Please Stop Calling Things Archives
January 22, 2021 12:29 PM   Subscribe

An Archivist's Plea

"Various disciplinary “archival turns” over the course of the past few decades have resulted in a tendency towards the over-casual use of the word “archive” as a shorthand to refer to, well, just about anything. While historians are not the most egregious of offenders, this exasperating tendency has led to an increasing sense of frustration and alienation on the part of librarians, archivists, curators, and other cultural heritage workers, who are loath to see their professional terminology co-opted in imprecise ways."
posted by niicholas (57 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Library and information studies has a long history of using archaic, racist, imperialist and chauvinist terminology in its classification and subject description systems. Sanford Berman spent his career addressing this issue, but he was generally considered a crank and a nuisance. The beam is in the eye of the cataloguer.
posted by No Robots at 12:51 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


...who are loath to see their professional terminology co-opted in imprecise ways

oh man good luck

(says every professional field)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:57 PM on January 22 [85 favorites]


Yeah, I think that ship sailed decades ago.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:01 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Sure, right after we salve the wounds of the Logician Union by addressing the nation’s pressing “begs the question” problem.
posted by mph at 1:11 PM on January 22 [50 favorites]


"…addressing the nation’s pressing “begs the question” problem."

I don't even understand the proper use of that phrase.
posted by bz at 1:13 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]


The piece has its merits, but honestly, it's the kind of thing I did not write about as a Library Science student because I had previously been a Linguistics student...
posted by northernish at 1:19 PM on January 22 [16 favorites]


We already had this discussion in 2015. Here, I curated it from the archive.
posted by oulipian at 1:32 PM on January 22 [44 favorites]


ISWYDT
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:32 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Your archivism begs the curation.
posted by mhoye at 1:34 PM on January 22 [14 favorites]


Maybe we can come up with a bespoke solution for this problem.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 2:07 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


I don't even understand the proper use of that phrase.

The original meaning was that the premise assumes the conclusion. It's a kind of circular reasoning: "everyone loves dogs because dogs are the most lovable animal". The current meaning is more like "raises the question", and it's because the common usage of the word "beg" has changed over time.
posted by star gentle uterus at 2:11 PM on January 22 [15 favorites]


"Respect des fonds"
posted by elkevelvet at 2:18 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Countdown to "An oral history of the misuse of the term 'archive'."
posted by rikschell at 2:18 PM on January 22 [11 favorites]


Countdown to "An oral history of the misuse of the term 'archive'."

I was waiting for the "oral history" overuse to make an appearance! Did not disappoint.
posted by knotty knots at 2:34 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]


"Oral history" always sounds like a vague threat to me. "Stop, or I'll history!"
posted by oulipian at 2:35 PM on January 22 [13 favorites]


Yeah, I think that ship sailed decades ago.

Historians.org will really need all hands on deck to tackle this crisis.
posted by XMLicious at 2:41 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


I’m married to an archivist. One of my favorite possessions is a car window sticker she picked up for me at a Society of American Archivists convention that says “Archivists Make It Last Longer.”

They are interesting people and specially trained professionals who do important work and I was glad to read this spirited defense of them!
posted by cheapskatebay at 2:58 PM on January 22 [14 favorites]


Archive, curate, bespoke - yes, all gallingly misused. Although it's a little more casual sort of usage, the one irking me lately is the pompous use of "thoughtful," usually in marketing copy. Today's gem: apparently the sliced turkey on my lunch sandwich was "thoughtfully raised."
posted by PhineasGage at 3:08 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]


Just wait 30 days and we'll see how this thread really plays out.
posted by biogeo at 3:30 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]


Archive, curate, bespoke - yes, all gallingly misused.

