“The Site of Memory”

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At the Society of North Carolina Archivists annual meeting this year, I had the pleasure of hearing Holly Smith (the archivist of Spelman College) deliver the keynote address.  She spoke about the importance of documenting underrepresented communities and made several comments worth noting:

  • She quoted the West African proverb, “No one is ever truly dead until they are forgotten.”
  • She acknowledged HBCUs have a challenge to avoid developing a singular narrative of African Americans.
  • She contended that we are all repositories — and sometimes people may choose not to share their stories, so we as archivists must respect that wish and trust them as stewards of that information.

She also referenced the writing of Toni Morrison on the differences between facts and truths, which motivated me to find this article and see what this great novelist had to say.  In 1995, her talk “The Site of Memory” was published in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir.  Morrison compared her work as a modern writer to that of the authors of slave narratives.  While they frequently felt inhibited from revealing their interior lives, Morrison suggested her purpose is “moving that veil aside.”  In order to do so, she needs two things — to trust her own recollections as well as those of others.  Because these interior lives may not always be a part of the record, she sees herself as a literary archaeologist.  By adding a dose of imagination, Morrison creates fictional masterpieces.

Morrison incorporated the words of other well-known authors to delve into the concept of memory:

  • Zora Neale Hurston: “‘Like the dead-seeming cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.'”
  • She looked at how Frederick Douglass, Simone de Beauvoir, and James Baldwin wrote about the death of relatives.  Morrison said of her own ancestors, “these people are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life.”

Tying together the various pieces she introduced, Morrison contended that “the act of imagination is bound up with memory.”  She compared the imagination of writers to flooding by rivers:

“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.  Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.  It is emotional memory — what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared.”

And to incorporate the point referenced by Holly Smith: Morrison acknowledged, “Fiction, by definition, is distinct from fact.”  But she went on to say that the more important distinction is fact from truth — “facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”  This relates back to her point about being a literary archaeologist, for she takes the image created by “the remains” of someone’s life story and adds her own recollections and imagination to create “a kind of a truth.”  I think ultimately she’s suggesting truth is more nuanced and doesn’t exist without our own personal filters.  In many ways, this is similar to my topic last week and Lee Smith’s evaluation of facts and truths.

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Writing memories

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It’s time to get down in writing some of the ideas I’ve had on the back burner for a while, and the first of these relates to a talk I heard Lee Smith give at the National Humanities Center in March.  It was largely a reading from her memoir Dimestore, but she also provided some insights into her thoughts about writing.  In some ways, she found it more challenging to write nonfiction because she found herself stopping to ask, is this true?  But at the same time, she suggested writing is a therapeutic activity because it can fix loved ones in our memory.

Smith drew an interesting distinction between facts and truth.  After many decades of writing fiction along with this more recent nonfiction effort, she decided she can tell “the truth” better with fiction because she can make her story work to fit that truth, where the stories of real life may not quite so neatly add up to the narrative she wishes to communicate.  When she was writing the memoir, she brought her cousins together for a family reunion and realized everyone had different stories from shared events.  She decided that in the context of a memoir, as long as she believed them to be true, she could incorporate her memories into this work of nonfiction.  But she eventually decided she considers herself to be more of a storyteller than a writer.

This term storyteller actually has some interesting connotations.  As Smith pointed out, when she was growing up, if someone was accused of “telling a story,” it had the connotation of telling a lie.  Yet by the age of 9, she had begun her career of writing stories for entertainment — sometimes related to stories she heard at her father’s dimestore or at the courthouse where her grandfather was treasurer or at her grandmother’s house or in her mother’s kitchen.

In 1983, Smith wrote a novel entitled Oral History.  She explained she had worried about the homogenization of American language, so she spent many years recording her family in southwestern Virginia and wrote this novel to try to preserve some of their vernacular.  In a chapter narrated by the character Sally, she includes this commentary about memory:

“A lot of big things happened, is what I’m saying. It’s funny how you don’t remember those, though, how after the passing of so many years what you hold to is what you never thought about at the time, like Pappy out on the porch singing or me and Mama having coffee so early in the morning” (244).

