Come Together?

I am not going to post my final paper in a blog post, but I do want to take a moment to end my semester of blogging for Archival Management with a short sub-discussion spurred by my paper.  I decided to write about the challenges in archiving activist and ephemeral art collective/movements in New York City (either a group or archives based in NYC).  The four feature groups I wrote about were Occupy Wall Street, the Riot GRRRL collection, the Lesbian HERstory Archives, and Interference Archives.  In a separate paper I am writing for my research seminar, I am reconsidering Philadelphia-based activist histories of the 80s in curatorial terms… so there are a lot of activists swimming in my brain, and each and every group is being considered in terms of how they attempted to save their own ephemera.

What I have found is that there is no specific way of working among these somewhat similar groups– similar in that these organizations or groups fit somewhere outside mainstream culture, and all of which exuded a type of “do-it-yourself” aesthetic.

I have wondered for a long time what it would be like if Philadelphia had one archives dedicated to arts and culture history of the city so that places and diverse organizations like the Painted Bride Art Center, the Mural Arts Program, Little Berlin, and PhilaDanco could all be located in one place so that researchers could consider the history of Philadelphia-based creatives in context of one another.  My research this semester has made me wonder if all of the collections I considered from New York City to Philadelphia could somehow be stronger if they were together.  For instance, in my research seminar, my writing on ACT UP Philadelphia and ACT UP New York is based on my findings at William Way where Philly’s papers are located; ACT UP NY’s papers live at the NYPL on Fifth Avenue.

Most of this post is just thinking out loud, but I feel myself leaving this class simply wondering how archivists and public historians can band together to create some sort of unified resource that simplifies research for all scholars.  Is this a digitial massive index?  Is this a program much like the Hidden Collections initiative based out of HSP only nationwide?  Or is it a mediation program where archives who have similar materials are offered a free mediator to attempt to combine collections in one place?  I am not quite sure, but I do wonder if we can imagine together to take steps to be as accessible as possible.  A little out there with big dreams for a last post, I know, but thoughts nonetheless.

In the meantime, I will be celebrating the end of my semester listening to Bikini Kill.

Archiving Acoustics and WBAI

Among things I may not have considered unless I discovered them in Archival Management class came a story in the Archives in the News google group about a current literary scholar exploring acoustic space from radio to spoken word recording.  Focusing on the 50s-70s, Lisa Hollenbach is spending her time listening to the zeitgeist of the recorded geniuses of yesteryear.  Her description of her research experience is both haunting and gorgeous.

She wrote on her experience tuning into a WBAI recording in 1961, ” Listening through the layers of mediation that stand in for Blackburn’s own listening ear, I catch an interview with Allen Ginsberg, a broadcast of Blackburn reading translations of medieval Provençal poetry, a Mozart piano concerto, and a BBC production of King Lear. At one point Blackburn reads directly into the tape recorder from Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems before the next recorded broadcast cuts in. During the Mozart, I can hear a typewriter in the background, and suddenly I’m placed in a room with dimensions. I wonder, though there’s no way to know, if he’s working on a poem.”

Well, can I have what she is having, please?

In all sincerity, her exploration was a strong reminder of the treasures we have in past formats waiting to be moved from one technological format to the next.  Whether we move from technology to technology as a scheme of planned obsolescence or because of sheer engineering ingenuity, I do not much care.  I do care, however, about the massive amounts of history we have stored in formats past.  And unlike the Ghost of Christmas Past, these formats will not be visiting us magically in our bedrooms on Christmas Eve ready to show us what has been as part of a dream.  Instead, archivists have to put in hard work, earn grant funding, and then assign studious and determined upperclassmen or graduate student interns and maybe a trained archivist to the task of appraising radio collections and then moving them from tape to mp3.

How exhausting.

But so worth it, I think, especially in reading Hollenbach’s description of the recordings she explored.  She did not just hear the voices of the past, she also explored the ambiance based on sound.  This is something I rarely consider as something captured by radio, but I suppose it is so true.  The sensory memory of times gone (for a great read on sensory memory, check out Mark Smith) are captured acoustically on radio tapes.

According to the Radio Preservation Task Force, an even more important reason to recover old radio recordings includes “intervening in today’s media policy debates” to help serve the “historically disenfranchised.”  I am not exactly sure how to interpret that statement, but I imagine that part of what they are getting at is the ability of independent radio to provide subversive acoustic space for marginalized voices to share creativity and ideas on social change, something WBAI has always been especially great at providing (I am late to discover this amazing radio station and lived in Queens/NYC for an entire year without knowing about it, but now it is my must-listen whenever I am circa NYC).  How wonderful that Hollenbach is working on WBAI’s archival recordings.  I cannot wait to hear more about what she discovers.

