You might be an archivist if…

While scouring the Internet for an answer to my burning question:

Why do some people pronounce it ar-CHI-vist, and others AR-chi-vist? (I still don’t know. If you’re a phonologist and you’re reading this, send help!)

I came across a blog post from 2010 entitled, “The Increasingly Common Use of ‘archive’ as a Verb.” In the post, the author, Kate Theimer, expresses her shock at the use of ‘archive’ in sentences such as, “I am going to archive this document tomorrow.” Theimer suggests that using ‘archive’ as a verb isn’t something archivists themselves are likely to do, and signifies that the speaker doesn’t understand what archivists do.

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There is a shocking lack of archive gifs on the Internet, so I chose a dust gif as a not-so-subtle nod to Carolyn Steedman.

Admittedly, I do not use ‘archiving’ as a verb, though I use it as a gerund pretty often. (Example: Archiving is a complex process.) I suspect what Theimer considers a ‘lay’ usage is meant to express something like, “placing items in long-term storage for retrieval later.” “Archive” becomes a term for a safe place to store things from the past or present which we see as important for the future. This understanding of archiving focuses on product rather than process.

For archivists, things are murkier. Archiving might include accessioning, appraising, deaccessioning, describing, re-describing, cataloguing, foldering, or curating. Much like cooking, archiving from the archivist’s perspective is a complex process which involves many steps – some which overlap, some which bleed into other processes. Cooking leads to eating, archiving leads to researching. Is cleaning part of cooking? It is hard to know where the stream of processes becomes something else entirely.

But you don’t have to do things the way a chef does things for your actions to count as ‘cooking,’ even though chefs are generally recognized as authorities on cooking. Theimer’s blog sets up a dichotomous world in which there are archivists – who do not use archive as a verb – and non-archivists who do. But do non-archivists exist?

A few years ago, I joked with a photographer friend (who has worked in photography for many years) that nowadays, “Everyone is a photographer.” Surprisingly, they replied that they believe everyone is a photographer, that the ubiquity of digital photography and the bloom of self-declared photographers isn’t of detriment to anyone and need not be condemned. This friend continued, “Just like everyone is an archivist.” In essence: there’s enough room in the world for all of us to take photographs, to store things for future knowledge (to archive), and to identify ourselves through those actions.

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I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use this gif.

In contrast to professional territoriality, it is refreshing to think of ourselves as individuals who are practiced at a style of archiving and who have learned from past mistakes and successes, but who do not own the archive or its processes. That which compels us to place things in ‘an archive,’ if we believe Jacques Derrida, is deep rooted and not unique to archivists.

On one hand, I sympathize with Theimer that those who do not work within institutional archives tend to overlook the labor involved in creating and maintaining the institution. This is a claim made by Michelle Caswell and others. For Theimer, ‘archive’ as a verb signals a de-professionalization or an oversimplification. But by thinking of other collections as kinds of archives, as siblings rather than neighbors, I am not convinced we in the institutional archives will lose out. Instead, I think it will push us to expand our theory and practice beyond the legacy of Jenkinson and Schellenberg, to ask about other conglomerations of things: fossils in the ground, tools in a toolbox, a teen’s digital photos stored on the iCloud. We might also ask why, after a good century or so of professional archiving, our methods remain so opaque to others. Through this, archival theory and practice can emerge as useful ways of looking at and engaging with meaningful groupings meant to endure through time.

In a lecture at Concordia University, Dr. KimTall Bear offers that, “I cannot have faith in scarcity. I have tried. It cut me from the circle.” Though Dr. TallBear’s concern is the politics of sex and not the archive, I think the quote still offers a powerful challenge to archivists: How can we archive without scarcity? How can we open up our terms, titles, and rules to allow everyone to be an archivist?

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Reference Rookie

Last week, as I keep working on processing the Pachuco Oral History Collection, I got the chance to help with a reference request that came from a researcher via our online reference system, LibAnswers. The researcher was looking for a particular letter related to border security.  I love working on reference requests because I have the opportunity to look through our collections and become just a little bit more familiar with them. Plus, it’s like a professional scavenger hunt. 

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When I received the request, one of our staff had already tried looking in two different sets of locations that the researcher gave us. Given what I was looking for, and given the other spots that had already been checked, by looking through the finding aid using a variety of keywords, I made a new set of places in this collection to look.

