A Final Thought for 2016

Novelist Julian Barnes, in his collection of essays on art, made this interesting observation about one artist: “The life of such an artist is one of high anxiety and self-doubt, combined with ceaseless work which sometimes leads to nothing” (Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art [London: Jonathan Cape, 2015], p. 97). As a painter (landscapes and seascapes), I certainly concur with this assessment. Probably only one of every three or four paintings I attempt are ones worth keeping, giving away, or placing in a gallery. But it is also worth stating that this is how I view my academic work. The pleasure of research and teaching, companion functions of a university professor, occurs when success is achieved, and it is not always achieved. I will have ample time to reflect about this during 2017; one year from today is my official retirement and I will be working on wrapping up some projects, shelving others for good, and contemplating what I will be doing in the future.

Happy New Year!

Documentary Tools: Word Processing and Literature

We, today, remain fixated on the power and implications of digital technologies for the creation and maintenance of records, documents, and texts (among other things). Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that technologies, including pre-digital varieties, have been the source of all written information since the beginning – from clay tablets to manuscript and printed books to typewriters and computers – and the list could go on. What has made it difficult to sort out, of course, is that the ongoing development of the computer has been accompanied by exaggerated claims of its power and potential to transform our lives (although we can find similar claims with earlier technologies such as photocopying and microfilming). It is difficult for us to not see or hear claims about the transformative power of the computer in every aspect of our lives (for example, it is difficult to watch television for more than a few minutes without being bombarded with such messages), and it almost seems as if we repeat this often enough it must be true.

There is research being done about the actual implications of computers on many different aspects of our lives. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016) is a book that “seeks to narrate and describe in material and historical terms how computers, specifically word processing, became integral to literary authorship and literary writing” (p. xiii). The resultant book is the most detailed study on word processing yet done, drawing on memoirs, interviews, and the primary and secondary literature on the subject in an engaging analysis. The book focuses on the period 1964 to 1984 when word processing emerged and was adopted by a wide array of writers (by the latter date about fifty percent of authors were using word processing). Kirschenbaum contends that word processing has been a neglected aspect of the history of the Information Age, and I doubt few would argue with him; now, at least, it is no longer neglected and serves as a model for additional research.

While studying word processing, Kirschenbaum offers insights into many other aspects of computing’s implications for organizational and individual life. “Organizationally,” he reflects, “then, word processing was about restructuring work, reclassifying roles in the work force, relocating people in the workplace, and reconfiguring the individual workstation all under the guise of the centralizing and automating the composition, transcription, reproduction, and distribution – the processing – of the printed word on paper” (p. 148). For someone of my vintage, you can map the implications by thinking of how you first adopted word processing and then evolved with it, often in subtle ways, over time. I can attest that how I write has been affected by word processing, sometimes making it better, but sometimes not improving what I write. Kirschenbaum places word processing within the development of business and managerial approaches and then considers how word processing became used for a much greater range of functions and activities. He also relates it to other developments in the Information Age, such as, “Floppies were to the personal computing industry what the paperback book was to mass market publishing, and 78 (later 45) rpm singles were to pop music” (p. 220). There are scores of such assessments in this study, each one offering additional topics for research.

Kirschenbaum’s study doesn’t shy away from the debates, rants, and musings about the consequences of computing – after all, tomes with this vantage fill bookshelves in both libraries and bookstores (and in the latter, they are often featured works – if only for a brief interlude). He writes, “Our current technological moment is marked by a tremendous paradox as fragile as electronic media are and as fleeting to the historical record as they may be, they create enormous and potentially unprecedented opportunities for scholarship” (p. 209). Or to put it another way, while I write about the challenges of preserving digital records, I also use digital tools to compose and to publish. Perhaps I have given up myself in preserving my own archival testimony (and I think I have), merely hoping that something of my work will remain, perhaps that that is in print form.

Kirschenbaum reminds us that writing, that is producing literature, was never seen as an important market by those developing and marketing word processing software. However, some writers embraced it and produced new work, testimony to the fact that writers are artists with creative skills and aims and that all technologies have unintended consequences. Writers often seek to make something new, new genres that can be read in different ways. In examining word processing and its connection to literary activities in this two decade period, Kirschenbaum ultimately concludes that it was the “first real ‘killer app’” (p. 334). Still, we can doubt some of these kinds of assertions. I note for example, that when I visit an art museum or read about painting I often see representations of people reading and writing, a focus extending back hundreds of years. I rarely see art depicting the computer as reading or writing device (although I am sure these exist somewhere). Perhaps more time needs to pass.

 

Good Citizens Need Archives (And Archives Need Good Citizens)

Frederick M. Lawrence, Secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, had an interesting essay in the Winter 2016-17 issue of The Key Reporter (I read my wife’s copy – she is the smart one and the member). The brief essay was about the value of a liberal arts and sciences education, arguing that this can “prepare us for a meaningful life, a prosperous life, ad a productive life.” Good objectives. Another entry in the long line of essays and books about the value of such an education, Lawrence’s essay made me think another way about the importance of what archivists do (or aspire to do).

