors helped not only to relate to his audience which are both archivists and non-archivists, but also to frame his introduction. He showed that each image of archives comingles with the others. His thorough exploration of the three themes put me at ease. Often, these metaphors are used in passing and without proper examination and qualification.

Over the years, various metaphors have been used in American archival discourse to describe archives such as bricks, mirrors of society (yikes!), collective memory, and on one occasion, a genie’s lamp. Terry: you’ll have to look up Edward Alldredge’s poem about archives in an American Archivist article from the 1950s.

Terry and Kate: interesting points about digital archives and web 2.0 (power loss and if so, how much). A lot to think about. Keep it coming………

7. terryx - January 11, 2010

If you have that poem, Josh, can you post it? My run of AA only goes back to the 70’s. And another metaphor is the “wavy top turban shell”. Checkout Cheryl Metoyer’s essay in the December 2004 Easy Access (http://www.lib.washington.edu/nwa/documents/EasyAccess–12-04.pdf) for another take on archives power.

Joshua Zimmerman - January 11, 2010

I was mistaken in my earlier comment. It was Aladdin’s Lamp, not a genie that was used as a metaphor for archives. Sorry for the slightly tangential poem. Here you go Terry:

Quarry and brickyard and lumber pile
From which the researcher builds edifices
That educate the statesman and the citizen
And illuminate the common man’s story.

The quiver in which the historian
Finds those arrows of truth
That shoot down myths and maim errors.

Aladdin’s lamp that when skillfully rubbed
Calls forth the genie of yesteryear—
The yesteryear that explains today
And is the prologue to tomorrow.

The enduring documentation of deeds and decisions
That provide an enduring memory
Forever available, valuable, and useful. (16)

from Alldredge, Everett O. “Still to be Done.” AA 28 no. 1 (Jan., 1965) 3-16

8. Lincoln Cushing - January 11, 2010

I liked the metaphors, but I’m struck by the contradictions between the obvious notion of the “power of archives” and the lack of power of those working there. Aside from the thin layer of managers/administrators (which is a whole separate discussion) let’s look at the metaphors. Workers in most temples, prisons, or restaurants don’t make much money or wield much influence unless they are unionized, and even then there are limits. Most line archivists readily run the risk of being fired or disciplined for taking a social justice stand if they run afoul of their bosses. Something is missing, and I would suggest it has to do with the power of an archive belonging to those who own it, not those that work there. A deeper analysis of who benefits is worth poking at.

Robin C. Pike - January 11, 2010

The metaphors seem to be meant to convey our profession to non-archivists, but would these people really pick up a book called Archives Power? What, then, is their significance?

I agree with Lincoln–

“Most line archivists readily run the risk of being fired or disciplined for taking a social justice stand if they run afoul of their bosses. Something is missing, and I would suggest it has to do with the power of an archive belonging to those who own it, not those that work there.”

To have power within an archive, we need to initiate a larger change in the archives community. The archive owners need to recognize the power and relevance of the records, which can only be done through an archivist’s persistence in advocacy and promotion. Additionally, we need to promote ourselves as a profession more widely so that society understands what it is to be an archivist.

Do we have a lobbyist in DC?

Kate T. - January 11, 2010

Hi Robin,

There’s been a whole lot of discussion over on ArchivesNext about the lobbyist issue (SAA has a share of a lobbyist in DC) and whether or not that is truly the best way to promote the profession. I think this seems like a good topic to come back to after we’ve read the whole of Jimerson’s discussion.

As for the usefulness of the metaphors (as well as the second half of the Introduction, which spells out very clearly what archivists do) in conveying our profession to non-archivists, I applaud Jimerson for trying to make this book approachable and marketable to non-archivists. I do think that it would appeal to some outside our profession–granted they may be historians or academics in other fields who assign this book to their classes, but I think that’s not a bad thing. Part of what I hope a book like this would accomplish would be encouraging those outside our archival circle to understand what we do and why it’s important. Will it ever reach a big audience? Probably not, but I think it will have some influence.

Kate

Eric Ketelaar - January 13, 2010

Robin makes the point that the metaphors seem to be meant to convey our profession to non-archivists, but would these people really pick up a book called Archives Power? This comment (and Joshua Zimmerman’s) leads me to question: who are the intended audience/readership? On p. 11 Randall mentions “those less familiair with archival theory and practice” and the Introduction ends (p. 23) with expressing the hope that the book will help remind archivists of their broader horizons AND will enable non-archivists to understand the contributions of archivists to society. Serving these two readerships with one book is rather a tall order! Non-archivists will be bored by the time the book arrives at the heart of the matter, while archivists will not understand why their societal role has to be explained by an extensive presentation of Orwell’s and Kundera’s literary work (rather than by presenting real-life cases, as e.g. Cox and Wallace have done in Archives and the Public Good . At least, I do not understand why chapter 3 (59 pages) devotes only 9 and a half pages directly to the archivist’s responsibilities. [are we allowed to comment on Chapter 3 at this stage?].

