Archives Don’t Matter

February 14, 2013

…But Archival Environments Do

Admittedly, when I foreswore the word ‘archive’ I offered no realistic (or unrealistic) alternative. The great benefit (and the great detriment) of such philosophical arguments is that one needn’t provide conclusive answers to one’s musings — nor, apparently, first person responsibility, either.

Regardless, I have been thinking about this topic since then and have solidified some thinking here, coming to the conclusion that using or not using the word archive doesn’t matter because archives don’t matter.

Let me clarify — the concept and the role of archives matter, which I would define as the arrangement, maintenance, and provision of access to materials (roughly matching my thoughts on the processing of audiovisual collections in relation to the primary services of an archive). The entity or shape of the archive does not matter because such collections of assets exist in many forms and, I feel, are much more likely to exist in less formal or less traditional spaces than the formal academic or governmental archive.

Formal and less formal archives all fulfill their duties — arrangement, maintenance, access — to varying degrees depending on their mission and available resources. However, formal archives are not necessarily superior across all of those aspects. For example, a collection within a television news organization may rate very highly with gathering and providing access to materials because they generate the content, have the equipment for playback and editing, and value the re-use of assets such as b-roll for new content creation. Maintenance may not rate as high because frequent, timely usability is more important, and arrangement may suffer due to the high rate of circulation of materials and lack of centralized, enforced storage and borrowing policies.

Transition that same collection to a formal archive and the level of maintenance and arrangement may rise to the higher standards of professional archival practice, but access will almost certainly drop off to almost zero until reformatting and description/processing is performed because the availability of equipment and impetus for use is not the same. When that reformatting actually does happen is anyone’s guess.

I think of these two examples as the Archival Environment and the Production Environment.

Archival Environment: Purposeful and Controlled Selection, Arrangement, & Documentation

Production Environment: Idiosyncratic or Department-based Asset Management tied to Projects, Processes, & Deadlines

Both of these represent collections of materials which may in fact be referred to as Archives. However, each play distinct roles in how collections are used and taken care of. At some point it is certain that the materials in a Production Environment will need to move into an Archival Environment in order to retain their accessibility. The materials will need to be reformatted in order for the content to survive beyond degradation and technological obsolescence, and they will need to be arranged and described in a consistent, documented manner in order to be discoverable beyond the institutional knowledge of the original creator/caretaker.

Despite that being the case, Archival Environments need to adopt more from Production Environments regarding the provision of access, because most Archival Environments are failing on that point. Film, video, and audio collections are languishing in archives, too under-described to be findable and existing in formats or conditions that are not playable.

Archives don’t matter because there is a lack of trust by creators, researchers, and the public that access to collections will be provided on reasonable timescale, if at all. And this issue is about much more than speeding up processing and creating the glorified container lists that are finding aids, because that approach does nothing about solving the blockade to access that is remediated by reformatting. When dealing with audiovisual materials there is no question, no argument about it: Reformatting must happen at multiple points in the life cycle of the content because the lifespan of the content extends well beyond the technology housing it.

Archival Environments matter because they help support the longevity of discovery and access, but if that access to playable content is not provided the nominal archive is remiss in its duties. Until such time as that duty is met we cannot rightfully distinguish between or value the role of the traditional archive over the lay archive of something like a YouTube merely on the tenets of description, storage, and best practices alone.

—¬†Joshua Ranger