For curate are people using vicar or something instead? I don't know that I've seen it misused myself, but maybe that's because I've been misusing it.
posted by Carillon at 3:46 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


Could the financial services industry please stop calling all of its services "products"?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:58 PM on January 22 [12 favorites]


Came to talk about curation, was not disappointed. There's a snack bar called curate that I once had a sample of in a store. My reaction was, "That tastes good but there's no way I'm buying it with that idiotic name."
posted by medusa at 3:59 PM on January 22


Did she write that whole thing and never actually define the term “archive”?
posted by leotrotsky at 4:04 PM on January 22 [15 favorites]


No software engineers or data architects working in the library sciences then? Good to know.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 4:05 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


So, around here we usually descriptivists when it comes to language, and we acknowledge that meanings of words are organic and change and no high priesthood governs our usage.

“Their professional terminology”? Archive is seventeenth century word that may have been adopted as a term of art by professional archivists (as a recovering librarian I have a lot of respect for archivists), and I can understand them getting a little testy when historians and other delvers into archives get a little sloppy about their professional jargon, but the rest of us can go on happily using the term however we like paying no heed, as we did before they were a profession.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:09 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


I should probably archive this thread.

[checks catalog and finding aids to determine which Box in the Metafilter Collection it will be stored in]
[creates descriptive Dublin Core metadata entries]
[prints out thread on acid-free paper]
[labels printout with relevant information]
[scans print so scholars can find it online through the website]
[gets archival quality folder, duplicates information on it, places printout in folder]
[gets appropriate Box from the archives]
[updates Box inventory]
[updates Finding Aid]
[double checks to make sure all records are harmonized and properly cross-referenced]
[uploads scan, metadata, and catalog entries to appropriate directories]
[takes Box back to archives]
[realizes trained as librarian not archivist and so probably did things wrong and really screwed up the collection]
[quietly leaves before enraged archivists discover this]
posted by indexy at 4:11 PM on January 22 [50 favorites]


So, around here we usually descriptivists when it comes to language, and we acknowledge that meanings of words are organic and change and no high priesthood governs our usage.

Yes and no. Yes when the stakes are effectively meaninglessly low, not so much otherwise (c.f. "liberal", "socialism", "communism", "patriotism", etc, etc, where prevailing use definitions are decidedly not universally accepted.)
posted by Dysk at 4:15 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Indexy...so close! (we rarely print e-records out. too many of ‘em.) ❤️
posted by mollymillions at 4:17 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


I mean—yes, the general public can and will use the term “archive” to mean whatever they want, and it’s not worth really getting upset about or trying to change.

But if you are a professional historian, and your work involves researching in actual archives with archival collections and interacting with professional archivists, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that maaaybe you be a little more precise. Just as a matter of professional courtesy, and also to acknowledge the crap-ton of labor involved in making those archives accessible for you to use. What are academics, if not precise and pedantic? I bet those historians don’t want to be confused for us social scientists.

(Nb: I am not an archivist nor a librarian nor a curator, though I did work for an academic library for 6 years and am married to a librarian who is also a curator, but who is definitely not an archivist.)
posted by DiscourseMarker at 4:25 PM on January 22 [8 favorites]


I just want to know if The Magnus Archives counts.
posted by brook horse at 4:28 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


Archivist pens diatribe insisting on prescriptive definition of archives, before collapsing into a singularity.
posted by Sockdown at 4:36 PM on January 22


Sure, right after we salve the wounds of the Logician Union by addressing the nation’s pressing “begs the question” problem.

Talk to a pedantic mathematician about the everyday use of the word "exponential" sometime.

(Though this one has improved a little bit over the last year.)
posted by nosewings at 4:40 PM on January 22 [10 favorites]


As a professional typesetter, I would kindly ask everyone to stop referring to digital typefaces as "fonts".
posted by Crane Shot at 4:57 PM on January 22 [15 favorites]


Yes, the proper term is "digital stoup."
posted by biogeo at 5:05 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


And misuse of "exponential" has really been growing superlinearly.
posted by biogeo at 5:06 PM on January 22 [7 favorites]


