My name is Ben Bradley, and this is my second year in the MLIS program.
I currently work as the GA for Electronic Resources at UMD where I work with licensing, e-resource usage stats, and troubleshooting access issues. I also work in Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) at UMD where I work with the Labor collections. At SCUA, I’ve worked with the AFL-CIO poster collection (which contains a range of items from early 20th century broadsides to contemporary posters from international unions), and the Pride at Work (P@W) collection, a separate donation of records from P@W, the AFL-CIO’s LGBT constituency group.
After graduation, I would like to work at a smaller institution, whether at a library or archives, I’m not quite sure. Working in a smaller institution, I anticipate wearing many hats, and I anticipate digital preservation could be one of those hats. Additionally, I imagine I might end up working at an organization which has had “develop a digital preservation policy” on a to-do list and never gotten around to it.
I think what interested me most about this week’s readings, is the idea that there very well could be a “digital dark age,” but not the kind we may be anticipating. Rather than a sudden loss of access to digital records, the dark age I’m curious about is one represented by silences or absences rather than the sudden loss of all digital information which Bertram Lyons posits and Eira Tansey elaborates on.
As a medievalist, and one who specialized in Old English literature from the early medieval period (perhaps the darkest of the “dark ages”), I feel like I should comment on the term “dark ages.” The reality of the term, “dark ages,” actually seems to reflect not a sudden loss of knowledge (how it is commonly used), but an era deemed barbaric and unworthy of remembering. “The Dark Ages” is a collection of voices deemed so irrelevant they don’t deserve our attention or memory. Even today, scholars can win the Pulitzer for works which maintain such a narrative. While it is important to educate the public about preservation activities, I think it is more important to evaluate whose voices we, as a profession, are preserving and how we can do a better job preserving an honest and representative collection.
Eira Tansey in “Institutional Silences and the Digital Dark Age” demonstrates how:
the risk of a digital black hole is very, very real. According to last year’s Council of State Archivists report, the number of state archives FTE employees dedicated to electronic records actually decreased from 2006 to 2014, and there are now fewer state archives staff relative to overall state employees. State archives have reported that there is a consistent gap between the authority to carry out state records policies, and the resources needed to actually perform or deliver duties and services. Archivists with institutional records mandates rarely have the authority or resources to go out and get all the electronic records on their own that are required to be transferred to the archives.
Archives and the information profession as whole is in a crisis of power. As Eira earlier describes, as a records manager, she can list records to be transferred to the archives, but her institution ultimately has that authority. Furthermore, archives are dealing with fewer resources to store, process, and preserve their collections. Archivists don’t need to worry about the public panicking about the loss of all digital data. What archivists need to worry about is the public not caring about archives and the voices of the voiceless.
4 Replies to “Hello There!”
Thanks for bringing up the “actual” Dark Ages. I was thinking about the same topic while doing early readings. I’m no historian, but my understanding is that the Dark Ages are overstated in the popular imagination. They got that name because written records mostly disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire, but that era was not objectively bad, and those ages are not really dark to us anymore. There are all kinds of methods that historians, archaeologists, and other researchers gather data from that time period, with new techniques being invented all the time. For example, think about how scientists can gather historical climate data from ice cores and tree rings. In physics they say that information is never lost, only transformed.
My point is that we only have to worry about a digital Dark Age in the sense that some bits of our current data might disappear forever. That seems inevitable. Overall, though, historians of the future are going to be able to figure out a lot of what was happening in the 21st century (a lot of staring at screens, basically).
Thank you for your reply! I think you raise a good point that there are other means to understand the past than just through historical records/data.
Responding a week later, it reminds me of some of the readings from this week: there are different ways to preserve things, and even different understandings of what it means for something to be preserved.
As Jeff said, thanks for bringing in your historian’s perspective on the real Dark Ages. I didn’t have context myself, and it really helps to bring into focus a term that a lot of people throw around as shorthand. Even subscribing to the traditional narrative of the Dark Ages as a cultural back-slide into barbarism breaks down under scrutiny, because the truth is that we DO have records and information from before and during that period due to the hard work of proto-archivists and librarians of the time.
Of course, the other thing about labeling that whole period the Dark Ages is that it plays into a very Western Europe centered view of the world. Using that term ignores the cultural progress was happening everywhere else in the world during that period – which speaks to your excellent point about institutional silences. I think that archivists, especially digital archivists, tend to think of themselves as neutral preservers of information. The reality is that archival selection is a moral and political act in any context, and we archivists need to be aware of the power we wield and ensure we are using it justly.
Thank you for your response, Nathan.
I appreciate your comment about the moral and political quality of selection. Many other responsibilities of an archivist similarly have power. For example: how are we deciding how to process our backlog? An archivist has to privilege some collections over others (this collection is more important/useful/fragile than that collection), but this is also a realm where bias can creep in, whether a serious bias or just mere personal preference. As you imply, no archivist is neutral, so we have to be aware of our biases and be transparent about them when we can.