Estevez’s ‘The Public’ is a compelling drama for librarians and library lovers alike

Courtesy of a review on Medium by Oleg Kagan of the film

Editor’s note: I wrote this back in April for Book Riot but since they never sent me anything back when I published this, I thought I might post this here. I know some have been critical of how the librarians were all white and racial (and gender) dynamics in the film, but I didn’t find any reviews, at the time, that talked about that, and newer ones that talk about his focus on libraries as a central part of the film, say the film has a “subpar screenplay,” is “self-righteous,” or is “sincere” with a “political heart.” Comments are welcome, as always!

In the late afternoon of April 14th, I went to the Charles Theatre in downtown Baltimore after going to a retirement party for an old friend, and saw The Public, an independent film written and directed by Emilio Estevez, son of Martin Sheen and brother of Charlie Sheen. I came in very skeptical, as I had heard murmurs on Twitter from fellow librarians that the film was overly-hyped and not as good as reviews made it out to be, perhaps in line with those whom said the film could have benefited from refinement. The same was reflected in Anthony Lane’s mixed review of the film in The New Yorker, saying he cannot fault the film’s motives because “library services in the United States are under strain and threat, and homelessness is a scar upon the body politic,” but further says that “collectors of awkward white-savior scenes can add this one [film] to their stash.” I later learned that that Estevez argued that his film would “remind people just how vital and important libraries are,” inspired by an article in LA Times by a retired librarian of Salt Lake City, Chip Ward, in 2007, arguing that “libraries have become de facto homeless shelters and how librarians have become de facto social workers and first responders,” leading him to dig into the library world and think of a possible story. In his view, he hopes the movie shows that libraries are not antiquated institutions, with librarians as “the first Google,” highlighting forgotten people in society (the homeless) and how far they will go to “demand human dignity.” With this, I’m not surprised to learn that libraries in Charleston and likely elsewhere, held showings of the film.

After watching the full movie, I was surprised what an effective drama it was, and perhaps one of the best portrayals of public libraries (and libraries) in general on the silver screen in years. Perhaps this is no surprise because this film has a “knockout cast of Hollywood talent.” The plot of this film, set in Cincinnati, is simple. There are frigid temperatures every night and homeless patrons go into the main branch of the Cincinnati Public Library in order to use its services and stay warm. Estevez plays a librarian, as does Jena Malone, while Jacob Vargas plays the library’s head of security, and Alec Baldwin plays an ineffective crisis negotiator. Additionally, Christian Slater plays a local district attorney, Taylor Schilling plays a manager of the apartment where Estevez’s character lives, Jeffrey Wright plays the head librarian, Richard T. Jones plays the chief of police and Gabrielle Union plays a local reporter. Among the homeless patrons, there are actors Michael K. Williams, Bryant Bentley, Ki Hong Lee, and Michael Douglas Hall most prominently. While this panoply of character leads to a number of side-stories, they soon merge into onto one single plotline near the film’s beginning. It is then that the conflict that will last the rest of the film begins with male homeless patrons (some with mental illnesses) making their move: they engage in a sit-in and occupy the third floor of the library as an emergency homeless shelter, with Estevez and Malone barricaded inside with them.

Throughout the course of the film, the importance of the library is made clear to the audience. The “heroes” like Jeffrey Wright’s character, defend the importance of the library against the “villains,” like those characters portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater, giving speeches  to that effect, literally. At the same time, Gabrielle Union plays a reporter who likes to whoop up stories for her own benefit, having a selfish agenda just like Slater (who is running for mayor), Slater’s opponent (a preacher), and Baldwin (whom is looking for his son). So the media is not displayed as a bastion of democracy. Instead the public library, which is effectively a character of its own, takes on that role, showing its continued importance.

The film, which took 12 years to get funding together for it, also does a good job dispelling common misconceptions and stereotypes about librarians. Many Hollywood films have perpetrated the latter, including the small-town librarian with spring fever in Forbidden (1932) or the spinster librarian in the alternative reality, where George Bailey doesn’t exist, in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to give two examples I can think of off the top of my head. For example, when Taylor Schilling talks to Estevez, she says that librarians must have a lot of time to read books (you don’t) and that librarians do “weird things,” which Estevez shrugs off. Schilling even hilariously declares that no one goes to public libraries anymore, which Estevez easily counters, debunking a common myth about libraries. For his character, he notes that his addiction was ended when he began reading books and explains the importance of a being a librarian, while he is shown as a repairer of books which were defaced by bigoted individuals.

In a large part, this movie treats librarians as people whom are helping those in their communities, which is clearly one of the most accurate representations to date. Librarians are clearly the “heroes” of this film and that is a positive, which other films do not portray, with the focus on a male librarian rather than a female librarian as common on the silver screen. The only partial equivalent is Eric Bana who plays a Chicago reference librarian in The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), but eventually abandons his job for love with an artist, played by Rachel McAdams.

Even so, this film has its shortcomings. Apart from the fact the movie was not “entirely accurate” in how homelessness was portrayed as one homeless advocate in the Cincinnati area argued, in part because institutions in the area strive to have beds open for the homeless and because more of the homeless population is female than those portrayed in the film (mostly male). While you could say there are some “white savior” elements in the film, as Lane said in his New Yorker article, which I noted at the beginning of this review, more than that, this film plays into classic Hollywood archetypes: good vs. evil or heroes vs. villains, and a love story (between Estevez and Schilling), the latter which seems unnecessary to the plot line. Also, I think it is a bit unfortunate that the media is portrayed so negatively in this film, but perhaps that was supposed to represent into “fake news” and changing media perceptions since November 2016. Furthermore, while I think that the case of a patron suing the library and City of Cincinnati for ejection from the library itself has some validity, this seemed a bit overstated. Even so, there is clearly a debate in the library (and allied) community and scholarship about library rules (like the one involving body odor) to the homeless, since some are applied only to the homeless and not evenly to other patrons. Slater’s character even brings this up to Estevez in a meeting about the lawsuit (which is later settled) where he is effectively asked to resign.

In the end, despite its problems, ‘The Public’ is a compelling drama I recommend, which should be watched by librarians or library-lovers, in order to continue the discussion, not only on homelessness and mental illness, but on the importance of libraries themselves.

Non-traditional family trees: the case of Futurama

The Farnsworth family tree that he shows to the crew members of Planet Express in “All the Presidents’ Heads”

Recently, when a child is raised by someone other than their parents, whether or not their last name was changed or any official adoption process was carried out in the court system,” with adoptive parents being either “grandparents, aunt and uncle, other family members, or complete strangers,” sometimes referred to as “guardianship or fostering rather than adoption.” She also went onto say the important part is establishing a timeline of the child’s life, saying that “any information you find on relationships and family events should be recorded on your family tree.” The article goes onto outline how to add “adoption info in your tree,” specifically focusing on the Harry Potter series as an example, although looking at how this works for Family Search would also be helpful. In this post, I aim to talk about family trees in Futurama, which I briefly mentioned in a post on one of my sister blogs.

After reading Koeven’s post, I responded on Twitter, wondering whether the family tree in Futurama was “non-traditional,” adding that “one of the protagonists is his own grandfather,” referring to the Fry family. Koeven responded by remarking that “time travel would rewrite a lot of the fundamental rules of genealogy (death always comes after birth, etc.) and make research MUCH more difficult.” Be that as it may, I still feel this article is one worth pursuing. Infosphere, the nerds guide to the Futurama has a very helpful family tree of the Fry family, which explains a lot:

Courtesy of Infosphere.

In episode 1 of season 4 (Roswell That Ends Well), Fry and the rest of the Planet Express crew inadvertently travel back in time to 1947. In the process, he kills his own grandfather, Enos, leading to all sorts of distortions:

Fry’s time travel means that Yancy, Sr’s paternal grandmother is Mrs. Fry, his wife and Fry’s mother. And not only did Fry become his own grandfather, he made his father his own grandfather as well. An infinite loop results: Fry is his own grandfather, great-great-grandfather, great-great-great-great-grandfather and so on. This abnormality is the reason Fry lacks the Delta Brainwave.

This definitely disrupts the fundamental rules of genealogy and would make research more difficult. Besides the crew of the Planet Express ship, who else knew that they traveled back to 1947? Those in 1947 cannot testify to anything except that “aliens came,” although those “aliens” were actually people from the future. Later on in the series, during the first Futurama direct-to-DVD film, Bender’s Big Score, Fry again travels back in time, creating the time-paradox duplicate of Lars Fillmore. Again, if he is a duplicate, what is his real birth date then? We can say for certain what his death date is (Dec 31, 3007) but if he has the same birth date as Fry, then doesn’t this create another distortion? Some have been bothered by these distortions, saying it throws other parts of the show into question, like the DNA scanner in episode one.

Fry’s family, you would think, is the only one which has this phenomenon of distortion. The Waterfall and Turanga families are free of this distortion. But what about the Farnsworth family, which ties into the Fry family? After all, Prof. Farnsworth went back to 1775 and seemed to kill his ancestor, David Farnsworth. The only way the Prof. could still be alive is because “it’s possible that although David Farnsworth was a relative of the Professor, he wasn’t one of his direct ancestors” as the Infosphere claims. Still, this would create another distortion, as the crew members did “alter history when they travel[led] back in time to the American Revolution,” without a doubt.

You could say that makes the episode, “All the President’s Heads,” even more relevant to genealogy than “Roswell That Goes Well” because Prof. Farnsworthis trying to spruce up “his family tree, eager to show anyone willing to listen – and plenty who aren’t – all the amazing people he’s descended from,” as noted in an approving review by Alasdair Wilkins in Gizmodo. However, other reviews say that in Roswell That Goes Well, Fry “climbs his family tree.” Hmm.

What are your thoughts on this? Are there any family trees from other shows you’d like to share?

The erasure of records, digitization, and 1990s Hollywood films

Gif of one of the scenes from Hackers (1995)

In the past week, I’ve watched a number of 1990s Hollywood films, such as Sneakers (1992), Hackers (1995), The Net (1995), and My Fellow Americans (1996), where the “everything’s on the computer” state of records, as stated in passing in The Andromeda Strain (1971), has been reached. All of these films share a similar theme: the erasure and change of records (mostly digital), which has an increased relevance as archival institutions continue to digitize more and more of their records, although not everything, as I noted in my post about challenges of archival digitization in late April.

Looking at the 1990s films

Let’s start with The Net, since it was the first of these films that I watched, computer with bulky hand-held phones and dial-up computers. In this film, Sandra Bullock plays an isolated middle-age White woman (Angela Bassett) who is a “program systems analyst from Los Angeles” who lives most of her life online, talking on chat rooms and ordering pizza. That all changes when she takes a trip to Cessna (before which there is a computer malfunction which screws with flights), Mexico, meets a man who basically seduces her in order to get control of a virus which is on a floppy disk, of all things. This plan fails, however, as she realizes, after literally sleeping with him for some reason, that he wants to kill her, so she gets away in a dingy that crashes on rocks, knocking her unconscious. She wakes up three days later in a hospital and the disk has been destroyed. As she is about to go back into the country, after a record was changed that checked her out of the hotel, she is told to sign a temporary visa document which states that her name is Ruth Marx.

