Information Society and Finding Aids

The finding aid (sometimes referred to as the representation of records) has remained the main staple of describing, controlling and arranging of archival collections for the last century.  Digitally the finding aid has migrated into the digital world through MARC, EAD, XML and DACS markup tools. This migration however was only to describe analog objects in a digital environment, it did not truly address the quandary of born digital objects. While new systems are being built around EAD models (Archives Tool Kit, ARCHON) the dilemma of vast quantities of homogeneous and unique series being transferred, accessioned, and described to the same level of current analog objects does not truly exist (there are exceptions, the Maryland and Washington State Archives being the best example of archives doing mass digital transfer and preservation). Where does that leave the finding aid (in its current state), does it have a home in the new born digital world or will it be replaced…. with the google search?

Before we continue, it behooves us to describe the function and structure of a finding aid. The finding aid serves two main objectives: it provides both administrative and intellectual control. The administrative control addresses several points: location, the record source, provenance, and general description. The intellectual control answers questions pertaining to researcher needs: detailed information about records within a series or record group (such as biographical information); information on unique information that may be found and the relationship with other records in the collection or repository holdings. The structure of most finding aids usually follows the record group topology: preface, introduction, biographical sketch or entity history, scope and content, series description, container and item listing. There are exceptions to this rule as most governmental archives follow a series or functional description structure (the Australian Records Continuum and Canadian Macro-Appraisal theories being the most popular). Regardless of what methodology one follows, a finding aid should meet several basic criteria: they should be written for general researchers; have a certain level of objectivity; they must be well written, succinct and concise; they must take into account the different subject areas that a collection (or series)  may address; and finally something that has not been implemented-the annotation of the archivist’s pedegogy and epistemology.1

We have discussed what a finding aid does, now we will discuss the evolution of it. The five levels of arrangement: repository, record group (collection), series, file unit, and item were created by Oliver Wendell Holmes. But the anthropological evolution of archival representation and description go back to Archives Nationale and the Prussian State Archives (see previous blog on part of this discussion, Respect des Fonds and Original Order, breaking it and keeping it), their creation of the modern system of arrangement and registries had the most profound effect upon modern archives and consequentially the finding aid. The evolution continued with the founding of the National Archives (now known as the National Archives & Records Administration, or NARA) in the 1930’s, the (NARA) staff upon discovering the lack of records organization, decided to deal with the predicament by inventing a records management system to control the life cycle of records. But the real impetus for many of our current standards can be found in the Historical Records Survey and the organization of county court house records during the Depression. (For further discussion on this subject, see: Richard C. Brerner’s, Archival Theory and Practice in The United States.)

Philosophically, the finding aid is the hypostatisation of archival reification.2 If archiving were an abstract object (collecting and describing the physical documentary temporal spatial environment) than its resultant physical creation or byproduct is the finding aid (the hypostatisation of archival reality: the reification).3 However, within the digital world the need for this changes dramatically, or does it? If the finding aid is the representation of  structures, epistemologies and ontologies within an analog environment, how does the digital structure change it? While we could take this argument and pursue how society itself is going to be changed and therefore documentary creation and collection (read my previous blog: Archival Appraisal and Selection in the Information Society), instead I will focus my analysis on the final resultant (an attempt at a all encompassing analysis would be prohibitive).

So, returning back to my previous statement, “can a keyword (google like) search mechanism replace a finding aid?” This can lead us to many different tangents: pattern recognition, educational pedagogies, evolving societal structures, post-modernism (everything seems to be post-modernist now, see: Postmodernism and Logical Positivism in Archival Thought on the topic of post-modernism and archives) and so on. However, while keyword federated searching has its obvious strengths, it cannot possibly address the contextual, evidential and structural nature of unbounded finite interrelated items. The items within a records group, series or collection have the peculiar uniqueness of having both interconnected intrinsic and extrinsic substance and essence. Capturing a keyword (or any single meta data item) is very important for searching but it can never replace the macro-contextualization of information. Take the example of the Google book project; if Google were able to scan all of the books in the world and provide ocr’d searchable text, would we still need book cataloging? Many people out there would probably at first glance say no. But if we were to analyze this proposition further, we would deny ourselves valuable information that is only captured at the cataloging phase: the provenance, context, subject analysis, and many more areas to numerous to name (I’m sure catalogers could come up with a million).  However, the importance of the finding aid is even more critical to unpublished records.

The finding aid takes raw materials and contextualizes them. That contextualization describes the records provenance, history, structures, and external and internal relationships. Simply ocr’ing a text and making digital surrogates available, while incredibly useful for accessibility purposes, would not address those areas stated before. So, the question isn’t should the finding aid survive but what form will it take when records are no longer analog?  This will directly effect how the archivist analyzes data or digital forms on a server, optical disk or hard drive. We have stated the ontological importance of the finding aid. In the next blog we will go into the new areas of analysis that a finding aid must address in the new information age and further discuss the philosophical implications.

