Recommendations to Trump Transition Team

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The Society of American Archivists has joined with the Council of State Archivists, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, and the Regional Archival Associations Consortium to submit “Recommendations on Federal Archives and Records Management Issues” to the Trump presidential transition team.

The document can be read in its entirety at  Seven recommendations related to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) make up the crux of the document:

  • Executive agencies and officials at all levels, including the President, Vice President, and Cabinet secretaries, must adhere to both the letter and the spirit of all archives and records management laws, regulations, and policies.
  • Electronic records management must be viewed as a core federal program requirement and enforced for all agencies and for all federal officials.
  • All agencies and federal officials must be required to use official government email accounts for the conduct of public business.  NARA should have the resources and ability to verify compliance.
  • NARA should continue to assert lawful control over all Presidential, Vice Presidential, and permanently valuable Executive Branch records.
  • NARA should be given increased statutory authority to enable the agency to meet its responsibility for proper management of federal records.
  • NHPRC supports archives and records innovation at the state and local levels that has a major impact on federal records.  Given the importance of NHPRC grants and the remarkable return on investment that this agency has realized, we strongly endorse increased funding of NHPRC to support both national competitive grants and pass-through grants to states.
  • NARA’s National Declassification Center should be appropriately staffed to work with executive agencies to develop and improve declassification policies and procedures based on a risk management approach to ensure timely access to records.

In addition, there are two areas of concern these archival organizations wish to point out to the President-elect:

  • Public access to federal records should be based on a presumption of openness, with emphasis on consistent application of the Freedom of Information Act by government agencies.
  • Protections for intellectual property rights, as codified in the U.S. Copyright Act and any proposed trade agreement, must safeguard the role of archives and libraries in providing access to archival materials to enable ongoing research, scientific progress, and economic growth.

This is not an unprecedented step for the archival world to reach out to the presidential transition team.  In 2008, the leaders of 11 organizations wrote a letter to the Obama transition team and included “A New Archivist of the United States: Qualities of a Successful Candidate.”


“Bringing Things Together: Aggregate Records in a Digital Age”

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Since researching born-digital records in manuscript repositories to write my master’s paper, I’ve been interested in how archives are handling electronic records — their appraisal, acquisition, processing, preservation, and access.  This week’s review focuses on an article that delves into the processing and access piece — “Bringing Things Together: Aggregate Records in a Digital Age,” published in the Fall 2012 issue of Archivaria.  Geoffrey Yeo worked as an archivist for the Corporation of the City of London, for St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, and for the Royal College of Physicians.  He taught archives and records management at University College London (1995-97 and 2000-14).  He also served as programme director for the MA/Diploma/Certificate in Archives and Records Management and the MA/Diploma/ Certificate in Records and Archives Management (International) at UCL’s School of Library, Archive and Information Studies (2002-5).

Yeo laid out an ambitious path for archivists in his abstract (44):

  • “build multiple overlapping record series to meet different needs or realize different conceptualizations of series boundaries”
  • “bring together aggregate records and present views of context when they are required”
  • develop “scalable and user-friendly systems that enable the construction of
    aggregate records as well as ‘non-record’ aggregations, and also preserve information about logical contexts and about physical arrangements imposed in the past”

Unfortunately, this article identified more of the problems rather than the solutions to these intriguing challenges.  For background, Yeo delved into the concept of a record, collections vs. fonds, series, and files.  He then elaborated on David Weinberger’s concepts of order from his book Everything is Miscellaneous as a framework for analyzing digital records.

  1. The first order of order — physical objects cannot reside in more than one sequence at the same time
  2. The second order of order — alternative sequences are enabled by “laborious representational surrogates” (i.e., indices) (57)
  3. The third order of order — “resources can be arranged into as many sequences as may be desired and users can organize their work independently of the limitations imposed by analog systems” (58)

Yeo acknowledged that these notions of fluidity could make archivists wary, but he embraced the third order of order, encouraging multiple collections alongside the repurposing and reuse of content by users.  Contrary to the notion in the paper world that there is “this single correct arrangement” (59),  he urged a different approach to digital records.  Where original order has been used to support provenance and authenticity, he asserted, “Not all users seek evidence of the occurrents that records represent, or look for groupings of records based on contextual provenance” (68).

Yeo seemed to be prioritizing the user, allowing for the possibility of new combinations, new learning, and regroupings to suit the needs of the user.  He suggested that the types of cross-boundary collections and search and discovery that are available to users in other domains will also be expected in the archival realm (e.g., creating a collection on Flickr).  The paradigm shift for records management is from controlling aggregate records in a stable physical form to “ensuring that aggregate records can be constructed when we require them” (71).

