Person, Place, Thing: Film, Politics, and Poetry in the Archives

Person: Katherine Groo 

I first heard of Groo, who is a professor of film and visual culture at Lafayette College, through her controversial Washington Post piece in December 2018 titled “FilmStruck wasn’t that good for movies. Don’t mourn its demise.” The essay was in response to the then-recent announcement and subsequent outrage that the popular movie streaming service FilmStruck (run by Turner and Warner Bros. and known for its arthouse titles) would be shutting down. In the essay, Groo writes bluntly, “FilmStruck was never a library or a film archive. It was a for-profit streaming platform that provided access to those who could pay for it.” Groo goes on to discuss actual film archives and libraries, including some that also function as (free) streaming services, such as the Internet Archive and Kanopy. She notes that cinema tends to produce many, many artifacts that are not seen as valuable enough for preservation, and suggests that instead of advocating for the for-profit streaming service with its selection of classics, FilmStruck fans advocate for funding for film libraries and archives or other models that will provide open access to a broader collection of movies. The essay helped me to understand what libraries and archives can and should do, by exposing the biases of a streaming service that is at first glance structured much like an archive. More recently, Groo published a book called Bad Film Histories: Ethnography and the Early Archive, in which she discusses her interactions with ethnographic film fragments from the first few decades of cinema. Like her FilmStruck piece, Groo’s book is a fascinating look at archival theories and practices from the academic perspective of a film historian. Despite the fact that she comes from a film background and is not a trained archivist, Groo’s thinking has grounded my understanding of my place as an archivist, working with historians, researchers, and other patrons. She takes the idea of the archive and asks readers to consider alternatives to old models of value-based preservation and profit-based access. Groo discusses how deeply things are shaped by how information professionals organize, name, and share resources. In her FilmStruck essay, Groo writes that history is never a “comprehensive body of works tucked away in an archive,” and that there are always new ways of understanding what we think we know that are not dependent on canonical bodies of work, made canonical by individuals and forces of society not necessarily documented with the works themselves.

Place: Interference Archive

My terrible posture in this picture (I’m in the green shirt) haunts me.

I was first introduced to Interference Archive, which is located in Park Slope, several years ago, and I have been volunteering there since. It’s a place that has shaped my idea of what archives can look like and how archivists can be community members and activists. Interference Archive is an entirely volunteer-run organization that collects archival materials related to social movements and makes those materials available in their open-stacks space. One of the most fascinating things about Interference Archive is their emphasis on accessibility to their materials. All of the collections, including things like posters, zines, buttons, books, and records, are available in their open stacks for any patrons to touch and interact with. For many people who have only interacted with archival collections through the barriers of academic or museum collections with all of their barriers, the openness at Interference is shocking. They also put on exhibitions and programs related to their collections or to relevant work being done by members of the community. The lack of institutional affiliation means that Interference Archive is able to have entirely independent programming. Their programs include workshops, speakers, film screenings, kids events called “radical playdates,” and many more types of events, expanding ideas of what role archives can play in a community. At Interference Archive, the collections are not behind barriers and used only for research; they are the totally integrated into present-day action. As an archivist, I want to think about how the work I am doing is best not just for the materials I work with, but for the people those materials serve. The Archive does not simply house political content and move on; its structure, goals, and events reflect the radical potentials of the materials they collect.

Thing: Lost & Found 

Another inspiration to me as an archivist that comes from outside the archives field is Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. Lost & Found is a project and publication based at the CUNY Graduate Center, with doctoral students in their Enlish program serving as researchers and editors. Focusing mostly on 20th century American poets, Lost & Found editors use archival materials to research their subjects, and to draw previously unpublished works, correspondence, journals, lectures, and writings in translation into publication for the first time. The series is published annually as a collection of chapbooks—previous issues include works from Audre Lorde, June Jordan, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Diane di Prima, and more—but research originally done for Lost & Found also frequently turns into book-length publications. The series’ founder, Ammiel Alcalay, says that the principle behind the series is for researchers to “Follow the person.” This is a pretty surprising position for many literary scholars to take—one that at first ignores the canonical context for a writer’s work in the form of literary “schools,” periods, or groups of associates—and instead focuses first on the hard evidence of an individual’s archival output. This series is so exciting to me as an archivist because it integrates scholarly research and archival work. It’s an example of how archivists can help open up new ways of seeing subjects and people.


Groo, Katherine. Bad Film Histories: Ethnography and the Early Archive. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Groo, Katherine. “FilmStruck wasn’t that good for movies. Don’t mourn its demise,” The Washington Post, 3 Dec. 2018.

Interference Archive.

Lost & Found, The Center for the Humanities.

The Ever-Evolving Life of Archives

by Jay Rosen

I recently attended a presentation and panel discussion at this year’s Lapidus Center Conference on Enduring Slavery, hosted on October 10-12 by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at New York Public Library. The theme of this year’s conference was “Resistance, Public Memory, and Transatlantic Archives,” which I thought might connect to some of our previous discussions on archives, cultural preservation, and collective memory in the United States.

The particular session I attended was entitled, “Emerging Perspectives on Public Memory and Popular Representations of Anti-Black Violence.” The conversation was introduced by Jennifer DeClue, Assistant Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, who also presented original research and moderated the subsequent discussion.[1] Other panelists included Dr. Tyler Perry, Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Dr. Allison Page, Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at Old Dominion University. Because the material presented in DeClue’s presentation was especially interesting to me, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on that here.

The title of DeClue’s presentation was “Staging Slavery: Public Television and the Performance of Slave Narratives.” Her discussion centered on “The History of the Negro People,” a 9-part televison series which aired on the public television network NET (now PBS) in 1965. The series explored lesser known narratives of black people in America and throughout the world, featuring episodes on ancient African civilizations, the racial history of the American south, and the experience of black people in Brazil, among other topics.

Poster for 1965 television series “History of the Negro People”

The episode discussed by DeClue is simply titled “Slavery.” Included in it are staged dramatizations of slavery that emphasize resistance; significantly, these dramatizations were based on the actual stories of enslaved people in America. The testimonies used in “Slavery” were collected as part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) program in the 1920s. Though the WPA is mostly remembered for grand-scale public works projects like the construction of highways and buildings, it also included the Federal Writers Project, which facilitated the collection of American folklore and oral histories. As DeClue put it, a “database” of oral histories by formerly enslaved people was amassed through these efforts. The “raw material” embodied in these histories was then reanimated through the dramatic performances described by DeClue, and given a national audience through the medium of public television.