Okay, I've made three really stupid jokes in this thread now, it's only fair I say something substantive. I thought it was a really interesting read, and I particularly appreciated the point about how the misuse of "archive" plays into minimizing the work of archivists. Organizing and cataloging documents and artifacts into a system that can be interrogated is complex and valuable work, and yes, when it's done well it becomes almost invisible. My spouse has been trying to break into doing archival work, without much success since her master's degree is in Classics. We're hoping that if I'm able to get a better-paying job we'll be able to afford for her to get some form of retraining that will let her pursue that as a career, and I'd be super proud if she can do that. So yeah, I'm on board with asking people who use archives to think about how the language they use centers or minimizes the work of archivists.
posted by biogeo at 5:16 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]


The author was right about that narrative of academics "discovering" things which were, well, quite happily discovered already, thanks to the archivist who cataloged them. Both academics and journalists tend to downplay how much collaborative work is necessary for scholarship...
posted by thomas j wise at 5:58 PM on January 22 [9 favorites]


ARCHIVE FEVER!
posted by ovvl at 7:46 PM on January 22


Any historian with any archival experience at all knows that archivists are the people that make our research possible, and in my own experience, they are viewed with an enormous amount of respect -- and a healthy dose of fear, since we know that they can make or break a research project. Re the question of calling every damn thing an archive, this too will pass. We're not seeing all those conference papers with titles that included words with prefixes in parentheses that were ubiquitous in the '90s, thank goodness [e.g., (re)turning, (dis)semination]. This too shall pass.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 8:06 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


So I'm guessing my 20 stoup of internet porn is something other than an archive... random collection maybe?
posted by zengargoyle at 8:22 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


mollymillions, ah, so close. I guess that it's obvious that my only interactions with actual archives involve those that physically host authors' papers.
posted by indexy at 9:32 PM on January 22


Archivist pens diatribe insisting on prescriptive definition of archives, before collapsing into a singularity.

Strictly speaking, we only pencil our diatribes.
posted by thesmallmachine at 9:32 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


I’ve just actually read this, and I’m surprised to see that it’s been a bit controversial in the thread, or been seen as an opportunity to joke — this isn’t about some cranks refusing to accept linguistic drift, it’s about labor. It’s about archivists’ work being widely disrespected and made invisible, and archivists asking to be spoken of with basic respect. That includes, maybe, not having “archive” be the term for “haphazardly throw this into a file where I don’t have to see it” in email and organization software. The ways people use the word “archive” imply that an archive doesn’t involve labor, or even any kind of human intervention. This is a pretty basic and well-accepted argument in the field, and Watson presents it ably.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:40 PM on January 22 [18 favorites]


This was a totally reasonable, and interesting, viewpoint on what archivists do and its value. The only thing that was unrealistic was the plea to stop using the word archive in other ways. I feel like the author could have defused that by acknowledging that this was a pipe dream, but I don’t think the author felt that way. I thought he second part of the article, about what archivists do, was more interesting than the initial part about the word itself.
posted by snofoam at 5:23 AM on January 23 [6 favorites]


Talk to a pedantic mathematician about the everyday use of the word "exponential" sometime.

It me. Heck, I even wrote a metatalk post on this. In my dream world, people come to realize that understanding the different categories of rates of growth does, actually, make a very important difference for serious existential threats to humanity (such as understanding climate change, the time scales involved, and why some proposed solutions could actually be helpful while others don't have a snowball's chance in Earth 2100 of doing enough in time to be helpful), or major global disasters that only kill some portion of humanity but seriously negatively impact everyone (pandemics, and vaccination and other public health measures or issues). I reserve the right to be sad and disappointed that my dream world (in this respect, at least) is highly unlikely to ever be instantiated while also understanding and supporting the linguistic and social justice reasons behind that.

posted by eviemath at 8:03 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]


That includes, maybe, not having “archive” be the term for “haphazardly throw this into a file where I don’t have to see it” in email and organization software.

It's not going to happen. The word "archive" has a broader common use - and has had that broader common use since before there were professional archivists. He's not going to convince the world to adopt a more specific professional definition (that he never gives directly).

