Thursday, August 21, 2014

SAA 2014: preserving and making accessible HIV/AIDS history

I'm back home and feeling a lot better than I did last week, but I'm still in the process of settling in at home, getting back up to speed at work, and tending to some family matters. As a result, I'm going to post about this year's joint meeting of the Council of State Archivists, the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators, and the Society of American Archivists as my schedule permits. Archivy is a relay, not a sprint, and it's more important to pass the baton correctly than to hand it off quickly. (That having been said, I was really under the weather last week and my notes and recollections are a little jumbled. Apologies in advance for any omissions or inaccuracies.)

Last Friday morning, I was planning to attend session 410, "Beyond the Floppy Disk: Rescuing Electronic Records from Complex Systems," but the room was stuffed to capacity by the time I arrived. I could have slipped into session 401, "Digital Forensics," but I didn't think I had the presence of mind needed for particular topic. I instead ducked into session 407, "Documenting the Epidemic: Preserving and Making Accessible HIV/AIDS History." I've long had a personal and professional interest in this topic, the compelling (and unabashedly partial) How to Survive a Plague rekindled it, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity to sit in on this session.

Robin Chandler (University of California, Santa Cruz) capably led this session, which took the form of a panel discussion in which participants furnished overviews of their institutions' holdings, identified gaps in documentation, and broadly applicable lessons (e.g., the value of collaboration) they learned as they sought to document the history of HIV/AIDS.

Vicky Harden (retired, National Institutes of Health Office of History) discussed the oral history interviews she conducted with National Institutes of Health personnel who were involved in HIV/AIDS research and her involvement in the American Association for the History of Medicine's AIDS History Group. She noted that, owing to budget cuts and other factors, the U.S. Centers for Disease, which played a pivotal role in tracking the emergence and spread of HIV infection and AIDS in the United States, has not sought to gather archival materials or conduct oral history interviews documenting its HIV/AIDS work.

Polina Ilieva (University of California, San Francisco) discussed the development of the AIDS History Project, which from its outset in 1987 sought to document the crisis in all of its facets and from all perspectives. Its collections include materials created by community-based organizations, clinical and research units, and individual activists, clinicians, researchers, social scientists, science journalists, and people with AIDS. In addition, the project captures content found on relevant websites. Ilieva stressed that, owing to the speed with which community organizations are created, merge, alter course, and cease operations, archivists seeking to document HIV/AIDS must establish and sustain ongoing relationships with creators/donors; she hopes to close some of the gaps in her repository's holdings by tracking some of these shifts in the organizational landscape. In addition, she indicated that we need more oral history interviews with (presumably non-activist) people who are HIV positive or have AIDS.

Ginny Roth (National Library of Medicine, Prints and Photographs Collection) indicated that her repository's holdings, which span four decades, include posters and other ephemera relating to safe sex, myths about HIV transmission, human rights, and other matters. These materials target multiple audiences (e.g., gay men, intravenous drug users) and are in multiple languages. However, the collection does not include photographs documenting past or current activism.

Michael Oliviera (ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives) stated that his institution has a wide array of materials relating to HIV/AIDS, among them: periodicals, records documenting the first theatrical production relating to AIDS, the International Gay and Lesbian Archives' AIDS History Project collection (over 200 cu. ft.), and the organizational records of ACT UP Los Angeles and Treatment Action Group. ONE holds few oral histories and collections documenting the experiences of people of color.

Jason Baumann (New York Public Library, or NYPL) focused on his repository's recent exhibit, Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism, which consisted almost exclusively of materials drawn from its extensive holdings of the organizational records of activist organizations and the personal papers of activists, artists, political leaders, and other individuals. The exhibit exposed significant tensions between those seeking to understand and interpret the history of HIV/AIDS and some of those focused on the suffering and death the disease still causes. ACT UP protested its opening on the grounds that it gave people the impression that HIV/AIDS was a thing of the past, and two young Canadian activists incorporated reproductions of two posters featured in the exhibit into a new poster entitled "Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me" -- much to the dismay of the creators of the original posters.

