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.

There were a number of fantastic sessions, but a few highlights stand out for me:

  • Marisa Leavitt Cohn’s talk “Holding On and Letting Go: Configuring Timescapes of Infrastructural Maintenance Work” was a fascinating look at the technologies, people and data behind the Planetary Explorations Laboratory. This gave me a lot to think about in terms of the relationships between careers, standards and different kinds of technologies.
  • Jérôme Denis and David Pontille gave a talk called “Object Ontologies and the Contrasted In/Visibilities of Maintenance Work” and, while I confess to have understood only a small fraction of it, what I did manage to grasp was really interesting, and has some really huge implications for archivists (more on that below).
  • I also really enjoyed Jessica Meyerson and Chuck McClenon’s talk “Campus Computing Cultures, Mainframe Retirement and Meaningful Reuse” along with Nick Hall’s “Getting it Going, Keeping it Going, and Bringing it Back to Life: Maintenance as Research Methodology,” both of which talked about valuing and making visible maintenance work on aging or “obsolete” technology. This brought to mind some of the institutional knowledge we have here at the RAC, and ways in which we might value expertise with technologies like card catalogs and microfilm reels.

For me, two threads ran throughout the conference. The first was a noticeable trend towards maintenance work as replacing components rather than repairing-in-place. This came up in a number of contexts, and made me think a bit about this trend in the world of software and systems, where concepts like microservices, dependency libraries and modular components are pretty commonplace. While I think there are substantial differences between hardware that is designed to be disposable and software that is designed to be replaced, both have ramifications for what kinds of labor and expertise are valued and rewarded.

The second theme relates to the invisibility of maintenance work. It’s a fairly well-established trope to talk about maintenance as “hidden” or “invisible,” which is certainly something I’ve done. However, as I noted in my presentation, by saying that work is invisible, we’re really saying more about our own lack of vision than we are about maintenance or maintainers. More to the point, we’re both essentializing a form of labor and implying that maintainers don’t have agency. As a number of presenters pointed out, maintainers often take pride in erasing the traces of their work, whether they are mechanics, painting conservators or TV production staff. This idea connects with a notion of maintenance as performative, and leads us to think about where, when, how and by whom this performance happens, and who the audience of that performance is.

In their talk, Jérôme Denis and David Pontille laid out three maintenance-related categories of objects: those in which maintenance must be erased (such as works of art), those in which maintenance is neither erased nor highlighted (some forms of architecture), and those in which maintenance must be visible (archival records). Although the example they used related more to the maintenance of a record by its originating agency, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to extend that argument to the actions of archivists.

As I noted in my talk at the SAA Research Forum last year, archivists seem to be ambivalent about the visibility of our labor. On the one hand, our professional values and literature argue for transparency and accountability in the archival enterprise, on the other our standards and practices don’t seem to align with that literature or those values, which results in us actively erasing ourselves from the historical record. This erasure has significant impacts on the use and understanding of historical records, as well as the value ascribed to our labor.

One possible reason for this is the ongoing tension in archives between craft and professionalism. A few of the presentations distinguished between the performance of maintenance by those who consider themselves part of a profession versus those who consider their work more of a personal craft. To make a very broad generalization, the performance of maintenance by professionals happens in very different spaces (and is intended for very different audiences) than maintenance done by craftspeople. I need to think some more about this, but it seems a useful area of inquiry for archivists.

Although the next Maintainers conference has not been officially announced, it sounds like it will happen at the end of 2018 or even early 2019 in Washington DC, and will be focused on policy and practice. I highly recommend this conference to all archivists and information professionals. See you in DC!

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