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.

A similar group met previously in Atlanta during SAA’s Annual Meeting in August 2016 to evaluate the current DACS Principles, which are intended to provide a theoretical grounding for the rules of archival description that follow. The clear consensus emerging from that meeting was that, although the current Principles contain some important ideas, they are often expressed in language that lacks clarity and precision. Additionally, we felt that several important trends in recent literature, including insights from the domains of postmodernity, feminist thought, and social justice frameworks were missing from the principles. Through the tireless efforts of TS-DACS, particularly its co-chairs Maureen Callahan and Adrien Hilton, a four-day meeting was convened at the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, CT to draft a new set of DACS Principles.

Because the meeting was so successful, I wanted to write in some detail how the weekend was structured, why I think it worked so well, and what I think the implications are for standards development and maintenance.

Put people first

First, meeting in-person over a four consecutive days was absolutely key to completing a draft of these principles. This work simply could not have been done, or done nearly as well, by a group separated by geography or time. Standards can never be fully separated from the people who create, use and maintain them; they are always social and political. By acknowledging and embracing this, we were each able to bring all of ourselves to the revision process, and I think the new principles are stronger for it. Those of us who took part in the process are now very invested in these principles, and in participating in the work necessary for this revision move forward.

This was an invite-only meeting. Although I know TS-DACS values expertise in and experience with archival description and standards, another important criteria for was that participants not be jerks (well, it was worded more strongly than that, but since this is a professional blog I’ll let you use your imagination). This had partly to do with the fact that we’d all be sharing the same space for four days, but also had to do with the social and political nature of standards-making and maintenance. Doing this work is really hard and it’s not any easier if people don’t respect, listen to and share the load with each other.

Consider your methodology

Another thing that TS-DACS did when setting up this meeting was to draw insights and processes from other domains. In particular, there were some methodological choices that I thought were incredibly important, and which I haven’t seen used before in a standards process.

We used a number of techniques – including user personas, user scenarios, affinity diagrams and rapid iteration – commonly associated with Agile processes and human-centered software development. I think doing these exercises at the outset of our process was an absolute stroke of genius on the part of TS-DACS because it got us thinking about who archival description is for, and what it can do for them. Although many of us probably had a tacit understanding coming in that the DACS principles needed to be much more user-focused, framing the process in this way allowed us to think and write much more empathetically, and to place the user at the center of these principles.

Over the last few years, I’ve wondered what it would mean for archival standards processes to be solidly user-driven, and this process gave me a sense of what that might look like and how it might affect the outcome. We need more of this kind of thinking in our standards, and throughout the entire archival enterprise.

We also had a quick session on technical writing, which was very useful because it gave us a baseline set of questions against which to measure our new principles. Reading through the new draft as a group we asked:

  • Is it clear?
  • Is it actionable?
  • Is it fundamental?
  • Does it use inappropriate jargon?
  • Is it testable?
  • Does it use active voice?
  • Does it apply at all times and in all places?

This was a really good way to measure whether or not we had achieved a minimum viable product – another concept associated with Agile methodology – for the principle.

Another thing I found really useful was that the processes we used were largely self-documenting. As small groups, we worked through the process of drafting a principle, beginning with a verbose statement that was then narrowed down to a “headline” of around twenty words. Along the way, we discussed and wrote down our answers to questions such as “What does this do for archivists? What does this do for users?” and “What sources are you drawing from?” In addition to drawing out our best thinking (there were a few times where my group was sure we had the principle nailed down, only to have an important nuance revealed by walking through these steps completely) it also created an important record of our thought process: what we considered, which ideas we wanted to explicitly scope out of the principle, and any underlying assumptions we were making. We created some additional documentation about our thinking on the last day which augments those notes. Together, those are going to be an invaluable resource as this process moves forward, helping to clarify the boundaries of principles, and identifying where there might have been omissions.

