My Website

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Interesting thoughts on cataloguing, digitisation, activist records, and other issues

I am very taken indeed by this interview with Kate Eichhorn, Author of The Archival Turn in Feminism although it seems to me to be coming very much from a US perspective and not all her insights are applicable to the UK situation (the distinction between public and private universities, e.g., and no mention of the UK archival tradition in feminism embodied in The Women's Library, previously the Fawcett Library).

I particularly liked her paean of praise to the importance of cataloguing and the creation of metadata:
When you catalog a document, you’re giving the document a tag – you’re creating another layer of text that is attached to the document – a layer that makes it visible and retrievable in a larger system. I suggest here that this has more potential for social change than digitization of individual documents, because rendering a document visible in a meta-catalog means that that single document now has the potential to become visible in a myriad of different contexts. By contrast, one can digitize a document and make it available online, but as we all know, if the document is not properly tagged, it will never be retrieved, no one will see it. If archival and library-based activism is at least partly about access, then the tagging of materials – be it a material document or born-digital item – is critical.
Something that people who go 'why don't you just digitise everything' tend to overlook (but I am old enough to remember the 'why don't you just microfilm everything' earlier iteration of the same mindset): 'if these materials can’t be retrieved, they are as accessible as a box of photographs or documents locked in a personal storage unit'.

A lot of really good thoughts and perspectives there.

The discussion of preserving archives of activism also resonates for me with a discussion at the Hirschfeld conference in Berlin last May, when somebody raised the question of whether the records of activist bodies were not better left in situ as part of an organic whole.  To which my own response was that activist bodies often did not have secure permanent premises (not to mention concerns that might take priority over record-keeping) and that not all activists were always aware of the importance of preserving their records - my blood ran cold when I read an interview with a central figure in various campaigns of the 60s and 70s who talked about shredding the files, locking up the office, and moving on to the next campaign as each one achieved its aim. These kinds of archives are thus often particularly at risk.

And on the subject of Hirschfeld and his legacy, a blog for the AHRC-funded project on A Violent World of Difference: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Shaping of Queer Modernity has just been inaugurated.

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