  1. Michelle Light and Tom Hyry, “Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid,” American Archivist 65 (Fall/Winter 2002): 216-30.
  2. Joseph Gabel, False Consciousness: An Essay on Reification (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).
  3. For further discussion on hypostatisation and reification, See: Georg Lukacs’s essay, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.”

Archival Appraisal and Selection in the Information Society

With the amount of information being created it would seem that technology has only created more problems than it has solved. Now archivists have a plethora of information to analyze (but beyond the question of quantity, there is also the question of stability and ease of destruction) and more questions that seem to have no answers: new mediums of information, with criteria and categories that sometimes have no relation to the past? The belief that all appraisal is local and subjective,1 without acknowledging the digital world breaking down previous spatial barriers?  Finally, post-modernism2 points out that we are all prisoners of our subjectivity (or appearance)3 incapable from escaping the shadows in the cave, raising the specter of a totalitarian subjectivity. Regardless of the many questions that must be addressed, I believe a continued improvement of our archival causality will aid in overcoming the supposed subjective/objective (post-modernist) impasse.  In the mean time, all of these questions will be carried over into the new temporal and spatial contexts, with seemingly no answers. (I briefly touched on some of these points in a previous blog, History and Future of Archival Thought and Practice.)

At the heart of the new technological paradigm are still the same archival issues: what records (or data) describes our society, what mediums are people and entities using to convey their beliefs, needs and histories, and what means will we use to describe and arrange these new mediums. I don’t believe that we need to collect anything drastically different but we have to know how the new information topologies have created or altered content and we must document the process, intention, philosophy and subjectivity of documentary evidence.  Precedent will carry us forward and answer many of our selection and appraisal questions. It is not a-priori knowledge but a-posteriori that will be applied in many situations, we may believe we are recreating the wheel but in fact we really are borrowing and building upon previous pedagogies.4 But the most profound difference will lie in our ability to draw closer to archival causality.5 It is that search for causality or innate search for knowledge of the external world that will draw us towards better conclusions.

As Archivists we already have a-posteriori category knowledge (in other words many record series will be duplicated both for convenience and because of pattern recognition6) from our previous analog work but whatever form our selection and description takes us-it must be documented. It has been stated that we need to annotate our arrangement and description as a means to overcome the deficiency of subjective arrangement and description.7 I will take it one step further and declare that we need to annotate our appraisal and acquisition decisions as well.

Annotating our appraisal and selection decisions will give us greater insight into records and the systems that created them. With electronic records these annotations could describe how records were created (databases, HTML text, or on-line search engines). Another question that will need to be confronted is what are the functions of these systems and how do they lend themselves to the new records creating process. Also, documentation of why certain systems were used for retrieval and not others, will be significant. The how will not be as difficult as the why. The complexity of how, will be in the front-end costs of digital archiving and the specialized skills that are needed. This possibly will lead to increased cooperation among system creators,  (DSpace and Fedora are just two examples). But all of that will fail if we don’t answer the basic ontological and teleological questions and develop a more sophisticated systematic methodology of documentary causality.

One way to accomplish this important endeavor is to turn to the philosophy of science. Philosophers such as Bertrand Russell (and his five causal postulates),8Aristotle’s Four Causes and Mario Bunge’s work in the causal9 field give archivists a good starting point for developing an improved causal rule set. By adopting a more sophisticated methodology, archivist’s will draw closer to relevant facts (documentary evidence and its relations) and improved decision making (better appraisal and selection). Some will argue that it is not feasible to apply rules from the empirical sciences to archival work, to some extent that may be true (even others will declare this is being done already when they answer the who, where, when, how and why of documents) but we can still improve our decision making process by having a formal set of rules to guide us. In my next blog on appraisal and selection, I will address its feasibility.

  1. Mark A. Greene and Todd J. Daniels-Howel, “Documentation with an Attitude: A Pragmatist’s Guide to the Selection and Acquisition of Modern Business Records,” in The Records of American Business, ed. James M.O’Toole (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1997), 162.
  2. Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” Archival Science, vol. 1, no. 1 (2000): 3-24.
  3. H.A. Prichard, “Appearances and Reality,” Mind, Vol. 15, No. 58, (Apr., 1906): 223-229.
  4. Linda J. Henry, “Schellenberg in Cyberspace,” American Archivist, Vol. 61, (Fall 1998): 309-327.
  5. Not a simplistic causality (where the first is the cause of the next, usually associated with David Hume) but a more complex epistemology, more in line with Bertrand Russell’s Five Postulates of Causality. See, Human Knowledge.
  6. Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language: towns, buildings, construction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  7. Michelle Light and Tom Hyry, “Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid,” American Archivist 65 (Fall/Winter 2002): 216-30.
  8. Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (London: Allen and Unwin, 1948).
  9. Mario Bunge, Causality and Modern Science (New York: Dover Publications, 1979).

