Glenn Cumiskey

Glenn Cumiskey

Last updated on 31 March 2017

Working in the British Museum and moving towards adopting a more fully integrated approach to digital asset management and preservation is a richly rewarding and challenging endeavor. The scale of the challenge is however significant. To illustrate this and highlight the increased order of magnitude of the demands placed on the organisation, I can let you know that one smaller department for example within our organization annually creates upwards of 60,000 digital documents. This is one department in over thirty.

The task of identifying which of these documents should be designated as a digital asset or record bound for the repository is a mammoth one in and of itself. This focus on our transactional business documents is in addition to managing our growing digital collection assets and objects. And all of this before many of the other time intensive archival and curatorial tasks can be carried out. Today I’d like to talk about these transactional records (leaving our digital collection items for another time) in terms of archival practice and perhaps float some challenging questions around what it is we say we do, why we do it and if following these methodologies we can ever be successfully in our pursuits? 

For us in the Museum, it is obvious that resources are not the sole issue in addressing data management; no reasonable allocation of additional staff or funds could ever deal with the volume of asset and record creation we are seeing, certainly not if we are to deal with them using our current methods. It seems clear that some fundamental redefinition of our role needs to take place, supported by new ways of working that redefine many of the things we do that we say make us archivists, librarians, digital curators, digital preservation managers etc.

It is useful therefore to carry out a thought experiment and ask ourselves if we were to be successful in every aspect of our roles, what would this look like to our organization? Ten digital curators per department? Days to describe each record fully? Limitless storage and access facilities with unbounded budgets?

It is obvious that our current methods cannot achieve many of our own explicitly stated goals never mind those of the organisation we work for. Our historic approaches to records management do not chime with the emerging challenges. The map is not the territory. Also the idea of the record as a “specific entity, encoded spatially and bounded at the time of [its] creation" no longer reflects the realities of records, especially those that are born-digital. These records, or record-like entities, are often an aggregation of dynamic inputs happening in real time; fleeting points in interdependent processes. Taking a traditional transactional approach to records management does not necessarily reflect the range of records, either by type or by volume, needed to build a document of an event or an organisation; transactional documents often make poor records, if what is sought from a record is some truth greater than the moment of record creation.

We may also have a bias in our practise to the selection of material that in its focus on transactional documents privileges the powerful, documenting the official and ignoring the community. This self-imposed operational definition could serve to truncate our past.

In all of this it must be appreciated that the nature of records and information has fundamentally changed, become chimeric, shifting, and transient. Can our traditional archival practices, such as appraisal, find new ways to deal with these challenges?

Appraisal of course is “the process of distinguishing records of continuing value from those of no further value so that the latter may be eliminated”. At the heart of this simple statement is the concept of value. Irrespective of the challenges that appraisal presents from a resource point of view (which are significant), it is this central idea of value that most greatly challenges the success of our endeavours in the Museum. It is also the central idea that may condemn our endeavours to failure even before the outset. How can we know from examining records which of them will carry the DNA of value that will ensure their natural selection into the future? Which will prove successful in delivering value to the unspecified requirements of a people and society as yet unseen and certainly unknowable? 

It feels that in the Museum we are moving away from just assessing content, context, record function and activity to a more participatory approach with our communities of creation and use. This community-based approach may or may not be more successful in distilling the elixir of value from records, but it will certainly widen the narrower net of selection that we have to date cast. In doing so, whether the records harvested have value or not, they will certainly be more representative and should go some way to giving a voice to the unheard narratives too long silenced by omission. This is a collaborative approach which embraces non-institutional views, and an area we have seen grow in the British Museum, for example with our engagement with aboriginal communities and our collection material. By doing so we acknowledge the central role we play in shaping the documentary record, we own up to our individual and institutional biases and extend the responsibility of shaping them to those who should also have a say.

We have also ignored in the Museum that our methods are too labour intensive; they are too allied to historic methods that we as human beings seem to require to give meaning to our roles. Do we instead need to surrender some control, allow others to do the work for us (as inexacting and unsatisfying as we may find this to be) and let the record itself speak? We potentially need instead to design systems and workflows to make records self-selecting and self-describing in and of themselves.

Could this move us as professionals to a position of valuing the moment of a record, what it says to us and our communities of use now, what it continues to say to us as we, and our understanding of it evolve? Might we also open the possibility of retiring records as they lose this continuing value, eschewing permanence and preservation for relevance? Could we defensibly stand behind this certainly more realistic approach to records management and digital preservation?

For those who cry heresy at such suggestions, they should look at the history of the twentieth century. If that bloody time teaches us anything, it is that over and above the naturally corrosive influences of accident, time, and natural forces, industrialised warfare between nations destroys not just people but the very memory of them through the destruction of their cities, institutions and collections. Can we hope to survive such changes in ground conditions or do we believe that we will never suffer the fate of a Warsaw, a Hiroshima? I wonder how the archives and libraries of Syria are faring? Is the very idea of digital permanence a burden and self-deception that we may need to liberate ourselves from?

How can we truly make our digital collections valuable to both our traditional user communities and our as yet unknown future audiences? Perhaps rather than looking to the habitual modalities of the past or the unknown requirements of the future to inform our collection and access policies, we can instead look to the present. What do users really need from records in the now? Which records are relevant today that might fulfill our current requirements for accountability, the growth of knowledge and a representation of the cultural milieu that we and our communities create each and every day? By focusing on the now, can we arrive at a collection and distribution of records that serves our immediate needs, which in turn will build a memory of the past more in line with those needs? This move from records as documents of transaction and evidence, to institutions as facilitators of collective memory making could be liberating (with all that this implies about memory including fallibility and forgetting). It could engender an engagement with our user communities that could drive new levels of access and provide the justification for our continued existence.

What would our role be in this evolving space? Perhaps no longer as the handmaiden of historians, nor a gatekeeper. Could we instead move to a position as a point of excellence in providing expertise in enabling others to manage and manifest knowledge? Maybe it’s not the value of our records that we need to establish, but the value we as professionals hold within our body politic that we could disseminate, democratize; enabling and empowering others to usurp our roles.

There is a tendency as professionals to position ourselves as victims of an explosion of information drowning in an avalanche of data, a position particularly prevalent in the new digital information age we find ourselves in. We should remember that the task that has been set is one that we have chosen. We have not just chosen it, but we have defined its parameters. If we are indeed suffering under the yoke, we have built and weighed it, chosen to carry it, and determined the length of the journey ahead.

If we therefore wish to avoid suffering like Sisyphus, perpetually toiling in pursuit of the unattainable, we need to redefine a new vision for ourselves that facilitates our ability to deliver on a different, enlightened, responsible and achievable mission.

As the collections in our charge belong to the nation, our international communities and audiences and by extension to the whole world, we should not take this charge lightly. We must engage with this process as a matter of urgency, with a level-headed commitment, and a sustained energy and enthusiasm for the challenges, opportunities and rewards that lie ahead.

Digital Preservation Resource Manager

The British Museum


#1 Ivor Kerslake 2017-04-26 15:28
Excellent, thoughtful piece of work Glenn.

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