Everyone loves transparency.

I was shocked and delighted to read about the better transparency practices approved by the White House and Capitol Hill regarding record requests.

What does this new legislation do for researchers?

“The legislation will end the practice of White House lawyers repeatedly extending the review of records of prior presidents that the National Archives has designated for release. Under the new law, the current president and affected former president have 60 business days to review records the Archives declares an intention to make public. That period can be extended 30 business days, but only once.”

And it passed 420-0!  Within a government where it seems like not one soul can agree with itself, how did this legislation pass so easily?  I think it has to do with the fact that all people want access to information in a transparent, expedient way.  It helps everyone.

What else will this legislation do?

“The new law, sponsored by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), also increases the transparency of the process by requiring the Archives to make public notices of planned openings of presidential records at the same time they are sent to the White House and a former president’s representative. The law also includes a provision sought by Republicans making clear that emails government employees send on private accounts about government business must be incorporated into official records systems.”

And there it is: e-mails.  I spend a lot of time considering how e-mails can be and should be saved and archived.  What systems and processes are currently available for harvesting and organizing e-mail accounts and the content within them?  I am hoping to know more about that sooner than later.

P.S. Why are the Clintons reluctant for records to be open as compared to the Bush family?  Is it because Hilary is still hot within her career while the Bush fam, at least the immediate Bush fam of George W., and Bush, Sr., are certainly done with the White House.  Would other presidential families react as the Clintons are about record release if these other families were still potential White House leaders?

The Sendak Saga keeps on going…

The New York Times published an article yesterday on the continuing saga of Maurice Sendak’s stuff which shed light on this situation in a way I had not realized– that the $10,000 worth of items the foundation has requested back from the Rosenbach (i.e. Potter and Blake’s work) are to be part of a potential house museum in CT.

Considering the things we have learned and discussed in Archival Management this semester, I am shocked that the executor of Sendak’s estate would think that pulling his work out of a readily-accessible collection back to his home would be a good move.  How will this house museum be accessible to researchers?  Then again, I also wonder if this move to pull the collection back to his home makes sense if the full-fledged research center takes flight because it would keep all of his work in one place for researchers going through his things.

I am not especially happy about the political arguments happening about this saga– that the Rosenbach did not take him seriously as an artist, or that the executor of his estate has no formal training in interpretation or archives.  Why would the Rosenbach negate his place in the art world?  Why would an executor who so loved her employer take on a project which might jeopardize the preservation of his legacy?  Who is really thinking about preserving Sendak’s collection in the most accessible way possible?  Is this just a case of King Solomon?

What was especially interesting to consider in regard to the executor of his estate is her close relationship to Sendak.  She has insisted that she knows his collection intimately for what was important to him and therefore she would be right in interpreting that collection in the museum.  However, we have had very different discussions about the way collections are assessed and appraised in class.  While sentimental value is valid, objects and documents also have other values to researchers.  Something that this executor deems trivial or important might have an opposite inference with researchers.

Also, I find it disturbing that this executor has used the argument that Sendak was unhappy with how the Rosenbach did not take him seriously as an artist as reason to pull part of his collection.  Part of the collection being pulled raises the question as to whether Beatrix Potter can be both rare and a children’s book at once… is it not a tad bit hypocritical to negate Potter as a means to glorifying Sendak?  It seems counter intuitive to me.

I was glad to read that the Christie’s auction is postponed until further notice; I was also interested to read that the Sendak research center could open as early as late 2015.  I would surely like to visit… but does anyone really go to house museums?  This issue is the whole other arm to the conversation here.  Have the executors of Sendak’s estate considered that house museums are in crises?  Do they know?  All the more reason for all public history-archival-management-constituents-donors to work closely together.  It will be sad if the Sendak house museum is created only to fall very quickly.

Haters Gonna Hate on Archival Theory

The first rule of archival theory is that we do not talk about archival theory.  Or at least, it seems that would be the way that John Roberts would have it because archivists “save what is historically valuable–there; that is the story.”  While Roberts’s article “Much Ado About Shelving” was cleverly named, it did not meditate fully on the real work and purposed of archives or the theories developed to support those who do the work.  Archivists are much more concerned with the process and education of archiving as a profession and practice than Roberts describes with his oversimplification of the work and the documents themselves.  Archival theory embodies the understanding that documents hold a relationship with what actually happened as compared to thinking that the documents are the story.

