Cultural Heritage Materials – University, Research and Folklore Archives in the 21st Century – ICA-SUV 2017 Conference, Riga, Latvia,
William J. Maher (ICA-SUV Chair, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA)
(Image: Conference delegates in front of the Cabinet of Folksongs, National Library of Latvia ©OjarsJansons)
This conference sought to start a dialogue between folklore archivists and university/research archivists by looking at foundations of cultural heritage materials, practices for born-digital materials, development of new standards for archival description, ways to facilitate respectful stewardship, and ways to engage creator communities. Overall, these topics were to help us rethink how we approach our preservation and cultural heritage mandates.
The conference papers offered case-study experiences illustrating, and sometimes questioning conventional professional theories and standards of practice in both archives and folklore. The papers also provided updates on prospective standards for new descriptive tools, and recently emerging practices and techniques, such as community archiving, and the growing awareness of the need for more respectful curation and especially working to integrate the communities creating records with professional ones.
The following reflects what will have been added to my conceptual baggage as I head back to the daily archival grind:
Overall, like many conferences, the papers here illustrate the complexity of moving forward simultaneously on multiple fronts in the management of cultural heritage materials. The presenters and SUV members represent diverse, and thus sometimes divergent, institutions: conventional institutional/organizational archives and subject-themed special collection archives. They also called for those in any of these settings to take on outreach initiatives aimed at documentation/heritage preservation for under-represented minorities or marginalized communities.
If there is a general principle to be drawn from this conference, it should be that we have to be very eclectic in our methodologies and that we have to constantly question and reassess what we are doing, how we are doing it, why we are doing it.
For the SUV, an even larger challenge in how best to serve this divergent audience is the fact that by definition, we operate within the larger ICA, for which cultural heritage work has not been its highest priority. As an organization largely funded and driven by governmental records archives, ICA’s strategic planning and programme initiatives have given priority to institutional records, records management, and justifying the profession in terms of good governance. It is not that governance and accountability are alien to the kinds of cultural archives discussed at this conference, but that initiatives related to the cultural uses and values of records have had difficulty in attracting support when priorities have been records management and open government.
Meanwhile, the substantive work of gathering, preserving, and making available cultural heritage records has been made so much more complex by technology. Today’s records are technologically dependent, time sensitive, and in need of a level of active curatorship that we have never been able to provide with smaller bodies of analog materials. Those same technologies have created user expectations and behaviors that preclude archivists from merely being able to defer action until there is more time or until the mists of history are cleared to allow better sight lines on what is most important. This leaves us trying to stand steady in hurricane force winds and leaves us with little time to re-engineer ourselves along many of the fascinating lines suggested here without risking loss of important missions we are already fulfilling.
We also face a multiplication of professional standards, many of which both aid and complicate our professional work. For example, while Records in Context (RIC) offers assistance and expansion of our mission from mere curation to interpretation of source material, such standards are project-built tools that will require a substantial infrastructure to maintain and revise as well as significant outlays to implement. All this without even considering the challenges of keeping them functional. So while they are important to explore for the value they might be able to provide in specialized areas, it is hard for me to imagine them as all-purpose devices that can solve the myriad other challenges articulated here.
The many different approaches to preserving and making accessible documentary heritage presented at this Riga conference have meaning and value for the institutional contexts in which they have been deployed, and they all deserve the attention of the rest of us for how they might be translated to our archives. However, the diversity of community interests reported here also argues for considerable caution against any one of these approaches to the exclusion of existing conventions. Rather, the broad lessons to be drawn from such approaches as community archiving will be those focused not on their universality but on how they can be integrated with existing practice and how they require us to rethink basic principles to meet differing needs of differing documentary heritages. For example, how might the “corporate” archives a scientific research institute take advantage of community archiving practices to obtain greater participation by the institute’s laboratory scientists?
Most importantly, we always have to be able to discern when it has come time for us to reassess the “why” of what we are doing as stewards of cultural heritage. Only by doing that can we make wise choices about the many options for how we do our work as so well voiced at this conference.
On the process side of things, I think any of us who are conference going veterans will agree that one of the things we will most value about this conference is the synergy that comes from the joining of multiple professions and disciplinary perspectives in one group dealing with related materials and mandates.
The extent to which we may embrace RiC or community archiving, or similar practices, really comes down to the question of the mandate or mission of one’s repository. In that regard, there remains some usefulness of framing our decisions around the traditional dichotomy of institutional archives vs. “manuscript” or special collections. Missions and mandates should not be static but open to evolution. Insofar as they are defined by the constellation of a community at one moment in time, the mission and mandate are candidates for revision at future moments in time, but always indispensable because they are what gives our work grounding and authority.
An enduring truth evident in this conference is that the meaning of an archives and documentary or cultural heritage collection is contextually redefined by both who is doing and who is viewing. In this regard, it is an illusion for us to ever really know what heritage and archives are and what they mean. The implication of this perspective is that we must constantly refine practices borrowing from the past and from other fields that which works, amending those things that do not fit well to present circumstances and discarding those things no longer of optimal use.
Still, past practices and cannons should not be automatically or peremptorily discarded. The fact that those practices no longer seem to apply or do not seem to cover present circumstances should be the start of conversation, not the end. They should not be simply considered as old school detritus but instead noted as lessons in how transient may be the dogmas we embrace today.