As the movie goes from here, she realizes that her identity has been stolen by an imposter, with the change of records by the villains who want to make profits off their security technology and gain access  to every system possible. With this, the movie is a bit of warning that it is very easy for someone to be digitally erased with so much of our lives online, with which you don’t even have to spoil the ending. Clearly there are inept secondary characters (police officers, nurses, and jailers), many of whom, like sole archivist Madame Nu in Attack of the Clones think that records are inviolable and cannot be changed. The partially inept villains are even able to kill a few people, like the  Undersecretary of Defense by falsifying a report saying he has AIDS and a friend of Bullock’s character. At one point, she says that “our whole lives are on the computer, and they knew that I could be vanished. They knew that nobody would care and it wouldn’t matter.” Later she adds to the inept court-appointed lawyer, who believes in the inviolability of the records in that they cannot be tampered with, to defend her from false charges:

Just think about it. Our whole world is sitting there on a computer. It’s in the computer. Everything. Your DMV records, your Social Security… your credit cards, your medical history. It’s all right there. Everyone is stored. And there’s this little electronic shadow on each of us… just begging for somebody to screw with. They’ve done it to me, and they’re gonna do it to you…I’m not Ruth Marx. They invented her. They put her on your computer with my thumbprint.

There were some similar themes in the 1992 film, Sneakers, which starred Robert Redford. The film focuses around attempts to create a black box which would crack American codes, allowing access to any American security system. In the process, a team tries to steal the box back and one of the characters purchases blueprints from the county recorders office for $50.00, leading the movie to be cited as an example of “the use and portrayal of records in film.” [1] With the information from the county recorder’s office, and their own observations, they are able to break-in to the company of the villain and get the box, but before it is handed to the NSA of the characters removes the main processing chip.

There is more than that. Redford’s character is basically a hacker, as was his friend Cosmo (who is the film’s villain) who was arrested and thrown into prison for computer crimes. The black box has a similar power to malicious code in The Net. Again, the focus is that records can easily be changed, or in the case of this movie, mimicked, to certain ends. Like the previously mentioned film, the cast is mostly White, but a bit more diverse in that they have a former Black CIA agent on the team of the “heroes.”

There’s one other film which has similar themes: Hackers, which features Angelina Jolie in a starring role. It focuses on a group of teen hackers who work to take down a villain who wants to sink a few oil tankers while getting wealthy in the process. In this “cult classic” film, as some places call it, there are computers running on dial-up (like in The Net), huge portable phones, people in some of the nerdist clothes ever, and moving of information around on…floppy disks! In fact, the virus itself is on a floppy disk.

The altering of records is a key part of this film as well, as the villain alters criminal records of the male protagonist and his mother to list them as criminals, blackmailing him to give up the floppy disk. In the end, this group of hackers, all men except Angelina Jolie’s character, and all White except one kid with dreadlocks, sets out to take down the servers of the villain’s mega-corporation,  succeeding thanks to help from two Japanese hackers and their subsequent “electronic army” of hackers. Somehow they basically get off from their prison sentence thanks to a television broadcast from one of the hackers, which seems strange as he could be utterly lying. As with most movies of this nature, the plot doesn’t always completely add up.

Finally, there is a bit of an outlier: the 1996 film, My Fellow Americans. This is perhaps the most hokey film of all, although archives is a main part of this film. Ex-Presidents, played by James Garner and Jack Lemmon, discover a scandal in the current administration. Lemmon discovers that conspirators have altered his official records, at his presidential library archival vault, in order to “erase traces of a meeting.” At another time, Mark Lowethal’s character goes to the National Archives, finding that the presidential appointment log does not show this meeting. [2] It turns out the culprit behind these changes is the current sitting present, the former vice-president, with his chief of staff being the one whom “doctored the Archives log and the log in Kramer’s library.”

In this case, the film does not involve the changing of a digital record but only the changing of a paper record. Still, this has a similar theme to the other three movies in that records can be doctored, manipulated, and changed to the benefit of certain individuals. Although, this can be, at times, easier to do with digital records than with paper records. I would also say the theme that records can be changed, erased, or rewritten follows through the Halt and Catch Fire series, along with shows like Mr. Robot, going into its last season this coming fall.

Why do these films matter?

“If  I  could take  all the  things  that  I  am, all the  feelings  I  have, all the  things  that  I  want,  and somehow  get  them  on a  computer  card, you would be  the  answer. I  don’t  know  why  or  how  you’ve  come  along at this  particular  point  in my  life. See, that’s  the  magic part. I’m  not  gonna  let  you  go.”- Dr. Sidney Schaefer talks to his girlfriend (who ends up being one of the people who is spying on him) in The President’s Analyst, a 1967 film

They matter because more and more of the records held by archival institutions are digital, specifically “born-digital” (like tweets, Facebook posts). Of course, they are a bit dated, as they came out between 1992 and 1996. However, the point that records can be changed and manipulated should be taken into account. There should be measures in place to make sure that the records, especially digital records, are not tampered with. Perhaps this would require fixity checks, but also could necessitate rules on the usage of records themselves.

At the same time, the archives themselves should not be like the dark and haunting Thatcher Memorial Library in Citizen Kane, which has what some have described as having one of the world’s meanest archivists, played by Georgia Backus, with hair up in a bun “and an intimidating stare on her face, a real dragon lady at the gates of knowledge.” This is not the type of archives you want to go to! This is not the image which should be projected. [3]

What I have said so far is only scratching the surface. These 1990s movies have standing importance because born-digital files which are entering archives across the world, like some in New Zealand, include “photos, radio broadcasts and documents,” requiring appropriate workflows. Margot Note, a prolific writer in this field, described that as a former lone arranger who directed all archival management at an organization she launched a project to digitize a set of records, creating digital surrogates of 2,000 of the collection’s best images, adding that such surrogates are superior to past formats like microfilm since they can be delivered through networks “offering enhanced access to simultaneous users around the world.” In the same article she advocated the importance of digital collections, saying they grant “valuable remote access to the information contained within the original records” as long as they are created within the appropriate archival infrastructure,with metadata and search functionality, indexing. She adds that digital collections of archival records can not only provide for “multiple points of access and enhanced image details” but it can allow for more in-depth study than analog originals, increase interest in items which have often been ignored,and it can also act as “an advocacy tool for an archives.” She also argues that different types of digital surrogates of records can be created, either for web display, storage, or print reproduction. She ends by saying that while “electronic copies suffer no degradation through the duplication process,” a copy of a digital photograph is “indistinguishable from its source” meaning that the “original” loses its meaning, and that with digitized images, “researchers risk losing information that enables them to understand how the image was accessed and how its physicality changed over time.” As such, there should be efforts to limit or eliminate such a loss.

But there is another aspect to archival records. Librarian Carrie Wade argued back in December 2018 that information is political with information loss affected by federal funding decisions of research repositories ruining the work of professionals. Similarly in the case of archivists, they should not be completely neutral not only because who “we elect impacts our ability to do our jobs well and the access that people have to information,” as she argues, but they literally cannot be neutral as they are human beings with viewpoints, emotions, and thoughts of their own.  Building upon this, there are clear archival silences or “gaps in the archival record,” with these silences “created and enforced within archives” as a result of practices that are  “central to the work of archivists.” Digital records, whether born-digital, like social media posts, or digitized paper records, can help bridge this gap. After all, paper or analog records can be digitized in ways that allows access to them through online channels while originals are restricted.

All of this is relevant to the 1990s films I referenced in the first half of this post, as it requires having effective records management programs. The policies regarding records not only in Hackers and The Net, or even My Fellow Americans and Attack of the Clones were clearly outdated, and should be taken as a warning to have correct policies. This also requires taking into account challenges with capturing resources that are born-digital and making it available, effectively curating this information for the user. Furthermore this is important as a major trend in libraries is collection of data to prove their value even though this has its downsides especially when it comes to ethical concerns with data mining and big data,even though this can be useful. At the same time, how material is defined for easy access is a challenge “to every content owner,” as is choosing the right metadata, with “important detail work” in this process. The same is the case for finding more “accessible ways for people to find and scan content” and ways to share these “images with your target audience.” [4]

Concluding words

All of this ties back, of course, to the classic animated sitcom, Futurama, with its mentions of “technical support,” CDs, CD players/CD racks, and floppy disks (some of which are 15-inch). In fact, in one episode, “How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back” (season 2, episode 15), the last half of the episode is about going into the central bureaucracy to get back a disk with Bender’s brain on it, which is floppy disk. Others mention existing government records, databases, a record vault (safe  box) and an arrest record. In one episode Fry even declares to Bender that “I’m not a robot like you! I don’t like having disks crammed into me” while in another he downloads “a celebrity from the Internet” from a parody of Napster, which is kidnapping celebrities and illegally copying them, with the “backup disk” being a floppy disk. Others focus on big data and concentration of information, digital cameras and operating systems.

I mention all of this because it it shows the relevance of record erasure, digital archives, digitization, and the changing digital environment. This requires of course that you don’t have “unauthorized data access” like Fry accessing the computer connected to the brain spawn. In the end, while these 1990s Hollywood movies are dated in various ways and problematic in others, they still have relevance connected to present developments of archival institutions in response to new technologies and making records more accessible to online users.


[1] Kyle Neill, Senior Archivist of the Peel Art Gallery Museum & Archives also argues that there are archival themes in The Dark Knight (2008), The Avengers (1998), Chinatown (1974), and Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011).

[2] This reminds me of a major plot point in Thrill Seekers, a 1999 TV movie, where the protagonist finds out that there are people who travel in time (from the future) to disasters and serve as tourists, disgustingly watching people die. In the process, the researcher on staff at a local newspaper, a bit like a records clerk, has databases of newspapers on her computer, which he searches to find information, which she lets him use even though she just met him (not good records management). Ultimately she says that she will go to the National Archives to find the original images, proving that he was not lying about the time travelers. Later, the protagonist goes back and time and saves her. But, I thought I’d just mention this, as the fact she is a bit of a records clerk brings in line with the records clerks in Erin Brocovitch (2000) and Chinatown (1974). The former has a clerk who flirts with a law firm filing clerk (Erin Brocovitch) who uncovers wrongdoings of a water utility company on her three visits to the records office of the Regional Water Board, letting her into “a records storage area, piled high with files, papers and binders, where she proceeds to copy water records,” allowing her to complete her work. The latter has a sullen young man who does not like his job, grudgingly providing assistance, with Jack Nicholson’s character “tearing out part of a page from a record book by covering the noise with a cough” after he is told he cannot check out the volume.This clerk, as one reviewer puts it, has “a well crafted scene presenting a stereotypical records keeper” with the clerk/archivist as “an impatient, unhelpful civil servant guarding over his records domain who treats the public as trespassers” while the “records are in long aisles in bound volumes.” Some have compared Erin Brocovitch to another film with records as central, specifically A Civil Action (1998).

