Guest blog: Where are the activist archivists?

by Ross Harvey | rossharvey1@gmail.com | elibank.net | @TaksNz

Are archivists radical? Three public lectures sponsored by Monash University last week challenged archivists to become more engaged.

I presented the Whyte Memorial Lecture on 15 September with a mild call to arms that encouraged archivists to assert themselves. Two transfixing lectures on 17 September pursued this radical theme much more forcefully. They will stay in my mind and inform my thinking about archives for many years to come. They have completely changed my views of what archivists must strive to do.

The first speaker was Andrew Flinn (University College London) who spoke about research into community archives. The second speaker was Anne Gilliland (University of California Los Angeles) on recordkeeping in a digital, post-colonial world, specifically how to support inclusion in a digital age. Both speakers are eminent and influential archives educators and their lectures were riveting because of their radical content.

Flinn’s lecture, ‘Another world is possible’, addressed social justice issues in three themes:

  1. Recordkeepers as advocates for openness in government and corporate contexts
  2. Community-based control of archives
  3. The role of archival educators and research in critical examination and improvement of archives practice

Flinn argued for ‘research-informed education and practice that makes a difference’, seeking ‘fundamental change, not preserving the status quo’.

Gilliland’s paper investigated two themes:

  1. Social and ethical responsibilities of archivists and recordkeepers towards society’s least empowered individuals
  2. The need for recordkeepers to respond to grand societal challenges

Gilliland highlighted the role of recordkeeping in diasporas in reconstructing migrants’ memories, and made specific reference to the massive forced displacements in recent weeks. Gilliland posed the question: how can recordkeepers be a key part of addressing this, especially in a digital context? She heavily criticised the failure of recordkeepers to meet any of the aims of the Unesco Universal Declaration on Archives 2011 (‘open access to archives enriches our knowledge of human society, promotes democracy, protects citizens’ rights and enhances the quality of life’). She challenged recordkeepers to ‘confront [their] own complicities’. Recordkeepers have ‘failed the disenfranchised’. These are fighting words!

Gilliland continued with more damning indictments. Standard recordkeeping practice fails refugees by imposing unrealistic standards. Recordkeepers have failed in advocacy roles – an example was not speaking out against anti-terrorist laws. Current recordkeeping systems are too complex, too hard for the uninitiated. Digitisation of records is carried out for and on behalf of the elite, those in power, the oppressors. She concluded that recordkeepers have failed. New structures, new systems, and more flexibility are urgently demanded. She ‘exhorted’ recordkeepers and academics to use digital records and ways of working in support of all citizens of the world, especially the dispossessed. In Gilliland’s words, ‘all of our current archival ideas privilege those in control’.

The questions from the audience disappointed. They did not respond to the exciting although confronting challenges offered, but looked at the difficulties. I wondered at one point if Australian recordkeepers – those in the audience, at least – were moribund. The responses from Flinn and Gilliland emphasised education of new professionals who better understand the issues and are motivated by major societal concerns, collective action, individuals who can apply social justice mandates in their workplaces, and stronger professional associations. It is an ethical imperative to act.

These papers were highly stimulating. Gilliland’s will probably be the best I hear this year and most likely also for some years to come. But on reflection my feelings are mixed: can these major challenges be addressed by archivists currently in the workforce, with their strong conservatism? I rather think not. The hope has to lie with new professionals who are motivated by educators like Andrew Flinn and Anne Gilliland to address major societal concerns through collective action.

Andrew Flinn’s email signature quotes Aneurin Bevan: ‘We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we must be the builders’.

So here’s my challenge to archivists: be the builders.

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#contextiseverything Whyte Memorial Lecture 2015

Last week I attended the annual Whyte Memorial Lecture, given by Professor Ross Harvey.

The Whyte Memorial Lecture honours the late Jean Whyte (foundation professor in the Graduate School of Librarianship at Monash University, Victoria, Australia) and her sister Phyllis, who left bequests to Monash to support research in librarianship, records, and archives.

In this year’s lecture: Keeping, forgetting, and misreading digital material: libraries learning from archives and recordkeeping practice, Harvey extolled the benefits of archival principles, and called for them to be used for managing digital materials.

