Exploring the Role of Non-Archivists in the Archival Process

A special thank you to Guha Shankar and Butch Lazorchak for their assistance and thoughtful comments about this post.

As regular readers of this blog may remember back in September 2013 I spoke at the Cultural Heritage symposium sponsored by the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress. At the time I quoted Brian Cumer who noted that “archivists have an incredible opportunity to shape cultural heritage in the way we organize records, provide access to them and perform our role in helping to preserve the memory of events, groups and places and attitudes as well as other aspects that make up culture.” Little did I know that I was ignoring the role that folklorists and fieldworkers can play in determining what records archivists may work when they preserve materials gathered during fieldwork projects.

Some people know that I adore folklore. I love finding out about traditions and finding the stories behind activities we take for granted. I’ve been thinking about finally taking an introduction to folklore class. I started hunting around for information and unexpectedly stumbled on an interview with Guha Shankar, one of the Folklife Specialists in AFC. I probably would have taken a quick glance and moved on if not for the title, “The Fieldworker is the First Archivist”.

Needless to say I stopped and took a look at the interview. Dr. Shankar discussed the transition from cassette tapes and noted that “the preservation and security of audiovisual cultural heritage materials has become exponentially more complicated with the advent of portable, readily available digital audio and moving image tools, which have replaced analog recorders virtually overnight.” He noted that now folklorists must rethink long-term archival storage of materials. They need to consider IT storage and asset management, things they might have taken for granted in the past.

I contacted him to ask a few more questions and he noted that one of the first things participants in the AFC Summer Field School are taught is that the fieldworker is the first archivist. He said that the instructors emphasize that the impressions, insights and understandings-both contextual and technical – have to be made prominent and a part of the permanent record as they document the provenance of the collection materials. He also noted that the fieldworker mediates between the individual and event being recorded and those who will access the materials.

Dr. Shankar also shared a quote from the former archivist of the AFC, Gerry Parsons, who in a memo sent to the AFC Board of Trustees in January 1991, noted that fieldworkers must be cognizant of and vigilant of the “arc of responsibility” they must maintain in terms of documenting, describing, sustaining and providing access to the materials they collect. He also noted that, “Ethnographic collections of even the most informal sort come into being through a different process [than accumulations of personal papers]. The fieldworker takes a photograph of a musical instrument, makes a sound recording of it being played, and jots down notes on the recollections of a virtuoso player because the fieldworker has determined that photographs, sound recordings, and written text must be yoked together to fully represent the performance.”

The article and Dr. Shankar’s comments brought together some of the comments I saw and heard during the symposium. Many of the folklorists, some of whom are trained archivists, are seen as not part of the process of collection acquisition and appraisal. The work they have done may be ignored or discounted. And in my opinion the information they collect during their fieldwork should be part of either the collection or at the very least included in the finding aid for the collection.

I will admit that as I was thinking about this and participating in the NARA webinar on their strategic plan I wondered if the involvement of folklorists and fieldworkers in archives was related in some way to the issues involved in the work of citizen archivists. At first I thought the connection didn’t quite fit. Then I found the link to a blog post by Butch Lazorchak about the presentation done by Ian MacKaye, a member of the band Fugazi and one of the founders of Dischord Records.In his post Lazorchak noted that “there are complexities to how popular culture and folk arts ultimately get embraced by cultural heritage organizations.” I think part of that comes from those in cultural organizations not recognizing the importance of some of these materials in documenting our changing culture and the diverse populations within our culture. Lazorchak also notes that “we need to creatively engage with citizen archivists to help identify important materials early in their lifecycle and assist in their long term care.” Lazorchak’s article also pointed to an article by Richard Cox, “Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist” where Dr. Cox notes that some people have an emotional connection with the materials they are sharing.

The folklorists and fieldworkers as well as the “citizen archivists” may be able to provide the bridge for archivists looking for ways to connect with potential donors and supporters. They can help archivists find connections with potential donors and provide needed information that will help us locate potentially important collections. In addition, they can provided needed information that will help us to identify provenance, learn more about a specific group and determine other avenues of collection development or financial support. Most importantly folklorists, fieldworkers and citizen archivists may be to show how collections will be protected and preserved by keeping archivists involved instead of leaving archivists out.

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