[3] The same goes for Hollywood images of old archivists like in Vampires (1998) where the church archivist is introduced, a “slight, bearded man with glasses” whom is sent along on a quest,” in They Might Be Giants (1971) where a wealthy lawyer, who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes, teams up with a psychiatrist “to try to rid the world of evil” and in the process, one person plays an aged archivist who, despite his problems, “does come across as the sanest person in the movie and he finds clues to track down Moriarity,” or in Amityville II: The Possession (1982) when a father uses a local archives to find out about a hosue causing trouble for his family, and in the process he is helped by an elderly archivist, a person who says “I’ve worked here for 25 years.” There are other mentions of archives, but without archivists in Arlington Road (1998), Batman Begins (2005), Beverly Hills Ninja (1997), Broken Lullaby (1994), GoldenEye (1995), Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (aka Doppelganger) (1969), L.A. Confidential (1997), Message in a Bottle (1999), Ninth Gate (1999), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2017), Secret Nation (1991) [Canadian film], Shooting the Past (1999), Smila’s Sense of Snow (1997), The Dark Knight (2008), The Name of the Rose (1986), The Phantom (1996), and The Shadow (1994). Also, there are said to be flirtatious archivists in Carolina Skeletons (1991) and Just Cause (1995), along with helpful ones (either initially or ultimately) in Cloud Atlas (2012), Deceived (1991), Quatermass and the Pitt (1967), The Fugitive (1993), and The Mask of Dimitrios (1944). There are also a number of films which have archivists in the background: Charlton-Brown of the F.O. (1959), Macaroni (1986), Red (2010), Ridicule (1996), Rollerball (1975), and The Age of Stupid (2009), and those that are said to have nasty or mean archivists: Blade (1998), In the Name of the Father (1993), Scream 3 (2000), The Nasty Girl [Das Schreckliche Madchen] (1990), and The Watermelon Woman (1996). Please, do not constitute this as an endorsement of any of these films, as likely they are mostly terrible.

[4] Also see articles about how libraries lead with digital skills and a cryptic finding aid.

Interpreting history: the iSchool symposium and History Day

Me at the 2nd iSchool symposium this past Wednesday, via Twitter

Last week, on May 9th, I presented my poster which visualized records from 1850 to 1870 of Black Marylanders, as part of the DCIC’s research cohort, in conjunction with the Maryland State Archives, at the 2nd iSchool Symposium, which took place from 4-6 PM in the Grand Ballroom of the Stamp Student Union. While I didn’t win an award, I was still glad to present what I had worked on with other people. There were so many interesting projects there and I didn’t get to see the posters of them all!

Via Twitter. Ben Shaw was one of those within my research cohort.
Poster in front of the Grand Ballroom in Stamp, pointing to where the symposium was taking place.

Other than my friend Jordan, who called my poster “so cool,” asking about access to Calvert County Census records, and the others who liked photos of me and my poster on Instagram, the title of my poster garnered some discussion. My friend, Layla, a digital media consultant, said that she seriously took “issue with the presumption of diversity in pre-1960s U.S. in terms of demographics or citizenship,” to which I pointed out errors of census takers, and she responded that the way I frame it is important, and that “the main issue is that *we weren’t permitted in the country as non-white people* whether or not census takers used flawed methods.” I responded to that further comment by noting that I gave it the title of “Diverse Connections: Making the 1850-1870 Calvert Census Come Alive!” because it was “one of the categories to pick and I hoped it would be catchy,” while acknowledging her valid points, noting that the category was “diversity, inclusion & accessibility.” She ended by saying that “it is catchy, for what that’s worth.” In another comment, she added that perhaps “talking about the lack thereof is a way to make our understanding more inclusive” and that she felt that “it’s just important to me that someone as smart as you know how exclusive this feels to some of us.” I responded to that by adding that she was “making sense, definitely” and that its “always good to have someone who is critical.” It is always good to have some individuals who are critical, rather than the default, which is often praise with nothing negative said. Thinking about the power of titles and their deeper meaning, with what they ultimately convey is something I’ll definitely think about more in the future.

Digital version of the poster I created

In beginning the poster, I wrote the following, which I think is worth reprinting in this post:

The notations, marks, and writings on U.S. Federal Censuses, from 1850-1870 not only have meaning for people today, whether family historians or researchers, but were meaningful to those living during that period, especially for under-represented people. This poster aims to

  • make those census documents come to life through a series of visualizations I created this semester, as part of a research cohort at the DCIC on campus with three wonderful fellow students from the University of Maryland (Ben Shaw, Ali Bhatti, and Chrissy Perry) with a faculty advisor of Prof. Fenlon and assistance from Noah Dilbert of the DCIC
  • Use the records of Black and Mixed-Race Marylanders gathered by the Maryland State Archives (MSA), for inclusion in their Legacy of Slavery project, and visualize the results

During this past spring 2019 semester, I have:

  • created 25 visualizations from Calvert County Census data from 1850-1870, 12 of which are shown on this poster
  • used tools such as Infogram to create a word cloud of surnames
  • used Paint.Net to hand-create representations of people to show gender distribution
  • drawn connections between census records and land records
  • used Datawrapper to create charts showing the age, race, and occupation of Black and Mixed-Race Marylanders
  • used Microsoft Excel and ChartGo to chart real and personal estate value

Other than some anomalies in the data, like an incomplete data set for Calvert County District 2, I did not visualize the hundreds of Black individuals whom the census taker listed with no occupation because I felt this categorization may have been racially motivated. This poster also does not display those whom had specific claimed mental deficiencies because it is similar in format to the other Excel charts or the two possible stories that involve connections with census, land, and genealogical records due to their limited scope.

With that, I hope you enjoy this poster, which is just the beginning to visualizing this data and creating diverse connections!

It is also worth reprinting the “lessons learned” section of the poster:

Looking back, there are some parts of this process I wish I had done differently:

  • Rather than hand-counting, with the help of tools like Microsoft Excel, of surnames, occupations, and race, it would have been more efficient to use OpenRefine.
  • Using Infogram to represent people, one of their free features, as would be more effective than trying to painstakingly draw the people myself, but I did not realize this feature was available until after I had completed the visualization in Paint.Net.

At the same time, I was:

  • only partially satisfied with the charts created about occupations, race, and average age, but I’m not sure how else to visualize the data at this time
  • a bit disappointed at how my visualizations connecting land and census records turned out, as I was unable to figure out how to add layers to an image using Recognito, so I stuck with Paint.Net.

Furthermore, I wish there was a way to connect to existing maps, apart from the 1870 map of Calvert County which displays districts, but I was unable to find any maps from 1850 and 1860. While I realize these shortcomings, the work I completed this semester is vitally important, allowing the census data to fully come alive rather than be static.

Now, I’d like to share the visualizations I created this semester, only 12 of which were included on my poster, to promote further access to what I worked on. I said 25 visualizations, but recounting these again, I realize I actually created 30! Anyway, the visualizations are shown below:

Connecting land records and census records:


Surname word clouds:

See the original on Infogram.
See the original on Infogram.
See the original on Infogram.
See original on Infogram.
See original on Infogram.
See the original on Infogram.

Representations of gender among Mixed-Race Marylanders:


Average age and racial classification:

See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
 See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.


See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.
See the original on Datawrapper.

Other charts [1]:

Values are in $
Values are in $
Values are in $

Followed by an 1870 map which shows the districts in Calvert County:

Raw Data Download

If you would like to use the data that I came up with and used, I recommend you not download the data associated with my visualizations, as it is distorted, but rather download the following .xlsx documents, with the cleaned data:

There was also data which I did not use, which you can find in the footnotes. [2]

Also see this file of text documents I used when visualizing my data, which include a breakdown of surnames, occupation, estate value, and much more!

Thoughts on Maryland History Day

I’ll just end this post with some thoughts on Maryland History Day, for which I judged this past weekend, including as a chief judge in the morning for senior individual websites. They included topics ranging from, as I noted on Twitter, the Apollo Missions to the Atomic Bomb. I also did runoffs for documentaries, with topics including “Cocoanut Grove, Stonewall Riot, Thalidomide tragedy, ACT-UP, the Osage indigenous people (and oil), and the Triangle Shirtwaste Fire,” some of which I had not heard of before. As I awaited the winners, I already knew that the group documentaries I had reviewed had won, documentaries like “Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove” (by Aidan Goldenberg-Hart, Daniel Greigg, Eli Protas, Joey Huang, and Charles Shi) which got first place, and “From Inefficient to Inspiring: How the Stonewall Riots Changed LGBT Activism” (by Pallavi Battina and Amulya Puttaraju) which got second place. However, when it came to individual websites, one of the ones I reviewed got first place! It was titled “Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington: How Their Investment in People Led from Tragedy to Triumph” and it was by Matthew Palatnik. None of the websites my group had nominated for special prizes won. So that was positive.

History Day made it clear to me that even the topics often written about can be talked about in a new way, with a new interpretation, with these students entering the process of historical research, so I wish them the best in the days going forward. In June, I will serve as a judge on the national level of History Day at College Park, which should be fun!

In closing, there is a strain that connects the visualizations I made this semester and Maryland History Day: the importance of history and interpretations of what happened, allowing for new insights and thoughts, enriching how our collective past is understood.


[1] Most of these charts were made with Microsoft Excel, but others were made with ChartGo and Paint.NET.

[2] Data not used included: District 3 [1850] Those classified as “Dark” – a 11-year-old female named Sarah Mitchell, born in Maryland. In one of the 1860 districts  one entry weirdly gives the number “42737” which distorted the data, so this was not counted. Those Black Marylanders without any listed occupations were not counted: 295 in Dist 1 in 1850, 411 in Dist 2 in 1850, 541 in Dist 3 in 1850; 292 in Dist 1 in 1860, 432 in Dist 2 in 1860, 432 in Dist 3 in 1860; 912 in Dist 1 in 1870, 161 in Dist 2 in 1870, 779 in Dist 3 in 1870.

Librarians should not be “everything to every community member”

From the “I Love Lisa” episode (s4, e15). I really couldn’t think of any other image which would not be depressing.

Recently, on Twitter, there was justified consternation with what a library director, named Justin, wrote about librarians on May 3rd. I’m only new to the library and archives profession, although I am planning to work in an archival institution rather than a library, and my hope is that others in the profession could build upon this post with their own experiences and thoughts. I am also posting this because Justin the Librarian locked his Twitter account, raising the question that he does not want his opinion to be challenged! This post is not meant as an attack on Justin himself, but rather a challenge to him (and others who feel the same), that they should change their views on libraries. Additionally, I understand, as Stephanie Crawford put it on Twitter, criticizing this post, “public libraries are often places for people to stay warm, to use the rest room, to job search, to do hw, to print resumes, to check email, etc” and do not intend to paint those who are poor as “an unwanted burden,” but rather are talking about responsibilities librarians should have to their respective communities. The socioeconomic class of patrons of libraries is clearly important, and I have tried to incorporate that into this piece, but it should also be acknowledged that I am mainly talking about the role of the library profession, rather than the patrons, in this post, so that leads some aspects to fall to the wayside.

