Why isn’t archival work more broadly understood?

Hello! I’m Caitlin Christian-Lamb, a second year doctoral student at the iSchool. My research interests center on collective memory, connections and collaborations between archives and digital humanities, ethics in collection and access policies, the role of the archivist, and community archives. Here at UMD, I work as a research assistant on Ricky Punzalan’s “Valuing Our Scans: Understanding the Impacts of Digitized Native American Ethnographic Archives” project and on Doug Oard and Katie Shilton’s “Safely Searching Among Sensitive Content” project. Prior to heading back to school for my PhD I worked as a digital archivist at Davidson College (a tiny liberal arts college in North Carolina) for four years, and although digital (and physical) preservation planning was under my remit there, I still feel like a novice in the field. As part of completing my dual MSLIS Archives Management/MA History (my thesis was on the collective memory of the sinking of the Titanic, so if you ever want to hear about Titanic pop culture, I’m your girl) at Simmons College, I took a digital stewardship course. When I looked over the syllabus for this class to decide if I wanted to enroll, I was shocked at how little overlap there was – back in 2011, the field of digital preservation seemed so different to me (or perhaps I just have more work experience and a different lens now?).

Most of my focus at Davidson was on archival education and outreach, increasing use of the digitized and born-digital collections in the archives while also adding to those collections. Though Davidson is a small school, there is a ton of digital material either collected or that was on my list to collect – at the top of that list of capturing student work, particularly from the digital studies program, since I served as the library liaison for DS, and because another large chunk of my job involved consulting on, supporting, and encouraging digital humanities work on campus. We often fell into the trap of trying to capture and preserve material without having a real plan, and that led me to apply for a NEH grant to assist in drafting the first ever formal preservation plans for the college archives. Before I left that role I was able to bring in a consultant from NEDCC, who interviewed staff, faculty, administration, and stakeholders at Davidson and wrote reports detailing the state of physical and digital preservation at the institution, as well as providing suggestions for how to move forward. But… lack of institutional support, staff, and resources meant that I mainly continually implored people to read these reports and verbally summarized issues, but never was able to get much done in the way of actual plan drafting. Without more staff, preservation planning was just never going to happen – explaining that you don’t preserve something once, but need to be continually working on preservation (like Dr. Owens’ fourth guiding axiom) seemed to blow administrator’s minds.

I remember seeing archivist reactions on Twitter to Vint Cerf’s digital dark age warning a few years ago – the consensus response was Cerf seemed to think he had invented digital preservation out of whole cloth in 2015, and archivists were naturally frustrated that one of the “fathers of the Internet” had clearly never heard of an entire field of work, and that he had only just then begun to worry about functional obsolesce and access.  It seemed typical of engineers and designers – why worry about use (long-term and current) of the thing you create?

Bert Lyons emphasized the poor public awareness of archivists, archives, and archival work in his post: “We are not and have not been absent from the digital preservation questions. We are, however, hidden in the public narrative.” I’ve often had this same frustration in academic and library circles, where the majority of librarians I encountered had zero familiarity with archival work, and attending digital humanities conferences made it clear that many scholars don’t understand what archivists do either – we used the same words to mean different  things. The archival profession feels incredibly difficult to explain, yet is so fundamental to societal functioning, memory, academic study, and identity formation. While Vint Cerf’s idea of the digital dark age isn’t quite right, as Eira Tansey points out, Lyons’s also leaves out some key factors – there are many, many people devoted to digital preservation, but funding, staffing, and authority play into a larger puzzle of what gets selected, acquired, preserved, and used.

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