Always be learning

Another thing that really impressed me about this meeting was the willingness of participants – regardless of years of service or expertise – to listen and learn. This expectation and model were established by Adrien and Maureen up front through a group review of the Aorta Collective’s community agreements for anti-oppressive meetings. From the outset, I think we all recognized that everyone knew something, but also that nobody knew everything.

This dynamic was further underlined on our last day, when a second review of our principles was producing frustration and confusion rather than an improved version. Recognizing what was happening, Maureen paused the process, and she and Adrien made an adjustment that refocused our energy on documenting what we had already done, rather than picking at each other’s work. This kind of honesty, humility and flexibility – the willingness to admit that something is not working, stop doing that thing, and look for ways to adjust and move forward – is the kind of leadership that is all too often missing in standards processes (and quite frankly, in archives in general).

Valuing labor

This meeting also drove home the obvious but important point that standards processes involve a great deal of human labor, and they are therefore both resource intensive and also require a lot of emotional labor. This is not a new idea; many others have said the same thing, but I think it’s worth repeating.

First of all, there are the hard monetary costs required to get people from across the country together in the same location: travel expenses, lodging and food. SAA covered some of these costs, as did the Lewis Walpole Library and the Beinecke Library. Thank you! While I am grateful for this investment of resources, it’s also painfully obvious that SAA is not well-positioned to cover them without substantial support from outside institutions. This doesn’t seem sustainable to me.

It’s not just about the money though. This meeting was really only possible through the work of Sandra Markham, who served as our host and logistical coordinator, making sure our meals showed up on time, running the dishwasher, in general doing the hard work of care and kindness to make sure all the things we take for granted were provided for. It was also made possible by partners and loved ones who stepped in to provide for the children, pets and other loved ones of those who attended. Too often this kind of labor goes unrecognized and unrewarded. I think it’s worth saying that this work is work, and also underlining how absolutely crucial it is to accomplishing the work of standards revision.

Working towards anti-oppressive standards

If you’ve made it this far in the post, first of all thank you for sticking around, and second, let me tell you why I think all of this matters. There’s been a lot of writing recently about how archives need to be more actively inclusive, liberatory and local. I’m 100% down with those ideas, and I think standards need to be part of that thinking because they have tremendous potential to facilitate collaborative and iterative work across organizational lines and resource boundaries. I want archivists to develop, maintain and use standards that empower rather than dehumanize, that represent rather than erase, that value labor rather than turn humans into automatons. We can do that, but we’re only going to get there if the processes we use embody those same values.

By using methodologies that center users, including a broad range of theoretical thinking, employing self-documenting processes and most of all by modeling humility and listening, I think this meeting showed me how we can get started. The next step will likely broad and deep feedback on the first draft of what we’ve done, then iterating and improving from there. Get ready to jump in!

2 thoughts on “Standards Work: Revising the DACS Principles (in a blizzard)

  1. Hi Hillel,
    Thank you for this post and for your commitment to empathetic, people-centered archival work. I value your contributions to the field and the way you bring undervalued labor to light. I have a question for you and your readers about using affinity diagrams for groups which are not able to spend large amounts of time together in the same place. In Texas, we’ve recently started a steering committee for our Texas Data Repository and we are considering such a process for our work building and sharing our collective roadmap. Are you familiar with tools which might work for this kind of effort?
    Thanks in advance for any advice here or to directly to me at c.mumma@austin.utexas.edu
    ~Courtney Mumma, Texas Digital Library

    • Hi Courtney – great question! I think there are a bunch of approaches you can take. Optimal has an online card sorting tool that might work for this kind of thing (https://www.optimalworkshop.com/optimalsort). You may also be able to use Agile issue trackers like Pivotal Tracker for this sort of thing since ultimately what you’re doing is sorting ideas into buckets. You may also be able to do this in a very low-tech way by distributing a common set of ideas to sort, have participants print and sort on their own, and then send you data back somehow (this could even be a photo, but more useful would be a spreadsheet of some sort). Would be interested to hear other people’s ideas!

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