“There is much in the toolkit of the archivist that could better equip librarians faced with managing digital materials in ways that ensure that they are not misread and misused in the future – not the least, an understanding of provenance and the preservation of context.”

What Harvey’s lecture did for me was prompt me to reflect on my current professional role. As an information manager working with a repository of grey literature resources that help inform public policy making in a wide range of areas, I now am certain that I must apply archival thinking to the way I do things. I am fortunate in that my role is one without a defined roadmap, and I have to constantly seek out best practice in a lot of different areas: schema development, taxonomy creation, research data management, and linked open data, in order to implement frameworks that work for our resources.

Harvey also spoke of the benefits to be gained from collaboration with others working in different sectors of the information professions. I realised that this is something I already do, both in my workplace and also on other outside projects.

Together with the IT developer at my workplace, we hope to soon mesh our skills to implement ways to provide context for people, organisations, places, and programs, so our resources can become much more than just the sum of their metadata-y parts. Because we collect resources relevant to policy and practice, we have to be preparing now for government changes, as department names inevitably change (often without warning) and sometimes an entire website’s links will go dead for some of the resources we collect. Hello, my old friend the 404 error message.

404-error
Image from: http://404-error.com/

Thanks to this collaboration with IT expertise, I am lucky to have had the chance to learn about systems and machines, and to realise that we need to speak the language of the machine to make things happen the way we want (until they learn to speak our language, by which point they may well take over and decide that our fleshy forms aren’t worth much and machines will rule what’s left of our planet, THANKS Stephen Hawking for giving me nightmares. At least it looks unlikely that robots will take the jobs of archivists or curators, but librarians might be a little worried, and library clerks and assistants – look out!).

I think of myself as an archivally-minded digital librarian – and after Harvey’s lecture I am certain that it is time to step up and make changes to ensure the sustainability of the information I manage. In my current work role, I realise that I need to be implementing the best parts of the archival process now, so that in 10, 20, 50 years, and beyond, people will be able to trace the influential research that was informing policy making, and who was creating it. And most importantly in my mind, I have to provide persistent access to the stuff. There are challenges involved – we work with open source Drupal for a start, with all its interesting, innovative modules (our DOI-minting module is one such undertaking), and its limitations (Drupal depends on its engaged developer community) – but these challenges are not insurmountable, given creative thinking.

It is such an exciting time to be working in this space, and with established professionals like Harvey telling us to ‘get our heads out of the sand’ and promote our skills more widely, it is most definitely time for radical-thinking information professionals to join forces and start making changes to the way we conduct our practice of managing information.

This is a challenge that could perhaps be answered by one inspiring development in Melbourne, Australia – the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Records (GLAMR) New Professionals Group that provides face-to-face forums for all sectors of the information professions to meet and share experiences. This group has the potential to become a strong, powerful representation of the new vanguard of information professionals entering the industry aware that we need to fully utilise all of our different skills for the effective and sustainable management of digital resources.

I am so fortunate to have worked with an archivist and a knowledge manager in other project work, and as a result of this collaboration, my knowledge has already increased exponentially. And yet, I realise there is so much more to learn.

I can feel myself becoming a new breed of information professional, no longer simply ‘librarian’ or ‘archivist’. I am becoming armed with a well-rounded knowledge of how these previously separate disciplines approach common information management problems, and an awareness that together we could do so much more to preserve and provide access to the world’s information.

I must give a thank you to Professor Ross Harvey for a considered yet radical speech, and a thank you to Monash University and the generosity of Jean and Phyllis Whyte that makes this annual lecture possible.

Who knows, perhaps a future Whyte Memorial Lecture could be a group presentation about the radical new changes the GLAMR New Professionals Group makes happen – I’m putting the challenge out there, and I’m mightily keen to be involved in the information profession revolution.

Extra bits
Professor Harvey spoke of many other things in his lecture not touched on in this blog post – preservation, self-archiving digital objects, and the curation of collections by individuals. The full paper is well worth a read.

For another rundown of the event, see Michelle De Aizpurua’s blog post.

To get a sense of the live experience, here’s the Storify, thanks to all the live tweeters.