Survival Through Touching

March 10, 2011  |  By
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  1. pam martin Says:

    “Hospitality, touch and transformative appropriation…. turning hermetic repositories into workshops..”
    Thank you for these inspiring thoughts.

  2. Johan Oomen Says:

    Hi Rick – Many thanks for sharing! One solution to the problem you raise regarding the “discrepancy between how much of the historical record is extant and how much of it is actually used” is that it should be easy to provide meaningful access routes to collections. Needless to say, digitisation is extremely helpful here. Once digital and part of an open network, cultural artifacts can be shared, recommended, remixed, mashed, embedded, cited, referenced to etc. etc. Here lies to key to raise interest for even the most obscure piece of ephemeral film.
    Mass digitization is costly. Governments have a responsibility to invest in durable access (through digital preservation) of the national historical record. Provided the terms are transparent and beneficial to all stakeholders, public-private partnerships can be a good way to fund mass digitization as well. Other coordinated, but more grassroots practices include initiatives such as the International Amateur Scanning League and Musopen [1].
    The question indeed remains whether the entire ‘analogue backlog’ of archives holdings can ever be digitized though these efforts. There is a massive body of content out there. You propose to open up the archive spaces for ‘hands-on access’ by end users, and to transform them into workshops and places of production. It’s a great vision. I’m sure that we can benefit from the enthusiasm of our end-users in key areas of the so called digital content life cycle [2] around which many archives are organised. For instance, to invite user to assist in the selection, cataloguing, contextualization and curation of our collections. These activities can be carried out by end-users remotely and can certainly reduce operational costs of archives.* Hence, these so-called crowdsourcing initiatives might be a way to free up resources to pay for digitization. And, as funding of many heritage organizations is (and IMHO should be) based on their societal impact, these initiatives will be of growing importance also from a managerial/PR perspective. Please note, I think the act of digitizing an analogue object requires training and expert knowledge of specialized pieces of hardware and is and will be best executed by professionals – also in the age of cognitive surplus [3] that manifests itself today.
    In any case, it is really important we start to explore these fundamentally new ways of interaction between archives and their users. Identifying the mutual benefits for all stakeholders is an important starting point.
    A final note: our colleagues in the library domain are also redefining their place under the stars. This recent blog post [4] also explores at the idea of reinventing the library as a workshop.
    Looking forward to read everyone’s comments!

    Best wishes from Amsterdam,
    Johan Oomen


    * Needless to say, we also need to think about the ‘total cost of ownership’ of the collection once it’s digitized (not to mention copyrights).

  3. Sunny Stalter Says:

    This is a really interesting and thoughtful piece. One thing that I wonder about is the cost to the visitor. I would love to be involved in crowdsourced processing, tagging, and viewing of archival materials, but the cost of coming to SF to do so would be prohibitive without outside funding. I think that opening up the archives would work as part of a structured program, possibly with fellowships that would cost less than the usual processing fees and would train people to do the kind of artisanal work that you discuss (or at least the brute force elements). Do you know about the Yiddish Book Center’s program for processing and documenting their archival materials? It involves a lot of manual labor, but it’s felt to be a necessary part of cultural preservation.

  4. David Rowntree Says:

    Rick, Thanks for your thoughts and call to action (or at least getting us to thinking about taking some new action). From my experience of managing archives within larger entities you are often beholden to the policies of the parent institution (universities in my case). Sadly, university policy did not allow us to have volunteers for liability reasons. In fact, we could not have anyone other than a student or affiliated with the university. As such, at least in the short-term I see your proposition working for stand-alone or semi-autonomous archival institutions.

    The question about allowing researchers and users into the back rooms is certainly provocative and will raise protests. ONe consideration that cannot be overlooked is that managing volunteers/users in this capacity will be time-consuming, it cant just happen without a change of role in archival staff. Security is also an additional issue. Unfortunately things occasionally go missing when doors are opened wide – with rare or valued collections it seems this approach will not be accepted.

    Despite these protestations I generally agree with you that a radical new approach needs to occur to make more materials both accessible but also findable. I fear that merely digitizing and putting something online people believe this is providing access. It must be findable. Is the low use of certain materials a partly the result of poor description/cataloging?

