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.