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.”

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.