“Archives have never been neutral:” An NDSA Interview with Jarrett Drake

Jarrett M. DrakeWe are very excited to talk with Jarrett Drake, digital archivist at Princeton University’s Mudd Manuscript Library. He was awarded an Innovation Award from the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) in 2016 for his work in challenging and re-examining the practices of archiving and documenting history, particularly relating to preserving the under-represented voices in history. Follow his writings here, and you can find all of our interviews with the NDSA Innovation Award winners here.

We learned more about Jarrett and his work in the following interview:

You gave the keynote at the DLF Liberal Arts pre-conference in November with the title, “Documenting Dissent in the Contemporary College Archive.” In your talk, you cited Neil Postman’s Fourth Law from his essay on “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection:” “Almost nothing is about what you think it is about–including you.” Can you talk about why you cited this, and how it relates to archiving and documenting history?

I read the article during a class I was teaching in prison, English 101. It was on the syllabus, and I read it as an instructor. Ever since I read it, I see those types of categories not only within archives, but elsewhere. The University of Washington Information School is doing something interesting: they are proposing a new course called “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.”

We need to develop stronger information literacy skills in the public. Postman’s essay is a great place to start.

In that keynote, you end by saying that “we need archives to be liberational and have liberational value.” Can you talk about how you think this can happen in the archival community? 

We have to involve new types of communities in the entirety of the archival process. That’s a new type of declaration. Bringing stakeholders of all variety (like community members as selectors) will be really important, and connecting that process to the larger process for liberation. The more work I do, the more apparent it is that there’s no way to talk about liberational value if you don’t address the needs communities are facing. LGBT and black and indigenous communities – we need to have them as central. We need to center on justice and not be afraid of politics. Archives have never been neutral – they are the creation of human beings, who have politics in their nature. Centering the goals of liberation is at the heart of the issue.

What specifically can community members do to be leaders and teachers in expanding the scope of archives?

We can all be listeners and learn from these communities. We need to think of it as an information exchange. There are communities who have been fighting to hang on to their history, and institutions that have money would do well to listen to the communities and partner together to ensure a more robust record of human activity. Technology may be different for digital archives, but foundation is the same as other archives – building trust, and protecting user privacy. Archives are much more a social endeavor – they must also encourage use and promote value. Community members are more successful at that than archival institutions.

Can you talk about the parallels between the community of liberal arts colleges and the broader digital preservation community, in terms of archiving past and future?

The differences have to do with immediate environments. There is an archival tradition in state and Federal governments – a much longer tradition than for other communities. For example, they sometimes face the threat of significant budget cuts or even complete de-funding. Archivists in academia don’t face this. As the line becomes blurred between higher education and governments, some politicization issues might creep into academic archives. For example, the US Department of Education is a funder of academia; if that department is increasingly politicized, those impacts may be felt at college campuses, and may affect archives.

Your work supporting “A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland” has quickly become an example for a variety of projects in the field. You also recently initiated a project at Princeton: Archiving Student Activism at Princeton (ASAP). Can you talk about what was challenging in this work? What you found surprising? 

First, both of these are very collaborative efforts and draw on labor from dozens of other archivists and lay citizens. Second, while the work on the Police Violence archive was unfolding, there were things that I hadn’t experienced – metadata issues, file format issues, content type issues. Then we faced same challenges at Princeton with the Student Activism project. I thought that I could anticipate digital problems that would arise; I realized that wasn’t the case. You need to know when to abandon existing ways of thinking of things and realize that knowledge is always relative and contextual.

Can you talk about challenges in identifying and preserving provenance in digital archives and your ideas for how to imagine a new principle in this area?

After doing work with the collaborative Police Violence and Princeton Student Activism projects, it became evident that the traditional way of thinking of provenance was increasingly outdated. We need to have a new way of thinking about this. Angela Davis has made an argument when writing about the history of prisons–are prisons obsolete? Have they run their course and do we need new ways to think about justice? I think we can make same arguments about provenance. Why have we adhered so uniformly to a principle of provenance that was defined almost two centuries ago? Maybe it’s time to assert different types of principles. Maybe we need a multiplicity of ways of engaging the past, and bring people in.

Can you talk about challenges of describing archives and archival items, and what you think is most important to the researcher? And how should we make changes in what we are doing in this area?

New principles – higher level abstract principles – will necessarily inform metadata, and maybe remove emphasis on metadata. Before Edward Snowden, only librarians and archivists used that word, “metadata.” It’s not the only useful way to get access to the past. New principles might incorporate metadata but maybe it’s less and less relevant. Traditional metadata serves the need of users who come to the archive as individuals (such as researchers), mining multiple sources to product a monograph, for example. Maybe community usage requires different principles — less emphasis on citation and disambiguation and more emphasis of integration into people’s every day lives. We should think about options for less emphasis on research needs and more on community-driven and public-facing needs.

How does the community-driven work relate to crowd-sourcing?

Crowd-sourcing may be an element of it, but it goes beyond that. I was reading an article about archives in Egypt, which talks about tapping into an archive by having a big community gathering, and projecting old films with significance to the community on to a big screen. We should be encouraging other kinds of usages – we need to get a large number of people to interpret and to enjoy the process. My office at Princeton is right next to the reading room – I literally get to see everyone who comes into the reading room, and they are always so serious. Would it be so bad to encourage people to smile or enjoy for the sake of enjoyment?