After saying how public libraries have changed a lot since 2009 and that there will be changes in the future in these “great place[s],”adding that “this is a time to celebrate and also a time to think about the future,” Justin declares that “if you’re working in a public library now and you’re not enjoying it maybe you shouldn’t be working in a public library” which implies that everyone in a public library will enjoy their jobs and that no toxic environments exist, which is clearly incorrect. [1] He followed this with the most jarring statement of his post:

If you feel grumpy about your day to day work, if planning and hosting events isn’t your thing, and if you’re just not ready to be everything to every community member that comes through your doors, this public library thing just isn’t for you in 2019. And honestly, it’s just going to continue to be less of a thing for you as public libraries move ahead. The public libraries that I see existing today in 2019 will continue to be improved upon and become even more community focused in the next ten years. Libraries are on the right path these days, one that is fully focused on their communities. Do you want to be on that path?

The section when he says that librarians should be “everything to every community member” is what angered librarians on Twitter, rightly so, with Alexis Logsdon calling it “infuriating.” Why should this heavy responsibility be hoisted on librarians? Why do they need to be “everything”? [2] As such, the idea that public librarians (or any librarians for that matter) should be “everything” to the communities, regardless of their class, race, gender, or creed, they serve should be challenged. I say this, while acknowledging the important role that librarians engage in when serving their communities, especially those who use libraries as a community space to serve their effective information needs, to pull from the titles of one of the courses I took in the fall, which was called “serving information needs.”

The first part of that challenge is to summarize the tweet conversation on this topic. In fact, I thought I creating this piece after reading through the whole thread and responses, beginning with a thread by Julie Jergens. This piece goes beyond “shutting things like this down” and rejecting “this bullshit savior narrative,” to quote her, as I aim to look at various posts he has made, not only one solitary post, to form a cogent argument to counter his points.

Jergens, in her tweet thread, called the statement that librarians should be “everything” to communities is not only “dangerously misinformed” but some “male BS” for a majority-female profession.  She went onto say that relationships where one person or an organization is meant to be everything to another is “unbalanced, unhealthy, and unsustainable,” adding that people are asking more and more of librarians, but not what local jurisdictions can do. With that, she points out what should be obvious: “the library cannot and should not be everything,” with librarians working to serve the information needs of users. But this does not mean that librarians are lawyers, doctors, social workers, or “miracle worker[s]” [3] and that these information professionals should not be told to do more with nothing (or less) or that they are not focused on their community, as they evidently are, on the whole. She added to this by saying that the community she serves “deserves real experts, real services, real care, not just a librarian with access to narcan,” doing what she can to help her community, but is not willing to “sacrifice myself and my staff to be EVERYTHING to EVERYONE,” saying that “does not make me unsuited for public libraries.”

Those that responded to Jurgen had a similar and understandable sentiment, clearly based in reality. Some sarcastically pointed out it was a “great time” with librarians when budgets for social services are being slashed, with job insecurity and low pay, which Justin the Librarian barely talks about, as I’ll note in this piece. Others said that it is wrong to say that librarians who are facing trauma (or stress) from their work are “worthless and not cut out for the job” and that it is dangerous for librarians to think of themselves as everything for their community and patrons without training, as “it’s unethical to pretend we are or can be.” Responses beyond this pointed out that library budgets need to train staff appropriately if they continue to “stay on the front lines of community service,” especially since some people at their library jobs have not received any training, and that there should be efforts to “set boundaries for yourself/your organization.” The latter would use effective “social capital” of libraries to push back. Some added that the idea that librarians should do “everything” is problematic because “working with the public is taxing emotionally and physically,” making it an unrealistic expectation, and that the idea that librarianship is a job “worth killing ourselves for” should be challenged, citing an article by Fobazi Ettarh within In the Library With the Lead Pipe. Additional comments echoed the same sentiments already expressed, noted that this is one of the only professions where an unrealistic “level of involvement is expected and required,” that there should be professional boundaries as “it’s just not healthy or good service to expect library staff to be everything to everyone.” Final comments stated that if librarians are required to “everything to everyone they need to raise your salary” a lot, that people were apparently “misinterpreting” the post, called the thread by Jurgens a “must read” with Jurgens outlining “perfectly what should be done,” and said that the idea that librarians should be “everything for everyone” is a perfect “recipe for burnout” along with being a harmful expectation.

In the case of Justin, his viewpoint as a White male librarian should be no surprise. While you could say he has good intentions in that he wants librarians to connect with the community, out from behind their desks, including his support of efforts to reduce library fines, which are positives that librarians should undoubtedly aim to do in order to cement the importance of their public institutions to the communities they serve, his idea that library materials should be put in public restrooms is a mistake, especially if there are actual materials in those restrooms. I remember when working at the Washington Village branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and there was a key to get into the bathrooms and it was prohibited to bring library materials into the bathrooms themselves. Perhaps he is thinking about pamphlets or something, but this idea, from how I understand it, rubs me the wrong way. The same goes for his “seven things” that he declares libraries should do. He suggests buying/collecting local, making stuff with patrons, building apps, standing up for yourself, exploring new partnerships, collect things the community wants not “what you want,” and be “very nice.” Some may say that this is all hunky dory and that there are no problems with these approaches, especially when it comes to providing new and exciting services for the communities they serve. But, should libraries have their collections solely determined by the community? Shouldn’t they have the ability to choose materials they think are necessary, even if that does not fit with what the community is requesting at the present time? Additionally, the “very nice” aspect (which he brings up in a later post), seems optimistic but also unrealistic. Can libraries afford to be nice to every single person, including those patrons which are problematic or disruptive? Clearly libraries should strive to serve every member of the community they can, regardless of their socio-economic class, race, gender, or other characteristic, but the idea you should be nice to everyone is clearly emotional work/labor for the librarians themselves. At the same time, the goals he suggests could easily cause stress on librarians with increased responsibilities on top of their existing duties. [4]

Justin doesn’t stop there. He writes about e-books, suggests that librarians should stop saying “no” to patrons (whatever that entails), and wrote a chapter of a book on library marketing while also presenting on personal branding. [5] This writings remind me of the Achieving Organizational Excellence I took last semester as part of my MLIS program, with skills that would speak to a manager like himself, but was seen as an annoying and unnecessary class by many of my fellow classmates, from what I recall. I still remember at the beginning of the semester when the professor asked who wanted to be a manager and a few people raised their hands. [6] By the end of the semester, the same question was asked and NO ONE raised their hands, as everyone detested the class and did  not want to be a manager, with most of the class materials written for managers, not for those at the bottom of the employee ladder who could be managers in the future. In this way, his perspective differs from most librarians, many of whom are not managers, since that’s not how hierarchies work. Is it any surprise that Justin the Librarian would push aside planning programs “having grand ideas, and just thinking and talking and thinking some more but not acting as quickly as I could”? Simultaneously he would endorse library programming, which seems contradictory. Furthermore, he seems to be on the “innovation” train when it comes to libraries, seems to think he “knows” how librarians should act at work (compared to how they apparently use their time), and focuses on hiring. As a director, it is no surprise he would write about the difference between management and leadership, declare that libraries need to transform, and say that “working in a public library is not about competition. It is about community.” Some of these ideals, like saying that libraries are about communities, is not necessarily bad and should be encouraged. But, grumbling about how librarians spend their time at work and focusing on transforming/innovating a library is a problem, especially since the latter could cause undue disruptions in the library itself, weakening the role that libraries play as community centers.

Many may say that libraries are for “every single person that comes through the doors of their public library,” which fits with existing concepts of social responsibility that librarians often exude, and that librarians do, on the whole, work which “has a positive impact on your community.” However, the former carries with it various problems, like the issues of Nazis in the library or other bigoted individuals, which none of his blogs, from what I could find, ever address. The closest he gets to this is focusing on having a safe working environment which does not have “sexual harassment, stalking, and inappropriate comments.” Does he never think about bigoted individuals in libraries? His blog indicates that he does not think about this in on a general basis, which is troubling. Similarly, you can say that he is right that every public library should do an annual report. However, this could easily be turned back on the library itself, used by those who want to cut public services and privatize them, so there should be care in compiling these reports, that they don’t result in the idea that libraries can “do more with less” which is inherently destructive, as even Justin the librarian admits, when he says that there’s a limit to that thinking. As anyone who has been employed would know, just because people are nice and friendly to you, they can be sadistic and use the statistics, requirements, and metrics against you and your organization. As such, just because someone is nice, this is no guarantee that those on the other side of the relationship (like those in government or business) will not be jerks.

In other posts, Justin the Librarian says that libraries should be made more simple, focus their services on the “hyperlocal” level, and focus on the community more than anything else, even giving suggestions for small rural libraries with strapped budgets. Again, the first two suggestions are problematic in that it could limit the purview of libraries too much, at worst making them not as much of community centers, allowing them to serve patrons from all walks of life, and centers of learning then they should be. In one post, back in October 2017, he declares that “people don’t come in and borrow books on how to do things/fix things/research things anymore.” I wouldn’t say that is completely true, as people come in and borrow books all the time and that will not stop, even with the advent of the library. Of course, libraries should change over time and not be static, but I think “simplifying” libraries could have problematic elements to them, especially with the incorporating business elements: providing library patrons “with amazing customer service.” I still remember in my exit interview with a HR rep of the Pratt Library and I started talking about patrons and they corrected me to say those were “consumers.” To me, it is deeply problematic to adopt these business terms and concepts in libraries and other public institutions, as you could call those who use libraries as either patrons or library users. There should be a clear wall of separation between public and private institutions when it comes to conceptions used to make a profit. I know there has already been some leakage into public institutions, but it should be limited to the best extent possible.

One of Justin’s worst ideas is not his “summer reading treehouse” which seems a bit silly or even library billboards, but rather library currency. How is this exciting, as he claims? That sounds like a terrible idea that need an extensive infrastructure to put in place. He actually wrote about this idea again, recently, saying that he likes “the idea of a library currency that rewards good library behaviors, engages community members in programs, and helps patrons with library fines” and saying this idea of currency “goes a long way in promoting kindness in the community.” He closes by adding that “this idea may work or this idea may not work. The important thing is to always keep dreaming and to keep on trying new things for your community. They are the most important thing in public libraries.” While I appreciate that sentiment, I’m still not onboard on the “library currency” train, as it seems that it would cause strain on libraries themselves and those that work within them. And with that, I would argue that it seems evident that he doesn’t care as much about those who work in librarians as much as he would think.