9. Yvonne Ng - January 11, 2010

Hi there

I haven’t introduced myself yet… My name is Yvonne Ng. I’m the Archivist at WITNESS, a human rights organization based in New York that specializes in using video for advocacy. I graduated from the MA program in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation at NYU in 2008, and have also worked in various non-profit and institutional audiovisual archives. Thanks for organizing this group. I’m really looking forward to reading along with everyone!

My notes on the Introduction:

– On the three metaphors overall: They seem to primarily describe the power relationships between the archive and user, and do not necessarily encapsulate the archive’s relationships with other important stakeholders; the sites of power when it comes to selection, preservation, and access between say, an archive and a depositor, or a home institution might be very different (What metaphors might we use to describe those, I wonder?). These other relationships are just as important.

– On archives power in general: is that power not always dependent on greater powers that would (going back to the metaphors) build the temple, pay the prison guard’s salary, and stock the restaurant with food?

– On the archive as “prison”: While I agree that some access procedures can be unnecessarily cumbersome and strict, the characterization of archival responsibility and control as “prison”-like seems a bit unduly negative. Where I work, we regularly restrict access and reuse of our content in order to protect the privacy and security of the people whose lives are documented in our footage. The purpose of our “panoptical surveillance” over usage (for instance, vetting our licensing requests) does not “serve to maintain the power of the archives and the archivist” but rather respects the dignity and rights of those who have given us permission to collect their stories.

– The second half of the Introduction provides a good overview of the archivist’s responsibilities. I think it serves as a better introduction for a non-archivist than the three metaphors that open the chapter.

Noah Lenstra - January 13, 2010

Yvonne (and Lincoln) and others – I think you are correct in your critique of Rand’s focus on user-side of archives, to the exclusion of the power dynamics of selection, appraisal and organizational context.

Perhaps Rand’s focus on users is an artifact of the sources upon which he is drawing? Part of his projct seems, to me, to be to bridge the American archival discourse and what has emerged as “archives theory,” principally in history departments, which tends to focus on the users’ perspective since it is being written by users – academic historians.

A second critique – how does power operate at an international level? I am interested in the development of the ICA and its slow inclusion of representatives from beyond Western Europe and the United States in the 1970s (as other international bodies such as UNESCO began being more inclusive in their representatives). This transition was neither automatic nor without struggle. Perhaps another way “power” is exercised is by the unspoken (certainly unacknowledged) ways in which, especially English-speaking archivists shape not only a domestic profession, but an international one as well. On this point I am reminded of Luciana Duranti’s introduction to her diplomatics book, where she notes her surprise at the fact that her articles in Archivaria had reached a multi-lingual international audience.

10. terryx - January 12, 2010

Thanks, Josh. Hmmm. Archives as *weapon.* A mentor once told me that [public] archives “should be the gun at the head of government.” But as Robin and Lincoln point out, it can be dangerous for us little folk to be too powerful. And I would love to see some of the policymakers in my organization read this book; it really lays out how anyone (not just archivists) can use records to improve the human condition.

11. Michael Nagy - January 12, 2010

I choose not to pick apart the metaphors – they work for me in that Jimerson is trying to employ them to explain different types of power. However, like others have mentioned, these differing sources of power are somewhat problematic for me so far. To me they are not comparable in scale. I like what is said about the Power of the Archives, not so much the Power of the Archivist. Sometimes I introduce myself to people as The Keeper of the Stuff. (Well, some people think its witty.) Now, what is really important is not the Keeper, but the Stuff. The Stuff has real Power, not the Keeper. I think we have to admit this. Archivists are more often touting the importance of the records to justify ourselves, rather than those values that we add. Its a simple testament to the relative value of each. All this worry about custody and control, its just temporal, derived Power. Power that I borrow from the Stuff; the Records are the source. I cringe a little at another archivist identity examination. In our case the artist pales so much in light of his subject. No matter how much knowledge I gain of my subject, the records in my custody for the time being, they will always be more inherently powerful. How much Power do the records have without us? How much to we add? What are we without the Records?