NYPL dealt with the uproar by, among other things, co-hosting a symposium that brought together the creators of the original posters and the creators of "Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me." Although he didn't explicitly identify this experience as a lesson learned, I can't help but think that it is. Archivists (myself included) tend to be introverted, mindful of their subordinate position within institutional power structures, and unnerved by the prospect of controversy. However, we sometimes need to treat controversy as an opportunity to engage, learn, and enable others to do the same. If we can't acknowledge the existence of difference or probe the status and power differentials that give rise to archival silences, we can't document society equitably and comprehensively.

Baumann did identify as a lesson learned something I found a bit surprising: NYPL's customary donors were not willing to fund the processing of collections relating to HIV/AIDS activism and the activist groups themselves were focused on treatment, human rights, and other pressing concerns, but NYPL found that corporations were quite willing to do so.

The panelists wrapped up the session by discussing the possibility of jointly developing and administering a survey that would identify all of the archival collections that in some way documented HIV/AIDS in the United States. They agreed that this would be a mammoth undertaking, but it seems that serious discussions are underway. I for one would like to see this project get off the ground.

Image: shadow cast by Alexander Calder's "Red Polygons" (c. 1950), Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 16 August 2014.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

SAA 2014: integrating history

 One of the advantages of paying my own way to SAA is that I don't have any reservations about attending at least one session that interests me but doesn't have anything to do with my work responsibilities. Yesterday morning, I passed up two interesting-seeming electronic records sessions and sat in on session 309, "Integrating History: A Search-and-Recovery Effort in Alabama Archives." I'm glad I did: of all the sessions I attended this year, this one was my favorite. (N.B.: I was really ill on Friday, so what follows might be a bit hazy.)

Two of the archivists who participated in this session are employed by repositories that have traditionally reflected the experiences of white Alabamians, and two work at historically black universities. All of them spoke with passion and nuance about the challenges of comprehensively documenting their communities and institutions, and in the process discussed a host of things familiar to archivists working in a variety of settings:
  • The ugly way in which an ever-growing processing backlog reduces institutional visibility and makes it ever harder to obtain the resources needed to tackle the backlog.
  • How differences in power and perspective fuel tensions between small, resource-starved archives and large, well-funded collecting repositories.
  • The importance of and hard work involved in winning the trust of donors, particularly those whose experiences have in the past been under-documented.
  • How efforts to document previously under-represented groups may force one to confront the unsavory past of one's own community, one's own uneasy relationship with that past, and anger and fear in those who have a vested interest in maintaining certain archival and broader societal silences. 
  • The importance of intimately knowing one's own collections and working collaboratively with repositories that hold related materials. 
Rebekah Davis (Limestone County Archives) discussed the importance of collecting materials that not only documented the history of the county's black community (e.g., programs distributed at community members' funerals) but also what that community had to live with (e.g., color photographic prints of a Ku Klux Klan rally that took place in the 1970s). Quoting fellow presenter Susannah Leverman, she emphasized that even though she and her colleagues at times felt deeply uncomfortable about accessioning and furnishing access to some of the materials in the latter category, "to pretend things didn't happen is to take away the victory of those who overcame it." Davis also stressed the importance of making sure that older white volunteers who expressed distaste when they encountered collections documenting the county's African-Americans understood that they could privately believe whatever they wished but needed to understand that bigoted statements reflected poorly upon the archives and to keep their opinions to themselves while working there.

Susannah Leverman (Huntsville-Madison County Public Library) highlighted her institution's efforts to build relationships with her community's African-American inhabitants. Although the library has collected materials documenting African-American art and education, segregated city directories, church histories, portraits, information about black-owned businesses, and other aspects of African-American life, Leverman was convinced that the documentary record was incomplete. She began going to black churches and civic meetings, hosted a traveling exhibit relating to Lincoln, created a public history exhibit commemorating 50 years of school integration and a related sub-exhibit concerning the Ku Klux Klan, developed a phenomenally popular exhibit relating to African-American sports history, and tries to ensure that other exhibits accurately reflect the community's diversity. The library also hosts talks focusing on Huntsville's black business district and other topics and posts recordings of them to YouTube. She described her approach thusly: "we need to provoke people into thinking instead of forcing them to remember or memorize." It seems to have paid off: the library has recently acquired collections documenting civil rights activism and a substantial collection of African-American sheet music.

