Let’s Be Activists: A History of Archivists And How New Technologies Allow Us To Establish And Preserve Trust

The dictionary definition of an archivist is simply “a person who maintains archives.” Sounds exciting right? Archivists are traditionally thought of as the custodian of reports, records, files, and other items of value, for the institutions or collections in which they work. An archivist is a passive worker who simply accepts what comes through the repository door and does not apply any element of personal judgment in the process held. Social movements in the 60’s and 70’s studied the collections of archivists and determined that they held fragmentary representations of society as a whole with the majority of focus on the cultural elite. Paper’s such as Howard Zinn’s, “the Activist Archivist” examined whether archivists should step out of the custodial role and instead actively shape their collections in order to paint a more comprehensive picture of society. However, lack of comprehensive acquisition guidelines for archivists presented challenges to the shifting role.

To address the fluctuating ideals of the archival role, scholars create a set of guidelines enabling “archival activism” to take place. In the 1980’s scholars such as Helen Samuels and Phillip Alexander came up with “documentation strategy” which stipulated that the creation of records and archives was an ongoing process that originates with the record’s creators. Archivists would urge creators to create appropriate records which could be easily compiled and accessed by future users. Samuels and Alexander postulated a hypothetical scenario they called the “roots of 128,” where controlled records could allow archivists to accurately create representations of geographic areas. The idealism of documentation strategy was met by the harsh realities of lack of institutional funding and time on the part of archivists. Archivists had more pressing matters to attend to, such as delivering services to their clients

Today many libraries, museums, state governments, and heritage institutions operate digital repositories and aggregators which allow content to be archived from a variety of sources in a way that enables them to be utilized by future generations. A repository allows an institution to organize collection items, records, research data, and other materials in a digital space. Metadata about each item using a controlled schema picked by the institution allows the items to be searched for and sorted. Different disciplines may have different metadata schemas. Dublin Core is one of the most well-known schemas for its ease of use. Other schemas such as VRA Core are easier for describing artworks, SMIL is used for discussing video frames, and MODS is great for describing bibliographic material. There are many other schemas which best suit a variety of different disciplines. An aggregator on the other hand is a collection of items from multiple institutions, repositories, and other sources. Metadata can be harvested by aggregators which may in turn convert the metadata into something that is easier to handle for a large variety of sources.

With the high influx of digital content, digital archives are no longer about simply sorting content, but about collecting and disseminating it. The digital landscape allows both experts and non-experts to create and share information like never before. This shared authority makes for a more inclusive archival experience as pined for by “archival activists,” but the end result is much tougher to manage and implement. Various metrics such as the Trustworthy Repositories and Audit and Certification (TRAC), help alleviate some of the management issues by providing guidelines on acquisition strategies, provenance, preservation, disaster management, data migration, licensing, and other aspects of managing a repository. However, there are scant guidelines for the actual implementation of a repository, creating a barrier for institutions wanting to implement one.

I think with the management of digital repositories and aggregators today, many of the ideas explored in documentation strategy and archival activism can become realities. Digital repositories can serve as archives of records, objects, photographs, research, and other items. Policy standards referenced in metrics such as TRAC create acquisition guidelines and management protocol. Metadata functions a lot like documentation standards by creating a shared language between records in a repository, allowing them to be easily accessed and understood by future users. Digital aggregators such as Digital North Carolina or Maine Memory Network create poignant representations of geographical areas through the use of communal archived records and stories, akin to the hypothetical roots of 128 scenario. The collective nature of digital repositories allow digital archivists to collect records from a large variety of sources in a unified way, making great strides to that comprehensive picture of society that archival activism represented.

New technologies such as blockchain allow data to be managed in a trustworthy and immutable way through the use of distributed ledgers. Distributed ledgers allow a set of transactions to be recorded in a way that cannot be altered or falsified. There is a movement to apply the concept of a distributed ledger to artworks, which have a notoriety for having falsified provenance information and transaction histories. Many artworks already have a long history to begin with which leaves many opportunities for gaps in the provenance or falsified information. In order for a distributed ledger on an artwork’s transactions to be 100% trustworthy, it would have to be created from the moment that the artwork was created and track every subsequent transaction from there. This initiative reminds me a lot of documentation strategy as both necessitate the controlled creation of data from the data’s inception in order for the data to be trustworthy and easily cared for. For a completely trustworthy distributed ledger to happen, it would have to feature new artists whose works can be monitored from the moment they are created.

The art market traditionally favors older established artists, with only $2.7 billion of the $50 billion annual sales at auction, going to contemporary artists, and 45% of those sales going to a small fraction of well-established contemporary artists. The art collector’s fascination with the old coincides with their propensity for getting duped by fakes and forgeries. The art market has a veritable weapon to turn the tables, with distributed ledgers guaranteeing trustworthy purchases because the artwork has been tracked from the moment it was created. This could be a time for the art market to become transparent and for new artists to rise by building trust right from the get go.

Both documentation strategy and distributed ledgers are built around erecting trust by controlling data from the moment it is created. This allows a sea of new voices to be heard and for their words to not be misused, twisted, or misappropriated by the passage of time. Archival activism was built around the premise of creating a more comprehensive picture of society instead of favoring the same old voices. With technologies such as digital aggregators, repositories, and distributed ledgers, we can more easily accomplish those goals. Instead of parroting the same old stories, let’s create our own and share them in a trustworthy way for future generations. Let’s be activists!

— Article by: Christopher Rahmeh