Most obviously, someone who is ill-equipped to handle the physical fragility – the tenuousness – of these objects. Implicitly, then, an “insider” is the archivist – someone with specialized knowledge who is capable of managing and organizing the vastness of our material legacies.
Be it botched frescos, the paving of the Great Wall, or “fixed” tombs-turned-picnic tables, we often have good reason to anxiously anticipate restoration and conservation efforts. Outdoors or indoors, antique or ancient, the salvageability of these things is treated warily and with perverse fascination. We mourn the deevolution of the Ecce Homo, all the while creating memes and traveling great distances just to take selfies with it. Why?
We are reminded of the role that archives play in safeguarding certain materials. Indeed, archives represent a societal mechanism – a checks-and-balances system – for the (safe, sane, and professional) maintenance of our cultural heritage. Archives hold the power, making historic objects and documents sacrosanct – they can both liberate and blockade the physical, the intellectual, and the ideological elements of our materials and the histories they hold.
“The generations of ‘wearing a mask’ and having to pass as heterosexual, of invisibility and enforced silencing of our own voices, and of oppressive distortions about our lives in the mainstream media have all made collecting and preserving our historical records an act of liberation.” – “In the Archives,” John D’Emilio
This week, John D’Emilio published a blog post on OutHistory about archives and I was (am) thrilled. D’Emilio reflects on the role of archives in queer historiography – how early research in this nascent field was very rarely conducted in physical institutions that housed and cared for materials. This grass-roots historiography necessitated community engagement – speaking with individual activists and wading through piles of documents at their organizations of origin. Indeed, D’Emilio reflects on his visit to the New York Mattachine Society, being told that they would be closing at the end of the month and having any/all of the office files offered to him! He kept two four-drawer file cabinets in an apartment closet for several years. The sheer absurdity (and “cringewothiness”) of the situation acts as a solemn reminder of “how precarious the survival of our historical records has been.”
Community-based archives, as D’Emilio calls them, are important because they are accessible to the communities they serve – “Creating and sustaining them are themselves acts of community building.” Communal/subcultural archives (as I called them in my last post) can also act as a counterpoint to our evolving ideas of permanence. In “On the Idea of Permanence,” James O’Toole envisions the freedom to (re)define the scope, purpose, and management of our collections (24). Perhaps this possibility is rooted in both new preservation technologies and community-based archival self-sufficiency.
Finding aids can act as the means through which we familiarize ourselves with an archive and/or orient ourselves within an archival space. The Society of American Archivists Glossary describes a finding aid as “a single document that places materials in context by consolidating information about the collection.” But what does it really mean to “contextualize” materials?
Leora Farber’s article, “Archival Addresses: Photographies, Practices, Positionalities,” employs a sociological concept (of which I’m particularly fond), in order to examine the role of archivists in shaping their collections and making them “suitable” for public consumption: “Positionality is situated in relation to the construction of the identities and subjectivities of practitioners, those subjectivities present within the archive itself, and ways in which these subject positions are activated” (2). Locating the relationships between the positionalities of archivists and archive users, as well as the archives’, archivists’, and archive users’ “historical, political, geographic, social and cultural” contexts, allows us to determine and outline appropriate “processes of exchange” (2).
Similarly, in her article “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities,” Sara Hodson argues that “archivists should become as knowledgeable as possible about the moral and social milieu of the individuals represented in [a] collection” (200). While Hodson is discussing the moral quandaries presented by personal papers, I believe her argument can be replicated and expanded upon for the purpose of dealing with communal or subcultural archives (and public history). What happens when archives and other institutions are run by the very same (or similar) people whose histories are being preserved, maintained, and shared within them – belying the idea of having to “educate” or radically “re-position” oneself in order to accommodate the experiences of the Other? Archival practice can become not just an act of communal/subcultural self-sufficiency, but self-love, and an assertion of agency.
A significant amount of research has already been done to evaluate the effectiveness of crowdsourcing in the archive (e.g., tracing the origins and rationales, reviews of methods). Sites and platforms like CitizenScience.gov and Metadata Games utilize public participation, interest, and (in some cases) competitiveness to gather information, descriptions, and transcriptions for the collections of archives, libraries, and museums. These institutions can use the Internet and social media to “outsource” archival work to individuals – amateurs and experts alike. Does this process equalize or democratize our information-gathering, our research orientations? Does it help expedite processing, improve access, and perhaps even encourage some form of “archival civic engagement” – wherein citizens-cum-archivists are engaged with their communities’ histories?
On the flip side, might not some flummoxed volunteer (either from inside the archive itself or across the world, seated in front of their interface) mislabel or misidentify materials – obscuring them from interested researchers in perpetuity? As a legitimate concern, we might be reassured by the pseudo-checks-and-balances system that emerges from crowdsourcing – always having someone else “checking up on” or confirming the quality of your work. Then again, a herd mindset might serve to perpetuate errors. Ultimately, professional archivists must take the lead on these projects.