Posts Tagged ‘archivists’

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there was a Republic that was usurped by an Empire. In turn, the Empire was felled by a Rebellion. The warring factions, however, made use of the one tool proven to bolster despots as well as topple political regimes: Archives. Yes, the galaxy is populated by space wizards, space Nazis, and useless bounty hunters named Boba Fett, but it’s a known fact that lightsabers can’t rewrite the public record and a blaster can’t provide the essential plans to take down a moon-sized machine of death. For that, and more, you need a space-archivist and a space-archives.

Interestingly enough, two movies in the Star Wars franchise have made use of the archive as an important setting within the narrative. Not only that, they’ve inadvertently highlighted the importance of archives as institutions of memory and accountability while simultaneously showcasing the shortcomings of archives to protect the people they serve. For such a brief amount of time featured on screen given the expansive nature of the franchise, the archive still manages to make a large impact in the ongoing battle between the Jedi and the Sith. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the small yet important relationship between Star Wars and the Archive.

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While I’m usually hesitant to mention or even think about the Star Wars prequels for more than a few seconds, it is actually due to the events of the most recent installation of the Star Wars canon, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, that we must travel back to the halcyon days of Episode II: The Clone Wars. A former professor of mine, Randall C. Jimerson, used a pivotal scene in The Clone Wars as an example of the power held within the archives and the power held by archivists. In his Presidential Address to the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in 2005, Jimerson writes:

George Lucas presents a more confident view of archives. In Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi visits the Jedi Temple Archives seeking the location of the planet Kamino. Archivist Madame Jocasta Nu, a frail elderly woman, provides reference assistance, but Kamino does not appear on the archives’ star charts. She concludes:

“I hate to say it, but it looks like the system you’re searching for doesn’t exist.”

“That’s impossible – perhaps the archives are incomplete.”

“The Archives are comprehensive and totally secure, my young Jedi,” came the imposing response, the Archivist stepping back from her familiarity with Obi-Wan and assuming again the demeanor of archive kingdom ruler.

“One thing you may be absolutely sure of: If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” The two stared at each other for a long moment, Obi-Wan taking note that there wasn’t the slightest tremor of doubt in Jocasta Nu’s declaration.

It turns out, by the way, that the existence of the missing planetary system had been erased, in an act of archival sabotage. The Jedi Archives may seem “comprehensive and totally secure” but even this futuristic vision shows the limits of archival control. The archivist’s pose of omniscience is truly an illusion. However, as Eric Ketelaar points out, the fact that Obi-Wan must physically enter the Jedi Archives in his search shows the power of the archivist, who must mediate “between brain and source.” The role of the archivist is crucial and powerful. [Source: SAA]

It’s a lot to glean from a small scene, but the implications of how much power actually exists within the archives remains important to the Empire’s plans. That Obi-Wan even suggests the record may be incomplete is met with immediate reproach by Jocasta Nu. She’s a woman of age and experience, no doubt, and with that age and experience comes a confidence in the institution she serves. We never learn if there are other archivists serving the Republic, but if we’re to assume Jocasta is the lone archivist, then it makes her complacency and confidence far more worrisome.

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An ongoing issue among archivists and users is the assumption that archivists are intimately aware of everything they have in their repository. To put it bluntly: that simply isn’t true. Depending on the institution and the circumstances by which the archives were developed, some archivists don’t learn about the majority of what’s held in their stacks until it’s requested by the user. Time management, low funds, and little manpower are the typical culprits, but it’s still worth noting that even in the highly advanced world of the Old Republic, the archives can still be manipulated. If an archivist is unaware of everything under her purview, then it’s easy to see how information vital to the emerging Empire’s elaborate schemes could disappear without incident.

That doesn’t, however, absolve Jocasta of her role in aiding the Empire. Though she’s confident in the security afforded the records, there’s a distinct lack of scrutiny and curiosity in Jocasta that’s endemic throughout the Republic. It is, therefore, it must be true. Why keep searching when we already know the answer? Oddly enough, this has become true of our current political system.

Turning now to Rogue One, we have the story of how the rebels acquired the plans to the Death Star that jump-started the events of Episode IV: A New Hope. The climax of the film occurs on the planet Scarif where the records and activities of the Empire are housed. There, Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, and K-2S0 infiltrate the facility to retrieve the plans knowing that Jyn’s father, the Death Star’s architect, left a means by which the planet destroyer could be stopped.

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From an archival perspective, there’s a brilliant look at the Scarif facility by David Portman at Preservica. As a digital archivist, he breaks down all the ways the Empire failed at records management, which all but led to their downfall. Of the many errors, Portman cites:

–  The failure to replicate critical data to a remote location, preferably a galaxy far far away, which is not effected by a similar death star event

–  An authentication system that allowed the hand of a dead archivist to be used to gain entry (not generally recommended by the archiving community)

–  No encryption at rest – physical asset could be removed and re-read on another device, without even the need for the dead archivist’s hand

–  No metadata to prove the provenance of the plans – how could you be sure you were looking at the right death star plans?

–  A file format policy that relied on the Evil Empire and Rebel Alliance using the same software [Source: Preservica]

As Maddy Myers points out in her article covering Preservica’s critique, the blog post is done very tongue-in-cheek, but still manages to point out the importance of digital preservation and the work of archivists to protect born-digital records. That and the Empire seems to have learned nothing from the system they exploited back in Episode II. The assumption remains the same: how could anything possibly go wrong since we’re all super powerful and awesome?

