Saturday, July 29, 2017

SAA: Sex is history

Tilikum Crossing as seen from the west side of the Willamette River, Portland, Oregon, 29 July 2017. This cable-stayed bridge opened in September 2015 and was the first American bridge of its kind that doesn't allow for the passage of automobiles; traffic is limited to light rail, streetcars, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
The final day of the 2017 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists consisted of the Liberated Archive Forum, a series of sessions and presentations that sought to empower activists seeking to document their own communities and enable professional archivists to ensure that we assemble a truly comprehensive documentary record. I stayed for part of the forum, and I was particularly impressed by an hour-long discussion on "Sex, History, and Controversy" led by author and activist Susie Bright and Cornell University Human Sexuality Collection curator Brenda Marston. I've long argued that archivists committed to creating a comprehensive historical record must grapple with issues of sexuality, and today's session led me to focus anew upon this issue.

Key takeways:

1. Sexuality is a vast, varied, and integral component of the human experience, and failing to document adult sexuality in all of its complexity and messiness means that we are failing to create a comprehensive historical record. At the same time, documenting sexuality poses numerous internal and external challenges for archivists. Archivists are embedded within the culture they seek to document, and our culture privileges some forms of sexual expression, condemns others, and often wants to sweep sexuality under the rug altogether. Archivists need to grapple with these cultural impulses when they come to the fore -- either from without or from within, and the process of doing so is likely going to be a lifelong one.

2. Several people expressed concern about the possibility that consent given at the time a given record was created might not extend to permanent preservation of that record. For example, there's a distinct possibility that at least some of the people who appear in sexually explicit photographs that were taken in the 1980s might now regret their decision to be photographed and would be appalled to learn that an archives had acquired the images and planned to share them with researchers. Bright responded that in such cases, closing such materials to researchers for a fixed period of time should minimize the risk of privacy violations. She also emphasized that, in many instances, materials documenting activities such as prostitution and pornography help to capture the lives of poor and working-class people and sexual minorities. If we discard materials that document their involvement in sex work or communities centered around sexual expression, their lives might otherwise be completely undocumented.

3. Archives are filled with records that document all manner of truly horrible things. Why do people who object to archival materials that contain sexually explicit words or images think it's acceptable for archives to document war or genocide? In our culture, pleasure -- and in particular sexual pleasure -- is surrounded by stigma in a way that widely condemned phenomena such as slavery are not. We need to be aware of and push back against this stigma in order to do our jobs effectively.

Friday, July 28, 2017

SAA 2017: records management, the web, and open data

Courtyard of Tranquility, Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon, 26 July 2017.
What follows is a quick stab at outlining a few ideas that came to the fore during two sessions -- one of which I was a participant and one in which I was an audience member -- and during the Government Records Section's annual meeting. Some are my own, and some are other people's, and all of them concern in some way our profession's inability to explain the value of records management programs, and in particular government records management programs, to the broader public:

  • Government archivists and records managers have tried for decades to get public officials, policymakers, journalists, and the public at large to understand that government records management and archives programs are essential to ensuring government accountability, efficiency, and transparency. We haven't gotten a lot of traction, and I'm increasingly convinced that our lack of success is because we frame our arguments in ways that make sense to us but not to the vast majority of our fellow citizens. Why do we keep doing the same thing and expecting different results? Why aren't we working with public relations professionals and other people who are adept at crafting simple, resonant messages and communicating them to broad audiences? How would Don Draper sell records management? 
  • As one archivist in a session I attended this morning noted, governments that release the data they gather or create as open data -- data that third parties can use, reuse, and redistribute subject only, at most, to the requirement that the source of the data be identified may not pose much of a records management challenge. For example, this archivist's public sector employer, which has begun sharing datasets it has created with the public in an effort to be proactively transparent, treats the versions of the datasets it posts on its open data website as convenience copies. However, as other archivists pointed out during the annual meeting of the Government Records Section, the controversy and wave of "citizen archiving" initiatives that ensued when the new presidential administration removed certain types of information from federal government websites suggests that at least some members of the public have come to expect that information posted online will remain readily accessible in perpetuity. I have the feeling that, in the coming years, we're going to devote a lot of energy to coming to grips with this expectation. Will we give into it and focus on harvesting and preserving web content, or will we ramp up our efforts to explain that managing government records appropriately may mean removing and disposing of data that was once freely available online? Or will we preserve tons of web content and explain that, in some instances, we work with agencies to identify and acquire additional, related records that are not available online and that, in others, we capture only snapshots of web content? 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