    As libraries struggle to redefine themselves in the digital world and are consumed around questions of licensing the same books and journals, etc. Archives should be thrust into the spotlight. They are often largely made up of unique, primary source materials that exist no where else. Their content has always been valued as the engine behind new research, scholarship, and education and should drive new media productions and scholarly communication.

    I also agree with you that there are masses of information that we will not digitize. However, I also believe that not everything needs or deserves the effort and expense to “survive” in a digital form. If we agree that we will not be able to digitize “everything” we must recognize the need to select. Despite protestations of “we have no right” the mere act of digitizing something is a subjective decision – one work has been chosen before another. I believe that there is an absence of discussion about what is being digitized. Who’s history? Who’s voices? In what order? What are we missing? Will our digitized histories be representative and relevant to our changing demographics 10 years from now?

    The Center for the Future of Museums in a recent report proposed two considerations that I feel are important to note and can be transplanted to archives or cultural institutions in general (particularly in the US). The first might actually be applicable to some of your propositions.

    1. With the aging population remaining more interested in continuing some form of work later in life museums/archives can position themselves as places of choice for this group. 2. Demographic shifts means that our archives must be relevant to the new multi-ethnic society both as users and supporters. It’s safe to assume that they will looking to use online resources, be voting on local, state, and federal funding and we will be looking to cultivate new relationships of potential donors.

    David Rowntree

  5. agaricus Says:

    A personal story: Invited to look at an inspiring old document by a friend, I reach out to touch it and leave a visible mark. Suddenly, I notice the awful irreversibility of time. Can’t I rewind and take the stain off the page? Nope. The friend, kindly: “things acquire traces of their uses.” I think that spirit of appreciation, your awareness that the damage done to archival materials accessed by the public is also an addition, is at the heart of this post. (Still…. of course… from now on I wash my hands.)

  6. kyle Says:

    The image that came to me as I was imagining this vast collection of film was of a ship sailing on benighted waters – and as an artist this makes me appreciate the struggle to understand the “lay of the land” when there’s far too much to see, when it isn’t possible to get a comprehensive view. It’s scary to think how random our formative experiences have been, but also reassuring that we have an internal compass to guide us toward a more generous life.

  7. Nicole Martin Says:

    I think this is a great argument for a very simple concept of a bottom-up instead of top-down approach to archiving, access, and preservation. Without touch and the hand of a collector, most archives would not have gained critical material mass in the first place, and would lack the influence of the conscientious curator who initially decides what the character of the collection would be, and subsequently what additional items would fit into it. Once the collection has formed physically, it provides different meaning to every user, and its richness and depth is fleshed out through description, whether by a professional cataloger or researchers looking for evidence or histories that don’t seem to exist until someone stumbles across them. Collections that allow access are guaranteed some measure of depth and worth to society; as Rick notes, “a film for every viewer and a viewer for every film,” which is enhanced by Storycorps’ motto, “listening is an act of love.” The unnecessary challenge of a top-down archiving model presents analog collections as a really big tree falling in the woods. Why hold on to items if no one is there to hear them? How do we even know certain items in our collection are valuable until someone comes and points out their value?

    In our archive, we wouldn’t survive without the work of interns and volunteers. This is the case for many libraries, archives, and museums, and puts the information professional in the position of a teacher and a guide instead of a gatekeeper. Even in best-case-scenario, well-staffed organizations and institutions who pay a living wage, researchers, volunteers and, as David Rowntree mentioned, aging folks who want to interact with archives, are a fantastic resource and keep community mobilized around materials to make collections relevant. As we integrate community into our work, teaching users careful handling and basic skills becomes a part of the culture of not only libraries and museums, but archives as well. In my work, I enjoy encouraging hesitant interns (who often have a reverence for the “aura” of physical items with which they come into contact) to engage with materials once they are trained to do so.

    On a practical note, creating systems and programs for training visitors, digitizing or restricting use of extremely fragile materials seems like common sense, completely realistic and useful concept. For many large organizations and institutions, this is a big step, but it’s completely possible if it is made a priority. As someone who was born into American empire after its peak, sorting through, recycling, exploring and reusing the forgotten and discarded elements of our materialistic society seems perfectly logical and natural.

    Thanks so much for your post Rick, and I loved reading everyone’s comments here.

  8. Chris Cobb Says:

    Longing, and letting go.

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