Veronica Henderson (Alabama A&M University), who is relatively new in her position, discussed her efforts to tackle a decades-long processing backlog, create finding aids, sharpen collecting efforts, and sort out some custodial issues. The Alabama state legislature established the State Black Archives and Research Center in 1989 and charged it with acquiring, preserving, and providing access to materials documenting the state's African-American history. Henderson determined that the collection included some materials that didn't relate specifically to the history of black Alabamians, and she has sought to refocus the collecting scope. She's also trying to smooth relations with alumni of a defunct black high school who are questioning why the university archives has some of their memorabilia; the university doesn't have a deed of gift, but it did have a longstanding and close relationship with the school's administrators. Fortunately, at least some of the alumni are satisfied with digital reproductions.

Dana R. Chandler (Tuskegee University) also discussed his university's efforts to tackle a large processing backlog and to identify and recover items that have gone missing. He also recounted his repository's efforts to right an old wrong: in 1943, the Library of Congress (LC) took possession, with the university's consent, of a body of materials that it called the Booker T. Washington Collection but which were actually the early organizational records of Tuskegee University. Chandler found that the agreement that enabled LC to take custody of these records specified that the university would receive a microfilm copy of them. However, LC filmed the records only after Chandler pushed it to do so and maintained afterward that it retained the copyright. and I've held them to this; LC had to spend approximately $69,000 to microfilm the records. LC tried to maintain that it held the copyright, but Chandler's position is that these "papers" are in fact the records of a public university.

Chandler then profiled two phenomenal collections that came to light when Tuskegee addressed its processing backlog:
  • Records of the Southern Courier, 1965-1968. The Southern Courier was a civil rights newspaper run by Harvard Crimson volunteers. It was unprocessed for years, and Chandler and his colleagues discovered that it contained detailed accounts of the dangers and difficulties that staff faced, including mad dogs, beatings, and death threats. They also found evidence of young black and white people working together toward a common goal -- a story not commonly associated with Alabama. 
  • George Washington Carver Notebooks. Scholarly biographies of Carver published to date conclude that he did not make any significant scientific discoveries. However, Tuskegee has six notebooks containing Carver's scientific notes, drawings, and observations, and Carver's work must be reassessed in light of these manuscripts. 
I was particularly heartened to learn that the longstanding informal collaboration between the presenters and other Alabama archivists seeking to ensure that the state's documentary record is equitable and balanced may give rise to a multi-institution Web portal centered on archival materials documenting the lives of black Alabamians. Alabama archivists have a long track record of working together and accomplishing amazing things with modest resources, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if this proposed portal is a rousing success.

Image: anemone buds peek out from behind a bench on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC, 16 August 2014. Anemones symbolize, among other things, anticipation.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

SAA 2014: agency, ethics, and information

The joint annual meeting of the Council of State Archivists, the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators, and the Society of American Archivists got underway this morning. Approximately 2,300 archivists, records managers, and allied professionals have swarmed the sprawling behemoth that is Washington, DC's Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, and the weather is unseasonably, gloriously cool.

Unfortunately, I'm a little under the weather at the moment. I spent part of the day in bed and wasn't particularly present at those events that I did attend. As a result, I'm a little hesitant about offering up the following sprawling recap of session 201, A Trickle Becomes a Flood: Agency, Ethics, and Information, which examined issues relating to secrecy, power, ethics, and regulation of communications systems in light of the recent disclosures of classified information by WikiLeaks, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, and Edward Snowden, and the prosecution and suicide of activist Aaron Swartz. However, it was a thought-provoking session.