So what are the connections between writing and memory and fact and truth?  Whether or not we ever put pen to paper, I would suggest that the memories in our own lives that we hold dear are those that resonate with the narrative we’ve constructed of our lives — the events and people that come together to make us who we are.  Absent a daily diary, most of us don’t possess the day-by-day memories of every occurrence, but we remember the more formative interactions, both good and bad.  In doing so, perhaps we are reinforcing “the truth” of who we are.

Archival Principles: Authenticity

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block AI conclude my series on archival principles today with a look at authenticity.  The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines authenticity as:

the quality of being genuine, not a counterfeit, and free from tampering, and is typically inferred from internal and external evidence, including its physical characteristics, structure, content, and context.

Often times, the evaluation of authenticity focuses on the creation of the record and the path taken by this record before it comes to rest in an archival repository.  This is summed up by the term provenance, or “information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.”  I think archivists have embraced the principle of authenticity because of the desire to demonstrate the uniqueness of archival records.

Authenticity used to be demonstrated by signatures or wax seals, and these could be validated by testing inks and papers.  But with the emergence of born-digital records, there are no tactile measurements of authenticity.  Instead, many archivists have adapted the tools of digital forensics in order to be able to demonstrate that no changes have occurred to the files since they were deposited at the archival repository.

While for some authenticity may also bring the connotation of reliability, that gets complicated in the archival realm, so that will be the topic for musings on another day.

Archival Principles: Access

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block AThe SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines access as:

1. The ability to locate relevant information through the use of catalogs, indexes, finding aids, or other tools.

2. The permission to locate and retrieve information for use (consultation or reference) within legally established restrictions of privacy, confidentiality, and security clearance.

There are occasional exceptions to the rule, but I generally argue that if materials warrant archival preservation, they need to be made accessible.  The arrangement process I described last week helps facilitate access to archival records by identifying their content and other elements and concisely recording this information in a finding aid or other research aid.  Unfortunately, thoughts about access don’t always seem to bear on decisions about accessioning or preserving materials.  In researching my master’s paper, I found particularly with born-digital materials a lack of planning about how electronic materials will be made accessible to researchers.

Traditionally, access to archival records has been provided to researchers who come to the reading rooms of archival repositories.  Occasionally, remote researchers would request materials be microfilmed for their review off-site.  Increasingly, the researcher’s impulse to “let me Google that” is leading repositories to consider digitizing materials to make them available for online access.

There are certainly advantages to providing remote access to digital copies of archival materials.  For one, doing so removes some of the stumbling blocks that researchers unfamiliar with archival practices and protocols face when visiting a reading room for the first time.  It can also broaden the reach of your repository to those who may never be able to darken the door.

But there are also accompanying disadvantages.  Items that are put online can often be discovered by search engine rather than by navigating through a finding aid on the archives website.  Archives are increasingly thinking about the metadata they associate with files to enhance this discoverability, but making it easier for people to Google materials means they may miss out on the context of the rest of the collection in which the particular document or picture is located.  Without any personal interactions with an archivist, the researcher may also miss out on advice about other related materials.

The other issue repositories must address if they want to provide online access — and which can become a disadvantage if it’s ignored — is what’s the plan for accomplishing this?

  • What should be digitized — individual items that are requested? entire collections that are heavily researched? everything?
  • Can the scanning be handled in-house or will it need to be outsourced?
  • Does the repository have a collection management system that can provide the technological infrastructure necessary to upload digital assets to the World Wide Web?

Much more could be written about this, but for now I’ll conclude by saying that scanning materials in a haphazard will only create headaches both in the short-term and definitely in the long-term.

One final issue that has become more contentious in the era of online access is the appropriate role/responsibility of the archival repository in protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the donors and the subjects of the archival materials.  When these materials were only available under restricted conditions within archival reading rooms, many donors didn’t think too carefully about the ramifications of the materials being publicly accessible.  But now even with yearbooks and college newspapers and other materials that were clearly public at the time of their publication are appearing with increasing regularity among digital collections, more and more people are embracing the idea long common in Europe of the right to be forgotten — and archival repositories are left to figure out how to handle take-down requests.

Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done in the realm of archival access.

Archival Principles: Organization

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block OArchivists are responsible for both physical and intellectual control over the collections in their repository.  Physical control is established with a good inventory system for tracking where collections are housed and through the physical arrangement of the materials.  Intellectual control is asserted through the conceptualization of how best to organize the materials based on their development and use and also through the description process.  Archival processing = arrangement + description.