As previously mentioned, “Slavery” primarily highlighted instances of resistance to slaveholders and the institution of slavery itself. The episode included re-tellings of the stories of infamous rebels Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and John Brown, as well as narratives of lesser known enslaved people who dared challenge the “peculiar institution.” In chronicling American slavery through the lens of resistance and using the words of people who endured it,  the episode marks an “intervention into the dominant narrative of slavery,” shifting our public memory of slavery away from narratives of servility and complacency and towards tales of humanity and resilience.

The excerpts from “Slavery” that DeClue played for the audience highlight the potency of archives, as well as their insurrectionary potential. More specifically, they demonstrate that archives contain material that can be used to disrupt dominant understandings of history and uplift the narratives of marginalized people. As the Schwartz and Cook reading we were assigned earlier this semester suggests, archives have tremendous power in shaping our collective memory and identity, and can be used as tools to promote hegemony or resistance, depending on the materials available and the objectives of those who use them.   

At one point, DeClue mentioned that Federal Writers Project employees discovered that former slaves were less likely to be as forthcoming with white interviewers as they were with black ones. This unsurprising fact demonstrates that the archival record is anything but an unmediated collection of stories and documents. Rather, the records available to us today were shaped — implicitly and explicitly — by the people in positions to receive, create, and preserve them. As DeClue reminded us, it’s remarkable that so many powerful and subversive stories were collected by this project, given that most interviewers were white and were thus received less comfortably by black storytellers. What might this archival record look like if only black people collected these histories?

Still image from Ja’Tovia Gary’s “An Ecstatic Experience”

In closing out her presentation, Jennifer brought up the avant-garde short film An Ecstatic Experience,” created by Brooklyn-based artist and filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary. The film repurposes footage from “Slavery,” overlaying etchings, drawings, and other markings over images from the 1965 segment. In manipulating this footage, Gary added yet another “layer” to the archive and underscored the fact that archival materials evolve over time and in response to current understandings of the issues they embody and reflect. I found it exciting (and a bit dizzying) to try and peel back the archival “layers” included in DeClue’s presentation. For one, there are the narratives collected by the Federal Writers Project — these testimonies themselves comprise a kind of “transatlantic archive,” as DeClue put it. There is then the archival repository represented in “The History of the Negro People,” now over fifty years old. From there “An Ecstatic Experience” was born, further commenting on and repurposing the “raw material” collected by the Federal Writers Project in the 1920s. Finally, there is DeClue’s own analysis of these “layers,” which has already been digitally archived on Vimeo, in addition to my own commentary on her recent discussion, now archived on WordPress. These various “layers” enliven my understanding of archival “provenance” as introduced in the Caswell reading assigned earlier this semester. They show how records and archives are far from static, but rather unfold over decades and in conversation with the past and present.

Works referenced / cited:

Bly, L., & Wooten, K. (Eds.). (2012). Make your own history: Documenting feminist and queer activism in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Litwin Books.

Caswell, M. L. (2016). “’The Archive’ Is Not an Archives: On Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies.” Reconstruction, 16 (1), 1-12. Retrieved from:

Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory. Archival Science, 2(1–2), 1–19. Retrieved from:

[1] Side note: DeClue mentioned during her introduction that she is currently working on a book titled “Visitation: Towards a Black Feminist Avant-Garde Cinema,” which focuses on black women filmmakers who use archival documents and avant-garde filmmaking techniques to encourage different ways of perceiving black women. This project brought to mind Alana Kumbier’s article “Inventing History: The Watermelon Woman and Archive Activism.” Kumbier’s article analyzes Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, in which Cheryl — represented as filmmaker but also a character in the film — traces a fictional persona named Fae Richards largely in order to “create a documentary heritage for black lesbian cultural production to enable future products” (Kumbier 103). Thus, both women use archival materials and the medium of film to encourage nuanced and feminist depictions of black women.

Event: “Apollo” at NYPL Performing Arts Branch

On Thursday, October 10th, I attended an event at the Performing Arts Branch of the New York Public Library called “Apollo.” The event was part lecture part film, and it was led by two leading scholars on dance, Alastair Macaulay and Robert Greskovic.

A little bit of background first. The ballet “Apollo” is a lesser-

known ballet. It’s an obscure work that is known for having very famous collaborators, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine. Both of these names are very recognizable in the classical music and ballet world, respectively. However, “Apollo” as a work is not. I personally had never heard of this particular ballet, and I consider myself to be pretty well versed in the world of dance. It premiered on April 1928 with original choreography by Adolph Bolm but was later reworked by Balanchine. Bolm’s choreography is pretty much usurped by Balanchine’s, and no one uses choreography that wasn’t originally created by Balanchine.

The story of the ballet is centered on, no surprise here, the god Apollo. Apollo comes to life and is greeted by three Muses, Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore. Each of the Muses gives Apollo a different gift. They give him the gift of poetry, rhetoric, and dance respectively. They dance with him both as a group and individually.  At the end of the ballet, Apollo ascends back to Mount Olympus in the heavens with the Muses being left behind.

According to one of the presenters, Macaulay, this ballet is simultaneously about making art and the creation of art. It’s about the “growing up” of art. He talked in-depth about how in later iterations of the ballet, Balanchine would say that he wanted to get rid of the narrative entirely. Thus, in the production of the ballet with Mikael Barisnikov dancing the role of Apollo, he eliminated the Prologue section of the ballet and also changed the ending. According to MacCaulay’s lecture, Balanchine was apparently known for saying that in his mind, Apollo was always meant to be a work in progress.

So how does this fascinating obscure piece of dance fit into what we are dealing with as information professionals? For me, I found this event and piece of ballet history fascinating because of the way that the information about it was being cataloged and collected and later on, archived. Prior to this event, there was a three-day seminar with NYPL employees, the two men leading the event, and also some of the dancers who danced in the various productions that the show has been through throughout the years. Their information was collected via the archival video that was taken. The people who couldn’t be there at the seminar i.e. other dancers such as Mikael Barishnokov who contributed their information via one on one interviews with MacCaulay and Greskovic.