Susan Davis - January 18, 2010

I smiled at Michael’s identifying himself as “Keeper of the Stuff.” Keeper was a traditional job title – in 1981 I became “Keeper of Manuscripts” at The New York Public Library, a title I hated because it (to me at least) connoted passivity, a perhaps a bit of the prison image. Shortly thereafter we became Curators, a title with which I was more comfortable. This was a time when few of us focused on our professional power, but more that we were proactive in building and managing our collections.
Others have made some very good points about the focus on the archive and the user, so I won’t belabor those points now. But I do want to say something about the audience for this book. Like Rand, I am an archival educator, and when I read this Intro I thought of the images as good ways to introduce some of these concepts to my students. Perhaps oversimplified but nice anchors from which to launch discussion.

12. Jen Graham - January 12, 2010

I have two comments (albeit not completely developed) which seem pertinent here…

We should not discount the power held by users of archives (or creators for that matter) in determining what will comprise any archives. In terms of the restaurant metaphor, the customer dictates to a certain extent what will be served and how it will be prepared. If a certain “dish,” is unpopular, it might be taken off the menu or re-created. Or similarly, if customers continually ask for something to be added or cooked a certain way, we may customize our services, etc. to appease them. This is especially true in a world where the customer is always right. It seems as though with the advent of the Internet, business models and marketing plans have become a means to engage people with archives which, in turn, pits archives against one another in a struggle to encourage people to use their records. This may be in line with the corporate spirit of our nation, but it seems to detract from the true value of access to archives.

Getting back to the user…are we not a servant to the public? And if so, then mustn’t we aim to please them or at least encourage them to believe we are acting in their best interest? I am thinking of how institutions of power keep their power, in and over society. If society, or in this case users, become too disenchanted with our service, they have the potential to revolt. At times, I think the true power to change archives or use them to empower rests in the hands of the users. Which leads me to believe that outreach and education are the best tools in declaring archivists’ real power. It also might be useful to think about the role of the creators of archives in harboring control or power in this context. Creators choose (in most situations) whether or not their records will become part of an archives. Further, they will choose which records and to what extent they will become part of the archives. More and more groups and individuals are taking matters of archives (and thus archival power) into their own hands. What will be the result in terms of archives and power as Jimerson has presented?

13. Lincoln Cushing - January 12, 2010

Two procedural questions, for Kate and group.

1. I am running across resources, both historic and brand new, related to this subject that would be good to share. Could a parallel site display these? It would streamline the volume of the postings and serve as a concise resource pool.

2. It’s a bit frustrating having to limit discussion to specific chapters when the subject lends itself to jumping back and forth. For example, I’d love to plow into the issues raised by Michael Nagy (the role of archivist in adding value) and the specifics of _how_ archives do or do not best serve the public (or, perhaps more accurately, serve a specific public well) – but those are in future chapters. Perhaps an accelerated “chapter by chapter” discussion, and then wide open?

Kate T. - January 12, 2010

Thanks for that suggestion, Lincoln. There is now a “Resources” page (link at the top, in the image) to which you can post comments that share resources.

And, yes, presumably after we are finished working through the individual chapters of the book we can open it up for general discussion. Remember that not everyone has finished reading it yet!

Kate

14. Alison Stankrauff - January 12, 2010

I’ve found the metaphors both useful and illustrative – as Terry says, “They worked for me”. And perhaps most importantly – I think that they’ll do a good job of explicating archives and archivists to those not in the profession (note: I think that this book will be used, as Kate notes, by historians, other academics, and information and library professionals). That being said, I agree with Yvonne – the second part of the Introduction will be the best explanation of archives to those not in the profession – more than the metaphors.

I’m particularly interested in – and drawn to – the discussion both within the book – and in this group – of the power of the archives vs. the archivist.

I wonder the real “power” of the archives is not a far from uniform mixture of the archives (the “Stuff” as Lincoln says), the archivist, and the “owner” of the archives.

As to the pace that we discuss the contents of the book: I’d love to be able to plow ahead – but I’m reading this after work each day – so while I’m a bit ahead, I’m not enough ahead to be able to comment on the content comprehensively or to cross-reference multiple chapters, etc.

15. Emily Gibson - January 12, 2010

I wish to expand on what terryx said: “All web 2.0 has done is added a drive-thru, takeout, and delivery to the restaruant. The archivist/archives chooses what activity to emphasize and that choice usually (absent limitless resources) involves winners and losers. So the archivist is still confronted with the responsibility of what to make available, to whom, and how.” Goodbye neutrality and objectivity… goodbye nutrition. Although I don’t mean to suggest that “fast food archives” (i.e., catablogs, wikis, websites, etc.) are bad (in fact, I find them exciting), my concern is that they provide an even more selective view of history than the necessarily selective view contained in physical repositories. And “The smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take choice” (p. 161).