On the whole, you could say that Justin the Librarian has his “heart in the right place.” However, he seriously needs to rethink many of his conceptions of how libraries work and think not only of management but the legions of librarians who do the on-the-ground work, leading to stress, trauma, and strain, to say the least. The idea that librarians should be able to do “everything” for every community member is a clearly ignorant statement. It should be roundly rejected and replaced with the idea that librarians should do what they can, but never try to be “everything” since it would stretch their personal capacities and the institutions themselves, weakening the profession as a whole, even as librarians work to serve patrons from all walks of life.


[1] He almost guilt-trips people into working in public libraries, saying: “this is a great time to be working in a public library. Sure, there are bumps in the road but overall your community members value the work you do, from the events you plan to the collections you develop and even the little moments where you’re checking out library materials to a community member. Every step of the way in your work at your public library your community values you. Who wouldn’t want to work in a place like this?” This is utterly disgusting, as it seems to act like those who don’t work in public libraries are somehow bad.

[2] But, Justin the Librarian does not stop there. He does say it is fine if you “do not want to be on the path that public libraries are on” and even if you do not like change, there is nothing wrong with you, adding that by asking yourself if you want to work in a public library you can “learn a lot about yourself, grow, and if the need arises move onto something that better suits you.” He ends by saying that if you choose to work in a public library then it benefits the library and the community, adding “be honest and be true to the decision. Be honest and be true to yourself. That’s all you need to be in this life.” You could say these sentiments are, a bit, condescending.

[3] At minimum, we can say that librarians should not be social workers, grief counselors, or financial advisors, to say the least. Perhaps they will be forced into these roles, due to the current strain on social services within the U.S., but this is not an ideal situation.

[4] Justin has probably never read Not Always Right (focused on funny and dumb stories about “consumers”/users across society) and its many stories focusing on libraries.

[5] Speaking of branding, in one post he expresses his anger at social media, yet in another he literally advertises his social media, promoting his own…brand! Clearly a case of hypocrisy, if you ask me.

[6] This was followed by a question of how many will end up being managers, with more people raising their hands than was the case with the other question.

Challenges of archival digitization, Robert Caro, and digital archives

Recently, when going through LinkedIn, I came upon a post by Margot Note, whom wears many hats simultaneously as a records manager, archivist, author, and consultant, about the shifting concepts of preservation in the digital world, which had been written last fall. She argues that information professionals, like archivists, have questioned existing assumptions about preservation, with the creation of new principles to born-digital materials (like tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts) and those materials which are digitized. This change is happening while physical records deemed to have “enduring value” are still acquired, stored, and made accessible. She goes on to state that the ever-changing digital landscape has added complexities to archival practice, altering existing procedures, especially in the realm of preservation, since those methods used to preserve physical paper materials no longer translate to digital resources, requiring new methods. For example, she notes that you can’t reverse preservation treatments for digital records, unlike with paper records, such as migrating digital files to new formats when old ones are not usable anymore. These are transformations that, hopefully, do not constrain the original functionality of records.

She also adds that for digital materials, the content is what important, not the carrier for such content and that unlike physical paper materials, which may not deteriorate rapidly if they are ignored, digital files are stored on media that “deteriorates, and rely on hardware and software that may no longer be available” which means that neglect is not an option. This means that despite differences in preserving digital and paper materials (often called “analog” or “legacy” materials), some practices can apply to both, like appraisal and addressing information as a collection rather than on an individual level, while recognizing that all materials have “the tendency to decay.” She ends by saying that digital and paper preservation considers needs of patrons, with action needed, ultimately, to preserve materials in the immediate future, “ensure the survival of research materials for our users,” and ultimately sustain “cultural heritage for the next generation.”

While this is a good start, there is a lot more to talk about. I could bring in some of her other publications, like a book on family archives [1], but I’d like to broaden the scope. This article will talk about the challenge of digitization in archives (with connection to Robert Caro’s recent comments) and challenges of digital archives. There will also be a connection to sister institutions of archives, libraries, which are distinct in and of themselves [2], as I have noted on this blog in the past, even as you get a MLIS/MLS (Master of Library and Information Science or the rapidly dwindling Master of Library Science) to study…archives. As the SAA notes on their “So You Want to Be an Archivist” page, the “number and content of archival education offerings, especially multi-course programs, has continued to expand in recent years, and a few institutions now offer master’s degrees in archival studies.” I’ve recently wondered why degrees like archival science (or perhaps archival studies) are not more widely offered, but perhaps that is a discussion which can branch out from this post.

Robert Caro’s faulty argument and archival digitization

From the NARA Strategic Plan (2014-2018).

In order to begin this discussion, I am reminded of some dialogue in the 1971 science fiction movie, The Andromeda Strain. One character, Mr. Mark Hall (played by James Olson) asks “where is the library?” to which his colleague, Dr. Charles Dutton (played by David Wayne) responds: “No need for books. Everything’s in the computer.” And the movie goes on, as there is no more discussion. Later on the computer does have an error and overload when too much information is inputted by the scientists, the “heroes” of this film in this top-secret facility in the Nevada desert called “Wildfire.” The fact that everything is stored on the computer is not mentioned in any reviews of the movie I have found, and as such, perhaps people should revisit this movie for just this reason, as it is still relatively enjoyable. We have gotten to the point that everything is “in the computer” like in this film, not only with libraries and other public institutions, but more and more with archival institutions in recent days.

That brings us to the recent debate of what Robert Caro, a presidential scholar of the Johnson Administration said about digitization, whom was criticized by fellow archivists on the Twittersphere (and likely elsewhere), of archival records. He tried to describe how people are differently interacting with the records now than they had in the past, in the “pre-internet” days, those before the internet was publicly available, the days in which it was available only to universities and the government which Joe McMillian tried to exploit in a few episodes (starting with the Yerba Buena episode) of the third season of the short-lived series, Halt and Catch Fire, but not having much success as the show is all about failure.

Caro’s words come from a recent interview by of Popular Mechanics because of the publication of his new book, Working, about his research process, apparently a #1 best-seller on Amazon. He told the interviewer  that he still does much of his writing on a typewriter although he has a laptop on his desk (apparently a Lenovo ThinkPad). This is because he was told by those at the Johnson Presidential Library that his “typewriter was so noisy, it was disturbing the other researchers” which is telling. He also tells the interviewer that he took notes on his computer but still uses his typewriter and writes in longhand (who does that anymore?). While some would argue that this is fine, what he stated next is what was criticized by archivists on Twitter:

It [writing on a typewriter] makes me think more. Today everybody believes fast is good. Sometimes slow is good. Almost two years ago, Ina [Caro’s wife] and I went down [to the archives], and I’m sitting there, in the reading room, writing my notes. Everybody else is standing there taking photographs of their documents. They do it with cell phones now. If you saw me there, you’d see one person who’s not in the modern age.

Now, while each researcher can choose their own way to use documents, it seems like he is glaring down on those whom use their phones, or other electronic devices, to take pictures of documents. How can you even argue that those individuals are not taking their own notes or that they can think the same amount when using digital devices? As Jan Murphy, a family historian whom is a big fan of encouraging people to take notes, added on Twitter, it wouldn’t be right to “insist on all handwritten notes all the time,” the latter of which is “just nuts.” Adding to this is the fact that digital photos can be transcribed at home, even comparing information from different archives. Additionally, sometimes people like Caro, whom could be considered to be part of the traditionalist/silent generation since he was born in 1935, may not even be able to read their own handwriting! This it the case with others, especially those whom have dysgraphia, with the extent this learning disability affects the general population not currently known. With this, we should also consider that not everyone has the leisure/ability to transcribe material needed from an archive in longhand. Some, as Murphy noted in another tweet, would rather “spend the time in the archive, having taken my photo, making notes about the record’s condition & taking notes for my source citation etc.” The question is simple, as Murphy, who sometimes wishes she had a small manual typewriter when electricity is off, asks, posing a question which Caro never really answers: “But what’s wrong with taking digital photos of records in archives?” I could definitely concur with that. I don’t see anything wrong with it. In fact, I would argue that institutions like the Maryland State Archives are examples of institutions which allow electronic devices such as phones to take photos of documents.

After this, he goes into the use of paper records:

I feel there’s something very important, to be able to turn the pages yourself. I don’t want anything standing in between me and the paper. People compliment me on finding out how [Johnson] rose to power so fast in Congress by using money. That happened down there, and it was a vague, amorphous thing. I was sitting there with all these boxes, taking all these notes. And you saw letters, his very subservient letters—“Can I have five minutes of your time?”—and then you see the same letters coming back to him. And I said, Something happened here. What’s the explanation? Why is a committee chairman writing to Lyndon Johnson, asking for a few minutes of his time? So I sat there and put my notes into chronological order. And then it became absolutely clear. Would the same thing have happened if I’d stood there taking photographs and went back? Possibly. But I don’t believe it. To me, being in the papers is really important.

While I understand what he is saying here, more and more records are online than ever before, meaning that the records of the Obama Administration and future presidencies will undoubtedly be different from those of the Johnson Administration. Caro is almost stuck back in time, part of the old guard of presidential scholars whom inhabited presidential libraries (which can more accurately be called presidential archives). I won’t touch on the plans for the Obama Library only because I have written on that topic for one of my classes at UMD and it may be published in an academic journal in the future (fingers crossed), so I don’t want to tread on the same topics in this post. I would add that using paper records is not the only way to interact with records, as users can easily interact with them online using new and exciting methods.

From here, Caro becomes a bit ridiculous:

Well, there’s no reason why that [a deep dive through thousands of digital pages of emails] has to be a different kind of research. Someone else could come along who was nuts like me and say, I’m going to look at every email. What’s more worrisome to me is that, when you talk about digitization, somebody has to decide what’s digitized. I don’t want anyone deciding what I can see. It’s very hard to destroy a complete paper trail of something. Lyndon Johnson was very secretive, and he wanted a lot of stuff destroyed. But the fact is, they were cross-referencing these pages into ten or twenty or thirty different files. There’s always something. But the whole idea of emails—I don’t use emails, I may be wrong—I’m not sure there’s a trail like that. It’s too easy to delete.

While he makes a good point that there can be the same kind of research, that doesn’t mean he is right on the whole. It is laughable for him to claim that “when you talk about digitization, somebody has to decide what’s digitized” and to then declare “I don’t want anyone deciding what I can see.” Clearly, he does not, understand the fundamental archival principle of appraisal, which has been debated from the time of those like British archivist Hilary Jenkinson in 1922 and U.S. archivist T.R. Schellenberg in 1956, the selection and description within archives. The records he is looking at, while researching at the Johnson Library, are chosen by professional archivists, specifically those from NARA, so people are deciding what he can see. As such, deciding what records are digitized is also a responsibility of archivists, which will be explained later in this post.

He further claims that it is “very hard to destroy a complete paper trail of something.” I’m not actually completely sure about that. Taking from NARA’s official history of presidential libraries, they write that before these libraries came about, with impetus from FDR in 1939 when he donated his personal papers to the federal government, presidential papers were often dispersed by former presidents and their heirs after their time in office. They further note that while many collections of records exist of presidents before Hoover at the Library of Congress, others are divided between historical societies, libraries, and private collectors. Even worse, as they acknowledge, “many materials have been lost or deliberately destroyed.” So a “complete paper trail,” as he described it, CAN be destroyed.