So the ultimate question is, how is all of this information being cataloged and then archived? I noticed before the lecture started, a video camera was set up in the back of the auditorium where the lecture was taking place. The employees running the lecture must have planned in advance for this archival footage to be taken. They must have wanted to save the presentation as a whole. However, how are the lecture itself and the interview material from the various collaborators being saved? For example, some people might not think it’s important to have the lecture notes that MacCauley wrote saved, cataloged and archived but some may. I personally would be interested in seeing those notes, but I know that many people wouldn’t. It relates back to some of

our earlier readings that dealt with archiving, such as Schwartz’s article, “Archives, Records, and Power.” The article deals with whoever is archiving the material at hand is the one with the power. If I was the one taking in this collection of information (video, lecture notes, PowerPoint slides), then I would ultimately have to create a narrative about the materials at hand. I would be able to organize the information in a certain way and make a certain narrative around the materials. Schwartz says,

“Whether over ideas or feelings, actions or transactions, the choice of what to record and the decision over what to preserve, and thereby privilege, occur within socially constructed, but now naturalized frameworks that determine the significance of what becomes archives.” (3)

In looking at this particular ballet and how these two scholars were recording what was important, I thought it was interesting that they chose certain images and certain video clips over others. I know that I clearly missed a bunch of material in the three-day symposium that took place weeks prior because we only saw short clips from it, but I do think it’s interesting on what was preserved and what was not. Obviously, this is a lesser-known ballet, but it has big important names in the dance and classical music world. If this was a lesser-known ballet with no big names attached, would it still be archived in as much detail? Would anyone care to have a three-day symposium on this material? I’m not really sure. Schwartz also says that “control of the archive – variously defined – means control of society and

thus control of determining history’s winners and losers.” (4) Would we ultimately classify this ballet into the winner category because these two dance scholars ultimately deemed it important to one, host a three-day symposium on and two, host a public lecture on it?

In conclusion, I feel that going to this lecture prompted me to think about a variety of issues in terms of being an information professional. It makes me think about how we’re archiving material and how we’re using it to move forward in our profession. I stand by my question of who wins here and who loses? Do we have an answer to what is getting saved, cataloged and archived or is it ultimately just random? I still feel that this ballet is one of the more obscure ones, and I know that I’m glad that I know about

it and its’ history but I’m not one hundred percent sure that I would choose to save the information about this ballet over another one that is also obscure but with less famous collaborators.


NYPL Performing Arts Lecture series. Attended on October 10th, 2019.

Sponsored by the NYPL Performing Arts Branch.

Cook, Terry & Schwartz J.M (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science. 1-19.

Apollo (ballet). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 15th, 2019 from

Newest Americans: Activating Archives Through Oral History

Through the historical gates of Barnard College, under the shadow of Riverside Church, and down the stairs of the Milstein Center Library, Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program held the second event in a series of oral history and story-telling workshops. Tim Raphael, co-founder and director of the Newest Americans oral history and story-telling project, presented about the origins and scope of the project. Despite being a talk geared towards historians and story-tellers, there stood out a few interesting connections to preservation and representation in archives and story-telling. 

Raphael, a newly appointed Arts, Cultures, and Media Professor at Rutgers University, displayed his theater background with the ease in which he handled a few technical difficulties. Through video clips not cooperating, his laptop having died hours ago, and being emailed the wrong and out-of-order slide presentation, Raphael handled himself well and showed only a slight nervousness at speaking to Ivy League students and professors. Personally, I felt at ease upon overhearing several students discuss their confusion over an assignment, and one students’ phone going off mid-presentation. Ivy League-ers, they’re people too. 

A few sharply worded digs at archivists early on brought to mind Michelle Caswell’s impassioned discussion of the “intellectual rift between archival studies scholarship and humanities scholarship” in her article for Reconstructionism (Caswell, 2016, p. 15). Speaking casually with Columbia’s director of OHMA, Amy Starecheski, Raphael uttered the phrases, I’m paraphrasing, “the archives as chambers of death,”  and “archives are where no on who’s not an academic dare to tread.” As I wondered if this is what it feels like to be an information professional, to feel peeved when someone speaks down on archives, Raphael began his presentation. 

Before introducing the main event, Dr. Starecheski started by acknowledging the land. She acknowledged that Columbia and Barnard sit on the stolen land of the unseated Lenape People, and that indigenous stories are rarely seen in archives. Inspired by the hyper-diverse community of the area, Newest Americans is a multimedia oral history and story-telling project at Rutgers University focused on telling the stories of immigrants and first generation Americans in and around Newark, New Jersey. It works through collaboration between film makers, photographers, artists, historians, journalists, faculty, and students. 

It all started when a cardboard box of tapes from the 90s was found in the corner of a library, “and the librarian didn’t even know it was there” mused Raphael. These tapes were found to contain over 120 interviews with people who moved to Newark during the Great Migration between 1916 and 1970. Interviews with people of African heritage and descendents of slaves, the stories inspired Raphael to tell, what he calls, “local narratives with national and global implications.” The stories told are all examples of the preservation of cultural heritage, and the attempt to collect the stories of often ignored Americans. The goal of the format is to, as Raphael explained, “activate the archive” by creating engaging, entertaining, and informational short videos that new dimension to the american story. 

Raphael showed one of the first projects produced by Newest Americans: an 8 and a half-minute documentary about current Newark mayor, Ras Baraka, his father, and his grandfather. The two voices heard in We Came and Stayed: Coyt Jones/Ras Baraka, are that of Baraka and his grandfather: Coyt Jones, who was the grandson of a slave and whose interview was one of the over 120 found in a box. Jones was asked over 14 pages of questions for an oral history project organized by the Krueger-Scott Cultural Center in the 90s. 

The Mayor of Newark Ras Baraka answers questions in an interview with Marcia Brown at City Hall, in Newark, New Jersey, on March 13, 2015. (Photo by Ashley Gilbertson / VII Photo)

This is a long quote but it perfectly summarizes the documentary: “In his interview, Coyt Jones reflects on his arrival in Newark [in 1927] and the city in which he raised his family. […] Ras Baraka sat down with Marcia Brown to share his own memories of growing up in Newark, and to answer some of the same questions posed to his grandfather twenty years ago. Together these interviews describe how the Great Migration transformed a family and a city (Newest Americans, 2015).” This is an entertaining way to preserve cultural heritage and I can envision a museum exhibit dedicated to the projects inspired by these tapes. In a way, this story is an example of Macdonald’s ‘difficult heritage.’ It is a way for people who lived through the civil rights era and were victims of injustice to further take ownership of their history and identity. 