He acknowledged the literature that suggests some users do not demand contextual information, especially when their research purpose is prooftexting.  In this brave new world, “memory and identity (as perceived by those alive today) supersede
history (of the world as it was, or as it might have been)” (74).  Yet Yeo seemed adamant that context matters, concluding:

“If we are to allow or encourage users to create their own collections and construct their own hierarchies, we also need to find ways of presenting larger or previous contexts and of enabling users to contextualize each item in their collections” (75).

Yeo returned to the idea of original order as it relates to digital records, acknowledging that many individuals and organizations use a hierarchical system of electronic record organization that mirrors the paper storage system and that these orderings can “tell us something about the priorities and perceptions of the people concerned” (77).  He provided two examples of repositories that combined linear descriptions with third order flexibility — however, Yeo provided no information about the time and other resources necessary for these undertakings.

Yeo concluded with a list of ingredients necessary for preserving contextual information and orderings while providing the ability to aggregate records:

  • Granularity: Yeo asserted “the item is the paradigmatic unit of control in the third order” (80).
  • Relational modelling: Yeo acknowledged that this possibility necessitates rich metadata, which depends on both manual and automatic capture.
  • System interfaces and functionalities: “Unconstrained by paper paradigms, systems and interfaces should enable archival resources to be presented in many different ways, reflecting their various ‘original’ orders, different interpretations of context, and other orders newly desired by users in the course of research and experimentation” (85).

My frustrations with the literature on born-digital records persists after reading this article.  To my mind, the goals set out in the abstract  were not met in any concrete way.  I long for some middle ground between theoretical stabs in the dark and dull procedural manuals.  Perhaps the problem is simply that the people with boots on the ground do not have the time to write about their work, but we need a louder voice from accomplished practitioners.

“Facts and Frameworks: An Approach to Studying the Users of Archives”

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I’ve previously expressed my interest in archival access, so this week I turn to one of the cornerstones in this field.  Paul Conway published this article in the Fall 1986 issue of the American Archivist.  Conway was an archivist at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library (1977-87), a Preservation Program Officer for the Society of American Archivists (SAA, 1987-89), and worked at the National Archive and Records Administration (1990-92).  He led the Preservation Department at Yale University Library (1992-2001) and the executive management group of the Duke University Libraries (2001-6).  Since September 2006, Conway has been Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information.

Conway began by pointing to Goal III in the 1986 report from the SAA Task Force on Goals and Priorities: “‘Use of archival records is the ultimate purpose of identification and administration’” (394).  He asserted that in order to assist users, archivists need to interact with users in order “to identify the most immediate groups of beneficiaries of archival information and begin to understand the process of information transfer within and beyond the archives” (395).  He noted that use encompasses not only the physical use that occurs in reference rooms but also the usefulness of the information to society in general.

There are three objectives in Conway’s framework:

  • quality — How good are the services?

Evaluating quality requires understanding the researcher’s task, research capabilities and strategies, and expectations and satisfaction.  Ultimately, the goal is to “enhance access to useful information” (399).

  • integrity — How good is the protection of archival information?

Integrity is a wide-ranging element of the framework because it includes not only trying to provide adequate access to information but also balancing the need to protect and preserve the archival materials.  Conway encouraged assessing how researchers discover available information as well as looking at various alternatives to the physical use of original records (e.g., microforms or databases).

  • value — What good do the services do?

Evaluating value requires understanding how researchers intend to use archival information and how it relates to other sources of information.

Conway identified five opportunities for archivists to gather information from users:

  1. registration
  2. orientation
  3. follow up
  4. survey
  5. experiments

Not only does information need to be gathered from users, but the data also must be analyzed.  Although the orientation interview seems to be going away with the increasing remote usage of archival resources, repositories can still create opportunities to evaluate quality, integrity, and value for remote users.  Conway concluded, “Making the reference room rather than the loading dock the hub of archival activity requires facts about users – recorded facts, shared facts, but most of all facts organized for clear objectives” (407).

We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations: The Case for a Liberatory Descriptive Standard

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Two voices better known for their work in other realms of the archival world came together to provide their vision of archival description.  In a 2002 issue of Archival Science, Wendy Duff and Verne Harris published “Stories and Names: Archival Description as Narrating Records and Constructing Meanings.”  Wendy Duff usually focuses on digital curation and is on the faculty of the School of Information at the University of Toronto.  Verne Harris, who is the head of the Memory Programme at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, is at the forefront of the postmodernist movement within the archival world.  The currents running throughout this article include stories, names, and power.

