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.

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

LDCX, BDAX & PDA

Last week I attended three events held at Stanford University: LDCX, Born Digital Archiving eXchange (BDAX), and Personal Digital Archiving. There was a lot of digital archives talk at all of these events, and it was great to chat with folks who are also dealing with the issues I’m encountering in my work.

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Getting More Out of (and Into) Your Collections Management System: DACSspace

Recently, I attended METRO’s Annual Conference where I presented on a panel titled “Getting More Out of (and Into) Your Collections Management System.” I spoke about my experience learning to code as a processing archivist and developing DACSspace. The following is the text from my presentation.

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ACRL/NY Symposium on Money & Power

Last Friday, I attended the annual symposium of the Greater New York Metropolitan Area Chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL/NY). This year’s theme was Money and Power, and the talks covered standards, instruction, labor, and other library issues that intersect with issues of money and power.

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PASIG 2016: Invisibility and Labor

Along with Bonnie (read her report of the conference here), I attended the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) Fall 2016 conference last week. I learned a lot at this conference about the technical aspects of digital preservation, both from a theoretical as well as a practical perspective.

There were a host of good presentations which provided introductions or practical guides to implementing digital preservation processes. I particularly liked Bertram Lyon’s presentation on the “The Anatomy of Digital Files,” Alison Rhonemus, Julia Kim, Morgan Mckeehan, Dianne Dietrich and Erin Faulder’s presentation on “Emulation for Everyone,” and Sam Meister’s discussion of “The Ecosystem of Digital Objects.”

However – the last day of the conference, which brought critical theory to bear on many of the assumptions and accepted practices in the world of digital preservation – was one of the most provocative and stimulating days of conference learning I’ve experienced in quite some time.

One of the most mind-blowing presentations was Dragan Espenschied’s discussion of the work of Webrecorder, which is a tool to capture “recordings” of websites. In his talk, he made a passing comment that the web is often conceived of as a bunch of URLs at which you can access content, but really the web is made up of people situated in time and space, using a specific web browser, operating system and network infrastructure. The last session of the day was a panel which included Ingrid Burrington, an artist and writer whose work centers on the physical infrastructure that supports large digital networks. In closing, Burrington remarked that we often talk about this infrastructure as invisible, which isn’t really true; it’s more that it’s hiding in plain sight.

These two comments got me thinking about the nature of invisibility, and reminded me of the adage that “what you see depends on where you stand.” So when we say something’s invisible, we’re really talking about own perceptions rather than expressing a universal fact. Perhaps, instead of saying something is invisible, we should say it is invisible to us; that we are blind to that particular thing, person or process.

These ideas of invisibility and blindness were further amplified by Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez’s talk, which Bonnie wrote about in some detail. At the heart of Arroyo-Ramirez’s presentation was the question “what processes are we willing to work through rather than around?” a question that intersected with several conversations I had over the course of the conference about the perils of outsourcing digital preservation expertise (and to a certain extent, infrastructure) to a third party. Although that course of action can seem like an attractive solution (particularly in the short term), “working around” the problems of digital preservation by subcontracting expertise almost always has debilitating effects over the long- (or even medium-) term because it removes opportunities for building local capacity. In Arroyo-Ramirez’s talk as well as several informal conversations with colleagues, I heard a strong argument for taking the time to “work through” digital preservation processes, to engage with processes, tools and ideas intentionally with an eye to building human capacity.

As we continue to work on Project Electron, these ideas of invisibility and where we apply labor are critically important. We’ve talked a lot about enabling systems integration with this project, but what are the characteristics of those integrations? Are we working towards integrations that are “invisible,” and if so, what are the implications for the humans who interact with these systems? When we talk about “seamlessness,” do we simply mean seams we don’t see or understand? What are we blinding ourselves to in the search for efficient workflows and measurable results? What kind of work are we making possible and what are we inhibiting or even prohibiting?

PASIG 2016

Last week, I attended the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) Fall 2016 meeting, here in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art. Each day of the three-day conference focused on a different theme: Day 1 was “Bootcamp/101,” Day 2 was “Preservation and Archiving in Practice” and Day 3 was “Preservation Frontiers and the Bigger Picture.” While all three days were great, and I’d recommend checking out all of the presentations, the talks on the final day made me reflect critically on what it means to responsibly engage with digital preservation activities, especially at an institution like the Rockefeller Archive Center.

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Radcliffe Workshop on Technology and Archival Processing

Last week I attended the Radcliffe Workshop on Technology and Archival Processing. It was a really amazing event that brought together archivists, historians, librarians, digital humanists, technologists, and others to discuss the relationship between technology, archival processing and digital humanities. The talks were thought-provoking and introduced new ideas and methods I hadn’t considered before. One talk that really stood out to me was Jarrett M. Drake’s reconsideration of archival principles including provenance and respect des fonds. It brought up similar themes to those we discussed in the RAC reading group last month that focused on the concept of original order. Fortunately, it’s now available online; it’s a really worthwhile read, especially in light of our conversations around respect des fonds a few weeks ago.

The Maintainers: a conference on keeping things working (most of the time)

You might not think a conference on maintenance would be all that exciting. But The Maintainers – a conference I attended this past week at Stevens Institute of Technology in scenic Hoboken, New Jersey – was not only exciting, but thought-provoking, inspiring and challenging as well. Continue reading

Code4Lib Report: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

A big theme at this year’s Code4Lib conference was the importance of collaboration and building upon others’ work. Since collaboration and openness are some of the D-Team’s core values, this really resonated with me. A few different strategies were suggested to increase sharing and collaboration; these included openly sharing tools and documentation on the web, as well as designing code and tools so that they can easily be re-used by others.

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