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.

Modeling Coworker Engagement with Data

As our work on the transfer application portion of Project Electron nears its completion, I’ve started to think more seriously about modeling our data that we are bringing into our systems. We’ve actually been prepping for this stage of the project for months, going all the way back to the Data Model Bibliography I put together in February 2017. Now that the D-Team was in the thick of data modeling, we thought it was time to bring the rest of the Archive Center on board as well. I’m just a single archivist, and even though I’ve done a lot of reading about data models, I’m no expert on the entirety of our collection or its materials. We knew that we’d need more eyes on our initial data model draft once we made it to make sure we weren’t forgetting an important component of our collections. Continue reading

edUI Conference 2017

I recently attended the edUI conference in Charlottesville, VA. It’s a conference for web professionals working in educational institutions, and the speakers come from a variety of professional contexts including design, development, management, content strategy, and UX. For me, this conference was a chance to hear from and connect with folks outside of the archives field who are doing related work. It pushed me to think about familiar problems from a fresh perspective, build conceptual connections, strategize to improve communication across disciplines, and learn some practical approaches and skills that are not often emphasized in archives-specific conferences.

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NEDCC’s Preservation 101

By Amy Berish, Kanisha Greaves, and Emeline Swanson

One of the professional development opportunities at the RAC this summer was the chance to participate in NEDCC’s online Preservation 101 course. The objective of the course was to create an executive summary for a collection in our own institution. While many people took the class individually, Amy, Kanisha, and Emeline joined forces to create a robust final project and collaborate across departments: Processing, Reference, and Collections Management, respectively.

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Presenting a Poster at the AIC 2017 Conference

This year’s theme for the AIC Annual Conference was Treatment 2017: Innovation in Conservation and Collection Care. Julia and I were excited to present our work that culminated in the creation of the Preservation Report. The report allows our institution to better document preservation decisions and workflows.  Although we represented an archive and its unique documentation challenges, we felt strongly that the theory and principals at play in our report would benefit the larger conservation community. It is critical that we create and use a form that is readable and useable long-term and we knew that feedback from outside our organization was key. Continue reading

Shades of Similarity at Open Repositories

I attended my first Open Repositories conference in Brisbane, Australia two weeks ago. And while the RAC is still fairly new to the repository world and ecosystem, I picked up on a few trends that I think span across systems, institutions, and disciplines. Most of the attendees at the conference were coming from university library settings, but those institutions seemed to struggle with the same things we, as archivists, do: managing and maintaining a large infrastructure made of many systems, eliminating silos of information, and how to adapt to changing researcher or user needs. Sound familiar? If you said the above concerns made you think about what we’re trying to solve here with Project Electron, kudos to you. The entire conference I kept thinking about how it felt like almost everyone was trying to deal with the same issues we were, and in largely the same manners. Continue reading

Workshop Review from AIC 2017

In May, Marissa Vassari and I presented a poster at the 2017 Annual Meeting of The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) in Chicago. Check back soon for a posting about our poster experience.

In this post, I wanted to discuss why I flew out to the AIC annual conference early in order to attend a workshop on digital file structure entitled “Examining the Composition and Structure of Digital Collection Objects: Strategies and Guidance for Ongoing Management and Preservation.” Although this workshop may have stood out as an oddity against a schedule full of photograph conservation, collections care, and environmental monitoring lectures, this workshop helped inform how I am thinking about my larger role in preservation at the RAC. Continue reading

RAC goes to Princeton!

Back in January, archivists from the Princeton University Manuscripts Division visited the Rockefeller Archive Center to discuss digital processing with members of the RAC Processing Team. To continue this conversation, a few staff members from the RAC went on a field trip to Princeton on June 8th. The group consisted of staff from various departments including members of the Processing, Collections Management, and Digital Teams. Continue reading

Principled Action: Asserting Archival Principles to Reduce the RAC Backlog

Several years ago RAC faced a dilemma familiar to many in our profession – a daunting processing backlog that was growing exponentially and depriving scholar’s and staff of access to many of the records held in our collections. Our collections are great resources of knowledge, but only if those resources are available to our users!

To find a solution, we actively sought processing practices that reflect our values as an operating foundation, specifically the values of collaborating and sharing knowledge, disseminating information, promoting discovery in all its forms, and facilitating open and equitable access to all our archival holdings. Over the last year and a half, we shifted our strategy to processing by accession and implemented a standards-based approach which has been a resounding success thus far and has resulted in the processing and opening for research of over 4,500 cubic feet of records. This discussion will be the first in a series of posts about our processes and collaborations. I hope our experiences may be valuable and helpful to others. Continue reading