Hillel Arnold (Rockefeller Archive Center) opened by noting that we are surrounded by communications systems that are largely invisible and that the regulations surrounding those systems are even harder to discern. Archivists are generally pretty good at understanding the invisible: we know that organizational structures profoundly influence the creation and content of records, we realize that the historical record reflects the privileging of some people and the silencing or dismissal of others, and we're sensitive to the evidential as well as the informational value of records. In the digital era, however, regulation determines what's left for us to work with, and not understanding it means not being able to account for silences or furnish essential contextual information.

Regulation is premised upon the idea that the common good justifies some limits on liberty; however, some powerful actors may be able to use regulation to stifle competition, discipline labor, or otherwise act in ways that do not benefit society. It can take a variety of forms. External regulation may be engendered in legislation, policy, or technology (e.g., bandwidth throttling), and self-regulation may manifest itself in social norms or in user expectations. Arnold explored how characteristics of communication systems serve as markers of power. Archivists examining the role of these systems in shaping the archival record must be attuned to the following:
  • Flow. Analysis of flow involves assessment of direction (one-way, two-way, multi-direction), volume, and speed with which information travels through a system. Broadcast radio is an illustrative example of the role of regulation in shaping flow. Radio was from the outset seen as a powerful medium, and the Radio Act of 1927 controlled flow via licensing, wattage limitations, and establishment of the entity that subsequently became the Federal Communications Commission. 
  •  Structure. Analysis of structure involves examination of distribution mechanisms (hierarchical or geographically and/or technologically distributed) and standards (structure, content, and protocol). The United States Postal Service highlights the role of structure in shaping a communications system. Lower rate schedules for publications have long facilitated the wide distribution of newspapers and longstanding standards of privacy for personal correspondence have governed user expectations. At the same time, Postal Service regulations prohibit mailing firearms, explosives, and certain other materials, and the Comstock laws for decades barred mailing of materials deemed pornographic. 
  • Commodity. Analysis of commodity centers upon identifying the thing(s) of value. Archivists are used to focusing on information, but we need to understand that the network itself or the relationships between users of a communications system (e.g., Facebook friends) may also have value. The landline telephone system exemplifies the role of commodity in shaping a system: “Ma Bell” levied service fees and sought, with remarkable success, to create and maintain a natural monopoly. 
Elena Danielson (formerly with the Hoover Archives) focused on issues surrounding secrecy and transparency and opened with a stunning piece of information: according to the 2013 annual report of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's Information Security Oversight Office, in fiscal year 2013 it cost the nation $11.6 billion to safeguard its classified information and to declassify information that no longer needed to be kept secret.

Danielson then articulated a point of view that, for what it's worth, I find eminently sensible: information wants to be free, but some secrets really need to be kept and the manner in which information is disclosed can lead to violence or even war. For example, in 1870 Otto von Bismarck successfully goaded the French into going to war by selectively editing and releasing an account of a conversation between King Wilhelm of Prussia and the French ambassador to Prussia. In 1917, the British released the Zimmerman telegram, in which the German government invited Mexico to enter into an alliance in the event that the American government entered the First World War on Britain's side, in an effort to draw the United States into the conflict.

In light of the the recent leaks of classified information by Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, Danielson articulated a set of questions that may help archivists and others seeking to assess the origins and impact of such disclosures:
  • Was the information scrutinized before release? 
  • Was the information released with the public good in mind, or was it done for some sort of gain – money, ego gratification, fame, political advantage? 
  • Is the person who released the information willing to face the consequences? 

Noting that the digital era has placed us on an earthquake fault regarding secrecy, Danielson also detailed several other questions that we need to address:
  • If governments want to regulate the flow of information, what happens when the government leaks its own information? 
  • If information libertarians are committed to openness, why are they encrypting their own information? Why is secrecy okay for journalists and activists but not corporations or governments? 
  • Does the Nuremberg Principle – the belief that the public good trumps the law – still hold? 
Ed Summers (Library of Congress), whose presentation is available online, explored a recent controversy – the much-maligned 2012 mood manipulation study conducted by Facebook and Cornell University – and the manner in which it illuminates how power shapes the archival record.