After We Came and Stayed, Newest Americans expanded into stories of people of many different backgrounds and U.S. cities, and recently began projects in Guatemala, Malta, and Lebanon. There was a tense moment towards the end of the question and answer part of the event when Raphael was asked about his role as a storyteller who is a white male and the inherent power imbalance. He appeared a bit shaken and shifted to the importance of story-telling and how much he loves the stories and that with the “access to all these amazing people” how could he not want to tell their stories. He finished his non-answer by stating, “if we only told our own stories, what a f—-ing boring world it would be.” Miriam Posner addressed this issue at the end of her keynote speech . She said, “it’s incumbent upon all of us […] to push for the inclusion of underrepresented communities […] (Posner, 2015). But, as Joan Shwartz noted towards the end of an introduction to two issues of Archival Science, and referencing Verne Harris, “It is important […] not to romanticize the marginalized, or feel elated for saving them from historical oblivion” (Schwartz, 2002, p. 17). There is a trend among archivists to collect previously unheard or underrepresented voices and stories, but inherent bias exists even if unintentional. For example, Indigenous Cataloging is the process for organizing information of indigenous people, but to have a separate phrase possibly further marginalizes the community. However, these stories need to be preserved and told as well, even if they are told by an outsider. It’s a difficult issue with a lot of ongoing discussion. 

Representation and preservation in archives and oral history will continue to focus more on the underrepresented voice and I think the best thing to do is, like Dr. Starecheski, acknowledge that we are on stolen land and acknowledge the power imbalance of a white male producing a documentary about the those underrepresented voices. Newest Americans is an admirable example of activating archives to bring stories alive. 

Heidi Klise


  1. Caswell, Michelle. (2016). “The Archive’ is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies” Reconstruction 16(1).
  2. Macdonald, Sharon. (2015). “Is ‘difficult heritage’ still difficult?” Museum International 67: 6–22
  3. Newest Americans. (Summer 2015). “We Came and Stayed: Coyt Jones/Ras Baraka.” Retrieved from
  4. Posner, Miriam (2016). What’s next: The radical, unrealized potential of digial humanities. Keystone DH conference, University of Pennsylvania, July 22, 2015.
  5. Schwartz, Joan M. & Terry Cook. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.

A Person, Place, and a Thing


Photo: Hilary Wang 2019

My Place is New York City’s smallest museum, the Mmuseumm, housed in a decommissioned freight elevator shaft at 4 Cortlandt Alley. Free to the public.
The Mmuseumm is a “style of storytelling about the modern world. It is a contemporary natural history museum. It is a design museum about people. It is Object Journalism.” Founded by Alex Kalman, Benny and Joshua Safdie in 2012, the Mmuseumm frames itself as a contemporary Wunderkammern composed of artifacts, ephemeral objects, and evidence of human existence. Every shelf is a curated collection of objects accompanied with a red label noting provenance and a collection statement. 

These objects are like records “disembedded from their creation and extracted into systems that allowed them to be used,” in this case viewed within a museum setting (Caswell, 2016, p.5). As information professionals we create networks of relationship between documents within collections and fonds. We assess the value of documents and attempt to predict its usefulness for an imagined future user. One of the exhibitions, Objects of Collapse, in collaboration with Patricia Laya (2018), features items purchased in Venezuela. When isolated, the knock-off Oreo cookies (Oieo Cookies) seem like an endearing rip-off. However, when placed on a shelf amongst fourteen other knockoff products, the visual evokes a darker narrative about counterfeits, economics, and social-political environments. 

My fascination with the Mmuseumm model is their focus on curating “non-art objects,” questioning the value of artwork displayed in traditional institutions of authority. Is this form of radical cataloging? Mmuseumm turns the lens to banal objects that once placed amongst a collection become imbued with meaning and significance. The elevator shaft becomes a microcosm of the world as well as an actualized metaphor of an archive, instead of a database, users step into an elevator shaft and visually scrolls through the rows of documents.

Olia Lialina

Photo: Rhizome

My Person is Olia Lialina, a net artist, archivist, and co-author of Digital Folklore (2009) a book about various facets of amateur digital culture from meme’s to DIY electronics. 

I first came across Lialina through a video interview in Quartz about early amateur websites from the 90’s. Lialina uses the Internet as a medium while at the same time analyzing the relationship between users and the changing digital landscape. Having a background in fine arts, I’m drawn to Lialina’s practice that blends the line between art and digital archiving. Sometimes labeled as a “net-crusader,” she advocates for the importance of early Internet culture. This includes examples of personal web pages in the 90’s and DIY websites before the rise of subscription site creators like Squarespace and Wix. By preserving these “amateur” websites, Lialina creates context for how the relationship between the user and the World Wide Web has evolved. 

She co-created One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, a Tumblr feed that posts screenshots of GeoCities websites every 20 minutes. The screenshots are sourced from one terabyte of GeoCitie sites archived by The Archive Team in 2009 when Yahoo announced it was no longer hosting the web service. This Tumblr feed is an image bank and resource for users to access the early internet through digital surrogates of GeoCities. It should be noted that Yahoo acquired Tumblr in 2013, bringing into question how long will Tumblr continue to be hosted?  

Digital Folklore is composed of essays exploring digital vernacular and the evolution of the “user.” Lialina and co-author Dragan Espenschied define Digital Folklore as:

“[E]ncompassing the customs, traditions and elements of visual, textual and audio culture that emerged from users’ engagement with personal computer applications during the last decade of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century.”

(Lialina 2009)

We’ve discussed in our Information Foundation class, the powerful role archivists have in determining our social memory and assigning value to what is preserved and what is not. Yahoo’s decision to no longer host GeoCities, potentially driven by the lack of economic profit, reflects a devaluing of early Internet culture. Without archivists like the Archives Team, acknowledging the cultural value of this niche Internet world, we as a culture would have lost evidence of how the early World Wide Web was utilized. Through her work and application of these digital archives, Lialina demonstrates similar tenants of archival theory to create diverse and inclusive collections.

The Future Library

My Thing is The Future Library by Katie Paterson. 

Photo: Katie Paterson

This work of art that will span one hundred years began with planting one thousand trees in a forest outside of Oslo, Norway in 2014. The forest “will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the year 2114” (Paterson). Patterson is known for creating works of art that utilize time as a material, creating tangible expressions of geological and deep time. Check out the The Fossil Necklace for another example.  

An aspect of the information profession that intrigues me is the duality of information and time. Archivists try to determine methods of preserving documents for future users while simultaneously negotiating what documents a future user will want to access. This piece has created an archive of unknown contents where authors are writing manuscripts for an unknown audience. The manuscripts will be housed in the New Deichmanske Library, opening in 2020 in Bjorvika where “the authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading– until their publication in one century’s time” (Paterson). I keep thinking of Sue McKemmish’s quote, “records [are] always in a process of becoming” (Caswell 2016). 