A more realistic way to acknowledge the labor of archivists would be to literally acknowledge their labor - e.g. to make it routine professional practice to prominently credit the archivist (or archive, if not possible) used in any scholarly work. You will have far more luck changing academic publishing standards than you will changing common use.

In terms of future access to materials, you will have more luck educating non-archivist professionals on the important qualities an archive should have.

(And honestly, in my field, the problem is not that we misunderstand the word "archive," it's that there are a lot of barriers in the way of properly making use of archives - lack of relevant archives, lack of professional communications between archivists and linguists, privacy concerns re: consultants, labor involved in preparing data for archiving, etc. We know that anything not a real archive is less than ideal, regardless of whether we call them "archives" or not.)

To be honest, this seems to be a case where a facet of language use becomes emblematic of a larger problem, and attracts a lot of heat and light because of it. But the problems are much deeper than language use and not caused by them.

I'm sure most professional fields have some vocabulary like this. For example, I think that the common usage of the word "grammar" enables the racist claim that some groups are worse at language than others. But that usage has been around for centuries and I'm not going to convince people to stop referring to things like "grammar schools." Like, that's a vocabulary issue that also is emblematic of a larger problem, and it's tempting to blame the vocabulary and think that by fixing the vocabulary, I've fixed the larger problem. But I've found that it's much, much more effective to actually teach concepts than to try to change language use.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:09 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: We already had this discussion in 2015. Here, I curated it from the archive.
posted by rufb at 10:49 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Library and information studies has a long history of using archaic, racist, imperialist and chauvinist terminology in its classification and subject description systems.

All very true, but making archivist's labor more visible would hopefully lead to not just more credit for their work but also more accountability for their failings.

the problems are much deeper than language use and not caused by them

Might be true at this point when it comes to the term 'archive', but I think words do matter and can change how people view their world.

In fact, speaking of archives, language, and labels: I helped make a documentary about the recent effort to change the Library of Congress subject heading "Illegal aliens". SELF LINK: the complete film, Change the Subject, is archived(!) here and free to stream now. We've screened the film at a bunch of conventions, libraries, institutions, etc., and heard from many library workers that it's really impacted their perspectives on archiving/cataloging.

*spoiler alert* Republicans were 'outraged' at being told 'no human is illegal' and introduced legislation that threatened unprecedented interference into the normal functions of the Library of Congress. The LOC (who had announced they would change the term) never followed through. However the movement and the film itself has inspired many libraries to make their own local catalog changes for now.

It was previously posted on Projects/Metafilter, but the complete film wasn't available to stream then.
posted by soy bean at 11:01 AM on January 23 [7 favorites]


Look, if you are going to create something that is an archive online - it is absolutely critical that you insert code similar to the following after every request placed by a user:

function enhanceexperience( ) {
setTimeout( function() { enhanceexperience( ); }, 1000 );
}
}

Otherwise, people will use your archive as a mirror.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:55 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]


Fabulous documentary on a grim and shameful topic, soy bean—awesome directifying! If you ever feel like making one about a similar topic in another, probably even more explicitly sexist and white supremacist institution, Wikipedia has constant wars over the titles of articles.

As a New Hampshire person, I really appreciated the slow outdoor panning scenes and Óscar Rubén Cornejo Cásares's admiration of the countryside. I shall attempt to sow it far and wide among my NH peeps, also because it's difficult to find quality material on racism in NH.

Although the Dartmouth scene of everyone marching around the Bonfire was pretty creepy; I'd never seen that before, and it was very reminiscent of a book burning. But I guess that was probably the point, so it didn't detract from but enhanced the documentary.

I also didn't know, until I went looking to figure out what that clip was depicting, that the state government of New Hampshire attempted an (unsuccessful) hostile takeover of Dartmouth in the 1800s.