After looking in a few different boxes, I found a copy of the letter that was published in a newspaper in April 1999. There was a note at the and of the letter that read: “This letter was sent to President Clinton and other U.S. and state officials as well as other daily newspapers and TV stations.” I made a list of Arizona representatives that were in office in 1999, but we only had two collections pertaining to representatives from that time, and the original letter with signatures was not in either.

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When I came to the conclusion that we didn’t have the original letter, I was slightly dispirited that I could not make the researcher happy by granting them the resource they needed. 

GIPHY (3)However, when I spoke with my supervisor, Erika, to get some advice, she reassured me that even though it can be discouraging to not be able to fulfill the request, it also gives us information about where we have gaps in the collection, which is a good thing. I also learned that doing reference can be an indirect way of doing collection management.

 

 

GIPHY (4).gifIn the end, I contacted the researcher and let them know that I had found a copy of the letter, but not the original one with signatures that they were looking for. I sent along a scan of the newspaper clipping and the list of Arizona incumbent representatives in 1999, and suggested that they look in other Arizona repositories, such as Special Collections at ASU, with congressional collections that could possibly contain the letter.

Space: Is your library running out of it?

One of the most iconic scenes in film occurs when the Beast allows Belle to enter his extensive library, where of course she is mesmerized. 1bbAs a young bibliophile I was amazed as well and, of course, desired to have a similar set-up in the future. Perhaps this is part of the reason that I wound up in a Special Collections Library. Just like the Belle, I love books, and just like the Beast, I have a deep desire to preserve them. But what this iconic scene fails to mention is: maintaining a large library is more work than one often bargains for. More importantly–what happens when you run out of shelving space?!

Running out of space is something that most consumers of modern technology have come across. For example, your iTunes library can become cluttered. You can download 2too many games onto your XBox. I myself once saved too many photos on my phone and had to delete photos before I could save more. Similarly, libraries and archives alike only have so much space to work with, and at some point begin to wonder how much space they really have left.

When public libraries run out of space, they turn to their catalog for help. Older books, or books that have not been checked out in over a specific amount of time (it depends on the library, but is usually a year or longer), often find themselves in the dreaded discard pile. Jamaica Library in Queens, New York, is one of many libraries that had to discard hundreds of books in 2017 in order to make room on the shelves for newer selections, resulting in the following (heartbreaking) photo:

Over the past few weeks, Special Collections has been undergoing a project to clear up space in their ever-growing archive. Due to the nature of the materials held in Special Collections, we do not send items to the discard pile. Clearing up space means moving boxes from one area to another, consolidating space, and sometimes re-organizing entire collections. This involves a great deal of manual labor, which I have found both enjoyable (free workout!) and tedious (some of these boxes are heavy!). Yet even a shift does not “create” new space in the four corners of the defined library space.

Special Collections still has space within its walls, but I now have a new appreciation for just how much work goes into collection management. Acquiring, processing, and housing materials is just a piece of a much larger puzzle. You also have to make sure that there is a spot on the shelf for these items. It is a delicate shifting game, one that is extremely fun to participate in, but it is also eye-opening and leaves a bit of a worry in the back of my mind: what happens when all the space is gone?

Preserving CD-Rs, and Other Topics from 2004

Last week, a number of blogs broke the news that Hot Topic would be selling a Rugrats themed eye-shadow palette in the shape of a “VHS cassette.” In comments sections and on social media, however, many expressed horror – “That’s not a VHS cassette – it’s an audio cassette!”

Image via Hot Topic.

While this gaffe might startle those of us who remember the reigns of VHS and audio cassette, it’s an undeniable fact that media become obsolete – or at least less-favored – over time. The CD, successor to the audio cassette, is a great example.

CDs, compact discs, have been in use since 1982, with ‘writeable’ formats like the CD-R being on the market since 1990. More than an audio medium, CD-Rs were considered an excellent way to store and share computer files throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Compared to size-limited floppy disks and not-so-portable hard drives, CD-Rs filled an important niche. So when I asked to see some Special Collections files from the early 2000s, it was no surprise to find said files stored on 700 megabyte CD-Rs. As I browsed the files (after taking ~30 seconds to remember how to open a CD drive), I wondered: How do CDs work? How stable are CD-Rs? How can we best preserve files like these?

Most mass-produced audio or software CDs are made of layers of polycarbonate with molded ‘pits’ and ‘lands’ – not entirely unlike a vinyl record. The polycarbonate is covered with aluminum or silver, then sealed with a clear lacquer on the top of the disc. CD drives read the disc by focusing a low-intensity laser on the disc and reading the textural pattern of the polycarbonate.