Summers highlighted something that I didn't know: one of the Cornell scholars involved in the Facebook study was previously involved in a research project funded by U.S. Department of Defense's Minerva Initiative, which funds social science research “areas of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy.” One of his colleagues is currently receiving Minerva Initiative funding to examine social media posts and conversations around the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Turkey and to identify individuals who were moved to act in response to these crises and when they took action.

Noting that the outrage that greeted disclosure of the Facebook mood manipulation study was propelled in part by broader concerns about the way that corporations and government entities such as the National Security Agency collect and use personal and behavioral data, Summers asserted that we need more regulations that limit the types of data that are collected and the length of its retention. In addition, corporations need to establish ethics boards that will openly discuss with users and scholars their data use and management practices. The negotiations that archivists have long had with donors are a good model for this sort of discussion. If, for example, a donor downloads a copy of his or her Facebook data and proposes giving it to an archives, the archivist and donor will work together to identify who can access it and when it can be accessed. The donor should be able to have a similar conversation with Facebook itself, and archivists are particularly well-suited to help facilitate these discussions.

Lots to think about here. However, I can't help but wonder whether we're fighting a losing battle. National security agencies and corporations have rarely paid attention to what archivists have to say about anything, and I suspect that things are going to get worse, not better. I could be wrong, and I hope I am; after all, events that took place forty years ago prompted dramatic changes in the laws governing the records of U.S. presidents. Even if I'm not, I don't think we should simply allow ourselves to be pushed aside quietly. It's better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees.

Image: Hibiscus blossom, Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Washington, DC, 14 August 2014.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


If you know what the above means, feel free to skip this post. If you don't, here's an explanation:
This afternoon, I attended the first half of a two-part CoSA workshop focusing on the new portal, which was developed by the SERI Best Practices and Tools Subcommittee. I've been aware of its development -- I'm a member of the SERI Education Subcommitee, which has developed some content for it --but I haven't had the chance to check it out until today. It's still something of a beta build and will be expanded considerably in the coming months, but it already contains a wealth of information:
  • Information about CoSA's electronic records webinars, including a schedule of upcoming sessions and links to recordings and slides from past webinars. 
  • Handouts and slides prepared by instructors of the July 2013 SERI Introductory Electronic Records Institute: Mike Wash (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration), Doug Robinson (National Association of State Chief Information Officers), Pat Franks (San Jose State University), and Cal Lee (University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill).
  • How-to guides and short videos that explain how to complete various processes or use specific tools. Areas covered: file authentication and integrity processes, detection of duplicate files, file format conversions, identifying file properties, renaming files, and ingest/accessioning processes.
  • Links to electronic records training opportunities offered by other organizations.
  • Information about the State Electronic Records Program Framework, which is based upon the Digital Preservation Capability Maturity Model and enables state archives (and anyone else interested in doing so) to assess their preservation infrastructure and identify areas for improvement. If you're employed by a state archives and took the SERI self-assessment, you'll be particularly interested in the portal's discussion of the tangible steps needed to advance from Level 0 to Level 4 within each of the framework's 15 components and in its practical tips for completing the self-assessment the next time it's offered.
  • An ever-expanding and keyword searchable database of summary information about and links to resources relating to virtually every aspect of electronic records management and preservation. If you create a free PERTTS portal account, you'll be able to comment upon these resources; if you would prefer not to create an account, you'll still be able to access them. CoSA will also develop a simple form that will enable you to suggest resources that should be added to the portal.
  • An electronic records glossary that draws from a wide array of sources.
  • Brief case studies and examples of real-world implementations of metadata standards, security protocols, Archival Information Package construction, and other facets of electronic records work.
This is a great resource, and I think it's going to expand and evolve in some really interesting ways. Check it out.