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November 10, 2011

Why I Won’t Be Using The Word Archive Anymore

A segment on a recent episode of Radiolab discussed the work of experimental music composer William Basinski. As one line of exploration in the past, Basinski took classical or Muzak-type recordings, dubbed short sections of them and applied various distortions such as adjusting tape speed, and then made short audiotape recordings from the results. He then housed this tape in continuous loop cassette shells, such as one may find in museum displays. Played out over even just a few minutes, these snippets take on the depth and texture of a longer, more complex composition.

Interesting in itself, the story within this story is actually about how when, several years ago, Basinski was “archiving” these works (his word for what consisted of playing the tapes out to CD until it reached capacity while he made some tea) the oxide on some tapes began to flake off during playback. Instead of stopping the tapes, he let them continue to play until, gradually, all of the binder was gone. The audio captured is a haunting fragmentation and lurching decay of the audio signal which he fashioned into a series of works entitled The Disintegration Loops.

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“Everything and Nothing” from WNYC’s Radiolab

While I have to admit that these works are quite moving, I also have to admit that the way Basinski used the term archiving to describe what he was doing also moved something within me to snap. This seemed to be the point at which some dawning realizations gelled, at which a nagging thought in the back of my head became a lens projecting truth onto the screen of my mind. Archive is a word that should be archived. Archive is a word that is dead.

You see, I believe that words have a weight to them, a density that increases and decreases across time. They become muscular through regular exercising, atrophied through disuse, chipped away at by re-appropriation, or grow slow and heavy with the burden of associations, their definition becoming amorphous and diffuse. In this way words become tools or cudgels or shackles, acting for us or upon us on the metaphysical and perceptual planes as such instruments would on the physical. In my view, archive and the words derived from it have been co-opted and negatively connotated, stripped of definite meaning and weighted with preconceptions.

I often run into the feeling out there from those outside the field that archives are inaccessible holes, deep in the recesses of an institution, the place where one dumps stuff one cannot stomach to discard but cannot really see a future use for…though even in such cases it may be preferable to stash those items away in a desk drawer one seldom opens and is not exactly sure of the contents, just because it’s such a pain to request assets back from the archivist. And the archivists, the guardians of these dungeons, are the Grendels of an institution — uncompromising hoarders of treasures, made grumpy by the joyous, uncaring excesses of man, preferring exile and avoidance of daylight.

But flip the coin, and archives become deep cisterns of knowledge and reusable content where an individual can discover their ancestry, remix a video, or learn about the fascinating history of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Award. It is also where an organization can develop new content out of old, push a retro or ‘classic’ marketing campaign, feed materials to the Web or social media, or derive a new product from old R&D.

Flip the coin again, however, and an archive is a portal to access digital surrogates — either public à la something like the Internet Archive or private (as in Kenneth Goldsmith’s wrong-headed claims) like one’s personal iTunes library. In this sense archive seems to just be used to refer to a collection of things that exist and are arranged together. These models may have an actual collection policy and preservation-oriented archive behind the scenes, or it may be based off of derivatives embedded or linked from other sources that may disappear at any time, or it may be an asset management and access utility pulling from one’s harddrive.

Flip the coin yet again and archive becomes a verb, some vaguely defined act that has been used to mean moving a file to a different folder on a server, sticking an item on a shelf or in a drawer to be accessed sometime…maybe, digitizing a work and putting it on DVD or online, or, in general, just letting someone else worry about the dang thing. Used in its lay or commercial sense, archiving something has less to do with quality and fidelity to originals than with removing clutter or establishing access via preferred platforms.

One may be impressed at this cornucopia of meaning, or proud at the sheer number of columns ‘archive’ would take up in the Oxford English Dictionary (Would we call that an archive of language?). However, my concern here is that this coin has too many sides, too many opposing facets, and that makes it invalid currency. The weighted or confused definitions mean that the ideas we attempt to communicate around discussing the work and importance of archives are often misinterpreted or unaccepted, their value lost in the exchange rate or enforced duty.

An archive can take on many forms and many roles that are not necessarily compatible or recognizable as the same thing from organization to organization. Similarly so, archiving is a broad collection of actions applied in degrees as a given situation demands or allows. I started off by saying I would not use the word archive anymore, but, really, there is a choice here about whether to cut and run or to dig in and work to better define and communicate the issues. It seems like an insurmountable challenge, but then again, I hear that archives are full of the stories of people making a difference.

Joshua Ranger

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Comments

  1. Kim says:

    I think about this issue often, mostly prompted by the wildly varying responses I receive when people learn that I am an archivist. The public is confused and efforts like Apple’s “archive message” iPhone feature don’t help. (“move [the message] out of your inbox and in to All Mail — you won’t be bothered with extra messages cluttering your inbox, but you’ll still be able to find a message if you need it six years from now!”

