Quite possibly the most eclectic session I attended, Metamorphosis: Change and Transformation featured recent U of T grads James Roussain and Emily Sommers talking about the future of archival education; Sara Viinalass-Smith of the LAC speaking on their archives of early maps; and Greg Bak of the U of M whose talk was titled “Playable: Interactive Archive,” and which featured (I’m pretty sure) a 1980’s Transformer toy on the first slide.
Roussain and Sommers’ talk had the most resonance with me as a (sort-of) recent MLIS grad. The notion of (conflict between?) theory and practice in Information Studies is one that seems to recur again and again in my day-to-day work, and was something of which I was keenly aware as a student. The in-class theory taught only revealed a fragment of the nature of the work that goes on in an Archives and Special Collections. I was lucky enough to have a work-study placement, as well as a practicum, but not all students had those opportunities to get elbows-deep in boxes.
Roussain and Sommers argued for the implementation of a practical approach to teaching in Information Studies, and suggested that all students should be, at the very least, encouraged to seek out practical experience during their period of study. I can see the necessity in this approach if graduates who have a realistic-ish notion of what they are getting into are to be produced. Each archives and special collections has unique holdings, and so faces a unique set of challenges in preserving those holdings, and making them accessible. Because of this, there isn’t and cannot be a tidy textbook of theory which will tell you all you need to know about archival work. Much of the learning must be done on the fly in an environment of multiple tasks and drastically shifting user needs–and quite frequently, theory goes out the window altogether (along with things like sanity). Stubborn adherence to what is theoretically the best practice while ignoring the specific needs of your collection, of your institution, could prove disastrous.
Sara Viinalass’s talk struck a lighter note in her discussion of the evolution of LAC’s handling of early maps. It was interesting to see early pictures of their map storage and reading rooms — places with very little light, and large tables often used for staff gatherings (with candles for the centerpieces!). What stood out for me, though, was the notion that our audiences want “bite sized history” — along the line of a facebook post or a Pinterest image, not giving the entire history on the subject, but rather presenting a small and intriguing peek into it (as with Viinalass’ sharing of a Toronto bicycle route map– a subject not typically thought of).
Bak’s talk veered off in yet another direction, as he discussed the need to preserve interactivity and playability in archives. He was speaking in relation to electronic records, and the medium that produce them. Here again the notion of “the medium is the message” was introduced, with the medium now being the antiquated hardware and software from which electronic records are born. Bak argued for the need to preserve, or at least closely simulate the functioning (and dysfunctioning) of those systems, right down to the last “bug” (what he called a “feature”). His argument was that the hardware and software–obsolete though it may be– tells a part of the story of the record, as much (if not more) than the contents of the record itself. Certainly, 200 3.5″ floppies containing a novel are bound to say something about the way the author wrote, in the way the floppies are used, reused, and sorted. Transferring all of those files to brand new media and disposing of the original discs would destroy some of that context.
As was hinted at in Allana Mayer’s talk on conference day one, there is a great deal of lag in the proper treatment of electronic records in the archival profession (and, I suppose, any profession). Only recently are electronic records coming to be viewed as real and “reliable” (and lets face it, they’ve been around for fifty years and more), and so, it is only relatively recently that we have begun bending our minds to how to preserve electronic records, and even more abstractly, what elements of the electronic record need to be preserved. Interestingly, work on archiving video games tends to stand at the forefront of this debate — the question of how to preserve the playability of a game after its hardware has been vanquished by time is one of increasing importance in the ever-evolving and always nostalgic gaming world. Bak argues that the same degree of careful thought on how to preserve interactivity and playability needs to go in to our handling of other record types as well. Migrating to another format is not enough–something is always lost in that translation. But are the alternatives : emulation, or keeping working hardware and software on site, viable options for most heritage institutions?