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.”

Respect des Fonds and Original Order, breaking it and keeping it?

The digital world has been a marvelous invention and has proven itself, regardless of the atavistic and anachronistic voices that are still sometimes heard. In the realm of the archives, most archivists are attempting and grappling with the plethora of issues that have arisen from the new technologies, both good and bad. For archivists, an area that will prove to be both challenging and enriching is how to address two very important principles in this new environment, Respect des Fonds and Original Order.

Before I continue on this subject, let us look at the definitions and etymologies of these fundamental archival axioms (for further reading on this topic, see my previous blog on the History and Future of Archival Thought and Practice). Respect des Fonds was developed between 1839 and 1841 by the French National Archives (known as the Archives Nationale). In principle, Respect des Fonds kept records together in the archives under the agency that originated them, and no longer scattered them among preconceived a-priori subject classes (the use of a-priori subject classes was devised by librarians).  However, within each fond (record group) records were arranged according to subject class (this form of segregation goes on at some archives, with the subject classes used as series arrangement levels). The internal rearrangement was usually intended for scholarly research.

The Prussian State Archives, who took the principle of Respect des Fonds but applied a further arrangement schema, Original Order, carried out the evolution and slight modification of this principle. In Original Order the internal structure of the fond is respected and a-priori subject classes are not used.  (In the United States the principle of Provenance has been used interchangeably with both Original Order and Respect des Fonds). One of the primary reasons for the difference between the Prussian and French models was ontological. The Prussians viewed records primarily for administrative and operational purposes, while the French believed they should always view them from research needs.

All archivists have respected these principles, and in the case of Respect des Fonds are followed but I will venture to say that the strict Original Order of the Fond has been overlooked or modified. This is not some nefarious conspiracy carried out by archivists but has more to do with practicality, precedent, research value and I dare say institutional culture and tradition. While in paper form both principles have been followed with some modifications, what will be the consequences in the digital world? Will the flexibility of the digital form allow us to follow a strict interpretation of both principles or can we folllow some hybrid form? I cannot foresee or discuss the possibilities that may arise at other archival repositories. I can however comment on what we will attempt to do at Youngstown State University.

Here at YSU we will be experimenting on how to keep both Original Order (within the Fonds) and Respect des Fonds but also break it as well…sort of. In a very short time we will commence the scanning of a large collection (Lloyd Collection) of unprocessed materials (I know the first gasps that are coming from everyone is how will you do that with out processing first, the answer to that is part of this experiment is to create a mock born digital collection and therefore help us to address born digital collections as well). These materials will be scanned in their Original Order and Respect des Fonds. There will be no a-priori series (description level of arrangement) created and then used to segregate the collection internally but we will use series  as a search mechanism. The structure will be kept in its order by using DSpace Institutional Repository Software and its segregating Community, Sub-Community and Collection level descriptions. The difference will be the use of the series field as a way to describe each meta-record to other similar meta-records and to create a series description meta-record that will be able to be used as a bibliographic record as well. By arranging the collection in this manner, we hope to service both the needs of the researcher and remain faithful to archival principles.

We obviously do not know the end results of this project but we hope to discover new ways of processing, arranging and describing even if they are completely different from any preconceived notions we may have. Stay tuned.

What makes a record historical and another not?

In the archives world there always seems to be quandaries (I think there always will be) when deciding what to keep. Do we base it on precedent, major events, social theory, macro-appraisal theory, or another of the myriad of ideas that have taken hold. The easy answer is, “just save the historical record.” But what makes a record historical? Is it society, the “objective archivist,” an event, survival (what records survive and which ones do not), or a combination of all four?

Many times the historical record is simply what was left behind, such as the Domesday Book or the Bayeux Tapestry. Such archival appraisal decisions become self-evident. However, the luxury of being able to apply a simplistic acquisition and appraisal decision is no longer viable. Paper and recently with the growth of electronic communications, have rendered appraisal to be the most difficult of decisions. This brings us back to our original question, what then is a historical record? Is a record historical from the beginning or does it take time to acquire such a meaning?

There have been many theories related to this dilemma. Herodutus, the father of history, (while not addressing this question) tried to capture the memory of the past by telling of achievements and conflicts of the Ionian people. His reliance on oral records, with a few exceptions, such as his use of physical (descriptions of buildings, bridges, and sculptures) and oracular evidence proves the theory of using what ever is available at the time. The current era (the last 100 years) has definitely produced an assortment of new theories that shed further light on the quandary.

Some modern theorists conclude that the historical record is whatever the creator (creator here refers to one who gives “birth” to a record, not an infinite being or deity) decides it is, this is commonly referred to as Jenkinsonism, after famed archival thinker Sir Hillary Jenkinson. Some prefer that the archivist (supposedly staying objective) by applying evidential and informational theories, can capture the zeitgeist of society or rely on some form of a documentary strategy (using major themes or events as a starting point) to decide what is historical. While others have advocated the use of societal norms as the principle axiom for documenting society.

All of these theories still rely on the subjective individual entering the appraisal process at some point. Archival theorists contend (implicitly), that their theories remove the subjective element and allow for only an objective methodology. While this is a noble belief, it is delusional to believe that this is ever true. Even though G.W.F. Hegel wrote the following for historians, it can be easily applied to archivists, “any historian who claims to let the facts speak for themselves brings his categories with him and sees the data through them.” In other words, even when the archivist is using supposedly objective tools in deciding what is historical, he still processes them through the subjective. All of his prejudices, ignorance, and knowledge become part of the decision making process, regardless of what mechanisms are used. (This is especially compounded by limitations in repository storage space.) Without belaboring the issue or having some readers ask the question, “when are you going to answer the question?” here goes.

Any record can be perceived as historical, what we really refer to as historical and non-historical is a matter of degree. The problem is not what makes a record historical but what records define our society (past, present and future) and its ideas better then others. But the individual archivist can never hope to capture, even within a small geographical framework, a complete societal or institutional pathology. As mentioned before, an individual is restricted by his senses and can only perceive an infinitesimal small amount of events, words, and deeds. Even greater then these sensory limitations are societies scarce resources of time, money, and space (this will be the subject of another blog) and the other subjective actors involved in the record making process (that make the job even more difficult). All records regardless of form (written, oral, 3-D) give us insight into humanity; it is the archivist who decides to what degree.