Online archives may be more like prisons than temples or restaurants… they often offer little context and no provenance… The information is presented behind truly impenetrable bars (from the point of view of the researcher). Theoretically, blogs, etc., offer a greater outlet for community engagement than repositories by allowing user feedback (Library and Archive Canada’s Project Naming, http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/inuit/index-e.html, is a great example of this), but many archive blogs do not take advantage of this feature. I recently came across an archive website with this statement on its homepage: ”Please note: Although Museum staff is responsible for providing content to the site, we would like to engage the community by enlisting your help to provide additional information by leaving comments.” The statement was directly followed by the information that “Comments are closed.”

I endorse Greene and Meisner’s More Product Less Process; I believe that more time needs to be spent on digitization and less time spent on item level processing. The power of archives is their power to generate ideas. Archives that are not being used are not powerful. Archives are living entities consisting of archivist, researcher and the materials housed within archives… in other words, I believe the temple should have three rulers, a triumvirate if you will 🙂

16. Jacqueline Haun - January 13, 2010

Just to remind people of my context in replying, I am the archivist for a boarding school that is celebrating its 200th year. I’m the full-time archivist and one of a team of six librarians, and I currently have two part-time staff. Our collections are relatively small, and we have a card catalog as access points — no finding aids! (I keep saying I’d be happy if I can drag us into the 20th century, much less the 21st.)

Thanks to a generous donor gift, we are in the process of redesigning and possibly relocating our archives space and that has opened up discussions among the various stakeholders about what “vision” of the archives we want to have for the 21st century. Reading the various metaphors, I can see all three of them very actively at play in the discussion:

– Some people are particularly invested in the physical design of the site, with an emphasis on it being “monumental” and representing the “richness of our legacy.” (Archives as temple) I find it interesting that this particular emphasis is coming most often from older stakeholders. Is that model relevant to younger users?
– Security was one of the driving forces behind our renovation plans. We are furthest from the “prison” model, as we tend to be more informal than most archives, in part forced to it by physical design flaws, but also because we work with high school students. My bias is towards wanting our students to feel welcome in the archives, to recognize that these are their collections (albeit to be treated with more care than they may treat some of their own possessions at their age.) I want to increase our security for the collections, but I feel strongly that I want to avoid being too intimidating for our students.
– The metaphor that resonated the most for me as being closest to my personal style was the restaurant model, with one modification. While we do a fair amount of typical “menu” reference with various adult patrons, we also make a point of trying to help students understand the research process as part of our curricular work. (We’re teaching them to “cook”!) Faculty are trying to get the students to understand by engaging (sometimes unsuccessfully) with collections that history doesn’t exist as a prepackaged product — it is created by SOMEONE.

In trying to balance these competing views of what we do I’m also becoming acutely aware of my personal power (or sometimes lack thereof) as the archivist. Because I work so often with people who do expect quick answers (because we are also in some sense a corporate archives as well as an academic one), and because I also write a regular history column for our alumni magazine, I realize that I do become ‘the official interpreter” of much campus history to the current — and future — community. That’s scary, heady stuff. I know, based on current research patterns, that whatever I put out there is likely to be referred to fifty years from now as the received interpretation.

That said, while I know I am contributing to the official narrative, I also know that I am constantly having to walk a fine line between ethically presenting students and other researchers with historical ‘truth” — some of which is not particularly pretty — and keeping our adminstration from being horrified that old, dirty laundry might be made public. To the same extent that I am empowered by shaping official narrative, I also know that the only acceptable official narrative is going to be somewhat sanitized, at least for public consumption. In that sense, my real power is in what I ensure goes into the archives for discovery by future researchers.

In any case, these questions are not simply theoretical for me, but part of my daily work at the moment and I’m hoping the discussion helps me with thinking through some of the practical decisions to be made as we re-examine the archives’ role on our campus.

Susan D'Entremont - January 14, 2010

Thanks, Jacqueline, for this very practical application of the metaphors. I like the ideas of the metaphors, but as I read them, I felt they could be confusing, especially for those uninitiated in the world of archives. If I may, I would like to use your real-world examples when talking about this to students and those who are establishing or formalizing their (mostly volunteer) archives. I think the metaphors, along with your application of them will help people think through their priorities for their particular archives.

Susan D’Entremont, Regional Archivist for the Capital District of New York

Jacqueline Haun - January 14, 2010

Susan, please feel free to borrow my examples! Because I spend so much time having to explain things to teenagers (including high school freshmen) who are bright but may not know anything at all about what archivists actually do, I tend to think a lot in concrete examples that I know they can grasp. I’m glad someone else is finding them helpful.