Taking into account that “Lyndon Johnson was very secretive, and he wanted a lot of stuff destroyed” as he notes, this contradicts his point that it is “very hard to destroy a complete paper trail of something.” I mention this because it would mean that if Johnson wanted, he could have worked to destroy a complete paper trail, especially since it was after Watergate that presidential records were considered property of the federal government rather than “private property” of the former Presidents, a view also widely held in the archival profession at the time. Furthermore, when he talks about cross-referencing of the pages, he seems to not understand how emails work. This is no surprise from someone who doesn’t “use emails,” as he admits! He claims that he is not “sure there’s a trail like that” and that “it’s too easy to delete” emails. While it is true is easy to “delete” them, think about “deleted” files on a computer. They are not really deleted but rather the directory to them is eliminated. The same is also true of any file, whether a PDF, a photograph, or something else you upload online: the file is never truly deleted, but only the directory to it is deleted. Just like when you throw something away in a garbage can, it is not simply eliminated, but it is sent somewhere else, like a horrid waste-to-energy plant or an overflowing landfill. There was actually a whole Futurama episode about an overly wasteful society back in May 1999, titled “A Big Piece of Garbage.”

As Curl Hopkins wrote in The Daily Dot six years ago, when a user “deletes” an email normally it becomes “invisible to that user and is immediately a candidate to be overwritten” but until then it exists and it may even “persist longer on company servers.” He further notes that even if a computer is “taken off your computer, it may still be available on the host’s server,” adding that you must “presume that any email you compose will be available remain accessible forever,” although secure email services are available. There may still be “elements that indicate the prior presence of the email” and logins that are often retained, to say the least. Even one article recommending how to delete emails forever warns that “some online email services maintain an offline backup of email accounts,” adding that “your permanently deleted email may still reside in these inaccessible backups…There is no way to force immediate deletion of emails in these backups.” Also, there are specific data retention rules on the federal level and likely within various organizations, which require retention of such emails. I am also reminded here of “Testimony” (S4, ep9) of Veep. I mention this because, at one point during the episode, Mike McLintock (played by Matt Walsh), the incompetent press secretary, is brought before a congressional committee. He thinks he deleted the voice memos of then-president, Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus). In fact, as the committee reminds him, these memos exist in the cloud and they plan to listen to them for any further evidence in their investigation! [3]

With that, it leads to the next part of this post, which goes to a question that the public, taken in by stereotypes about archivists, often asks of archivists and archival institutions.

Why can’t everything be digitized?

In May 2017, Samantha Thompson, an archivist at the Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives, wrote a post which aimed to answer the question of why archivists don’t digitize everything since it is a common question. As such, it is clearly important to remind people who not everything is digitized and that, in fact, “only a tiny fraction of the world’s primary resources are available digitally,” coupled with the fact that archivists and librarians themselves are “behind the abundance of primary sources already available on the internet” while organizations like the Internet Archive, or have raised “public expectations about access to historical resources.” [4] She goes onto argue that digitization, the “production of an electronic image of these record,” saves information from a paper record, but it does not produce “a clone of the record” but rather results in an “approximation…of a dimension of the record,” often called a surrogate. She further notes that while archivists commonly digitize records in order to increase access (which some cataloguers do as well), they also argue (rightly) that mass digitization is costly in time and money, which sometimes people are skeptical of, not realizing that “large-scale digitization in an institutional setting is not your average home scanning operation.” There a few reasons for this, including archives holding vast amounts of material, with digitizing of even small archival collections as a big time commitment since many groups of archival records are not easy to scan in quickly.

For instance, while you could use an automatic feeder to quickly scan a stack of pages, the benefits of such speed have to be “weighed against the risk of a one-of-a-kind document being mangled by a paper jam” which is always a concern! This means you must engage in manually scanning which includes tasks such as removing staples (and paper clips), positioning the item, processing the images, and entering the appropriate metadata, all of which is a lot of work. As such, “scanning a single archival box of records can take days” as she puts it. This is even more the case if records within the file are various shapes and sizes, or if they are large enough that they have to be scanned in sections and “digitally stitched together.” While sometimes taking a photograph is the best option, you need a “high-quality photographic set-up including lighting, document holders, and a camera with an appropriate lens” which obviously is expensive enough that not all institutions can afford such a set-up. This means that scanning produces not an exact copy of the record “but only an impression of certain aspects of it” and it may be hard to convey annotations (like sticky notes) on the paper record itself in a digital form, or physical characteristics of the paper records. This brings us to one of the most important parts: linking the digitized record to crucial information, which is often called metadata, some of which is technical and other parts that describe the record itself. The latter is information like a date or time the record was created. But some elements are more complex like determining the “story of the person or organization that created it.” As she puts it rightly, an individual record “within an archival collection does not tell us its whole story.” This means that without vital descriptive work of paper records in the first place, those electronic records which are produced through digitization would be an unusable and undifferentiated mass.

She goes onto note that since digitization involves investment of resources and time, archivists need to be clear that the electronic files produced adequately represent the originals, meaning there need to be quality control checks in place. This involves factors such as scanning resolutions, typing accuracy and photographic skill, since archivists are responsible for ensuring that “people are getting a reliable and authentic view of records.” There is another conundrum with digitization itself: archivists are required to not only retain the paper originals but the digital files as well. These are files that are subject to disorder and decay just like paper records, with a tiny shift causing a set of errors, with even unused data subject to random degradation and loss, often called “bit rot.” Coupled with this is the question of future readability of the data, since digitization of files is not worthwhile if no one can open the files as software and the accompanying “hardware inevitably becomes obsolete.” Luckily for all of us, especially those in the archival field, archivists are at the forefront of pushing boundaries of digital longevity as technologies and file format standards are improving. However,as she notes, the “average lifespan of a hard or flash drive is still a fraction of that of a piece of paper stored in optimal conditions” with digital data needing to be stored in specific temperature conditions as well. All of this means that when anything is digitized, archivists commit to maintaining the digital file and the original on which that file is based.

This connects to the resources required for digitization and post-digitization duties. For one, cameras and scanners which are high-resolution which can accurately capture the data are relatively expensive, with the same being the case for software to process images and attain digital storage which is secure. In order for digitization to “make a dent” in an average archival collection. A scanner, or several scanners, need to be constantly working, with some large archivists maintaining specific digitization units while smaller institutions fit it in when and where they can among their other duties. As a result, digitization of specific records is often part of projects which are funded by partnerships or grants, as she notes. In terms of the post-digitization duties, it is needed to make sure that the records are responsibly shared on the web, after checking with donor(s) to make sure the records can be freely shared in the first place with some not wanting this to happen for various reasons or due to copyright restrictions. Such sharing is important as it allows archivists to make the full meaning of records available to those accessing them online.

As such, digitization itself, as she argues, is a process that is approached by archivists methodically. This requires, of course, assessing archival collections beforehand in order to determine whether the records are worth being shared and digitized. Such a process takes time, even if an “inexpensive pool” of labor can be mobilized, along with a big investment of resources and time. As a result, as she puts it, we may never, in fact, have everything digitized, with trials and triumphs of digitization being a “constantly unfolding process” while new models are coming about. With that, access is still important, as is digitization, with archivists continuing to “grapple with this immensely powerful way to broadcast the knowledge we steward.” Her article ends by stating that everyone can help support digitization through sharing information that goes with a photograph from an institutional collection, and to, most important of all: “be curious about what archivists, information professionals, and cultural workers do.” The latter requires, of course, asking questions and spreading answers, since the more people who understand the value of archivists, the more support they will get, and the more support archivists can provide to the public at-large.

It is worth recalling here a paper I wrote last semester (which will likely never be published anywhere academically) where I asked different archival institutions about their approach to digitization, using different forms of interaction, like Twitter, email, web-form submissions, and web-chat (AskUsNow!), the latter which is relatively horrible/annoying from my experience, although others may have had different experiences. [5] One of the best responses I got was from Corey Lewis of the Maryland State Archives (MSA) whom told me that I could personally contact him if I was interested in their digitization efforts. It was a response of high quality I wouldn’t have gotten if I had just looked on their website. To this day, they still don’t have their digitization strategy on their website from what I can tell (perhaps its hidden somewhere). I also got responses back from the Council of State Archives (CoSA) on digitization and even from the Oregon State Archives, the latter of which I hadn’t even tweeted to, which was impressive. In a similar manner to the person from the MSA, I got a message from Joanne Archer, the head of Access and Outreach Services at Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland Libraries, which said I could send her any further questions. Interestingly, when it comes to digitization they do not “directly solicit campus input.”

With that, we can move into the final part of this post which focuses on challenges of digital archives and the digital world.

Challenges of digital archives and the current digital landscape

In the “Mars University” episode of Futurama, which first aired on October 3rd, 1999, the Planet Express crew go to Mars, which has, in the universe of this wondrous animated sitcom, been terraformed and has a typical college campus called Mars University. Before the episode becomes an homage/parody to Animal House, there is a scene where Professor Farnsworth tells Leela, Fry, and Bender about the Wong Library, adding that it has “the largest collection of literature in the Western universe.” After that, Fry looks in and sees these two disks:

That’s obviously the joke, and is more than a “bookish moment.” It’s basically saying that all the knowledge can be stored on two disks. It’s still kinda funny, although the joke is dated, as these are supposed to be something like CDs (which first came about in 1982). In a future post I’ll definitely bring in the Futurama episode (“Lethal Inspection”) that fellow archivist Samantha Cross of POP Archives reviewed, when I get to that season, as I’m currently only on Season 2 of the show as I plan to re-watch all the show’s episodes, over time.

This brings us to digital archives, specifically, which goes beyond the digitization of paper files. This applies to files which are born-digital. It requires, of course, a digital preservation policy as Margot Note, who was cited at the beginning of this article, writes about, which would need to be integrated into the program of an archives itself. It would also necessitate collaboration with other institutions and individuals in preserving digital records, and making sure that digital preservation is specifically tailored to your institution. Beyond this, there are two elements that apply to digital archives: choosing what will be preserved and file formats that are sustainable.

For the first element, I turn to an article, again, by Margot Note. She writes that selection and appraisal of digital records is similar to physical records,but that long-term preservation of digital records relies on “understanding of how file formats work.” It also requires, as she notes, access to the appropriate hardware and software, with the appropriate skills, with the unavailability of these factors in an archival institution meaning that preservation of the digital files will not be successful. As such, technical appraisal of the digital files, themselves, considers whether they can be read, then subsequently documented, processed and finally preserved. Helping choose what digital archives preserve depends on whether the content itself is relevant to the mission of the archival institution, the historical value of the records, specifically if they have enduring value or are significant socially or culturally. For the digital records themselves, archivists also need to consider the integrity of the files, if they are usable or reliable. This means answering whether the materials themselves are in “preservation-friendly file formats” and if there are limits on the records, in terms of privacy or intellectual property, which makes them “inaccessible for research.” Another important factor, as she describes is funding since the preservation and management of such digital records is by no means cheap. Finally, she notes that one must consider whether the digital records are unique or whether they are fully documented. She adds that keeping everything, when it comes to digital files, is not wise, since there are limited resources and mechanisms to search (and access) collections of a large-scale are often not adequate, and that selection curates collections which will ultimately have “high research value.” She ends with her point that no matter how complicated the systems for managing digital records become, people need to be involved in choosing what is preserved as digital archival records. Even with the possible automation of some decisions in days to come, archivists would need to balance benefits of saving certain digital records over other digital records, at a time that archivists continue to rise to the challenge of selecting and maintenance of “digital artifacts in a changing technological landscape” as she puts it.