I wonder what guidelines or ethical “value” systems the Future Library Trust follows to nominate authors and how the charge reflects our information role to select, retain, record, archive, and promote. How will this project be passed along to the next generation of caregivers maintaining the forest and the stewards of this evolving library?


Mmuseumm. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Wyman, Annie, J. (2014, November 10). Cabinet of Wonder. The Paris Review. Retrieved from

Lialina, Olia. (2015, November). Not Art&Tech: On the role of Media Theory at Universities of Applied Art, Technology and Art and Technology. Retrieved from

Olia, Lialina. Espenschied, Dragan. (2009). Preface: Do you believe in Users? Retrieved from

Quartz. (2019, July 18). The early internet is breaking – here’s how the World Wide Web from the 90s on will be saved. Retrieved from

Future Library, 2014 – 2114 (n.d.). Retrieved from 

Paterson, Katie (n.d.). Retrieved from 

By Hilary Wang

Cultural Production & Social Movements: Exploring the Interference Archive

The word interference typically has negative connotations; in today’s capitalist landscape it can invoke the disruption of efficiency and streamlined workflow. In the context of activism, interference is necessary for dismantling oppressive structures. The Interference Archive in Brooklyn operates under this ethos: “to use the collection as a way of preserving and honoring histories and material culture that is often marginalized in mainstream institutions.”  Their standards align with ML Caswell’s idea of archival representation—as posited in “’The Archive’ Is Not an Archives: On Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies”—as “an ongoing collaborative process that welcomes diverse input, not an end-product (such as a finding aid) that presents an authoritative or definitive voice” (Caswell, 10).

Founded in 2011, the archive is located in an unassuming gallery space at the intersection of Park Slope and Gowanus. It is an entirely open-access, open-stack archive, meaning that anyone from the public is free to enter during operating hours and browse the endless shelves of ephemera. For the easily distracted and endlessly curious like myself, the space is a dream. There are flat file shelves of posters, newspapers, stickers, buttons, and pamphlets from various activist movements, as well as a whole library of books and records in the back, and a shared work area with the independent publishing company Common Notions. The archive is open four days a week and is entirely volunteer run. Whoever is staffing at a given moment acts as a de-facto catalog, in addition to assisting in collection processing, stabilizing, and creating finding aids.  

One of the first boxes that I browsed through contained records of anarchist infoshops from the Beehive Collective, an anarchist group located in Washington DC in the 1990s. In addition to their open stacks, the Interference Archive also curates exhibitions open to the public. A collection of Australian political posters from 1979 to 2019 is currently hanging in the front hall. The posters run the gamut of environmental activism campaigns to art festivals. The next exhibition, also posters, will be curated in partnership with The Poor People’s campaign, an organization for income equality founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I had the fortune of being able to wander the Interference archive—no appointments are necessary—and speak to one of its founders, Kevin Caplicki. Kevin, whose background is actually in graphic design elaborated on the accessibility fostered by the archive. “Our collection policy is anything that’s produced in multiples, via grassroots social movements, that communicates their demands. The materials are international on scale and the idea is to provide a public space where all of these materials can be accessed by anybody because we, as a counter-institution, to engage with this material to understand radical history.” His description also brought to mind John Gehner’s hope for the future of libraries, “The promise of the social exclusion/social inclusion framework is that we don’t have to dwell on one particular aspect of a person or community—their income, age, gender, race, ability level—but simply on the fact that many people are forced to live on the margins and cannot participate in society as equals. Remedies are rarely immediate or easy, but libraries are well-equipped to do more and better” (Gehner, 45).

In the current political landscape, the archive serves as a space of dynamic conversation, where ephemera collected from past movements can enrich activism today. “We want these materials to inspire people to reproduce these kinds of resistance and organizing,” Kevin says. “Ideally, browsing the archive will inspire people to get organized now or create graphics now. Hopefully we can progress to a world that we want to live in.”

Kevin also elaborated on the manifold challenges that come with maintaining an entirely volunteer run community archive. For one thing, only a small portion of the archive is digitized just because resources for that equipment and manpower are limited (the archive is entirely donation based and community supported as well). “Labor and time are the biggest limitations. We do have monthly sustainers that donate that covers overhead costs.” As a horizontally run space, there are different groups that run different projects, but there is always a shortage of volunteers.

The archive often gets researchers, which Kevin says is a good excuse to figure out new points of access to the archive. The process of working with researchers usually starts by finding out what topics they are interested in, if they are interested in working with different formats. From there, the volunteer and researcher will just start pulling boxes and exploring.

“We try and find different new ways to create finding aids to guide people through the materials. As a staffer, I am here to go on the adventure of exploring the archive with visitors.”

The space itself is meticulously organized. I was able to look through a finding aid of posters, organized in flat file cabinets in the back of the archive. “We want people to be able move from specific to general and vice versa whenever they need to,” Kevin says of the archive’s finding aids. On the poster finding aid, the posters are arranged into folders, which are listed by subject and geographic location. There are also finding aids for documents, stickers, and buttons.

The staff is a mixture of archivists, librarians, artists, activists, and others from the community. When I arrived, a group was in the process of stabilizing issues of the Globe from the 1960s. Some used gloves to handle the papers.

The space is truly dynamic: in addition to exhibitions, the archive also features film screenings, workshops, panel discussions, and can serve as a political organization space. As I left, I immediately began looking forward to when I could return again. The archive is always in need of volunteers and a simple email is all you need to get started. There are no library science or archive work prerequisites. In a neighborhood of rapid gentrification, the Interference Archive stands out as elevating the communities that have been overlooked in development.


Caswell, ML. “Archives on Fire: Artifacts & Works, Communities & Fields.” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, vol. 16, no. 1, 4 Aug. 2016, pp. 1–21.

Gehner, John. “Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion.” Public
Library Quarterly
, vol. 29, no. 1, 2010, pp 39-47.

By Sarah Goldfarb, Info 601-01 (Structured Observation Assignment)

Archiving Colonialism: The Politics and Ethics of the Archive

How does the archive become a space of engagement? What are the ethical obligations of the archive? How do we draw attention to otherwise invisible voices? How does raw data become material for surveillance? Who owns the past? These were the questions that guided “Archiving Colonialism” a panel discussion hosted by Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women, as part of the larger conference “The Politics and Ethics of the Archive.” According to keynote speaker Elizabeth Castelli, the theme was inspired by audio of earlier feminist conferences, and how the process of digitization led to larger questions of use and ownership. As the discussion progressed, it became clear that reaching a final answer to any of these questions cannot and should not be the goal. Rather, archives should be spaces where continuous discussion is encouraged and continuous access fostered.