Postmodernism and Logical Positivism in Archival Thought

The term postmodernism first came into existence in a 1939 article, “Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the General war of 1914-1918.” by famed British Historian Arnold J. Toynbee to describe the post WWI era. Philosophically postmodernism would be put on center stage in 1966 when Jacques Derrida a French Algerian born philosopher delivered a lecture at John Hopkins University challenging the underlying premises of structuralism (unofficially ushering in the era of postructuralism). While the effects of postmodernism have been felt in all of the arts and sciences, archival science has been slow to embrace it. Part of the problem lies in archival sciences attachment to logical positivism and empiricism (part of the reason for this, is archivists deal with physical documentary evidence within the confines of a laboratory like setting, not unlike some physical sciences). There can be no doubt that postmodernism has created epistemological dilemmas that have shaken the foundation of the sciences, archives being no exception.  In this blog I will contrast two prominent archival thinkers: Terry Cook and Luciana Duranti. Terry Cook explores the dynamics of postmodernism, while Luciana Duranti delves into its antithesis-Diplomatics. Both explore how their respective theories influence archival epistemology and methodology. Terry Cook lays out a strong case for using postmodernism and having it replace (or override) aspects of archival empiricism (informational and evidential analysis); I differ in that I see it as another tool to be incorporated into the archivists skill set.

The two articles (authored by Cook) titled: Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts and Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives presents several archival paradigm shifts revolving around postmodernist modification of society and culture. While postmodernism has been around for several decades, it has not affected archival thought until at least the last 10 years (I would argue that many archivists are still oblivious to its effects). One new role espoused by this philosophy is to view records now as dynamic objects as opposed to static (they never were static but that is for another blog), another is how postmodernist’s rebellion against the notions of universal truth and objective knowledge, has affected archives and their function in society. This blog will focus on the latter.

Before we continue, I will digress to explain a little of postmodern thinking. As mentioned before, postmodernists distrust any belief in obtaining “truth.” The postmodernist trusts nothing at face value and questions all societal constructs as unnatural and in need of being deconstructed or analyzed to reveal their true meaning. It becomes more important to analyze power group’s, then actual facts or acts.

Postmodernism in archives addresses the point that all documents or artifacts are not neutral evidence but formed by societal context and the creator’s prejudices. But more then this, the document is not objective because it represents society’s power over memory and over the future. It is the state’s (or any entities) power, as contended by postmodernists, who control how the future will be told. Therefore it is more important to study macro- contexts then the content itself. Macro-appraisal theorists are representative of this form of thinking.

[Critics of postmodernist thought label postmodernist historians as “theory-mongers” who pass off a-priori theories for rational thinking. The subjective interpretation of the past becomes more important then the places, persons, and events. (One of the best critical accounts of postmodernism is Alan Sokal’s, Fashionable Nonsense.)]

On the other end of the spectrum lies the logical positivist school (The basic affirmations of Positivism are (1) that all knowledge regarding matters of fact is based on the “positive” data of experience, and (2) that beyond the realm of fact is that of pure logic and pure mathematics.). Luciana Duranti, Professor of Archival Science at the University of British Columbia, best personifies this philosophy within the archival framework (known as Diplomatics). Luciana Duranti bases her beliefs on the ability to use principles of documentary analysis, to derive truth from documents, that are universally valid and objective regardless of place. (See: Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science, to read more about this theory.)

The criticism of this theory is that it does not take into account the political and cultural contexts. Its basis in universally valid principles does away with historical and sociology circumstances. Instead it concentrates on the legal doctrine and juridical context of the creator, and the documents it analyzes.

These two ways of thought provide a dichotomy that is false and has really no reason to exist. Both theories have merit and neither can stand on its own (I contend that many of the analytical features of postmodernism have been used by archivists already but remain difficult to completely implement do to the physical, fiduciary,  time, and labor constraints).  Postmodernist thought in archives deems to have archivists rely on functionality and the contextualization of records creation (and societal contexts). While diplomatics provides content analysis tools devoid of any “prejudices,” and which lead to certain truths. When I examine these theories, I see two very different forms of methodology but both seeking the same objective, truth within a certain parameter.

Both of these forms of investigation can be reduced to deductive (beginning with a general concept or rule and working down to specific conclusions) and inductive methods (is a process of using observations to develop general principles about a specific subject or theory). Postmodernist’s represent what I believe is the deductive school. By starting out with general a-priori theories, regardless of the actual empirical data found in records, then move to decide what records are valid for permanent historical reasons. The inductive method personified by the logical positivist archival school clearly uses the available records (observations) and derives general acquisition and appraisal policies from such.