Arrangement usually creates levels to organize the materials, often drilling down into series, files, and items.  As the materials are perused for this purpose, the archivist also engages in a process known as weeding, which entails removing duplicates as well as out-of-scope materials.  Often times, the donor agreement specifies what should happen to such materials that will not be retained permanently at the archive.

Description is intended to explain the content, structure, and context of the archival collection.  The primary output of this work is known as the finding aid.  Finding aids can take the form of online catalogs, inventories, indexes, and general holdings guides.  Finding aids often include not only information about archival processing but also the acquisition of the materials, the media on which they are recorded, and the size of the collection.

Standards are key to archival processing, especially description.  Archivists worldwide adhere to standards for the structure of archival finding aids for numerous reasons:

  • efficiency
  • increased findability of materials by users
  • easier collaboration among repositories

Standards for archival description have existed since the late 19th century, but the advent of the World Wide Web has encouraged their adoption because it facilitates the accumulation of information about archival materials into federated databases that are easily searched by researchers, who are spared the tedium and time investment of searching each repository individually for relevant materials.  Some repositories have come together to create consortia for this purpose, such as the Online Archive of California and Archives West, rather than have the findability of their collections depend solely on the algorithms of Internet search engines.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the principle of context and suggested context can be used to help patrons understand the documents they research.  Archivists record much of this information during the process of arranging and describing an archival collection.  Interestingly, this information is possibly reflected in different parts of the finding aid for an archival collection.  According to Describing Archives: A Content Standard, the administrative or biographical history element “describes the relationship of creators to archival materials by providing information about the context in which those materials were created.”  The scope and content element is intended to help users evaluate the relevance of materials for their research and includes information such as how the materials were generated, forms of the records, dates and places, subject matter, etc.

Archival Principles: Preservation

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block PThe SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines preservation in these ways:

1. The professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property.

2. The act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment.

The notes go on to suggest preservation might be considered distinct from conservation or might be considered a subdiscipline of conservation.  In her book Archives: Principles and Practices, Laura Millar takes a slightly different approach.  She cast preservation as a more passive activity, encompassing such things as maintaining appropriate environmental conditions, while conservation is a more active process of protecting materials through physical and chemical treatments.  In their book Understanding Archives & Manuscripts, James O’Toole and Richard Cox see preservation as more of an intervention by the archivist to arrest or prevent degradation of the records.  While the common notion of preservation work calls to mind paper records, O’Toole and Cox acknowledge that digital records also necessitate preservation — and, in fact, the archivist ideally will have a voice in the creation of the systems that will maintain these digital records, so as to ensure they can be appropriately retained.

The element of preservation that I appreciate is the necessarily long-term view it requires.  The assessment of potential risks to the records and the application of appropriate strategies to mitigate those risks are done with an eye towards preserving those records that have enduring value for their creators and for researchers.  Come back in a few weeks to see more about how records are accessed.

Archival Principles: Context

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block CLast week, I began reflecting on some key archival principles.  Having already considered appraisal, now I turn to context.  (If you’ve visited here before, you’ll recognize that context is an important concept for me — check the category on the right for other related posts.)

The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines context in two ways:

1. The organizational, functional, and operational circumstances surrounding materials’ creation, receipt, storage, or use, and its relationship to other materials.

2. The circumstances that a user may bring to a document that influences that user’s understanding of the document.

The note accompanying these definitions explains that context, along with content and structure, is one of the fundamental aspects of a record.  My own professional context is that I’m currently working in records management, so it makes sense context is on my brain.  The first of these definitions lends itself to connecting with another archival concept, that of original order.  In the best of all possible worlds, archivists commit themselves to preserving the original order of documents, with this notion that the organization provided by the records’ creator helps to provide some relevant context for them.  Of course, occasionally, documents are transferred to a repository absent of any discernible order or disheveled from a crisis or a move, so this is not always possible.

In my opinion, the second definition is too narrow.  It reflects the postmodernist notion of reader-response theory, acknowledging that the experiences, biases, and expectations of archival users can impact how they understand a document.  But I think the very context of a document’s creation — when, by and for whom, why, where — also bears on the interpretation of that document.  For more on this, come back in a few weeks to learn about Organization.

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