The archive has long been a site of contention. Once perceived as purely objective towards history, there has been a recent push to consider archives through a post-modernist lense—as fluid spaces of ongoing debate and discussion, rather than static sites of fixed history and narrative. As Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook state in Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory, “…by treating records and archives as contested sites of power, we can bring new sensibilities to understanding records and archives as dynamic technologies of rule which actually create the histories and social realities they ostensibly describe” (Schwartz, Cook, 7).

Despite differences in profession, this emphasis on the archive as a device with which to create history was shared by all three panel speakers. Moderated by acclaimed writer Saidiya Hartman, the three speakers included La Vaughn Belle, a multi-medium visual artist, Justin Leroy, a professor and historian, and Cameron Rowland, a visual artist. Notably, the panel featured no archivists, which I found to be compelling. How could the discussion be shaped by people who had a more dynamic relationship with the archive and don’t interact with it on a daily basis? What kind of direction could it go in?

The panel began with Justin, who discussed the relationship of the Black slave to the archive, and the collective cultural assumption that history moves in one direction. Similar to feminist scholarship, the slave’s relationship with the archive is historically one based on absence and the assumption that the voice of the slave carries no significance. He gave the example of a letter that philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote stating that Africa “is no historical part of the world.” Moving forward from this flawed ideology, Justin explained, the popular notion has been that the recovery of history is necessary to achieve social justice. But, Justin questioned, what is the benefit of being “unfit” for history? What new narratives are uncovered from the vantage point of being outside history?

Approaching the question as a historian rather than an archivist, Justin described the narratives of free slaves as shaped by perpetual subjugation by history. In spite of the technical abolition of slavery, Blacks would continue to be beholden to the oppressive structures of capitalism that underpin American progress. Capitalism and American history run in parallel to one another, with racialized conceptions of monetary value remaining constant. If things exist beyond the simple binary of life and death, it contorts our idea of time as linear. But, as Justin concluded, if we allow other trajectories of history to permeate the cultural understanding, we might be able to “find the language for more aspirational freedom.”

Justin’s idea of taking a more aspirational approach to history, and an eye towards the future as well as the past strongly echoed the writing of Roy Rosenzweig’s Scarcity of Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era, which urged historians to “shift at least some of their attention from the past to the present and future and reclaim the professional vision that was more prevalent a century ago” (Rosenzweig, 739). It is a disservice to narrow the vision of history into one linear path.

The next speaker, Cameron, shared this idea of the archive and what it represents as being intrinsically limited in Black narratives. His main example was the concept of reparations and how its discourse opposes the historical constructions of time and monetary value. In his art, Cameron uses historical documents to oppose capitalism. He presented one of his most recent works, “Burden of Proof,” which uses maps of 8060 Maxie Road, a property repossessed by former slaves during Reconstruction. The property was purchased in 2018 by a non-profit in order to implement a restrictive covenant so that the land cannot be used again. The land is valued at $0 and cannot be used based on the stipulations of the covenant. How then, Cameron asked, can this force us to rethink the notion of reparations as value-based and relegated to property? The lack of historical documents relating to this property show us the value in a limited archive, Cameron argued. How can we look beyond history to rethink the role of capitalism in reparations?

Scarcity in the archive and the narrative freedom it allows for were the central interests of artist La Vaughn Belle, the next speaker. Primarily focused on the Danish colonization of the Virgin Islands, La Vaughn described the Virgin Islands’ archives as splintered, due to acquisition by the Danish government. Because of this archival scarcity, La Vaughn argued, the memory of the islands had to be reproduced in alternative ways, which she explores in her work. For example, Chaney are fragments of Crucian pottery that often wash up after storms. La Vaughn collected these fragments and used them to create “process paintings,” to fill in the gaps. The lack of completion in the archive allowed her to utilize her imagination, which presents a necessary challenge to colonialism. In order for the archive to be a tool of resistance and fluidity, some scarcity is essential, she argued.

During their discussion with one another, all speakers challenged the idea of the archive as a place of necessary abundance. Justin presented the idea of “reading practice,” a method he uses in teaching, which emphasizes not what is present or absent in research, but what you do with what you find. La Vaughn emphasized the overlap between history and visual arts, and the need to make metaphors in both fields. Cameron added that the idea of accumulation in history is a byproduct of capitalism that should be reconsidered.  The archive, all agreed, should be a space where one can create their own metaphors for the past and future.

In the end, I appreciated that no archivists were included. I felt that by allowing for more creative perspectives, those with a vague understanding of archives could be exposed to a broader view of their purpose. As I left the panel though, I quite honestly felt like I had my work cut out for me. What authority do I have to fill in the blanks of history? As an archivist, do I have the right to incorporate creativity into my work? But as I considered it more, I thought of how archives can never truly be complete. We can never truly possess every artifact of history; why even try? As the speakers showed, archives must have an element of creativity to challenge dominant narratives. Perhaps the point of archives shouldn’t be to merely present history as it was, but to provide an idea of a better future.

By Sarah Goldfarb, Info 601, Professor Chris Alen Sula

  1. Schwartz, Joan M. and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002): 1-19.
  2. Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity of Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” Oxford University Press (2003): 735-762

Digital Archives and Preservation at the Mark Morris Dance Center

I visited with Stephanie Neel at the Mark Morris Dance Center on Friday November 9th. Neel is overseeing a group of archivists working on a large-scale project at the Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Her team has been making diligent progress towards digitizing the Center’s library of VHS and pneumatic tapes. 

History of the Mark Morris Dance Center

The Mark Morris Dance Center, located one block west of the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the intersection of Lafayette and Flatbush in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, has been the home base of the Mark Morris Dance Group since 2001.  The Center was the first building to be dedicated solely to a dance group, and serves an additional function as an education space and outreach facility for the community.  The Mark Morris Dance Center offers many affordable and inclusive classes to the community and are not prejudicial with regard to experience or ability.

The Team

Neel is conducting this project in consultation with Greg Lisi and Savannah Campbell. Lisi and Campbell are video digitization specialists employed by the Dance Heritage Coalition. Lisi is also the moving image preservation specialist for the NYPL and has overseen all of their AV digitization efforts for the past ten years. Campbell is a graduate of the NYU Tisch School’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program. This team is rounded out be Regina Carra, Archive Project Metadata and Cataloging Coordinator, and Sarah Nguyen, a University of Washington MLIS student.