As mentioned before neither method can stand on their own. Understanding contextuality of both society and organizations that create records is highly needed, especially when the size of the documentary region is daunting. When trying to make acquisition and appraisal decisions for large series and record groups this theory proves to be a powerful tool in the archivist’s arsenal (also useful in relating records to other series and record groups in the description process).  However, knowing and analyzing content at the record level (diplomatics) is also very useful when seeking form, legal and historical authenticity of records. More importantly it also gives archivists tools for reappraising collections and making future deaccessioning decisions. (This is a very limited analysis of both within an archival framework, the uses of both have yet to reach their limits.)

Theories are very useful and both of these are no exception but archivists must always move beyond theory to applicability. The archive is the great historical laboratory where all theories and their results are played out. The question that should always be asked and one that I feel carries with it an aspect of objectivity that can guide us when decisions must be made with one eye on the budgetary bottom line (along with time, labor, and space) is, what records had and have the greatest effect upon society or geographical region (or describe events, places, and ideas better within the same societal and geographical context)? And how can these theories aid in answering that question? In the end, immediate physical realities play a much greater role then any theory.

[Another area of criticism by postmodernists is the lack of historical representation of all disenfranchised groups within archival holdings. While valuing all histories is admirable and should be archived if possible, to actually accomplish what postmodernists advocate is NOT feasible. If we are to believe that a collection of documents that describe for example: ethnic gardening methods, (regardless of how good their resultant creation may be) have the same value as the records of Standard Oil…. to even contemplate the thought… is ludicrous.]

History and Future of Archival Thought and Practice

When I’m asked what I do for a living and respond that I am an archivist, the usual response is, “so you’re a librarian,” (if I don’t get the deer in the headlights look first). This prompts me to delve into my ever-expanding lecture on, “what is an archivist.” This lecture has evolved and metamorphosed over the years into an explanation of the epistemological difference between archives and libraries, and the underlying historical premises and philosophical precepts of archives. I recently came across an excellent article that summarizes both the historical and philosophical aspects of an archives, and delves into not only what we as archivists do, but more importantly how, why, and what the future holds for archival science. For those not willing to slog through all forty-eight pages, I offer a brief synopsis.

The article titled, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift,” by Terry Cook and originally published in Archivaria (The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists), analyzes the history and philosophy of archival thought from the Dutch Manual to the present day electronic age. Through his time travel of the last one hundred years, we are treated to an anthropology of archival thought; and how that thought continually effects us to this day, even with the rise of new forms of communication. Nowhere is this felt to a greater degree than in the basic tenets of archival theory.

Throughout the article two basic archival principles are explored (and shown how they have changed through time): the theories of Provenance and Original Order. Both principles are “dogma-like” to archivists. Provenance is defined as the separation of record groups based upon their creators, not upon chronological, geographical, or subject heading. Original Order is generally considered the practice of organizing collections based upon the original organization of the archival collection, which should correspond to the administrative body or person that created the records. For the latter part of 100 years these principles have been axiomatic for the archival profession. However, the last 10-20 years has seen archivists question the continued validity of these premises with the rapid rise of new forms of technology.

Cook discusses the difficulties that archivists are facing under the new technological paradigm and how they can overcome them. Rather than simply jettison provenance and original order because they seem to be anachronistic, we need to reevaluate and redefine core archival theory. Cook states that “Provenance must change from being linked directly to a single creator, to becoming a concept focused on functions and processes that gave rise to the causality of records creation.” Original Order should change “from being viewed as a single physical place of records creation to one that reflects several authors and therefore belonging to several series and original orders.”

All these changes espoused by Cook, reflect a move away from the actual record content and towards a new paradigm based upon intent, functionality, context and topologies. The greatest change, according to Cook, will be felt in what is considered a record: “a record should change from being perceived as a single piece of recording medium that integrates the structure, content, and context of information in one place, to becoming a virtual composite of many scattered parts linked together (databases, mainframe systems, audio visual and text files) to perform, or bear evidence of, a transaction or idea.” This new understanding of a record brings up another problem, which is how and when to preserve such a medium? Especially when such a medium is difficult to contend with, because of the ever-changing nature of the digital form.

Consequently, the ephemeral nature of electronic records behooves archivists and systems developers to address the issue of capturing “archival records” when they’re born. This will undoubtedly put greater emphasis on building archival components at the beginning stages of information systems development and not wait until it is time to transfer records (when those records could be obsolescent because of technological change). Time is no longer a luxury for archivists. The last hundred years allowed archivists the benefit of paper, and its corresponding permanence as the central medium of communication and preservation, the next hundred years will unfortunately not.