Journal Review of American Archivist – M.Loran
A review of articles published in American Archivist, which publishes bi-annually, over the past two years suggests four recurrent themes that have caught the attention of archivists working in the field today. The issue that appears to be of greatest concern is the role of archives in international conflicts and politics. A second major concern is the goal of ensuring that under represented groups are properly represented in archives. A third prominent focus for archivists is usability of online archives, including the use of metadata and how interactive the sites are for the users. A final recurring theme is the concern of practicing archivists with proper education and training of future archivists.
Archives are currently at the center of a complicated international and political discussion that can be summed up as, “Who owns the records?” A people or nation that has been invaded may be deprived of control over its records, but what happens to those records once the international conflict is over? This issue was discussed in articles by Douglas Coxand Bruce Montgomery. It has long been believed that a nation’s archive is part of its heritage. Cox specifically says that an archive is part of a county’s inalienable cultural property. There are international laws – The Hague Regulations – that are meant to protect the inalienability of a nation’s archive. But in international conflicts, armies often confiscate archives in an attempt to gain military advantages. This raises the question of when and to whom the archives are returned. Montgomery suggests that perhaps in cases where atrocities have been committed, like those of Saddam Hussein, the records no longer belong to the country, just as Hitler’s records no longer belong to Germany. Montgomery is not alone in thinking that inalienability has its limits. In some cases, a government has failed to protect the records, or the government may be in a transitional period. Caswell believes that these governments cannot be trusted, and a trustworthy depository, even if it is a private archive, may then become the rightful steward of the records. She goes a step further and says that inalienability may be an outdated nationalistic notion that no longer provides adequate guidance on the subject of which institution will best protect the records and archives.
The ethical issue that arises from the ownership of archival records becomes even more complicated in situations where the records do not belong to a true governmental body anymore, because the previous custodian has ceased to exist, and no analogous institution has taken its place. Jedlitschka’s discusses the records of East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi. Both East Germany and the Stasi were controlled by the communist party in Moscow, and both have ceased to exist. The records themselves are a horrendous reminder of the government illegally spying on the public. In this case it was decided that the records would be completely public and that any record about a person would be made available to them. A more difficult example relates to the cultural heritage of the Native Americans. Although some groups which existed prior to European contact no longer exist, many do. The cultural materials and knowledge of both groups have often been preserved in private and public collections that have not been under the control of Native peoples. Given the devastation of Native American societies over the past several centuries, it is certainly true that much Native American cultural property would no longer exist absent preservation by those collections. However, Mathiesen argues that in the present day, Traditional Cultural Expression (TCE) and Traditional Knowledge (TK) should be controlled by Native Americans. The group PNAAM (Protocols of Native American Archival Material) thinks Native Americans should be able to control their TCE and TK. This raises a dilemma for archivists, who tend to believe in freedom of information, because Native American groups may want to limit access to certain items or only preserve certain items. Mathiesen argues that archival ethics cannot be applied the same way to Native American TCE and TK, which he believes are similar to intellectual property. If he is correct, Native American cultural heritage items would fall under rules generally applied to informational privacy. A Native American group would then have the right to decide how materials are stored, who sees them, and even if they are preserved at all. There does not seem to be an easy answer for archivists in this situation, in which the desire to protect materials and make them available may conflict with cultural sensitivities and political rights of Native American groups.
An enduring problem for archivists is the proper representation of minorities in archives. In the 1970’s archivists finally acknowledged that they were not doing a good enough job of documenting under-represented groups in society. Archivists are doing their best to improve, according to Gibbs article, specifically addressing African American archives. However, Gibbs also believes that archivists are still looking too narrowly at diversity and following their own pre-set notion of diversity. By doing this, the archivist is not really adequately documenting some groups, and therefore affecting how society views those groups. Gibbs expresses concern that the archivist, by imposing his/her own categories, may not take into account the complex power issues that are present in society. To counteract this, White suggests that it is necessary to create a proper framework to understand and document a group. White was writing specifically about disability representation in archives and the need to come up with a working definition of disability. However, coming up with a good working definition of a group is paramount no matter which group the archivist is working with. The way archivists document and define a group may ignore some of the real concerns of the group. For example, a group that is under-represented in archives is female state representatives. Although political papers are usually preserved, it has only been very recently that women’s political papers were thought important enough to keep. Another issue that comes up with these papers is that archivists are not sure where to sort them. They might well be included in the state archive, but they might also be stored in an archive that specifically focuses on women’s records; as a result these papers often end up as hidden collections, meaning that the records get lost in a repository. Even those who are looking for them might not find them. As with all under-represented groups Novara believes that archivists need to prioritize these groups, which becomes difficult when an institution has a specific focus.