Neel and her team have been producing their work in accordance with a three-year Mellon grant, which is specificly tailored to the Mark Morris Dance Center. The grant is compliant with current digitization standards, and is aligned with OMEKA, a performing arts database standard. The main objective of this work is to organize and digitize their large holding of pneumatic tape, beta, VHS and high eight.

Archival Process

Neel and her team begin by cross-referencing the individual records with open source software. This method is similar to that which is employed by the NYPL and the Tate in London. 

The primary challenge of this work is in coordinating between Mark Morris and the various institutions throughout the world that commission dance pieces from the institute. Each of these institutions employ their own videographer, and therefore maintain proprietary usage rights of their footage. This footage then resides in a cold storage facility.  Mark Morris must then request an extraction of the digital files from cold storage.  The files are then checked for compliance with the Collective Access.  Collective Access is database software technology for use in cataloging.  

Further Challenges

The archival process at the Mark Morris Dance Center poses exciting challenges. These challenges are best illustrated by Michelle Caswell’s article “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies. In this article, Caswell identifies the importance of the record in archival practice. She writes: “The ‘record’ is the foundational concept in archival studies. Records, according to the prevailing definition in archival studies, are ‘persistent representations of activities, created by participants or observers of those activities or by their authorized proxies.'”1 Neel and her team of archivists and preservation specialists are sifting through a various forms of records in their process and must create separate hierarchies. 

Neel and her team are grappling with the archiving and cataloging of the so-called “uncatalogable.” They approach this problem by dividing the work into two aspects. One aspect is the choreography, which is authored soley by Mark Morris. The choreography is its own text. This text is then translated to other institutions that choose to perform the work with their own companies. The performances are a separate aspect of the process. They are made physical in the form of the recordings captured by each company’s individual videography department.

This process of sorting relates to Caswell’s definition of provenance. She writes: “Through provenance, archival studies insists on the importance of the context of the record, even over and above its content.”2 While content is important for Neel, the contextualization of the performance (when, where, which company) is the primary method of placing the records within the archive.

Outside Assistance

Neel has contracted with The MediaPreserve in Pittsburgh to complement the work being done in Brooklyn.  Shipping crates come and go from the Center’s archival office. The crates are filled with analog reels and cassettes, a couple of which I helped carry up to the lobby. According to the website of The MediaPreserve: “We have digitized for hundreds of institutions, universities, and museums transferring an array of formats including 1” Type C, 2” Quad, video cassettes, digital videos, film, and many more. Our work has covered numerous genres, including home movies, propaganda, documentaries, and works of art, as well as news, scientific, musical and educational programs.”

Practical Use of the Archive

The digital resources, once archived, are not simply kept in a closet. The tapes are a vital aspect to the company’s process, and are heavily referenced by new dancers and other global dance companies in order to recreate the specifics of Morris’s choreography. A database exists for the dancers where they are able to access time-stamped footage of past performances and other forms of raw choreography that serve as the building blocks for new performances.

Secondary Goals

Neel’s team is also responsible for the large collection of costumes and ephemera belonging to the Mark Morris Dance Group. These costumes  span the forty-year history of the Group. Additional items in need or archiving include historical prints, photographs, and programs. Most of these items are securely stored are of a less urgent manner for the team.  The analog technology of the video tapes is more fragile and requires urgent attention. Neel has decided to tend to the costumes toward the back end of the grant. 


Stephanie Neel and her team are dealing with an interesting challenge in archiving the digital materials at the Mark Morris Dance Center. They must parse through the records and create hierarchies of place and performance in order to assign order to their holdings. Their digitization and preservation methods are sophisticated and the team is composed of accomplished specialists in the field. The archive is unique in that these records will then become widely used as practical tools for instruction.


  1. Michelle Caswell, “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies.
  2. Caswell, “The Archive.”

Symposium Review: “The Uncomfortable Archive”



I attended a New York Archives Week Symposium at the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street on Friday October 16th entitled “The Uncomfortable Archive.” The symposium, co-sponsored by the CJH and the MetLife Foundation, was open to the general public and aimed at bringing together archivists, librarians, museum professionals, scholars, and researchers around the subject of difficult and “dangerous” information in the digital age. Of particular interest to me was the early afternoon program entitled “Uncomfortable Powers: Archiving Dangerous Knowledge,” which promised talks ranging from cloistered Soviet-era archives, presidential records, and Wikileaks.  

Omission and Obfuscation in the Private Soviet Archive

Katherine Tsan presented the first talk, “Omission and Obfuscation in the Private Soviet Archive.”  It was structured around her research into the coded messaging that survived this highly-censored historical epoch.  Tsan outlined the difficulty facing the contemporary archivists responsible for interpreting these incomplete records, which were obfuscated in order to circumvent the draconian provisions of Soviet-era oversight. Archives were state-controlled this way until 1991, meaning abbreviations, incomplete names, and code words were the norm in information files.

Tsan discussed the dual concerns when focusing on Soviet-era projects.  She highlighted the ethical conundrum involved in archiving writings and information that were purposefully celf-sensored. Tsan also discussed the dilemma posed by Putin’s current-day deep-freeze of national archives, which show strong evidence of private citizens blotting out images and cultural memory. Tsan questioned if historical preservation should probe beyond these intentions or approach them from an ostensibly globalist, progressivist slant? Putin’s unwillingness to fund archival activities is in line with Soviet effacement, indicated by the complete lack of KGB archives and the concealment of Russian presidential archives.

Tsan’s talk echoed concepts of power and the archive that we read in Schwartz and Cook’s article Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. They write: “The point is for archivists to (re)search thoroughly for the missing voices, for the complexity of the human or organizational functional activities under study during appraisal, description, or outreach activities, so that archives can acquire and reflect multiple voices, and not, by default, only the voices of the powerful.”1 The near-totalitarian aspects of Soviet rule should be examined in the archival renegotiation of history. However, the key challenge here is how archivists can locate missing voices in a historical period in which they were silenced and redacted? 

Tsan’s talk also recalled Drabinski’s article Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. Drabinski notes that Queer theory also found roots in a postmodernism that challenged the idea that truth could be final.”2 Is there a possibility for a more thoroughly accurate and truthful picture of Soviet Russia given the degree of suppression and censorship prevalent in that era? Or is the fact that so much of Soviet history was censored the truest depiction of its archival history? Would further excavation create a muddled history? These are intriguing questions posed by Tsan’s presentation. 