In a related article, she writes about archivists choosing the right and sustainable file formats. This relates to digital archives because the sustainability of digital records in and of themselves depends on file formats that will last for long times, with the Library of Congress putting in place “some criteria for predicting sustainable file formats in digital archives” as she puts it. It further requires considering whether a format is widely used, the files can be identified, specifications of file formats are publicly available and documented, the files can function on a variety of services (be interoperable), and they have an open format since issues with licensing, patents, digital rights, and property rights complicate preservation efforts. She points to efforts by the Digital Preservation Coalition to analyze file formats which are commonly used. She also writes that over time some file formats have become preferred over others, like TIFF files used as master images for preservation during digitization and PDF/A as a standard file format. Even so, some standards for file formats are still in flux, with no consensus among archivists, as she puts it, as to what “file format or codecs should be used for preservation purposes for digital video”! At the closing of her article, she argues that regardless of the preservation actions you take, having file formats that are sustainable is crucial, since having file formats which are lasting influences the “feasibility of protecting content” in the face of a changing environment in the technological world where repositories and users co-exist at the present.

Speaking of all of this, I am reminded of an ongoing study by S.C. Healy, a PhD candidate in digital humanities at a university based in Ireland (Maynooth University), trying to find how “wider research and cultural heritage communities’ can progress from creating web archives to establishing paradigms to use web archives for study and research.” I plan to sign up for this study as I’ve actually talked about web archiving in a number of classes. This is relevant since, as Genealogy Jude, as she calls herself on Twitter, noted, “the Internet…has shifted the demographic profile of genealogists.” This matters to archives and archivists because many of those genealogists are some of the most common users of libraries. [6] In fact, one of the articles I found during my research for my paper on the Obama Library, a scholar in the 1990s (I don’t remember the exact date), National History Day, where I am being a judge again this year on the state and national levels, and connecting with genealogists as a way to bring in more users to archival institutions.

Perhaps we can even bring in one of the SAA words of the week, specifically level of description. Simply it is defined as the “level of arrangement of the unit being described” and the “completeness or exhaustiveness of the description.” It connects to recent discussions like one at Hornbake Library recently which focuses on impact of digital repositories, which is in the same realm as digital archives. Perhaps discussions like this will make it easier to define what archivists do and what archives are, as some have tried to do through teaching.

I also think about, apart from creation of some digital archives portals, of what Lilly Carrel, archivist at the Menil Archives in Houston said about digital preservation: “I think digital preservation offers creative ways to enhance the post-custodial approach and ensure important records are preserved” whom was recently interviewed by Vince Lee of the SAA’s Committee of Public Awareness, also known as COPA. That is even more the case when there are digital archives, whether completely digital or part of traditional archival institutions like those at universities or serving specific states. There is also a job at the Library of Congress about web archiving, with applications that close on May 1.

With all of this, there is, not surprisingly, a debate among scholars, especially in the field of archives and libraries, over a possible difference between a digital library and a digital archives. Some within the field say there is a difference, while others dismiss that, arguing that there is not. Currently, I don’t want to go down that road, or talk about some continuing tension between historians and archivists, despite past efforts by the SAA to make connections with the AHA, the American Historians Association. I also could talk more about the challenges when it comes to archiving born-digital material, but perhaps I will revisit that in a future post on here.

I’ll end with what one archivist, blogging on the New Archivist WordPress over five years ago, put it, “please keep up the discussions, and contribute in ways that you think have value,” adding that the “seeming lack of support in public” doesn’t mean that archivists are not doing anything. [7] That is what I am trying to do with post and this blog, as a whole, changing from a focus on historical explorations about the Maryland Extra Regiment, the Maryland Loyalist Regiment, reprinting past posts and biographies I wrote when I worked at the MSA on the First Maryland Regiment, which is often called the Maryland 400, and other topics, as readers of this blog from the beginning will know. This all connects to my newfangled newsletter on SubStack, which I recommend readers of this blog subscribe to, which I hope expands in the days to come.

Until next time! I look forward to all of your comments.


[1] She has written so much that I recommended that she could even write a few e-books. She has actually written a number of books already, like Creating Family Archives: How to Preserve Your Papers and Photographs, a paperback book, and two other books more specifically for information professionals: Project Management for Information Professionals (seems like a textbook, although she calls it a “handbook“) and Managing Image Collections: A Practical Guide (Chandos Information Professional Series) (a guide for those at institutional archives, perhaps?).

[2] If you want to know more about the distinction between the two, there is a new book published by the SAA (Society of American Archivists), titled Archives in Libraries: What Librarians and Archivists Need to Know to Work Together, which seems to make these distinctions and could be a good read. I can’t give a firmer assessment as I have not read the book.

[3] Interestingly, in the review of this episode by Kate Kulzick of A.V. Club, this part of the episode is not mentioned. In fact, Mike’s role in the episode is not mentioned at all!

[4] If you are interested, I’d also recommend reading “How do archivists organize collections?“, “How Do Archivists Describe Collections? (or, How to Read a Finding Aid)“, and most importantly “What do archivists do all day?“, two of which are also by Samantha Thompson.

[5] Perhaps at a later time I’ll bring in my other papers I have currently uploaded to like “The concept of a Baltimorean Homeless Library (BHL),” “Uggles and the University of Illinois: a very furry situation indeed!,” and “Strategic Plan Analysis–Maryland State Library Resource Center (SLRC),” the latter of which is relatively technical. All of these are mainly in the realm of libraries rather than archives, however.

[6] She also stated, in a tweet following, that it is good that genealogy has found new people with “energy and new ideas, otherwise it would be a dying hobby” which I will agree with, as a millennial genealogist myself, beyond what someone like fellow genealogist Amy Johnson Crow will describe. Others whom responded to her said that its a time-consuming hobby, while others said that retired people still have some advantages over young people, and her responding to a concern that the internet has isolated people (not an invalid concern), that “the Internet has enabled people to contact relatives and share research much more easily than before” which also is a valid point! This also includes, as Carolynn, another genealogist, argued: “challenging racist, misogynistic and xenophobic genealogists” even if that can be hard. At the same time, I see those, in the wake of the racist ad (for Ancestry Canada) to grumble about how much they “hate” them, for justified reasons, although I don’t necessarily feel the same as a person whom runs two genealogy blogs and is a family historian for both my mom and dad’s side of the family. I seem to sympathize more with those whom say that there are reasons “why you can’t rely on search engines like @Ancestry” with misspellings and mistaken listings.

[7] They also said that the lack of supportive views on Twitter or lists “does not mean that the vast majority of people are not appalled by the few rude ones” but rather that the latter are shown indifference by the many.

The difference between libraries and archives: why it matters

Opening for article
Top results for the words “library” and “archives” on DuckDuckGo. The image on the left is from iris, and the image on the right is from Wikimedia.

In my post late last month, I particularly criticized the writers of episodes within the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series for confusing libraries and archives, when focusing on the lone arranger of the Jedi Archives, Madame Nu, whom embodies a “librarian stereotype” specifically that of the elderly, wise archivist, to say the least. Without covering the same ground I outlined in that article, I’m going to chart a new path in the post to follow.

Table of contents:

  1. What is an archive/s?
  2. What is a library?
  3. How are they different and why does it matter?
  4. Is it a “Jedi Archives” or a “Jedi Library” in Star Wars?
  5. Notes

What is an archive/s?

When it comes to the definition of archives, the archivist profession of which I see myself as a part of, it is relatively simple. The Society of American Archivists, the professional organization for archivists, defines Archives, often usually used in the plural, as an organization that preserves the “documentary heritage of a particular group” whether that is a “city, a province or state, a business, a university, or a community,” specifically saving the records that  “individuals, organizations, and governments create and keep…about their activities” in the course of everyday life. It is archivists whom are the professionals which “assess, collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to these records” with archival records strengthening “collective memory and protect people’s rights, property, and identity” with archives benefiting “nearly everyone—even those who have not used them directly.” The National Records and Research Administration (NARA) defines archives in a similar way, saying it is a “place where people can go to gather firsthand facts, data, and evidence from letters, reports, notes, memos, photographs, and other primary sources.”

Other institutions have similar definitions. The National Museum of American History (NMAH) is part of the broader Smithsonian Institution infrastructure echoes the SAA definition, while noting that archivists identify and preserve the records kept by “individuals, organizations, and governments”  deemed to be of lasting values, with these records taking many different forms, from correspondence to moving image and sound recordings. They argue that these institutions not only “provide firsthand information about the past” but they help those “who want to know about people, places, and events in the past” with archivists assisting “users of archives to locate needed information.” Kings College in Cambridge, UK adds to this that archives provide “evidence of activities and tell us more about individuals and institutions,” showing their importance, which also tells stories, increasing “our sense of identity and understanding of cultures…[and] can even ensure justice.” However, they warn that “records weren’t usually created for the purpose of historical research so they often provide a less biased account of events than secondary sources,” although this is faulty in the sense that secondary sources also have bias as well!

The University of Nottingham adds an important part to this definition:  they note that archives are “inactive documents no longer needed for day to day business,” adding that “archive records have usually been chosen for retention because of their long-term importance” with these records being “unique items which cannot be replaced” and are  fundamentally primary sources. They also note that the person whom is “in charge of preserving the archive” is the archivist, whom works to “make archives available to historians and other researchers, who use them as a way to find out about the past.” This shows that archives clearly “record what happened in the past, how it happened, and sometimes even why it happened.” The definition of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) has a similar definition, saying that archives can either mean records preserved permanently due to their “enduring value,” a building, room or storage area “where archival material is kept,” or an organization responsible for control and care of archival material. They importantly add that “all archives are records, but not all records become archives” with those records “preserved because of their enduring value” called archives, with NAA having their own specific requirements, with the archives creating and maintaining “databases, fact sheets, guides and other reference tools,” called finding aids, to help users “identify relevant agencies and the records they created.”

