Archival/”Archival” (Week 11 RR)

The first reading (the CLIR report on Digital Forensics) was especially interesting to me because I have a very close programmer friend who worked for many years in e-litigation support doing very interesting jobs like crushing white collar crime under the black high-heeled boot of awesome computer savvy (think Enron). The one thing I recall best from years of hearing stories is that e-litigation is incredibly lucrative. Software, service, and support are incredibly expensive (they usually worked, up to at least 2010, as contractors billing high power law firms at rates proportional to what the firms themselves bill, and there was actually some fuss in the industry around that time as richer corporations ate up the smaller companies and overtook the industry). The field is also commercially driven and technologically competitive (read proprietary). My immediate thought, which was certainly addressed in the report, was to wonder how small and poorly funded (relatively anyway) institutions could acquire the tools for this necessary work. The Council supplied costs charts that were more or less illegible to me, but also summarised that the work is indeed quite cost-prohibitive to most institutions (including service and expert personnel). Amongst the objectives they listed at the end, the Council called for speciality tools (i.e. not for the legal industry) and promoted sharing that was orientated more towards technological and methodological kinships.

In addition to costs, when working with archives of a digital format, the other primary concern I noted was ethics with specific respect to personal privacy. The issue is an older one, but expanding in the digital age in terms of both preservation and presentation of information. Kenneth Price centres his discussion of terminology for what we do, and in turn our procedures and practises, around his own Walt Whitman “archive” (or collection if you like per his concern over terms and the subsequent discussions in the reading). He raises a key question belonging to archival science about the ethics of collecting and sharing artists’ … well, junk, junk and private objects.

It is a funny sort of a question that surrounds our old privileging and near-deification of the authour, the making of sacred relics from their miscellany. In archiving as collecting and structured allowing of access, it is a concern, but the ante is up in the Digital Age. Would Walt Whitman want his private notes available online? Well, according to a quick glance at an unassigned section of the NINCH Guidelines, the dead have no protection.

Back to the CLIR discussion, there is a rising concern that matters of privacy have to be decided clearly and permanently between an institution and a donor of a digital archive before an agreement can be struck because of the additional capacity of digital media to store every trace and track of a person’s life and the ability of digital forensics to get it out. In the Digital Age, standard concerns about privacy, especially financial and medical, but also limits on social scope, have become increasingly anxiety producing (fyi. I have access to a hard drive shredder this week if anyone needs it after reading that article!). I think it will be interesting to see how this actually plays out legally.

An additional layer of the public and private question comes up in our readings by Shelia Brennan and T. Mills Kelly, and that by Dan Cohen. Both articles deal with the “crowdsourcing” and presentation of disaster “archives” (Katrina and 911 respectively). I think it was Cohen who brought up the matter of collecting and storing memories privately. Apparently, donors of the memory artefacts could in some cases choose to have them made public or simply included. I would actually like more detail on how this works before commenting. Are they private for a set period of time? Forever, and able to be used generally, but not directly published?

Even with permissions to share, memorialising disaster and trauma comes with a fair amount of ethical baggage. The literature on this subject is endless and rather daunting (and makes me appreciate the fact that I study very, very long gone people) and deals with the ethics of collating, curating, presenting the traces of trauma even with participant permissions. This week’s readings had many interesting topics, but I really focused in on this question of ethics in historical and archival/”archival” practise and its relationship to our ability to store more, examine at once more deeply and more broadly, and share so very rapidly.

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4 comments on “Archival/”Archival” (Week 11 RR)

  1. I also meant to add: e-litigation also has its own ethical puzzles. Documents are redacted for use in court without revealing protected information, but there is a body of processing staff who access that information every day with or without formal ethical training.

  2. rasika420 says:

    “Would Walt Whitman want his private notes available online? Well, according to a quick glance at an unassigned section of the NINCH Guidelines, the dead have no protection.”

    Thank you for highlighting this frightening concept. (Off to burn my teenage diary!)

  3. Your comment about being glad you are working on people who are long gone triggered me to wonder whether this active collection of memories from a very current event is really what we would think of as history work. Traditionally, one thinks of performing history work through investigation of primary sources from the past, but not really of actively soliciting and collecting these narratives for use in the future (unless you are thinking about collecting oral histories, but those tend to be on a smaller and more personal scale). Is this sort of a journalism/special collections/history hybrid?

    • Huh, that’s a good point. I think contemporary history/art history/archaeology is such a complicated business. I like that you rename it as a hybrid, especially since the relationships between terminology and methods and practise (and ethics) were also a topic this week.

      The special concerns of histories of the present certainly aren’t the reason I shy from it/seek other topics, but I certainly don’t envy practitioners their special problems (then again, they probably don’t envy the likes of you or me our respective concerns either).

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