Due to the proliferation of digital archives and digitization, a major issue that archivists face is the usability of online archives and the generation of metadata to describe the digital items. DeRidder argues that properly describing items is key to interpretation, and that using Acumen delivery software so as to infer relationships between digital files, items, collections and types of materials based on the file names will be vital to proper metadata creation and management. The main aim of these digital archives, it seems, is to allow for a positive, straightforward user experience while still allowing the proper amount of description of the item. For example, Phillyhistory.org uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to connect with the city’s archival images. The images are then put on a map to show users in an interactive way how certain buildings in Philadelphia have changed overtime. Many archives tackle the issue of user interaction and metadata creation at one time by allowing users to add their own descriptive content. Users have come to expect vast descriptions of items, but the amount of digital items is so great that archivists have a hard time describing it all. Flanagan and Carini’s article discusses Metadata Games, an open source, crowd-sourcing software system tool for metadata creation, allowing users to tag, correct and interact collaboratively with other users. This software was used as a trial with images to see what kinds of vocabulary and tags and connections users would make. The hope is that users vocabulary will improve over time if they continue to use this kind of interactive software, and learn what kinds of connections to make. A site called Footnote allows users to contribute data and interacts with the users by suggesting and highlighting material that they might find interesting. According to a study that Mayer did with Footnote, when it comes to user contributed data a few people are usually doing most of the contributing, but it still can provide for a positive experience.
The need to properly educate future archivists domestically and abroad also came up frequently in the literature. The main debate always seems to be between theoretical knowledge acquired in the classroom and practical knowledge acquired in internships and practicum. Many critics feel that it is not possible to develop the necessary learning objectives in internships, even though the experience in the field is often more closely related to what students will be doing in future jobs, such as using MARC and EAD. On the other hand, classroom training alone seems inadequate. This debate is especially prevalent in China, whose archivists are in very serious trouble from a lack of training. Chinese students in MA programs are taught theory only; even the teachers may not have hands-on experience. Clearly, there is concern about the gap between classroom knowledge and on-the-job expertise. Many users of archival material expect reference archivists to have a certain set of skills; unfortunately these are not skills that can be taught in school. Thus, archivists have to learn these skills in an internship or on the job.
Even as the archiving field is going through a digital revolution, it is clear that archivists are still focused on providing ethical unbiased representation of the historical record. Archivists are also clearly very concerned with ensuring that future archivists are properly prepared for what lies ahead. However, archivists are now taking a more global look at their profession and how it effects the international stage.
 Douglas Cox, “National Archives and International Conflicts: The Society of American Archivists and War,” American Archivist 74, no. 2 (September 1, 2011): 451–481.
 Bruce Montgomery, “Saddam Hussein’s Records of Atrocity: Seizure, Removal, and Restitution,” American Archivist 75, no. 2 (October 1, 2012): 326–370.
 Cox, “National Archives and International Conflicts.”
 Montgomery, “Saddam Hussein’s Records of Atrocity.”
 Michelle Caswell, “Rethinking Inalienability: Trusting Nongovernmental Archives in Transitional Societies,” American Archivist 76, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 113–134.
 Karsten Jedlitschka, “The Lives of Others: East German State Security Service’s Archival Legacy,” American Archivist 75, no. 1 (April 1, 2012): 81–108.
 Kay Mathiesen, “A Defense of Native Americans’ Rights over Their Traditional Cultural Expressions,” American Archivist 75, no. 2 (October 1, 2012): 456–481.
 Rabia Gibbs, “The Heart of the Matter: The Developmental History of African American Archives,” American Archivist 75, no. 1 (April 1, 2012): 195–204.
 Sara White, “Crippling the Archives: Negotiating Notions of Disability in Appraisal and Arrangement and Description,” American Archivist 75, no. 1 (April 1, 2012): 109–124.
 Elizabeth Novara, “Documenting Maryland Women State Legislators: The Politics of Collecting Women’s Political Papers,” American Archivist 76, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 196–214.
 Jody DeRidder, Amanda Presnell, and Kevin Walker, “Leveraging Encoded Archival Description for Access to Digital Content: A Cost and Usability Analysis,” American Archivist 75, no. 1 (April 1, 2012): 143–170.
 Deborah Boyer, Robert Cheetham, and Mary Johnson, “Using GIS to Manage Philadelphia’s Archival Photographs,” American Archivist 74, no. 2 (September 1, 2011): 652–663.
 Pamela Mayer, “Like a Box of Chocolates: A Case Study of User-Contributed Content at Footnote,” American Archivist 76, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 19–46.
 Mary Flanagan and Peter Carini, “How Games Can Help Us Access and Understand Archival Images,” American Archivist 75, no. 2 (October 1, 2012): 514–537.
 Mayer, “Like a Box of Chocolates.”
 Donghee Sinn, “Collaborative Education Between Classroom and Workplace for Archival Arrangement and Description: Aiming for Sustainable Professional Education,” American Archivist 76, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 237–262.
 Qiuhui Xiao, Xiaojuan Zhang, and Ju Qiu, “China’s Archival Higher Education: Its Features, Problems, and Development,” American Archivist 74, no. 2 (September 1, 2011): 664–684.
 Wendy Duff, Elizabeth Yakel, and Helen Tibbo, “Archival Reference Knowledge,” American Archivist 76, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 68–94.