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As in the film, so in reality, the archive has long been used as a tool to legitimate tyrannical regimes. Control of knowledge means control of society and powers such as the Empire always go for the public record in order to justify and perpetuate their existence. They also tend to be record hoarders, meticulously documenting every action and decision as more proof of power. That the Empire chose to store all of their records in one facility effectively plays into the paranoia of an illegitimate regime making damn sure no one has a chance to dethrone them. If the knowledge is secure, then so are we. Fitting, then, that the unraveling of the Empire would originate from a monument to their inflated sense of power.

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Walter Mitty PosterI wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to write a review of Ben Stiller’s latest film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – based on the short story by James Thurber. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it (I did immensely), it’s more along the lines of wanting to hold on to something and relish the moment, value the message without immediately having to critique it or assign it some kind of arbitrary value. So I decided not to write a review, but instead write about how Walter Mitty’s journey has a lot in common with my chosen profession as an archivist and what that means to me.

Right from the get-go, I can tell you that Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is an archivist. His title in the film is Negatives Asset Manager for Life Magazine, but he is, for all intents and purposes, an archivist. If you want to get really specific, he’s a photograph archivist. One that embodies some of the stereotypes of the profession as depicted in film and television. He works in the basement of his building with only one assistant, Hernando (Adrian Matrinez), and the space is wall to wall boxes of photographs and negatives with Walter a small, and fairly meek, man dwarfed by shelves and reels of places he’s never been but only seen through the eyes of others. For the purposes of the film, the focus is on enigmatic photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who has a “working” relationship with Mitty in that Walter has always made sure O’Connell’s photographs were treated right, making sure the covers matched the majesty of what O’Connell captured on film. The two have never met in the 16 years Walter has worked for Life, at least not until the climax of the film, but they still manage to understand each other. When Walter goes in search of O’Connell to find the missing negative meant to serve as the Life‘s final print cover, he embarks on a journey many archivists have and are now taking in order to stay relevant and visible.

Walter at WorkThe movie itself is thematically trying to convey an overall message about connection. We’re fully immersed in the Digital Age, but in overly relying on digitization and the anonymity of the internet, we lose the basic element of interaction, of forming a true connection with another human being. For all of the connectivity we have over the internet, loneliness still prevails. We stay glued to our computers instead of interacting with the world and the people around us. Interestingly enough, the film starts with Walter trying to make a connection, via a wink on eHarmony, with Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a woman who he sees on a regular basis at work. Instead of talking to her, he’d rather stay within the relatively safe realm of “interacting” from afar. Walter’s fantasies are indicative of his sense of self; he feels unremarkable, unimportant, irrelevant, so he imagines himself as the exact opposite. It’s only when he goes outside of his comfort zone and ventures beyond the familiar that he makes himself as remarkable as he always imagined. He enjoys the moment, he lives, he experiences, and he connects. Feeling Small

Archivists run into the same problems in their repositories and how they interact not just with their institutions but also their user base. There are a lot of assumptions made about archivists, stereotypes that continue to inform the public that we’re basement dwellers covered in dust. We’re part of a company or an institution, but we’re never entirely understood. Part of the job is just getting used to explaining what it is you do on a near constant basis. Because of this perception, archives aren’t always considered a top priority, if they’re considered at all. We’re always five to ten years behind the technology because there isn’t enough time, money, or manpower to help users and take care of backlogged material while converting already processed or to-be processed material into digital records that will be outdated in a few years. Like Walter Mitty, it’s easy for archivists of any institution to feel small, unwanted, unremarkable, and irrelevant. Like Walter, we only become important when we can provide a specific service at a specific time, regardless of how long we’ve been around or the continued services provided outside of anniversaries or big events. Like Walter, it’s easy for archivists to feel disconnected.

Patton Oswalt as ToddLuckily, archivists aren’t entirely alone. We’ve built a community, one that brings us all together on an annual basis and allows us to meet each other. We connect through our shared profession, love of the job, and our passion for our function within society. What’s been so remarkable now, thanks to the Digital Age, is the speed in which those connections are made and how friendships can be forged out of them. In Walter Mitty, Walter forms an unlikely friendship with an eHarmony IT technician, Todd (Patton Oswalt), who acts as a sort of anchor to chart Walter’s progress. What begins as disembodied voices over the phone turns into a real friendship by the end of the film, something that many archivists can relate to. We find each other via Listservs, email threads, and roundtable groups, but by the time we meet each other in person, whether at a conference or on our own time, we solidify the friendships that may have started only as a short note or a question asked in a forum. Soccer in Afghanistan

There’s also the ongoing professional debate over how much we should interact with the subjects that we document. Some would have us remain the silent observers, forever disconnected from the people who produce the materials we archive in order to maintain purity of the record. This camp wants us to be the Walter Mitty of the film’s beginning, maintaining our distance, stuck in the basement surrounded by our boxes. Others, however, believe that archivists should be more proactive in seeking out materials to document, connecting with the people who produce the materials and inserting ourselves into the narrative. These are the people who are Walter Mitty by the film’s end, the archivists who end up on the cover of Life because they made themselves relevant by making others relevant. The value Walter puts into his work, and the value he places on himself, is only rewarded when he sees the world, when he makes those human connections with a drunken pilot in Greenland, a Chilean sailor, Sherpas in the Himalayas, Afghani kids playing soccer, and even an IT guy from Los Angeles. It all adds up to something extraordinary that others see value in as well. Archivists can do the same. We can go outside of our comfort zones and connect with different communities, insert ourselves into what’s happening, and show our own value to others through the work we do.

But those are just my thoughts. I really enjoyed the film and found it to be one that made me think about how my life, my profession, and my experiences have influenced the connections I’ve made even within the last year. Not too shabby of an accomplishment for a film, if you ask me.