SHOT 2017: expertise and power

A few weeks ago, I attended the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in Philadelphia. Along with my colleague Eira Tansey, I presented a paper titled “For Good Measure: The Role of Regulatory Records in Environmental Maintenance,” which made the case that environmental regulation relies on the work of recordkeeping. Eira was fresh off of delivering the opening keynote at NDSA’s Digital Preservation 2017: Preservation is Political, a talk which covered many of the same themes.

SHOT was a great conference, one that I’d recommend for archivists or anyone who works with technology. Much like the Maintainers community, which I’ve repped on this blog a few times, SHOT reinvigorated my thinking about what I do on a daily basis and how I go about it. I’d love to see more archivists at conferences like SHOT, not only because we have a ton to learn there, but also because I think we have a lot to contribute.

One of the recurring themes from the conference was the intersection of expertise and power: who has it, where, when and how is it used, and why? In the days and weeks following the conference, I’ve been thinking about how this issue of expertise impacts the work of archivists in general, as well as the implications specifically for us here at the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Typically, expertise is thought to be narrow and deep: an expert is someone who has in-depth knowledge of a specific, narrowly-defined domain. As expertise is developed, it becomes even deeper and more narrower, which means that the most obvious marker of advanced expertise is specificity.

These slices of expert knowledge tend to share boundaries with the shapes of professions. One of the many things that professions do is to promote a the concept of expertise-based identity through field-specific training and jargon. The effect of all of this is that we end up in our own professional silos, where we have great conversations about all the problems we need to overcome. But there are people having conversations about the same problems in the next silo (or conference hotel) over, and yet we’re all separately talking about these problems like we’re the only ones who have ever thought about them.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I feel like archivists bear a particular responsibility for bridging some of these gaps. Our expertise is, by necessity, one of bridging: we connect people, records, the past, present and future with each other. We have to be multi-disciplinary, since we work with scholars and researchers from many different narrow and deep fields of knowledge. And, I think, our expertise with information management and theoretical understanding of things like boundary objects makes us uniquely qualified to operate in these bridging roles.

Here at the RAC, the D-Team has been thinking about this bridging function a lot over the last two years, and in our recent review of our team values, we talked a lot about how humility is a prerequisite for effective bridging in our context. A lot of that has to do with the power dynamics that come with technical expertise, which are a real barrier to learning and participation. People without technical expertise (or even those who feel they don’t have it even when they do) can easily feel intimidated, less smart or capable than people who are perceived to be more “tech-savvy,” and can often fail to realize that they important, irreplaceable and unique knowledge. Of course, we’re not the only people thinking about this, and our thinking has been highly influenced by the work of others like Shawn Averkamp at the NYPL and Shannon O’Neill and Martha Tenney at the Barnard College Archives, to name just a few.

One way we’ve tried to subvert those power relations at the RAC is to recognize and explicitly articulate both what our colleagues bring to a particular project, as well as what we don’t know. As a newly-added sentence to our values says, we want to approach our work “with empathy and humility: listening before solving, valuing the work of others, and recognizing that we still have room to learn.

Virtual Vault: making access to digitized records easier

This month, we launched a system called Virtual Vault, which allows us to deliver digitized content to any user within the RAC network. It’s a temporary solution that we hope will help us better understand responsible access to digital archival records. Our thinking around this solution is motivated by one central question: given the limitations of copyright and donor agreement restrictions, what is the most and best access we can provide? Continue reading

Project Electron June Update

This month we’re excited to announce the release of the first version of a specification for transferring digital records to the RAC over a network connection. In line with our project value of supporting archival practices and standards, we’ve built many parts of this specification on existing standards and frameworks such as BagIt, BagIt Profiles, Activity Streams, and OAIS. We believe this approach will make the products we come up with more easily reproducible at other institutions, which is another one of our project values. Continue reading

Project Electron May Update

Our major news for this month is that, after evaluating a number of existing solutions against our requirements for archival storage, we have decided to use Fedora as the repository solution for Project Electron. Although there were other systems that met many of our requirements – DSpace for example – in the end we felt that Fedora was the closest match for our needs both in terms of feature coverage and scope. It does what we want it to do without requiring us to support a lot of extra functionality or complexity. Continue reading

Project Electron April Update

As I mentioned last month, we’re moving forward with Project Electron on two fronts: defining the process by which digital records are transferred to the Rockefeller Archive Center and selecting a solution to provide archival storage for those records once they are in our custody. Continue reading

Maintainers II: performance, invisibility and professionalism

Last week, I attended Maintainers II: Labor, Technology, and Social Orders, a conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, and presented a talk which attempted to make the case that folk music is maintenance work by looking at the songs and methodologies of Woody Guthrie. This was a followup to last year’s conference, which you may remember from my rave review. This year’s conference matched the first in terms of relevance and resonance, while opening up some new ground for me related to maintenance and archives. Continue reading

Project Electron March Update

March was a busy month for the Project Electron team, with conference presentations at Code4Lib, attendance at LDCX, Born Digital Archiving eXchange and Personal Digital Archiving, and participation in the DACS Principles revision process. Despite this, we managed to make significant progress on Project Electron, specifically in developing requirements for archival storage as well as transfer of records from donor organizations to the Rockefeller Archive Center. Continue reading

Standards Work: Revising the DACS Principles (in a blizzard)

This past week, I was invited to attend a working meeting of seventeen archivists and information professionals facilitated by SAA’s Technical Subcommittee on Describing Archives: A Content Standard with the goal of drafting a new set of Principles for DACS. It was a week that was simultaneously draining and exhilarating, beginning with a blizzard that shut down most of the northeastern United States and ending with a draft of principles that repositions DACS as a standard that communicates professional values, and is also far more aligned with recent literature and theory regarding archival description. Continue reading

Maintaining a Kick A** Tech Team and Organization

Below is a talk that Bonnie, Patrick and Hillel gave at the 2017 Code4Lib Conference in Los Angeles. Our slides are available online.


Hello! I’m Hillel Arnold, and with me are Bonnie Gordon, and Patrick Galligan. We’re the Digital Programs team from the Rockefeller Archive Center, an independent archive and research center located in Sleepy Hollow, NY (yes, it’s a real place). Our team’s role is to provide technical leadership and expertise to our organization across all function areas. That’s a link there to the text of this talk, which also includes links to a number of other things we’ll talk about that you can follow if you want. Continue reading