Transparent Plea

January 28, 2010

Maybe I’m just in one of those rare moments of clarity that life brings, but the concept of transparency seems to have been popping into view a lot lately. There has been the recent open government directives in England and the US; a recent article in The New Yorker about Obama’s relationship with the Press that discusses the political promise of a transparent White House (“Non-Stop News”, January 25, 2010); and let’s not forget the high-power x-ray machines we’ll have to start going through at the airport security check…

Now audiovisual archivists deal regularly with transparency, ranging all the way from providing maximally possible access to the simple act of holding film or tape up to the light to identify the base material. All in all I’d say we’re pretty invested in the concept. But of course such an assumption makes me start to pick the idea apart to examine that commitment more closely.

I started out by thinking about the different kinds of transparency we strive for. At a basic level, there is a transparency of Data — formulating and exposing information in such a way that makes it readily available for search and analysis, such as in catalogs or campaign contribution records.

A level up from that we might have Workflow transparency — an openness about how work is done or how funds are allocated, such as might be required in scientific research or a grant funded project.

Finally, at perhaps a more meta level, we could define Communication transparency — the dedication to the idea of maintaining and expressing openness at all levels.

In some ways I think this last can be the most key…as well as the most overlooked. Overlooked not because it is ignored on the conceptual level, but overlooked because it becomes neglected in the real life practice of communication. Even organizations that are utterly committed to the idea of open records and organizational transparency can have difficulty in maintaining open communication among departments and various stakeholders. It isn’t that they don’t want to keep communication open, it’s more that in the day-to-day hubbub of the workaday world those lines can be easily dropped. Emails go unread or unanswered, messages unreturned, and interaction is subsumed by the focus on the thousand little fires that pop up and need our attention on top of the blazing inferno we’re already working on.

I like to think that archivists, despite our focus on the past, are typically a step ahead of the general culture because we always have to have the future in mind at the same time. That being the case, I feel we should already be thinking ahead of where initiatives like the Open Government Directive are and be considering how we can be more open in ways beyond content and access.

Why, ultimately, does this matter? If I haven’t already stretched yet another metaphor to its breaking point, I would say that transparency enables clarity, and clarity enables transference: The transference of materials, of skills, and of knowledge — which are all inter-dependent. Of course we are concerned with this transference externally in dealing with patrons, users, and funders of archives, but it is an idea that needs to be considered more strongly internally as well. How we communicate with our colleagues and institutional cohorts is equally important as proper storage and handling to the work we do to collect and preserve. Access is dependent on discovery via data as well as being dependent on properly cared for and handled materials. Increasing opportunities for access and increasing the opportunities to fund data collection and archival workflows can only be positively influenced by increasing our communication about what we do, how we do it, and where our challenges and ultimate successes lie.

— Joshua Ranger