Six Years Later: a reflection on standards-making and maintenance

This past August, after six years, I rotated off the Society of American Archivists’ Technical Subcommittee on Describing Archives: A Content Standard (TS-DACS). During that time, substantial changes were made to the standard, but more importantly to the processes by which it is maintained and promoted, as well as in the composition of TS-DACS. I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on some of those changes, since I think they reflect some trends happening in archival standards-making and maintenance in general, and open up some possibilities for how we might reconceptualize them.

In August 2010, along with nine others, I was appointed to TS-DACS. At that time, the Subcommittee’s charge was very much focused on producing a revised version of DACS in light of newly developed standards like RDA and EAC-CPF, as well as contemporaneous revisions to existing standards like EAD. In the intervening years, the Subcommittee’s work has shifted towards small and iterative changes to the standard (rather than a lengthy wholesale revision) combined with a comprehensive rethinking of education offerings surrounding it. In the past year, the Subcommittee completely overhauled the educational model with which DACS had been taught, choosing to break what was a day-long intensive workshop relying heavily on lectures into numerous short – and freely available – videos covering the lecture content, combined with a workshop focused on in-class exercises and interaction.

The composition of TS-DACS has changed substantially as well. When I first joined, the large majority of the members were mid- or late-career archivists with substantial experience in standards maintenance and creation. As its membership has turned over, the Subcommittee has grown younger, more proactive, less concerned with personalities and baggage that often surround cultural heritage standards, and more conscientious about engaging the archival community in using and understanding DACS. It has also become a committee that is led by smart, savvy women. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

There have been some important effects of these changes to TS-DACS’ emphasis and membership. The first of these is a stronger commitment on the part of the Subcommittee to open standards, as well as a far more concrete understanding of the implications of that openness on its maintenance processes. In 2012, as the new version of DACS was released, the standard was placed on a continuous revision cycle, meaning that changes would be submitted, evaluated and, if approved, incorporated into the standard on a rolling basis. At the time, we on the Subcommittee didn’t understand the amount of effort or infrastructure those processes would take, and tracking changes through multiple documents and email threads quickly became onerous. More importantly, it was impossible for members of the archival community to see what revisions were pending, and at what stage they were. TS-DACS approached both of these problems by migrating the text content of DACS to Markdown, then placing those files under version control on Github. This improved the transparency of the standards revision process, allowed comments on change proposals to be captured in the standard itself, and kept a log of revisions to the standard in a single, publicly available place.

This approach to DACS revisions signaled an even more fundamental shift in perceptions of the role of the standard and the Subcommittee. In 2010, DACS was generally considered the stepchild of the archival standards community. Little theoretical energy was invested in it, and most of the big names in the profession were far more engaged with EAD and EAC-CPF (and, to be honest, that’s probably a large part of why a relatively green archivist like myself was appointed to the Subcommittee). Today, while DACS still tends to be dismissed in some corners of the archival community, it has found some unexpected traction as a conceptual model to guide new serializations of archival description.

Additionally, the often-voiced sentiment around DACS in 2010 was that it should follow – rather than lead the way forward for – other standards and community practice. One of the things I’m proudest of helping to do on TS-DACS was initiating a process which considered a holistic revision of the DACS Principles. A meeting of archival description experts the Subcommittee convened at the SAA Annual Meeting revealed that many of these principles are poorly articulated, difficult to teach and in many cases lagging behind developments in archival theory.

After six years of standards work, I’m left with some fundamental questions about what standards are, what they do, and how they should be developed and maintained. Should standards be a reflection of the lowest common denominator of professional consensus, or should they provide theoretical and technical leadership towards with the community can strive but perhaps not achieve easily? Should they be somewhere in the middle?

Is DACS different than other standards? Does its lack of prescriptive rules mean that it’s better to conceive of it as a statement of values rather than a set of strict rules to be followed, a model which might be more applicable to encoding standards like EAD or EAC-CPF?

And finally, who gets to say what standards should be? Do we need to more seriously base our standards in user needs and use cases rather than the expertise of a small group of appointed professionals (no matter how knowledgeable they may be)?

I’ve also been thinking that it may be time to expand notions of what we consider to be “companion standards” for DACS, and to think about DACS compatibility not just in terms of rules but also in terms of values. In recent years, the professional literature of archivists and other information professionals has begun to incorporate insights from postmodernist and feminist scholars, as well as other thinkers concerned with the intersections of race, class and power in our society. To a large extent, that work has yet to be integrated into our standards in an explicit and intentional way. Similarly, the principles of human-centered design are widely employed in systems work at many archives, libraries and museums, but seldom in our standards making and maintaining processes. There are some exceptions – the IIIF and PCDM communities are two that stand out to me – but on the whole it seems to me that our current mechanisms, funding and labor for standards work are poorly positioned to take advantage of these developments in theory and practice.

So while I leave TS-DACS really proud (and a little exhausted) by all that TS-DACS accomplished in the six years I was a part of it, I’m all the more aware of how much farther we have to go as a profession to make our standards processes sustainable. We cannot continue to rely on volunteer labor to maintain a growing body of increasingly complex and interrelated standards or, if we do, we need to be comfortable ceding some of the centralized management and control of our current processes to the people willing to do the work.

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