8 Replies to “Made to Be Broken”

  1. I really enjoyed your post, Jeff. I wonder, however, how much dominate structures can be completely dissolved and replaced with something new. While I believe that digital objects, as you demonstrate, disrupt archival principles of authority and authenticity, they will co-exist with collections governed by “traditional” theories. What I imagine, and personally find exciting, is that new theories will co-exist with old theories. Archivists will continue to maintain authority while also attempting to relinquish and disperse their descriptive power. LCN subject headings will co-exist with community-provided tags, and copies and originals will, at times, both be understood as authentic or authoritative. The discussion, within that tension, I think, could be an exciting one.

    1. I totally agree here with Ben, and I think that it speaks to some of the larger points you’re making, Jeff– the rules of arrangement can be shifted, but some of them have become deeply embedded in our way of thinking, whether it’s because we had been thinking that way when we approached the materials, or if it’s because existing algorithms shaped how we saw the world.

      Some things are hard for us to get rid of in our minds– so, for example, the idea of a “file,” that things created on our computers exist like little paper documents in a filing cabinet, in folders. We don’t HAVE to think about digital objects that way– and in fact, sometimes it keeps us from truly understanding the nature of an object– but we often do. So, as we consider new ways to arrange and consider digital objects, we have to keep the old ways in mind– because for many people, that is how they will approach the objects.

      I like Manovich’s conceptualization of a database as a form of cultural expression because (it seems like) many people don’t think about arrangement of data as creative, or an art form, particularly when it’s being done by a computer. But in a lot of cases, it can be! I’m working on creating a database of vinyl singles, and as I learn about them, I’ve been finding new fields to describe and new ways to arrange them so that someone looking at the database can discover new things about the objects and their relationship to one another (cover vs. original, record label, wheter it’s a first run or a re-pressing or a reissue or a bootleg, availability in our sheet music collection, etc). Even though it’s a simple spreadsheet right now, I’m hopeful that the eventual database will provide users with a glimpse at these connections.

      1. Ben and Alice, of course I agree that the old and new ways will co-exist. It’s always that way. Even after revolutions, the old guard usually turns out pretty well.

        But still… even though I hate the term “disruption,” it is honestly miraculous how little libraries, museums, and archives have been impacted by the technological changes of the past few decades. I truly believe in the services we provide, but it’s still worth thinking about what the point of it is, and who we are serving. In my job, I work on projects that are to some respect for the good of humanity, but are more immediately helpful for the elite of the elite. I know I’m doing something useful, but as the old song asks, which side are you on?

        Ben, I agree, the overlapping of authority between professionally-trained archivists and non-trained outsiders is exciting. But regardless of how we feel, if we as archivists don’t share our perceived authority with others, then we will be pretty much left behind as the culture shifts around us.

        Alice, as for the Manovich/database topic, I think that might be what is turning us all into distracted, FOMO-feeling members of a giant hive mind. It is pretty weird, having random-access information at all times! Sometimes I like it though, and even though I’m cynical about technology, I’m optimistic that all this change can stir up some good results.

        1. That’s some food for thought– that the development of the database has shifted how we think as a society. We no longer seek to find narratives, we seek to find bits of information and how they connect. I should have added– I would imagine someone else would develop my database in a completely different way: if they had no music background, or were a collector, or a scholar in a different field.
          [Random added thought; The Oatmeal did a comic about FOMO and create JOMO: Joy of Missing Out, which I think applies to me more often than not. I believe it is lightly vulgar so I’ll let people search for it if they so desire].

          I think your question about sides is particularly relevant in light of some of the issues that came up in the authenticity readings. Of course, digital access in some ways democratizes an archive– who had access would depend on who had the resources to GET to an archive during business hours, which would exclude a lot of people. Having something online makes it possible for a greater number of people to have access.

          Back to the topic of arrangement and rules, though… this is where we can take something that is more widely available and close it off. I can create a digital database, but if I make the data incomprehensible except to true experts, then while the data is widely available, it’s not widely understandable.

          To use your song as an example: if I was making an inventory of songs performed during the 1989-90 Pittston strike (my masters thesis topic), “Which Side Are You On?” would be on it, and I could list a known location of a performance as outside of a preparation plant (I believe it was Moss 3). An insider would know when, how, and why it was sung– typically at state troopers as a way of questioning their neutrality, or replacement workers for abandoning their community. A more detailed arrangement/labeling could give that information.

          But of course, maybe we don’t WANT to give that information– there are times when we can keep detailed data internal so that our archives can serve insider communities… it just depends on our goals.

  2. Manovich raises some interesting points about the differences between the unordered list of the database and the linear “cause-and-effect” view of the narrative (¶13). The database allows the user to essentially create their own narrative through queries, but does not necessarily impose a narrative on the dataset. Organizing information in this way, especially when linked data initiatives promise to link everything to everything, allows for a more organic and realistic representation. Authoritative versions extract selective information from reality and create a political narrative that ultimately strips the reality from the object (or creates a new reality?).

    Data webs, I think, are useful ways to represent an event or individual in a realistic context. Granted, these representations still require interpretation, but I think that multiple interpretations from an accurate depiction (but what is accurate?, I know, I know…) is more realistic and beneficial to enabling discourse than discussing a singular authoritative narrative.

  3. Dave,

    I agree that linked data and data webs provide some ways of looking forward. I’m curious to see where we end up. Sometimes these concepts feel like halls of mirrors, endless reflections of reflections that confuse more than they help. Another reason for my half-belief in tearing down the whole system!

    But for digital archiving, linked data will probably be useful once systems emerge to make use of it. We can describe the things we have and let larger structures and relationships map themselves out, skipping from node to node. Just like a lot of the political stuff I was writing about, it is all about facing outward, rather than inward.

    1. Jeff & Dave, I am super excited for some clever software developer to find a creative way to visually represent data webs. It’s certainly a tough task, but it could be so cool if they manage to capture it and wrangle in all of those connections and copies.

  4. Enjoyed the post! One of the things I am still working on processing is the extent to which which much of archival practice has been about the properties of paper instead of being about the nature of records. That is, as we move to digital records, I think we are starting to see things about all records that we were blind to when we were mostly working with paper records to begin with. In that vein, I think where Marshal and Manovich are going might be useful in helping us figure out what records are beyond the properties of their primary historical containers.

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