    Mentions of faux-archiving abound in the media, for example: These ex-ravers turned “archivists” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15625457) aren’t archivists at all, they’re just creating access to content that they’ve cleaned up & digitized from mixtapes.

    Nice piece, Josh.

  2. Janine says:

    If the term ‘Archive’ has become confusing to the point of possible retirement, there’s a real chance to come up with alternative terms here. Sometimes language fades away, but that just leaves opportunities for more descriptive terms to emerge! Anyone have any ideas what professional MLS Archivists could refer to themselves from now on to ensure that our roles are clear, understandable, and well-represented for the tasks we complete?

    • Josh says:

      Janine, how about ‘Awesomers’, because we take people’s stuff and enable awesome things to be done with it…

      Seriously, though, I think if this were brought up for discussion it would likely become a major point of contention along the lines of disagreements over the shift towards digital preservation. Archivists are having to diversify their skill sets a lot more — partly due to budgets, partly due to technological and business changes — so more and more I use ‘media archiving’, or focus on collection management as a broadly encompassing term, or try to mention use/distribution as part and parcel of archiving and preservation. But then again, that approach is a little bit of auteurist chauvinism in favor of The Archivist, ignoring the fact that a dedicated position like cataloging is extremely important to an archive’s ability to do its work.

  3. Your post reminds me very of a similar discussion from the museum world on the use of the word “curator,” which started from a blog post, “You Are Not a Curator”. Unfortunately, the New Curator’s blog appears to be unavailable: http://newcurator.com/2010/03/you-are-not-a-curator/

    As with the discussion over whether curating music to make a playlist is truly an act of curating, I think we can see that widespread use of archive, archiving, doesn’t diminish the profession or the work involved for trained archivists. This doesn’t mean that anyone can get a job as an archivist if they organize and save their own music collection. But, if the word and ideas about what archiving means start circulating to a greater public, perhaps those folks will be very interested in what professionals do and will also value having institutions that employ staffs of professional archivists. I think it can only lead to a great appreciation for the hard works of the pros.

    • Josh says:

      You’re right, it doesn’t diminish the actual work (or the need for that work) itself. And I am seeing plenty of respected people in the field taking the “We’re all archivists” approach that’s related to idea of increasing circulation of the concepts of archiving. This may work — I certainly strongly believe that we need to promote and communicate better with the public — but age and too much sniffing of magnetic media have made me more pessimistic than that, I suppose. The flaw I see is that the term is applied to all the types of archives and collections that exist almost everywhere, from the home to the university to the corporation, but the cases for financial support and use of materials is going to fundamentally different in all of those locations. Does a too flat, broad concept of “The Archive” — whether directed towards research or towards profit — detract from the overall ability to fight for necessary support?

  4. Stephanie says:

    I’ve been thinking about this same thing for a long time as well, and recently it came to a head when I heard at least three archivists in disparate workshops and panel sessions at AMIA refer to a very specific activity (mass migration, collection-level cataloging) as ‘archiving,’ when they should know better than to be so vague. Especially at a trade conference.

    I don’t mind if culture as a whole uses ‘archiving’ in the common vernacular as a completely abstract term to indicate any sort of filing or cheap-home-digitization activity. Really, nothing can be done about that. But – archivists should be careful and specific, especially in light of what Kim mentions above about how generally people have no concept of what we do. Awareness of the importance of our profession has to happen at the ground level, and that means trying as much as possible to represent the extremely wide range of actual archival activities we engage in. I actually had one person say to me ‘So what, do you just put things in the right place on a shelf?’ They were being *somewhat* facetious, but that comment made me cautious about how I characterize my career. Recently at Thanksgiving, I tried to explain my job to my cousins. I started with due diligence and caution: ‘I project manage a large-scale initiative to inventory and digitize public media material …’ When one cousin saw the confused faces that description evoked, he jumped in and said ‘She archives PBS.’ and there was an audible ‘Oooohhhh …’ But I don’t know what kind of image that left in their minds. Do they think I sit in the vaults at PBS and literally put things on a shelf?

    So in short, I think common vernacular = okay, but archivists generalizing the term ‘archiving’ = tsk tsk. We can do better …

  5. Nicole Martin says:

    I can’t resist commenting on this post, even thought it’s now five months old. Like all words, this one (which we need dearly unless we want to be called “Repositorists” or something similarly awkward) is available for all English speakers to use and abuse as they see fit. My experience with tracing appropriation, re-appropriation, and reclamation of words comes from political, not professional examples, and it’s interesting that once we personally identify with a particular word, its use and misuse means more to us. We need this word in all of its forms (noun, verb, and various derivatives), we have a great deal of experience using it, so we will inevitably play a large part in defining it. I believe most librarians and archivists agree that it’s up to us to make ourselves and our profession more visible as the tools of our trade become more relevant to ordinary people.

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