Why Libraries and Archives Are Important

Back in early April, our School started discussions with Computer Science department in Arts and Science about the possibility of merging to form a new school. The discussions have been both interesting and sometimes unsettling. I penned the two documents below as part of this process; they were ignored, as far as I can tell, but I thought they might be interesting for readers of this blog.

Why are libraries and archives important in society? John Palfrey, Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the ago of Google (New York: Basic Books, 2015), bluntly states, “Libraries are at risk because we have forgotten how essential they are” (p. 7). He continues, “Librarians, along with archivists, maintain the historical record of our societies and our lives. By failing to invest in libraries during this time of transition away from the analog and toward the digital, we are putting all these essential functions at risk just when we need them most” (p.10). There are also reasons to sustain some traditional aspects of libraries and archives: “We need both physical libraries and digital libraries today. . . . If we don’t maintain physical libraries, we will lose essential public, intellectual spaces in our communities, places where people can meet face-to-face, and if we don’t build digital libraries connected to them, those physical spaces may become obsolete as big companies such as Google and Amazon increasingly meet our need for knowledge. Physical and digital libraries are interdependent: each can make the other more effective and available” (pp. 11-12). Palfrey also believes, “Everyone has a stake in the future of the libraries, archives, and historical societies that safeguard our culture and inspire our people” (p. 20), although sometimes it is difficult to find evidence of this in discussions like we are having in the university.

Palfrey’s book is a nicely balanced exploration into the importance of libraries and archivists, librarians and archivists. Computer experts are not going to replace librarians and archivists, but they need to be sensitive to the latter’s needs and societal mission. Librarians and archivists, for their part, need to learn how to work with software and hardware experts in order to ensure that concerns such as access and long-term maintenance of data/information/evidence (preservation) are represented in the digital systems being created and used by organizations, governments, community groups, cultural institutions, and private citizens. The potential merging of CS and LIS (and other related academic units) may provide the possibility of equipping new computer scientists, information scientists, and librarians and archivists with the best mindsets and skills to best serve society’s needs. Palfrey’s book helps to advance thinking about such matters. Palfrey is a scholar educated as a historian and in law and is a well-respected public scholar. Among his previous books is Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (2010).

A View of AIS at SIS

I am posting this brief statement in an effort to explain my area of research and teaching, that is, archival studies or science, as a way of enriching our discussion of the various programs involved in the potential merging of SIS and CS.  Archival studies, now Archives and Information Science and a specialization within the MLIS degree appearing on the student’s transcript, has been an area of study within SIS for nearly thirty years. This program has consistently been ranked in the top ten such programs in the United States for the past several decades.

I have been concerned with some of the statements made in the discussions thus far about the computer, that is, the focus being on this wonderful tool. I hope that a more middle ground focus might be found, such as on information, and that the School that emerges encompasses faculty and other perspectives that feature technology, what that technology (hardware and software) does, and the implication of the uses (positive and negative) of the technology in society. Hopefully, a new School will be concerned with more than tools, but what such tools produce and the social, economic, legal, ethical, and cultural implications of these products. That the AIS area is also concerned with issues of digital technologies can be seen in the recent curriculum revisions made under the leadership of Amelia Acker, who is now the AIS lead faculty member.

Contrary to popular opinion, archives are not only a place, but, rather, archival work occurs in nearly every kind of institution and, increasingly with digital technologies, by individuals and community groups. Archivists work everywhere. Also contrary to popular opinion, archival materials are not merely old stuff. They are valued for purposes of evidence, accountability, memory, and justice and community. Archives involve tools – in fact, records from the ancient world to the present have been the products of tools – but why we value archives has to do with far more than their technologies.

Archival sources or documents are not just in paper or analog form. Archivists have, in fact, expanded the notion of documents to include oral tradition, performances, artifacts, and anything that speaks to us in some fashion. Archival knowledge is distinctly interdisciplinary in nature, drawing from history, literary and cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, and so forth. There is also a distinct core of archival knowledge, such as diplomatics, relating to the form and function of documentary sources. The goal of the AIS masters program is to prepare individuals to be archivists, becoming “scholars” of records and recordkeeping systems. We have also had many doctoral students over the years who have gone on to faculty positions in universities across the United States and Canada.

Below is a list of readings that provide additional information about archives and the archival profession (I don’t expect anyone to read all these articles and books; they are listed here simply to reflect the fact that there is a robust literature about this topic):

Francis X. Blouin and William G. Rosenberg, Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Terry Cook, “Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms,”Archival Science 11, nos. 2-3 (2013): 95-120.

Richard J. Cox, Alison Langmead, and Eleanor Mattern, Archival Education and Research: Selected Papers from the 2014 AERI Conference (Litwin Books, forthcoming).

James M. O’Toole and Richard J. Cox, Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006).

Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, translated by Thomas Scott Railton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Anne J. Gilliland, Conceptualizing 21st-Century Archives (Chicago: SAA, 2014).

Anne Gilliland, Andrew Lau, and Sue McKemmish, eds., Research in the Archival Multiverse (Melbourne, Australia: Monash University Press, forthcoming).

Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009).

Elizabeth Shepherd and Geoffrey Yeo, Managing Records: A Handbook of Principles and Practice(London: Facet, 2003).

Here, finally, are examples of two of my recent writings about the future of archives (I have published a number of books on the topic as well):

Richard J. Cox, “Archival Futures: The Future of Archives,” Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals,” 9 (Fall 2013): 331-352.

Richard J. Cox, (2015) “Graduate Archival Education in the United States; A Personal Reflection About Its Past and Future,” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 2, Article 3. Available at: http://elischolar.library.yale.edu/jcas/vol2/iss1/3.


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