Lawrence states that there are “three sets of skills” equipping people to be effective citizens. “First, a private citizen must be able to turn raw information into knowledge.” This is something I have thought a lot about because I have been in a school of information sciences for a long time, a place where it is likely you will hear tributes about the importance of information, with claims that are often exaggerated. We recently changed our name to the School of Computing and Information, a name that has practical merit. But wouldn’t it be interesting if the name was School of Computing, Information, and Knowledge? Archives fit right into this, providing the raw materials of historical insight, waiting for researchers to mine their assets. It is hard, at the moment, to discern any sense of value for knowledge of the past in our society, but common sense ought to dictate that we need to have a long view of our present moment. We need to know where we came from, the factors that shaped the present. Reacting immediately to events with knee-jerk responses with no sense of the bigger picture or potential consequences is not a particularly smart way to live and work. Archives are the natural resources for having a broader, more nuanced view of our society and ourselves.

Lawrence then adds, “Second, a private citizen must be able to evaluate arguments.” There is a strong literature about how archival materials can be used in the classroom to aid in the development of critical thinking skills. Since these raw materials of history are often both complex and seemingly contradictory (often providing different versions of the same event), it is up to researchers to evaluate the merits of their veracity. This may prove to be more difficult as we progress into the new year. We live in a time when politicians, some claiming to be journalists, and others fabricate or exaggerate news reports or just basic facts, so the ability to discern real from fake evidence is more important than ever. Archivists ought to be in an ideal position to provide good advice about such evaluation, given their experience in appraisal, selection for preservation, and other similar functions. Yet, this will require our field to be more open and outspoken than ever before, and doing this will undoubtedly expose us to criticism. The days of just focusing on the memory and other merits of establishing and sustaining archives may be over. And this will be hard for many in the field.

Third, Lawrence states, “a private citizen must be able to engage in reasoned debate with others.” I don’t know about you but I haven’t witnessed much in the way of reasoned debate in our country in the past year or two. People yell at each and talk over each other, mostly demonstrating the inability to listen to each other. We can practice being more civil to each other at our own conferences, but this is by no means enough. For those among working in larger repositories with greater resources, perhaps we can sponsor real debates and other events about controversial historical and other issues. Some presidential libraries have done this, but I am not sanguine about this in the new political climate. University archives could sponsor lectures and conferences about the value of public and other forms of education. Museum archives could focus on the importance of the arts in our society. Military archives or archives with large war-related holdings could sponsor discussions about the follies of war and the importance of diplomatic solutions. Archives with a mission to document science and scientific knowledge could hold meetings about climate change and the importance of preserving the documentation related to this important matter (already there are efforts underway to do this). Just as many political cartoonists may be happy about the topics being handed to them by the incoming administration, so archivists might also be able to see an agenda being readily handed to them. Rebecca Solnit, a favorite author, in her recent essay in Harper’s, states, “In periods when progressives don’t hold federal power, the work of rights and racial justice is largely relegated to the state and local levels. In the Trump era, this change of focus becomes imperative – if we advance at all, it will be through actions taken in our own communities, on city councils and in neighborhood assemblies and on the streets” (“The Monument Wars,” Harper’s, 334 [January 2017], 13). Given the intricate interweaving of archival repositories and archivists into local communities, exemplified by the recent focus of many on community archives, it seems logical that we would be part of this.

Are You Willing to Go to Jail for What You Believe?

Since the election, just a month ago, there have been a lot of expressions of fear concerning what the new president might or might not do. Some of these fears have been exaggerated and others have been wrapped in bigotry and hatred. Some seem well founded. Some seem paranoid or hysterical. The important thing in all this is to reflect on our own beliefs and convictions and to be prepared to defend those worth defending. This applies to our vocations as well. And since a considerable portion of our time is devoted to the work we do, it is an important task all of us must tackle. My reflection, as I near retirement, will be different from that of my students who are just starting out in their careers. Nevertheless, it is important for all of us to tackle this task.

What aspects of archival work and mission are worth defending, in proactive and visible ways? In totalitarian societies there are many archivists as well, and we in a democratic society often have wondered how they function. This is because we have associated our archival work with broad access, accountability, transparency, and other such values. Yet in Nazi Germany the vast majority of archivists were Party members, often involved in managing records associated with atrocities against Jews and other groups. Throughout the world truth commissions have been established, often with a mandate to create and maintain archives separate from national archives, the latter sometimes seen as complicit with political movements jeopardizing the rights of citizens. While there has developed a stronger archival literature about social justice and human rights, debates still rage about how such matters connect to our professional mission. While I do not believe we are moving toward a totalitarian form of government, I am concerned that the new president does not understand the difference between running a corporation and leading a democratic government.

