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,” http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/viewFile/11991/12954
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?