Pluralist, multimodal, derivative access points: preservation for who/what?

As I was reading for class this week, I couldn’t help but see all of the pieces through the lens of the research projects I’m currently engaged in, because these questions of access (Of what? For who? How?) have been so central to all three projects. It might be that my projects are more focused on access, but to my mind, it’s much more likely that access is the reason for any archival endeavor. As Owens points out, “The purpose of preservation is enabling access.”

There were way too many interesting threads in the readings for this week, so I picked a few that particularly hit home for me:

Screen Essentialism

Owens points out that cultural heritage institutions often want to hew more closely to the “boutique” approach of digital access, rather than a “wholesale” one, and while a “boutique,” curated approach to access this is generally framed as being more user-friendly, it also comes with the risk that access will remain secondary or tertiary. The more user-friendly frame often means that collections/items aren’t made available until the institution has a sophisticated access system in place. “Screen essentialism” in this view of access refers to the fact that there is no one inherent way of accessing digital objects; Owens urges us to “get over the desire to have the kinds of interfaces for everything where one just double clicks on a digital object to have it ‘just work.'”

Padilla and Higgins too warned of screen essentialism and “data essentialism”; oversimplifying the nature of data and obscuring complexities by viewing both the systems used to locate, process, and understand data, and the nature of data itself. Christen, on the other hand, describes Mukurtu as a system that does need to “just work” and have difficult computational processing happen below the surface, but in this case it’s not a matter of having a single system that works for every possible user, but creating and implementing a system that allows for customization an individual basis, because that is what best serves the collections Christen works with.

Collections as Data, Data as Data

Padilla and Higgins’s piece focuses on defining data, and thinking about digital library collections as pieces of humanities data, especially in how this mindset affects access to digital cultural heritage: “The authors hold that Humanities data are organized difference presented in a form amenable to computation put into the service of Humanistic inquiry.” So, practically thinking, information professionals should be considering how to make collections available and what access points would aid in these collections being “amenable to computation.” Padilla and Higgins’ emphasis on derivative (often DH) projects serving as incredibly useful access interfaces for digital collections, as well as mention of metadata as useful data in its own right, aligns well with the chapter we read this week in Owens’ book.

While I strongly agree with the ideas Padilla and Higgins are putting forth, I do harbor some concerns about how this article, and the larger research project it morphed into (Collections as Data) might be in conflict with archival practice and values. For instance, does the focus on interfaces developed outside of the archive, such as “The Real Face of White Australia” (disclaimer: I’m a Tim Sherratt stan), undercut the importance of contextual relationships between parts of an archival collection? Projects like this aid in access to and understanding of archival material, but are parts of a wider whole that many users may not realize. How can we maintain context (cough, the provenance debate) while also making digital archival collections “amenable to computation”? Are archivists being cut out of this information exchange, and if so, how we do re-insert ourselves?

Discussion Questions

  1. How does thinking through access impact processing workflows? Does MPLP work as an approach to all collections? How does prioritizing access play into undertaking documentation strategy projects?
  2. Do you have experience with ethical and/or privacy issues that might prevent you from batch converting and uploading immediately? What about when legal/copyright issues and ethics are at odds? When can you legally make something available but might not want to?
  3. Owens emphasizes keeping any sensitive material is a risk that information professionals must seriously consider. But  one of the projects I’m working on, Safely Searching Among Sensitive Content has made me think about sensitivity in so many contexts – reputational harm, for instance, is incredibly broad. How do you know you’re making the right decision? In addition, during the initial work on developing an access system for email collections containing sensitive material for SSaSC, we found that our platform’s search functions work better when the algorithms have access to the sensitive material, even while accounting for the fact that that material won’t normally be shown the user. How does work like this complicate our thoughts on collecting sensitive material?
  4. How does thinking about access to only metadata change or not change the way you would process and catalog collections? Does this apply to both descriptive metadata and technical metadata?
  5. What multimodal methods of access might work for the small institution you’re partnered with? Which would not (currently, at least?)
  6. In Padilla and Higgins’ piece, they posit that librarians/archivists/info professions are well-suited to “offering training in the skills, tools, and methods needed to take advantage of Humanities data.” Is this the case, on the ground? Why or why not? What are the major challenges we need to overcome, at an institutional and field level, in order to better serve users in this way? Is training in these skills different than simply providing multimodal access?
  7. Have you seen the feminist HCI values of “plurality, self-disclosure, participation, ecology, advocacy, and embodiment” in practice? How do you anticipate using them?
  8. Christen opens her article by stating that “Archives have long been ambivalent places for Indigenous communities whose cultural materials are held in their storerooms.” (21) In what ways do we, as a profession, reinforce that ambivalence? Question it? Does multimodal access, as delineated by Owens, ameliorate this ambivalence enough?

In thinking through these discussion questions, I was continuously reminded of Miriam Posner’s blog post, “Money and Time.” Every concern about staff resources and ways to implement access seems to align with the sustainability, resources, and burnout concerns that Posner brings up in relation to DH centers and initiatives: “You can optimize, streamline, lifehack, and crowdsource almost everything you do — but good scholarship still takes money and time.” Multimodal, plural, cultural sensitive access to digital objects and collections still takes money and time.

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.