Thursday, August 20, 2015

SAA 2015: new approaches to documentation

Album cover, The Impressions, People Get Ready (1965), and hat (c. 1981) and jacket (c. 1981) owned by Curtis Mayfield. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-20.
 The annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists is in full swing, and I put in a full day attending sessions and catching up with people. I am not going to blog about every session or meeting that I attend-- I no longer have the stamina needed for that sort of thing -- but will instead post about the most interesting, compelling, or useful session or idea that I encounter each day.

Today, I attended two very good sessions that concerned balancing privacy and access considerations as they relate to electronic records. I also found thought-provoking a session that focused on how and whether one should document communities that either do not wish to be documented and on how some of the assumptions and understandings embedded in archival practice can perpetuate the past injustices done to indigenous peoples. However, for me, a lunchtime forum entitled "The Secret Life of Records" was the high point of the day. What follows probably will not do it justice -- as is usually the case when I'm at SAA, I've been sleeping wretchedly -- but I wanted to sketch out a few thoughts before crawling into bed.

Sponsored by SAA's Diversity Committee, this forum highlighted several recent efforts to document the Black Lives Matter movement and other responses to the recent high-profile police shootings and other actions that resulted in the deaths of African-American citizens. As panelist Jarrett Drake (Princeton University) noted, the news media and substantial segments of the public tend to accept the narratives embedded in police reports and other government records. However, recent events have highlighted the fact that these records may contain inaccuracies, distortions, and deliberate untruths and that they must be supplemented by materials created by individuals and communities affected by police misconduct.

The panelists discussed numerous approaches to capturing these materials in the digital age. Bergis Jules (University of California at Riverside) detailed how he and his colleagues were capturing tweets (i.e., Twitter content) relating to African-Americans who died in police encounters and to the Black Lives Matter movement. Nadia Ghasedi (Washington University) discussed how her repository established an Omeka-based website that enables area residents to upload copies of still images, video and audio recordings, and other materials that documented the community protests that took place in the St. Louis, Missouri area following a police shooting that resulted in the death of a young African-American man in the suburb of Ferguson. Stacie Williams (University of Kentucky) and Jarrett Drake detailed how an online discussion between archivists throughout the United States gave rise to an online repository and oral history initiative documenting citizen experiences of police abuse in Cleveland, Ohio.

I find these projects intriguing for a number of reasons:
  • They're a striking departure from the traditional archival approach to acquisition of records, which involves allowing time to pass before attempting to take in records documenting a given event, careful evaluation of potential acquisitions, and, in many instances, the privileging of records created by institutions or individuals that wield significant social and economic power. These projects involve proactive capture of materials soon after creation and consciously seek out materials created by individuals and organizations that are all too often marginalized.
  • They involve copying materials that are born digitally and will, in all likelihood, be maintained digitally and leave the originals in the hands of their creators (or, in the case of tweets, the online service used to disseminate them). If the "custodial" approach to preserving electronic records represents one horn of a bull and the "post-custodial" approach to preservation represents the other horn, this approach sails through the space between these horns.
  • They suggest that creating an "archives" as we currently understand the term may not be the only model for preserving the history of a community. The Cleveland project is propelled by a geographically dispersed group of archivists, doesn't have a formal institutional home, and may well never "belong" to a single "archives" as we currently understand the term. I suspect that we're going to see a growing number of informal, online-only "archives" (and I hope that the Internet Archive will capture them, because some of them may well perish otherwise).
  • They underscore the fact that archivists will still have to grapple with questions of power and privilege -- and may find that working in an online environment heightens them. As Bergis Jules noted, a Twitter user may come to regret a given tweet -- and be shocked to discover that an archives captured and preserved said tweet without asking her permission. Stacie Williams and Jarrett Drake asserted that they were painfully aware that they were privileged strangers who were asking Cleveland residents to trust them even though they lacked detailed knowledge of the community's history and struggles. The speed with which one can find collaborators online and establish a presence on the Web means that one can get a project underway very quickly, but winning the trust of potential donors/interviewees will no doubt continue to require a substantial commitment of time and effort. I suspect that a growing number of archivists are going to find themselves grappling with such conflicts.
Off to bed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

" However, recent events have highlighted the fact that these records may contain inaccuracies, distortions, and deliberate untruths and that they must be supplemented by materials created by individuals and communities affected by police misconduct."

and yet in the case of Ferguson there was inaccuracies and lies that have been accepted and continue to be pushed such as "hands up don't shoot"