Image via Science ABC.

CD-Rs aren’t so different, except that instead of having the data molded into the polycarbonate, they contain a layer of heat-sensitive pigments. A CD-R drive uses a high-intensity laser to alter the molecular structure of the layer and destroy the transparency in certain areas of the layer – thus mimicking the pits and lands. When the low-intensity laser is used to read the disc, the pigmented sections provide the illusion of texture. CD-RWs (the kind you can write and erase over and over) work much the same, but the pigments are replaced with a metal alloy and the pigmentation be undone and re-done.

Image via Infocellar.com.

So, how stable is this medium for storage? On one hand, CD-Rs are not quite as susceptible to water damage as a hard drive, and they can handle magnetism and x-rays much better than hard drives or camera film. On the other hand, the chemical dyes within CD-Rs are subject to degradation which can be sped-up by environmental factors. CDs of all kinds owe their lightweight portability to their polycarbonate ‘skeleton’ which is both flexible and heat-sensitive. Given these factors, how can you best preserve digital files stored on CDs? Here are some tips:

  1. Prioritize CD-Rs and CD-RWs. Mass-produced CDs (think Encarta Encyclopedia) have their data physically molded into the structure, so there’s no risk of dyes failing you. However, they are prone to warping and scratching.
  2. Speaking of warping and scratching, always store CDs ‘book style’ – with the spine vertical. Vertical storage helps stave-off warping if the CD is exposed to high heat. Whenever possible, store CDs in plastic jewel cases. These prevent scratching as well as moisture damage.
  3. Since the exterior of CDs is plastic, many people assume that moisture isn’t a concern. However, if the lacquer of a CD is sufficiently scratched, moisture can reach the reflective aluminum or silver layer and cause damage, eventually rendering the CD unreadable.
  4. Avoid solvent cleaners like acetone and solvent-based permanent markers. Solvents can disrupt the lacquer, again raising the risk of moisture damage, or even damage the polycarbonate itself, making the CD unreadable.
  5. Don’t use adhesive labels. These labels can attract and trap moisture against the CDs surface. If they begin to detach, they can also disrupt playback in a CD drive.
  6. Keep CDs away from direct sunlight and heat. Remember that data is encoded on a CD-R using the heat energy of a laser to modify a layer of dye. Over time, sunlight and heat can impact the dye in much the same way. One study by Slattery et al. suggested that just a few weeks of direct sun exposure could damage some CD-Rs considerably. Even mass-produced CDs should be kept away from heat to prevent warping.
  7. Clean moisture off a CD with a soft, dry cloth. Wipe from the center of  the CD toward the edge – never in a circle. Scratches which are concentric to the CD’s edge can result in large patches of unreadable data.
  8. Finally – make a backup copy of the CD! Slattery et al. suggest that CD-Rs with a phthalocyanine dye and a silver and gold alloy reflective layer may offer the best long-term storage. Store the backups as described above.

Even after you’ve backed up your CDs, keep in mind that data and software also become obsolete. For instance, one CD I recently used contained files in a now-obsolete format from an antiquated version of a proprietary computer program. Thankfully, the program was created by a large company which is still in operation, and which provides information on ‘upgrading’ the files – but this isn’t always the case. Some filetypes may only be accessible via a specific program, and that program might require obsolete hardware or software. For very important files, consider making copies in a format indicated for long-term storage. The Digital Preservation Coalition’s handbook is a good place to start.

New options for data storage are routinely marketed to consumers and professionals alike, but enduring forms like the book are a rarity. Projects like The Museum of Obsolete Media demonstrate how quickly the devices which store our memories and artifacts become lost to time. Obsolescence always brings us back to an interlocking set of questions that trail collectors of all kinds: What should I keep? Why? How? Answers to these questions remain contentious even among archivists, but in the rush to preserve or the calm of letting something slip away I think we learn something interesting about ourselves and the historical moments we live in.


References:

Byers, Fred R. Care and Handling of CDs and DVDs – A Guide for Librarians and Archivists (National Institute of Standards and Technology and Council on Library and Information Resources, 2003).

Harvey, Ross, Martha R. Mahard, Preservation Management Handbook (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014), <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=595041> ( 31 January 2018)

Slattery, O., Lu, R., Zheng, J., Byers, F., & Tang, X. (2004). Stability comparison of recordable optical discs-A study of error rates in harsh conditions. Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 109(5), 517-524. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.arizona.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/214789596?accountid=8360