I am reminded of a quote a friend of mine shared on facebook the other day, that “the love of your life is not a human being, it is a thing you share with a human being.”  Maybe I have over-nerdified, but it sounds like this quote could easily apply to archival theory, too: History is not in a document, it is the relationship between the documents and what happened.  This means, of course, for archives to be as close to History as possible, that they must remain as impartial as possible so that the documents within the archives reflect the full range of thought and relationships of a particular time, place, or event.

After reading “Archival Choices” by F. Gerald Ham, the need for archival theory is even more clear.  If in 1974, an archivist was postulating that everything must be saved because one day it might be valuable, the need for archival theory was emerging.  Save everything?  How can anyone find anything in a sea of everything.  How did Roberts write his article in the late 80s?  It seems so behind.  What is the true historiography of the development of archival theory?  How did it rise, and why did it take so long for its need to become part of general consciousness?

For more see:

Rand Jimerson, “Embracing the Power of Archives,” American Archivist, Vol. 69, No. 1, Spring – Summer, 2006
Terry Eastwood, “What is Archival Theory and Why is it Important,”
Gerald Ham, “Archival Choices: Managing the Historical Record in an Age of Abundance.” American Archivist, Volume 47, Number 1 /Winter 1984

Sendak, Potter, and Blake…

In the latest installment of the Maurice Sendak collection saga, the Rosenbach is suing the Sendak Foundation so that the will of Maurice Sendak can be upheld.  According to this Philadelphia Inquirer article, Sendak’s “wishes [were] to bequeath his multimillion-dollar rare-book collection to the Rosenbach Museum and Library…for the revered author and illustrator’s work to continue to be displayed at the Rosenbach.”

I was particularly interested in one of the biggest issues within this controversy–

“According to the suit, the Sendak trustees have turned over fewer than half the hundreds of items in Sendak’s rare-book collection. In fact, the estate has told the Rosenbach it had no intention of transferring ownership of several extremely valuable volumes by Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter because they are children’s books, not rare books, the suit states. The Rosenbach calls that reasoning not only faulty but rife with irony: Sendak argued that divisions between adult and children’s literature were invalid – in his work as well as that of others. He called Potter’s works “the literary equivalent of the greatest English prose writers that have lived.””

I think because I am particularly in love with children’s literature, I was very interested in this debate over Beatrix Potter’s works.  I am fairly baffled to think that a children’s book would be in jeopardy for consideration as rare because of the age of the readers.  In some ways, couldn’t it be argued that a children’s book is even more rare than adult book collections because a smaller niche of authors have reached critical acclaim in an historical sense for these works?

Similarly, the issue with the William Blake books is perplexing– because The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experiences are not bound, the rationale is that they might not actually be books at all, and therefore not to be kept at the Rosenbach museum as a rare book.  It’s interesting to see a case in which lawyers will need to define in legal terms just what a book actually is to settle this dispute.

Overall though, this case is sort of deflating because it suggests what I am sure is a common problem that no matter how much anyone tries to protect a collection in life, that if in death there is any ambiguity not addressed by the deceased, there will be controversy.  I wonder after reading and considering this case how archivists could have better advised Sendak in legal matters while he was alive to have prevented this issue now.

Fly Me to the Moon…

I learned on HYPERALLERGIC today that the Norman Rockwell Museum digitized 50,000 images from the Norman Rockwell photograph collection!

What I find to be so awesome about this project is that it demystifies, as much as possible, Rockwell’s choices in image selection and inspiration for his paintings.  I think so often I have considered the value of digitization in terms of specific documents which tell a very important story– like the William Still collection— and less about how a digitized document could actually support a better understanding of something already well known in terms of a visual image– like a Rockwell painting.

I was also interested in how this project came to happen and how long it took to do the work of digitizing such an extensive collection.  According to the article, “The process of archiving and scanning the images, which had been stockpiled in 239 boxes until Venus Van Ness, the Norman Rockwell Museum’s archivist, did a preliminary survey of the photos in 2011, took a full two years and was completed in August 2014 with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.”  This investment from the IMLS, of which I know many archives request funds, made me think less about the grant application itself and more about the decision making processes of the IMLS.  How do they choose what they decide to support in terms of digitization?

When I visited the IMLS website and searched for digitization grants, I found a handful of options, most of them initiatives specifically for Native American initiatives.  A few of them were more broadly based, including the Museums for America and National Leadership Grants for Libraries.  However, all of these grant applications accepted a broad-ranging amount of projects beyond digital work.  So now I am wondering, to what extent do digital initiatives matter to funders and how does a project like the Rockwell digitization project rate in comparison to a request for funds to properly store an unprocessed collection in acid free boxes, which then led me to wonder how do archivists prioritize what to ask for in terms of funding?