They begin with an overview of three streams of archival thought.

  1. The first stream of archival thought begins, of course, in the 19th century with the three Dutch men, whose formative Manual focused on arrangement and description.  They argued that “the boundary between text and context is hard and stable” and that “[t]he archivist’s role in relation to records is to reveal their meaning and significance – not to participate in the construction of meanings . . .” (264).
  2. The second stream emerged from the 1940s to the 1990s and included thinkers such as Hans Boom, Helen Samuels, and Terry Cook.  Although this stream focused on selection and appraisal, it also created a new vision of the archival world where archival intervention overlaps with the construction of meanings and the exercise of power.
  3. The final, postmodernist stream incorporates some archivists such as Terry Cook but also ranges far and wide to writers outside the archival world.  What you recognize if you have read any of these postmodernists is that they tend to pose more questions than they answer.  Some relevant ones considered are: “Does the making of a record . . . have a beginning and an ending?  Do archivists participate actively in the construction of a record’s meanings and its significances? . . .  Do power relations, with their myriad privilegings and exclusions, find expression in archival intervention (or non-intervention)?  Does the archivist have a moral obligation to engage the marginalized and excluded voices in records?  Is the archivist a storyteller?” (265)

In considering the reasons for describing archival materials, they include the ideas of MacNeil, Hurley, and Bearman.  They cite Heather MacNeil for her opinion that description authenticates meaning.  Chris Hurley suggests that a finding aid is “‘an indispensable component in the making and keeping of records.’” And David Bearman “depicts documenting as seeking ‘to capture data about the relationship between the activity and the document created . . . in that activity which is necessary in order for the document to serve as evidence’” (273).

In contrasting the two common approaches to the arrangement of archival records, they characterize fonds-based description as “guided by the assumption that archival description is comparable to bibliographic description and produces . . . finding aids, that are predominantly static objects which describe a pre-existing order centred on one predominant provenance.”  The post-custodial series system, on the other hand, looks at records series as “dynamic and constantly changing and that archival description must represent multiple-horizontal as well as poly-hierarchical vertical relationships” (272).  As difficult as it can be to create standards, they conclude that developing a new liberatory descriptive standard is vital:

  1. “First, purism in this realm invites paralysis. . . .
  2. “Secondly, early twenty-first-century technological realities make it impossible to build a complex collective project without standards. . . .
  3. “Thirdly, whatever our view of descriptive standards might be, the dangerous work of naming, of building and applying descriptive architectures, proceeds in a myriad archival sites and localities.  More often than not, this work is characterized by an unquestioning replication of the power relations within which these sites and localities are embedded.  In our view, the descriptive standard is one of the few direct means available to us for troubling and perhaps challenging this replication.  . . . this provides us with an opportunity to unmask the titular” (283-84).

Duff and Harris see standards “as instruments for calling the future in” (266).  Though vague on details, they assert that archival descriptive architecture needs to be flexible, inclusive, and reflect the needs of users.  They contend that archival representations are shaped by personal histories, institutional cultures, gender dynamics, and class relations, but “[n]o representation can be complete” (275).

They explain, “In describing records, archivists are working with context, continually locating it, constructing it, figuring and refiguring it.  Context, in principle, is infinite.  The describer selects certain layers for inclusion, and decides which of those to foreground.  In this process, there is analysis, listing, reproduction, and so on, but its primary medium is narrative” (276).

So Duff and Harris settle on story telling as the best metaphor for archival description – “intertwining facts with narratives, observation with interpretation” (276).  The undercurrent throughout this article is the question of whether archivists can recognize and use their power appropriately.  They conclude, “archivists are, from the beginning and always, political players; . . . and . . . the boundary between constructive and oppressive power is always shifting and porous” (277).  Seeing that this sounds pretty scary, they follow with a list of five steps archivists can take to wield our power appropriately.

  1. First of all, they agree that archivists should “disclose their assumptions, their biases, and their interpretations.”
  2. Secondly, finding fault with both the fonds- and series-based approaches, they suggest that instead of choosing one we “begin to investigate the aspects of records that are not being described, and the voices that are not being heard” (278).
  3. Third, they call for hospitality, in the sense of “open[ing] up archival description to other ways of representing records or naming the information in the records.”
  4. A related fourth suggestion is that archival description should be more permeable, meaning “archivists will have to relinquish some of their power to control access to, and interpretation of, their records.”
  5. And finally, “[w]e need to create holes that allow in the voices of our users” (279).

They recognize that these steps will mean a leaking of power away from archivists, but they still believe it is the appropriate direction.