For many archivists, having a code of ethics or professional values seems satisfactory. Yet, we know that these statements are not enforceable and for many only represent targets to aspire to – ideals, not practical attributes. However, as we enter into this new post-truth era where fake news not facts reign and where Twitter is used to bully individuals who express different views than the President-elect, we need to ask whether such mushy views of ethical conduct are sufficient. It is one thing to battle over academic issues on the inside of professions and disciplines; it is quite something else when careers and lives may be threatened for speaking one’s mind. The specter of television news transformed into reality shows with journalists, if there are any left, simply there to try to manage various “experts” or “surrogates” talking over each other is disconcerting, but it seems possible, even likely, that this may spill out to mangle old traditional archival values. Archivists, as do other professionals, need to know precisely what they believe and to commit to protecting and speaking up for these beliefs. Simply pointing to a framed code of ethics hanging on an office wall is no longer sufficient (if it ever was). New pressures, public scrutiny, and even new laws may challenge them in the future in unprecedented ways.

I have taught and written about archival ethics for many years. One of my common themes is urging individuals to investigate their own ethical sensibilities, in order to be prepared for the workplace and societal challenges they might face. Archivists, and other professionals, often take for granted the idea that they will not face any serious matters that might involve ethical challenges. We should be able to dispel such a notion by just imagining our basic principles against those not only of the incoming administration but also from politicians, business leaders, and others from around the world. While the most we used to worry about was the occasional restriction placed on certain records by donors or a thorny intellectual property issue, now archival challenges include deliberate destruction of records to conceal criminal and other nefarious activity, hatred aimed by extreme groups because of providing access to documents about past events, and the creation of false facts distorting history.

Just like we can never know beforehand whether a thief is going to walk into an archives, now archivists must be prepared to contend with a more extreme form of security, the possibility of terrorist attacks on them, their holdings, and researchers using the documentary materials. Already we have heard about the Trump transition team wanting to know the names of individuals at the Environmental Protection Agency who have worked on the global warming reports and regulations. I would not be surprised if the new administration targets federal funding programs providing support for the arts and other cultural programs presenting views that it does not agree with. The President-elect has called the television show Saturday Night Live biased and bad because of the way it parodies him. So, make sure you do not go our of your way to be critical or to collect materials that might be construed to be critical.

We can look at this in another way. The next few years could present the archival community with many golden opportunities to speak out about its mission. No one knows if Mr. Trump will keep using Twitter the way he has this past year or two, but if he does he will daily give archivists, librarians, historians, scientists and others interested in honest and truthful visions of our society and its past opportunities to present documents and other materials providing a counterpoint. Archivists, in particular, will be able to explain themselves and their mission on a regular basis and in ways that will likely gain public and media attention. Just think of the possibilities, reflecting back on some of the topics that have emerged in the past year – refusing to disclose tax records, denying various rumors and false stories, leaked classified records, and hacking into emails. All we need to do is to start practicing composing Twitter-length responses. But, first, you must determine if you are willing to lose your job or even go to jail for what you believe and practice.

Handwriting

Digital devices, so the story goes, are transforming everything. The assessments are divided, of course, about whether the changes are for the better or the worse. We are also increasingly reminded that there are pushbacks. Anne Trubek, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016) provides, as the title suggests, both a history and assessment of the nature of handwriting, joining the growing number of volumes on topics like paper and other analog mechanisms. Trubek, a writer and publisher, writes candidly about her topic, one she obviously believes is important.

Trubek gracefully moves through the various historical methods of writing and recording (this is not a scholarly work, but it is one worth reading on a cold day while seated away from computers and other distractions). She characterizes early writing, connecting them to contemporary issues, such as follows: “We may, in fact, be becoming more like the Sumerians with every passing year. Most of us carry small, palm-sized writing tablets made of a durable material. And cuneiform feels – materially – more similar to my daily experience of writing than do the sheets of paper in elementary school classrooms” (p. 12). This is the kind of expansive perspective that is the most useful to have, one seeing the connections between earlier communication approaches rather than dysfunctional or revolutionary breakthroughs wrought by the latest gee-whiz technology.

Skepticism about new writing and publishing technologies are nothing new, and Trubek cites diatribes against the printing press and even new handwritten scripts. We need to be reminded about our general tendency both to embrace and reject innovations, especially as doing this can remind us of our sometimes dramatic predictions about technology in our lives. The author reminds us that learning something as seemingly mundane as handwriting is intertwined with lots of other stuff: “Students who learned to write in America, from its earliest days through the first half of the twentieth century, were learning a lot more than just their letters. They were learning Christian and national values” (p. 82).

When we think of handwriting today we tend to reflect about those who contend that they can discern personality types or who claim to be able to detect forged handwriting and signatures. These are relatively recent notions: “Only once typing became the de facto method to conduct business correspondence and keep records, did handwriting assume the association we have with it today: a way to express one’s uniqueness and personality. It is only in the twentieth century that handwriting becomes evidence of – and a way to analyze – the individual psyche” (p. 97). Archivists know, however, that the interest in detecting forgeries, altered documents, and other documentary problems date back hundreds of years ago. Trubek does discuss the rise of digital forensics for authenticating documents, something we are beginning to see in information and other schools as courses.

This is an interesting read, one that will make to think about some of your own assumptions about writing. It is also a fun read. Did you know that we have a National Handwriting Day? It is on January 23rd, John Hancock’s birthday – a logical choice. Now you know and can plan your own way to celebrate.