Jacqueline Haun, Archivist for The Lawrenceville School

17. Eric Ketelaar - January 13, 2010

Would any non-archivist (or for that matter, any archivist outside the US) understand what the difference is between “institutional archives” and “manuscript repositories” (page 12). What is “record linkage” (p. 13)? What is the difference between a manuscript collection and an archival record group (p. 15)? “Archontic power”(p. 18) is explained as late as p. 132!

18. Eric Ketelaar - January 13, 2010

Having used my stock,. let me finish today’s comments with praise: I am excited about the extensive literature Randall has digested and woven into his text (text is derived from the Latin for weaving!). At last a book by an American archivist who is not afraid of referring to Derrida!

Eric Ketelaar - January 13, 2010

Sorry: stock in posting #18) should be: stick!

19. Rand - January 14, 2010

Wow. I am very pleased with the discussion so far. Only wish there had been some way to engage in this discussion before I finished the book, since you all have given me valuable ideas to consider.

Some of the questions raised might (I hope) be addressed in later chapters of the book. For example, there is at least some discussion of electronic records concerns in chapter 2, and of web 2.0 and social networking in chapter 6.

Those who point put the various types and levels of “archives power” — in institutions, archival records, archivists, and users of archives — have made this distinction more clearly and specifically than I did in the book. I use the idea of power in each of these ways, and perhaps relied too much on context to indicate the distinctions.

I look forward to this ongoing discussion. Naturally, I hope that this “book group” concept will lead to some lomger-term discussions, both within the archival profession and among other constituencies, regarding these issues.

20. Susan - January 20, 2010

Just some thoughts here…

I didn’t get the sense that the metaphors (or this book really) are for people that don’t get what archives are. Maybe someone could take his metaphors and use them to expand our visibility but that might be another project altogether.

I do appreciate all the literature he consulted. There were many footnotes I found myself following and I’m glad he was thorough.

From reading the introduction it seems to perhaps be a conversation between archives (as institutions), archivists and users, although most of the emphasis on the first two.

Obviously the power dynamics involved will relate to the people who don’t know we exist, as they have stakes in what is preserved in the historical record.

I’m hoping he will address the power dynamics within institutions. In the academic library setting for example, this will go beyond the special collections department and likely upwards to people who aren’t archivists such as deans, trustees, provosts etc. What he’s calling on individual archivists to champion might not be possible for everyone who’s interested in implementing it. Existing policies and resources may have to change first. I wonder if in the years to come a follow up book would be in order, particularly one with case studies?

21. Melissa Mannon - February 14, 2010

Firstly, I want to thank Kate for encouraging me to read “Archives Power” through her many Twitter posts about it. When I originally saw the book, I was turned off by its cover and did not pick it up…goes to show the power of marketing and book cover design I guess!

I think I should next explain my position to make my perspective clear. I am an archivist who spends most of my time explaining professional concepts to non-archivists. Though I once worked in a library handling a special collection and institutional archives, I now work as an archives consultant. Most of my clients are historical society volunteers, individuals with personal papers needing care in their homes, and professionals in related fields (primarily curators and librarians) who understand a bit about what we do, but don’t know archival methods. I spend a lot of time thinking about the “documentary record,” trying to get people to take a broad perspective of collections while working hands-on with the details of preserving, arranging, describing, etc.

I have just completed the introduction of “Archives Power” and will reserve most of my judgment until I continue, but I do have some things to say. (And I appreciate being given a forum to say them Kate!) I like the metaphor to which many have referred. I think its use will make our role more understandable to non-archivists. However, I am concerned that Jimerson may be trying to reach too broad an audience for his method of delivery. The introduction seems to be simplifying and providing very complex ideas at the same time. I’m not sure yet if this works. (For example, Jimerson at one point quotes from Elsie Finch that “Use is our reason for being…” This is not entirely true and there has been much written about this very complicated subject. Will ideas about this be expounded or will this idea just be left to stand as is?)

From my perspective of an archivist who is most concerned with helping communities preserve their documentary heritage, I find these to be the most vital points of the “Archives Power” intro:
1. Archives are in the memory business and are still grappling with the best ways to preserve memory
2. Archivists can hold the power to decide what will be forgotten. They are not, or should not be, passive collectors of records
3. Archive repositories hold materials that can be examined to help us form impressions of the past. Documentation is evidence

I look forward to continuing and am sorry that I didn’t get into this discussion from the start. Thank you all for your thought provoking posts.


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