What do you think the innovations have been in the area of archiving in the past few years? And where do you think innovation plays a role?

I associate that word “innovation” with Silicon Valley, tech start-ups. We are leveraging technology that didn’t exist previously; for example the Cleveland Police Violence archive gets a lot of its inspiration from examples of communities of people doing ad hoc organizing on Twitter. We now see how people do organizing through Twitter. That inspired how we communicated. We have tools that didn’t exist 10 years before. These are not just social media; but also crowd-funding; and campaign websites. This leads to new tools – such as “Documenting the Now” application. Hopefully there will be a large-scale project that someone will build using that kind of tool. I see innovators as those who can create new types of tools that people can take advantage of.

Can you talk about the parallels between analog and digital in your work? Can you talk about the challenges of perceptions in this area?

Both processes involve people at all steps in the way. In both cases, we need to develop and formulate trust with communities; we need to demonstrate responsibility in terms of keeping materials. People have to believe that you will treat their materials respectfully and responsibly. There is also the issue of raising awareness of the existence of your materials. Both digital and traditional archives have been struggling with this.

Differences stem from technological differences in paper vs. digital technologies. There is a greater variety in digital records and there are more complex relationships among creators. It is increasingly difficult to identify who is the creator or the owner of a digital object. I referenced this in my talk at the Radcliffe Institute, available at here. Maybe we can use technology tools in the future to discover and describe multiple ownerships of materials.

The site for the Archiving Student Activism at Princeton (ASAP) has a statement that the university archive will assure the confidentiality of the records for up to 20 years. How do you think the researcher 20 years from now may be served differently than we serve researchers today?

We had recently updated the access policies for Princeton University archives. For university records (e.g., administrative office or academic office), we close access for 40 years from the date of creation. Records from student organizations typically were open from the moment of transfer. We knew this would be an area that could introduce risk to creators of records, so for ASAP, we came up with a solution that let the groups pick. 80% of the groups picked no access restriction at all, and some picked 10 years; and some picked 20 years. We worked to make the policy a little clearer. We want to be honest and make it clear to the groups that records will be open probably during their lifetime. We try to coach the student organizations in these issues.

We try to include as much contextual information as possible at the time we receive records; we still create finding aids and other access tools for collections with 20 year embargoes and we hope a researcher in 20 years will have the same knowledge at that point as we had we created the finding aid. We also hope more sophisticated tools will exist in 20 years. We hope that we will be leveraging some of the textual analysis software applications by then – and making those more suitable for graphical access. But I wouldn’t be completely surprised if usage and tools aren’t that different. I am surprised that we’re not further along than we are. People talk about the Information Revolution and the Information Economy; however, we seem to be getting worse at making sense of a lot of information.

What ideas in your area of interest do you think are the most challenging for people in your field? Or for people outside of it?

I will say that there are challenges in archives focused in certain areas. For example, there has been a lot of discussion about the goals and the work resulting from #ArchivesforBlackLives. Some ardent archivists in Philadelphia, where I currently live, picked up the hashtag and are starting to organize around it, which is great. But it’s unfortunate that some people in the field have been critical of their efforts, so we have to ask ourselves a hard question, which is: why does an emphasis on black lives disturb people in this field, and in this country, so much? Why does an affirmation of black humanity offend you, if black people are indeed people to you? Of all the ideas or arguments I’ve circulated in the last few years, #ArchivesForBlackLives is the only one to my knowledge that’s received open pushback and criticism. This reality makes the work that much more crucial.

Based on your work and areas of interest, what kinds of work would you like to see the digital preservation and stewardship community take on?

We should be attuned to issues of surveillance, privacy and digital rights (including rights to be forgotten). There are sectors of community engaging in these topics – like “Documenting the Now.” A huge surveillance apparatus has grown since 9/11. There’s the possibility of using those tools in new ways. There will be archivists inside and outside the government that will be asked to do things in the course of their jobs that potentially pose human rights violations, and the community needs to support colleagues in efforts to use knowledge and skills sets responsibly and judiciously.

Can you suggest other people who are doing interesting or innovative work that you think might be of interest to the digital preservation community?

I’m always interested in finding and talking to bright minds in the field of archives, and I try to emphasize on uplifting newer names in the field as opposed to older ones.

Here are some of work and people who I am aware of:

The people, such as Bergis Jules and Ed Summers, working on “Documenting the Now”;

The people, like Eira Tansey, working on Project ARCC (climate change archives);

Everything that Stacie Williams, most recently of the University of Kentucky, writes or does should have the attention of everyone in the field;

The ASAP project wouldn’t have happened like it did without the inspiration from Kent State University’s Lae’l Hughes-Watkins and the project she organized there.

Those folks are not new to this, they’re true to this. Any library would be lucky to have them as a director.

Newer on the scene but also with great ideas, energy, and direction (key ingredients for innovation) are folks like Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, Micha Broadnax, Elena Colon-Marrero, Carmel Curtis, Harvey Long, Dominique Luster, and Itza Carbajal, just to name a few. Each of them possesses a deep knowledge of archival praxis, including born-digital challenges, and will be—already are—change agents in the world around us.


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