SAA 2017: Local Government Records Section

Water lily in Lake Zither, Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland Oregon, 26 July 2016.
Greetings from Portland, Oregon and the 2017 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists. Thanks to a happy accident of scheduling, this afternoon I was able to attend the meeting of the Local Government Records Section, which consistently punches well above its weight. Today's meeting focused on documentation of citizen activism in local government records and featured Mary Hansen (Archives and Records Management Division, Portland, Oregon), Christina Bryant (City Archives and Special Collections, New Orleans Public Library), Jamie Seemiller (Denver Public Library), Anne Frantilla (Seattle Municipal Archives), and John Slate (Dallas Municipal Archives). Local government records don't always get a lot of respect from researchers, the public, or -- sadly -- some archivists, and this quintet highlighted just how varied and compelling they can be. Key takeaways:
  • Activism often involves some form of engagement or interaction with government, and local government records are a particularly rich source of such interactions. In addition, they contain information about local groups and local topics of concern and citizen perspectives (e.g., those of homemakers or street musicians) that might not be well documented in other collections.
  • During the middle decades of the twentieth century, urban police departments created surveillance files detailing the activities of suspected communist groups, labor unions, civil rights organizations, women's groups, and other known or suspected radicals. Although many of us might find the fact of their creation objectionable (and late twentieth-century courts in many states ordered the police to stop creating such file), they are a rich source of information about activist groups.
  • City council minutes are an excellent source of information about local and grassroots organizations. Members of these groups offer formal testimony at meetings, and some city councils have "open mike" times that enable any citizen who wishes to speak on any topic to do so. Council records also include citizen petitions and other materials submitted by local activists.
  • Localities' efforts to manage demonstrations are documented in records created by city, town, and village councils and boards, mayors or city managers, police departments, and departments of public works. Commissions established to study the aftermath of demonstrations in which participants clashed with police or caused substantial property damage also generate significant records.
  • In some instances, local government officials and local government bodies are themselves consciously activist, and their activist work is reflected in the records. Council minutes, for example, may document female members' efforts to combat discrimination against women in municipal employment.
  • Evidence of activism may pop up in the unlikeliest of places. For example, records maintained by parks departments in localities that practiced de facto or de jure racial segregation may contain letters and petitions from African-Americans seeking improvements in parks situated in their neighborhoods or seeking equal access to municipal recreational facilities.
  • The records of historic preservation commissions and zoning boards amply document grassroots support for and opposition to preservation efforts and land use policies.
  • Some local government archivists proactively solicit donation of materials documenting activist activity -- and discover that doing so means shifting from a focus on researchers to a focus on donors that may be a bit disorienting. Such shifts require proactive efforts to secure deeds of gift and quietly cull donations in ways that avoid offending or injuring the donors. Archivists working in collecting repositories are accustomed to doing these things, but those working in government repositories may be less adept at doing so.
Update, 28 July 2016: post title changed to reflect content of post. ("Day two" is not a compelling title.)

SAA 2017: the importance of professional ethics

Dragonfly at rest, Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon, 26 July 2017.
Greetings from Portland, Oregon, the host city of the 2017 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). It's late (at least by the standards of my internal clock, which is loosely set to Eastern Daylight Time) and I'm headed to bed in a few minutes. However, I'm feeling the need to share just one thing that plenary speaker Greg Eow (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) highlighted this afternoon. It's a quote from historian Timothy Snyder's new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, and it should be of interest to any archivist or records manager who is alarmed by recent developments in numerous nations:
Professions can create forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government. If members of a profession think of themselves as groups with common interests, with norms and rules that oblige them at all times, then they can gain confidence and indeed a certain kind of power.
Eow didn't include in his presentation the two sentences that immediately follow the above quote, but they, too, warrant consideration:
Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as "just following orders."
Good night.

Update, 28 July 2016: post title changed to reflect content of post. ("Day one" is not a compelling title.)