“But it’s the way we’ve always done it!”: Challenging Traditional Archival Arrangement and Description

This week’s readings painted an excellent picture of how digital and analog archives must be treated in separate manners, especially when it comes to arrangement and description. Key archival traditions, such as provenance and original order, do not always adapt smoothly to born-digital material.  In the words of Peterson, “the units of arrangement, description and access typically used in web archives simply don’t map well onto traditional archival units of arrangement and description, particularly if one is concerned with preserving information about the creation of the archive itself” (“Archival Description for Web Archives“).

Owen’s chapter, “Arranging and Describing Digital Objects,” defines arrangement and description as “the process by which collections are made discoverable, intelligible, and legible to their future users” (129).  An archivist’s main job is to provide access to materials, and description and arrangement plays an integral role in finding that information in as smooth and painless a manner as finding aids can offer.  Since the 1898 publication, Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives, or simply the Dutch Manual, by archivists Muller, Feith, and Fruin, the principle of respect des fonds has dominated archival description and arrangement (Bailey).  Within this method, the ideas of Provenance and Original Order encompasses how archivist should deal with physical materials.  Provenance refers to “the origin or source of something” and original order is “the organization and sequence of records established by the creator of the records.”  Respect des fonds uses these two concepts to impose the rule that materials made by one creator should not be intermingled with materials from another creator and that when the archives receive materials, they should remain in that order to prevent the loss of contextual information. Yep, that’s a lot to wrap your mind around, and even archivists sometimes struggle with this method.  In the digital realm, Drake and Bailey argue that these concepts do not easily transfer to born-digital objects for multiple reasons.

Drake’s article “RadTech Meets RadArch: Towards A New Principle for Archives and Archival Description” argues that provenance is a colonialist and imperialist ambition and should be replaced with a new principle that allows for communities impacted by those materials as having recognition for being a part of the provenance.  In short, Drake believes that determining provenance is a grey area, especially when “only a sliver of Western society had 1) the legal privilege to create and own, and 2) the legal protection of that privilege.”  Because of this segregation and exclusion of many demographics in archives and history, Drake believes that when it comes to digital materials, “users should be able to obtain […] 1) the person(s) who had access to a particular file or folder, 2) their level of access, and 3) the log of changes to these access permissions.”  By mentioning who had access to a file and how much access they had (i.e. who could change parts of the file), Drake starts to blur the clear-cut distinction of creator.  As it is easy for there to be multiple editors, creators, and contributors to files, there is no longer a single person that can be inputted into the provenance statement, but multiple creators.

Speaking toward the practice of original order, in Bailey’s article, “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives,” he comments that with born-digital material, there is no physical order to where the bits are written into the storage device, and the order changes as the file is constantly changing, or at least the metadata is, every time a file is opened (i.e. a file’s “last opened” date). He states that “a new order [is composed] as new bits are assigned to other available areas of the disk.”  He then continues to state, “In a database, objects are related but not ordered. The database logic is non-linear and there is no original order because order is dependent upon query.”  What does all this mean? It means that it is almost impossible to preserve an original order with born-digital materials because of the nature of digital objects. “Digital objects will have an identifier, yes, but where they ‘rest’ in intellectual space is contingent, mutable.”  Because original order does not exist in a database structure (a structure opposite to a narrative structure, as explained by Manovich’s article), the concept of original order is impractical for the arrangement of digital materials.  Marshall adds to this conversation by discussing the authenticity of duplicate file copies by various “creators” in her article, “Digital Copies and a Distributed Notion of Reference in Personal Archives.” She mentions that people make copies of their files for many reasons, including to prevent loss and to make changes without affecting the original. Therefore, where do the multiple copies fit into original order, and to some extent, provenance?

So how do we arrange and describe our digital materials if we can’t use the traditional archival methods?  Owens offers that one stick to the More Product, Less Process theory by Greene and Meissner (132).  He says that because there is usually a sizable amount of information about the arrangement and creation of a digital object within its metadata, one can take that information to “create a collection-level record and provide whatever level of access [one] can legally and ethically offer” (135).  But are there any other ways other than not arranging the materials?


Discussion questions:

From Drake’s article, How can archivists revisit this core principle [Provenance] to learn of its limitations and envision a post-colonial archive free of these oppressive forces and equipped to meet the challenges of contemporary born-digital archival records?

How can we better our software like Archive-It to make it compatible with born-digital materials? What is it missing? (based on Peterson’s observations or your own experiences with metadata or cataloging software)






2 Replies to ““But it’s the way we’ve always done it!”: Challenging Traditional Archival Arrangement and Description”

  1. Hi Jen. I’ll attempt an answer to your first question. Or at least I’ll call it a rumination on the topic. “Answer” makes me sound far more certain than I am.

    While reading Manovich’s discussion of the narrative aspect of video games it occurred to me that perhaps the aspect of narrative offers a new framework for conceptualizing the relationships and ultimately the arrangement of digital objects. It seems to me that a lot of the methodology and philosophy behind archival practice really depends on the idea that everything reaches a resting state at which point it becomes archival. Thus everything was considered to have a beginning and an end, but the middle was only noted if it was deemed relevant. Not to harp too much on my own problems with the concept of finality from last week, but if we instead accept that the life of digital objects essentially has no end, but a beginning followed by an endless middle, then suddenly the emphasis on recording that middle through the use of narrative makes more useful sense. This would satisfy Drake’s desire for a solution that is both technical and social, and for a process that is necessarily requires all of voices that participated in the object’s journey, both in the past and the future.

    Now, what would such a tool look like? Beats me. Maybe some kind of enhanced version of a storyboard? One in which we could switch character perspectives and follow different threads?

    I’m just spitballing here.

    1. Andy,
      I think you have a great rumination. That definitely makes sense to me in saying that there is no end to a digital object (especially since there can be infinite copies made by different people at different times, as seen in the Marshall article). I too was reminded of your work situation and was questioning if the provenance would include you and any other member who edited the videos, of it would just fall under the company’s name. However, by putting it under the company’s name, it falls into the problems that Drake was describing about leaving people, demographics, etc. out of the narrative. (But is it a narrative or a relationship? 😉 )Basically, your existence and accomplishments at your company would be erased and the only thing that lasted was the multiple video copies. But by adding your name to a continuous working list may alleviate this problem and keep the archival materials in their “middle” phase as you called it, rather than “ending” it’s active life.

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