Watergate, Covfefe, and presidential records

Katherine M. Wisser followed with her presentation, “Watergate, Covfefe, and presidential records.”  Wisser, an Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Archives/History Dual Degree Program at Simmons College in Boston, conducted an entertaining talk which contemplated the implications of presidential records. Presidents Nixon and Trump were Wisser’s primary examples as she grappled with the debate over whether or not presidential records constitute the private personal property of those individuals in office.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 served as Wisser’s primary  point of orientation. She chronicled the various ways in which the executive branch has handled this Congressional decision, which mandates the preservation of Presidential and Vice Presidential records and states public ownership of said records. Various Executive Orders have been issued since the Act’s inception that have variously limited and broadened the scope of the PRA.

Wisser was quick to point out the Trump administration’s valuing of  secrecy over transparency. She highlighted this by discussing Trump’s proclivity for tearing papers to shreds, which has resulted in government officials taping said documents together to avoid egregious violations of the PRA.

SID Today and SID Tomorrow: Releasing an Archive of Leaked Government Documents

The final talk was given by Tayla Cooper, Digital Archivist at The Intercept.  The Intercept is home to the Snowden Archive, which archives the internal newsletter of the NSA’s Signal Intelligence Directive (SID).

According to The Intercept’s website: “SIDtoday is the internal newsletter for the NSA’s most important division, the Signals Intelligence Directorate. After editorial review, The Intercept is releasing nine years’ worth of newsletters in batches, starting with 2003. The agency’s spies explain a surprising amount about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why.”3 In August 2018 alone, The Intercept published 328 separate documents from a source inside the NSA . These documents covered a range of topics, and summarized “how corporate the agency had become and rallied other frustrated spies to his cause; about the NSA’s environmentally-driven spying; and about some of the virtual private networks the agency cracked into, and why. Other highlights from this release, which covers the first half of 2006, touch on Iranian influence in Iraq, the attitudes of NSA staff toward the countries where they are stationed, and much more.”4

Cooper discussed the labor involved in redacting elements from these documents when sent to the NSA for review. Cooper also talked about  how organizations like The Intercept work to counteract what she described as “surveillant anxiety,” in which no amount of data is ever seen as offering a complete picture of governmental activity. She concluded by stating that this anxiety is something that can not be quelled, a dispiriting endnote that also served as a rallying cry.



  1. Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” 4.
  2. Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83, no. 2 (2013): 94-111. doi:10.1086/669547.

Archivists Need To Be Political In The Propaganda Machine

Would Donald Trump be president if presidential libraries were more honest about the political histories they represent? That was one of the thorny questions raised by Anthony Clark during his keynote address at the annual New York Archives Week Symposium presented by the Archivists Round Table. The theme of the day was “The Uncomfortable Archive,” and Clark, author of The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies, had a lot to say about the things that make him uncomfortable with the current state of presidential libraries and museums.

Clark has ample first-hand experience with these federally maintained institutions, which, though spurred into action by Franklin D. Roosevelt, weren’t formally established until the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. Clark worked in the U.S. House of Representatives on a House Oversight Committee that investigated the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and in 2003 began research on his book. After visiting the few presidential libraries that exist (13 as of today, with Barack Obama’s currently in controversial planning stages), he said he encountered a lot of things that made him uncomfortable. Noting that the presidential libraries account for a quarter of the federal archives budget while only holding five percent of its records, he expressed additional concern over the outside funding they receive. By ingratiating themselves to private funders, he said presidential libraries are doing “wholesale damage” to the country, serving as “propaganda machines” that raise money for those private organizations while acting as “fake history sites” that obscure or erase the truth. This is what made Clark wonder whether our country’s current administration might have been different if those charged with administering the records had played a more reliable role in presenting presidential history.

He outlined the problem of personnel who would bow to the interests of private organizations that provide funding to these libraries, which he suggested might prioritize an exhibit that shows a president in a good light over fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests, for instance. For someone in that position, it’s understandable they might worry — don’t do what the funders want, and maybe lose the funding, and the job — but Clark reminded the room that it’s more than a top-down change that’s required. Yes, he said, there should be someone who is “independently leading an independent agency.” But if the leader isn’t leading, then, he said, “they don’t deserve your industry,” and you should find a place that “respects and deserves” you, and become the kind of leader that others respect and deserve.

Clark’s passion for the topic was evident. It’s clear that his many years spent considering this so deeply have had an impact, and it seems he is understandably upset that he’s one of the few people who’ve done anything about his findings. Though I haven’t read his book yet, I can imagine that frustration comes through as clearly in his writing as in his speech. It’s a difficult position to be in. Here’s someone who spent more than a decade seeing issues first-hand and documenting a lot of problems in a system, but perhaps feels like he’s attempting to take down a goliath singlehandedly. As Sara A. Polak wrote in a review of his book in The Public Historian, “The exasperation here is problematic because it creates the sense that Clark is a strong proponent of one side in a quarrel, rather than a historian trying to provide a dispassionate perspective on a struggle between complex interests and important ideological choices.”

But maybe this is an important time to be passionate, and maybe Clark is in a unique position to do so. Or maybe, as he implied in his address, all of us as information professionals share that role, and it is more important than ever to be impassioned.

As Robert Jensen outlined in The Myth of the Neutral Professional, a reading for one of our recent classes, those who are in a position to control access to information are unable to be neutral. Whether it’s deciding which books to acquire for a library collection, or what programming is created, or what details are shared or not shared in an exhibit, political choices are part of an information professional’s job. For those working in presidential libraries and museums, allowing misleading or incorrect information to be presented to the public is a political choice. It might seem like a tricky position to be in, but it’s one that ethical guidelines remind us to be cognizant of. For instance, the Society of American Archivists’ Code of Ethics states: “Archivists should demonstrate professional integrity and avoid potential conflicts of interest. They strive to balance the sometimes-competing interests of all stakeholders.” In his address, Clark noted that the stakeholders of the presidential library system might appear to include the foundations that provide funding or even the former presidents themselves; however, he reminded us that the true stakeholders are the American people.

It’s a strong ethical question for anyone working in any information profession: Who is it that you truly serve, and are you doing all that you can to serve them? Or, as Jensen stated: “The appropriate question isn’t ‘Are you political?’ but instead should be ‘Can you defend the conclusions you reach?'” In the end, neutrality may not be possible, and for Clark, we may all be better off because of that.

Thankfully, forums such as this one exist to help information professionals consider the implications of political actions in the workplace. The Archivists Round Table is an excellent resource for bringing this community together to discuss complicated topics like this that are relevant to the profession, and they hold events throughout the year, which I look forward to attending more of.