And hey, at about the 26-minute mark, underneath a portrait of Sanford Berman... “art by [MeFi's Own™] Jessamyn West”! And a Tweet at 29:40.
posted by XMLicious at 2:32 PM on January 23


‘Great job on the architecture of your web site!’
Said no architect ever.
posted by artdrectr at 2:32 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]


I work in a commercial art field. Nobody knows what any words might mean. Words, in my experience with clients and even many colleagues over the years, are darts thrown in the dark.

Words for motion, colour, change and emotion are tossed around randomly, haphazardly. Understand what somebody wants *changed* can be a nightmare as they fall over their own tongues to punch something out.

I have built entire video programmes around a misused turn of phrase.
posted by Construction Concern at 4:25 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


Did she write that whole thing and never actually define the term “archive”?

I had the same thought but to be fair it was published in "the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association" and presumably anyone reading it would know already even if they are using it sloppily.
posted by Mitheral at 4:07 PM on January 24


And hey, at about the 26-minute mark, underneath a portrait of Sanford Berman... “art by [MeFi's Own™] Jessamyn West”! And a Tweet at 29:40.

Yep. I was just reading some mail (POSTAL mail, natch) from Sandy Berman a few hours ago. While many feel he's a crank he's (usually) just ahead of the curve in terms of changes the Library of Congress will eventually be making. And I was in hours of meetings today with the American Library Association (another deeply flawed organization that I nonetheless have decided to stay involved with, same at Wikipedia, same as MetaFilter if I am being honest) where we are still discussing the "illegal aliens" subject heading and what, if anything, to suggest Congress do about it now that we have an administration who may actually be willing to listen. It's tedious but also important.

Because, truly, a lot of this work is done by people in flawed organizations who nonetheless have decided it's their tiny place where they're going to try to make something better because in many cases we have to play things as they lay, not imagine how we would reinvent institutions from the ground up. And archivists do amazing work. And like many people who have somewhat narrowband and poorly understood specialties, it gets tiresome to see people really just kind of missing the work you've been putting in to the things as they proceed along their own narrowband specialty paths.

I don't like that the Internet Archive keeps trying to position itself as a library, as an example (they are also arguably only sort of an archive). That said, they do a lot of good work, so I try to clarify things that are helpful to clarify, gently push back when they start getting preen-y about what a great library they are, and just... do the work. Archivists do incredibly things that have been under the radar for a really long time; we're all better off understanding somewhat more about what they do.
posted by jessamyn at 4:31 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


Because, truly, a lot of this work is done by people in flawed organizations who nonetheless have decided it's their tiny place where they're going to try to make something better because in many cases we have to play things as they lay, not imagine how we would reinvent institutions from the ground up.

This is how society continues to function despite the best efforts of some.
posted by Marticus at 4:59 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


Thanks XMLicious, glad you liked the film, and caught the MeFi celeb cameo! Yes the bonfire is meant to be creepy. The sound effects/music there are also doing a lot of work in getting that vibe across.

It's tedious but also important.

Thanks for being one of the people doing this work Jessamyn, definitely true about the slow but steady transformative impacts of small efforts from people within flawed institutions.
posted by soy bean at 11:35 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


Oh my gods. I had a conversation last night with a Trump-supporting relative and she insists not only that there was no January 6 insurrection across the United States, but that I'm “misinformed” and wrong to believe my lying, reading eyes about the photographic and video evidence of specific violations of the 1807 Insurrection Act.

My retort to people like this from now on: if you had time to watch Fox News twenty-four hours a day to the point your also-Trump-supporting-husband got sick of it, and learn Facebook well enough during the past five years to pass along Russian disinformation according to my other relatives, you had enough time to also learn to use the internet for doing proper research—specifically, you could have gone to a public library (Or even a private library! She doesn't live too far from her alma mater and she also lives in a college town.) old-timey 1900s style and one or more librarians could have taught you whatever research skills you wanted one-on-one free of charge, because they're good like that.
posted by XMLicious at 1:51 PM on January 28


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