Th National Archives in the UK has by far the broadest definition of an archives: “collections of information — known as records” which come in various forms like letters, reports, minutes, registers, maps,  photographs, digital files, and sound recordings. They also note that while some archives are created by governments, businesses, or business organizations, others are private or personal (containing your own collection of records), meaning that archives “can contain records with a local focus or specialise in a particular theme such as railways.” The National Archives of Fiji adds to this, building upon archival literature, that archives “are documents made or received and accumulated by a person or organisation in the course of the conduct of affair and preserved because of their continuing value” and that they are kept not only  as “long term memory” but as a “way of accessing the experience of others.” Additionally archives can be “evidence of continuing rights and obligations…instruments of power, legitimacy and accountability, facilitating social interaction and cohesion” as well as a source of “our understanding and identification of ourselves, our organizations and society” and can be “vehicles for communication political, social and cultural value.” One of the strongest definitions is from the International Council of Archives, which defines archives as “the documentary by-product of human activity retained for their long-term value,” being contemporary records created by organizations or individuals “as they go about their business,” providing a direct window “on past events,” coming in a wide range of formats, either are held by public or private institutions along with specific resources. It is added that in order for archives to be a “trusted resource” by society, they need to have authenticity, reliability, integrity, and usability, but should never be regarded as “the truth” but only as “a contemporaneous record from an individual or organisation with a particular level of involvement and point of view,” something which users of archives should be aware of. This definition also notes that records are retained in this archives only if they have “long-term historical value” and that documents need to not be required for “the use for which they were created,” with these documents coming “in a wide range of analogic and digital media – not just paper documents.” They end by saying the sources of records in archives are governments, courts, businesses, trade unions, religious organizations, universities and schools, military bodies, theatres, charities, communities, individuals, and families.

The Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR) notes that archives specifically “identify, appraise, preserve, and make available documentary materials of long-term value (essential evidence) to the organization or public that the archives serves” while also ensuring government accountability and/or accountability of nongovernmental institutions. They also argue that archives preserve unique or collective documents, serving as “memory institutions for a culture” while also supporting “scholarly, administrative, and personal research.” Also worth mentioning are those scholars whom have written about archives and special collections.

With that, we can pose a tentative definition of archives:

An organization or institution, whether physical or online, which preserves first-hand documentary heritage (deemed to be not only be inactive, irreplaceable, and unique but have permanent or long-term value) or long-term memory of a particular group, whether a business, government, or otherwise non-governmental organizational, or an individual, and is also a place (whether public, private, or personal) where people can go to gather first-hand data, facts, and evidence about the past from various records, whether analog or digital.

We can also add that archivists, furthermore, are only the ones that assist users in finding this information but in charge of the archive itself, working to make the information within as accessible as possible, caring for and controlling the archival records. These records, importantly should never be regarded as “the truth” but only as “a contemporaneous record” from a specific organization or individual, while the archives needs to have authenticity, reliability, integrity, and usability in order to be a trusted resource by society.

What is a library?

Not surprisingly, libraries and promoters of libraries define themselves in broad terms for the most part. The American Library Association (ALA), the professional organization for librarians, says, in the preamble to most recent State of America’s Libraries report, that libraries within the United  States are playing “a pivotal role in strengthening communities through education and lifelong learning,” adding that they “are a microcosm of the larger society,” playing an “important and unique role in the communities that they serve and provide an inclusive environment where all are treated with respect and dignity,” serving as “a lifeline for some of our nation’s most vulnerable communities” while working as “catalysts in fostering community-wide solutions that strengthen communities.” In the report itself, they say are that libraries are “community partners,” a “smart investment,” major information-sharers, along with other positive aspects of libraries, while specifically outlining what is happening in public, academic, and school libraries, apart with library issues. However, they never provide a definition of libraries anywhere in the report itself! The same is the case in the most recent survey of public libraries in the U.S. by the federally-funded Institute of Museum and Library Services, counting over 16,000 public libraries in the U.S. itself.

While there are clearly different types of libraries, specifically academic, public libraries, school, and special libraries, some have proposed some broad definitions for libraries. One of those is by the ALA’s initiative, I Love Libraries, saying that libraries are “places of information” and beyond books and written material, they offer “people free access to a wealth of information that they often can’t find elsewhere, whether online, in print or in person.” They also argued that librarians are “information experts, selecting books relevant to the community, creating helpful programming, and connecting people to information.” It was also argues that libraries are “community hubs” which connect people to people, leveling the playing field as “great democratic institutions…[and] places for community engagement” meaning that “in the 21st century, libraries are about much more than books.” Other promoters of libraries noted that public libraries meant to originally “acquire books and then lend those books out to the community to improve literacy, share knowledge and provide education and entertainment” but now they offer “a wide variety of resources and services to the communities they serve” with their primary goals still as “education, information, individual improvement and recreation.” One article, by Hugh McGuire, even noted that as e-books become “dominant form of casual reading for adults at some point in the future,” public and community libraries “will face a major existential crisis” since the lending of print books will not longer be “a fundamental demand from the community.” This led to an interesting list of  what these libraries can do in the future: “disseminate books and information for free or close to free…archive information…provide a community space for people to interact around information” and possibly even “give people the tools necessary to manage information in a sensible way.”

The archiving of information is interesting, because they are bringing in elements which often are done by archives, which McGuire only addressed by saying that “community libraries may well serve an important role in collecting, archiving, and organizing information important to a local population, whether print or digital,” adding “the “Internet” cannot and will not archive specifically for specific populations, so there is an important role here for libraries.” The question remains what this would mean for archives, or if these community libraries would actually become community archives rather than libraries and/or some library-archive hybrid. But McGuire doesn’t address this at all.

Beyond this, CLIR provides a broad definition of libraries as identifying, acquiring, preserving, and providing access “to the world’s published knowledge,” promoting intellectual freedom, equity of access to information, while also supporting “continuous learning and research…[and] the development of information literacy in society.” They also, argued by CLIR, serve as “focal points for communities and promote community interests.” Additionally, the federal government, on, adds public libraries “lend books, movies, music, and offer English classes” while helping you find the resources you need (your information needs) and state libraries “collect and preserve information about your state.” There’s also the Library of Congress which is the “nation’s oldest federal cultural institution, the research arm of Congress and the largest library in the world” and the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Physically Handicapped which is a “national network of libraries that loan recorded and braille books, magazines and playback equipment to American citizens who are unable to read or use standard print materials due to visual or physical impairment.” Hilariously, the most cogent definition of libraries comes from the SAA, representing the archival field, saying that public libraries in towns or academic universities in universities can be defined as, generally, “collections of books and/or other print or nonprint materials organized and maintained for use.” They add that patrons of such libraries “can access materials at the library, via the Internet, or by checking them out for home use” and that “libraries exist to make their collections available to the people they serve.”

Taking this all into account, a tentative definition of libraries can be proposed:

Institutions, whether online or in person, that offer people free access to a wealth of information that can’t be found elsewhere through the acquisition, preservation and access to varied materials (sometimes through lending), making them major information-sharers, community partners/hubs, democratic institutions and places for community engagement. These institutions also have primary goals such as information access, “intellectual freedom,” individual improvement, information literacy, and continued learning, helping you find the resources you need to fulfill your information needs. These come in many forms, such as academic, public libraries, school, and special libraries.

It can also be said that librarians are information experts whom not only select relevant materials, whether books or something else, for a community, but create specific  programming, and connect people to information.

How are they different and why does it matter?

Libraries and archives are fundamentally different. As noted by the SAA, while librarians and archivists both preserve, collect, and make materials accessible for research, they differ when it comes to arranging, describing, and using materials in the collections themselves. As they succinctly describe it, materials in archival collections are “unique and often irreplaceable, whereas libraries can usually obtain new copies of worn-out or lost books.” Additionally, the SAA notes that archives exist to make collections available to people, holding published and unpublished material of any format but are often “unique, specialized, or rare objects, meaning very few of them exist in the world, or they are the only ones of their kind” which is not the same for libraries. With archives holding such records, they have specific guidelines for use, unlike libraries. The SAA does admit that “there is a great deal of overlap between archives and libraries” since an “archives may have library as part of its name, or an archives may be a department within a library.” Just take the Maryland State Archives, which is clearly an archival institution but has a small library of books (mostly abstracts from archival records) which users can use.

NAA provides a strong argument of how archival and library material differ. They note that while library material is “usually published and is often held by other libraries or individuals” with lost or stolen material usually replaced, but archives are “original records, often unique and usually irreplaceable.” This means that if “you use an archival record you are often using the only copy that exists.” They further note that because archival records are “fragile and the information they contain is vulnerable to damage or loss through constant or improper handling” this means that “strict rules govern their handling and use.” As a result, these records are “kept in environmentally controlled conditions to minimise their deterioration” and they cannot “be browsed on the shelves as in a library; and they may not be borrowed.” As such, when the records are “requested by researchers…they must be used under supervision.” It is also noted that while books in a library are “catalogued and shelved according to subject and other classification systems,” archives are arranged in a way to “preserve their value as evidence.” They also outline two rules governing the arrangement of archives: that archives of an individual or agency will “not be mixed or intermingled with those of other agencies or individuals” and that archives will be maintained in the “same sequence and filing system in which they were created and maintained.” This arrangement allows researchers in the present to use the information and understand “something about the way the department that created them was organised and administered” with reorganizing these records into a “subject arrangement would destroy these contextual links and would diminish their value as a source of evidence and information.” They end by noting that “respect for provenance and original order in the arrangement of archives has implications for the way they are used for research” meaning that it in most cases records were made “to meet the immediate needs of agencies or individuals, not the diverse research needs of a wider community some years later.” They end with a warning that because archives are not “arranged by subject, finding the information you want will often be time consuming, but it can also be challenging and exciting.”

National Archives of the UK adds to this that while books in a library are often “secondary sources of information” records in an archive are primary sources which “provide first-hand information or evidence relating to historical events or figures.” They also note that while “library books are arranged by subject and author” information in “archives is arranged according to the person or organisation that created it” meaning that you “need to look at records from more than one source, or more than one archive, as you gather information.”

This should effectively have settled the difference between archives and libraries, between archival and library material, and why it matters.

Is it a “Jedi Archives” or a “Jedi Library” in Star Wars?

While there is some confusion not only among librarian-sympathetic quarters (like Jeff O’Neal of Book Riot) but the writers of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series as to whether it is a Jedi Archive or Jedi Library portrayed in the Star Wars series (first in 2002 in Attack of the Clones). Worst of all is Martin Raish of David O. McKay Library at Brigham Young University in Idaho adds in his “Librarians in the Movies: An Annotated Filmography“, confusing the terms, noting that Obi-Wan goes to the “Jedi Archives for information but he doesn’t find what he needs” and claims that “in this library the “books,” that glow with an iridescent blue color, are lined up on shelves, with busts of famous Jedi at the ends of the ranges,” not thinking these are actually records. This confusion spead to the UW Madison Student Chapter of the Society of American Archivists, incorrectly describing Madame Nu as the “Head Librarian of the Jedi Archives” when she is really the chief archivist and lone arranger. They do get is right that sh has dedicated her life to “accessioning every existing record in the galaxy,” leading to  her overconfidence, “classic negative archivist stereotypes” and is “pretty typical of the physical traits that the popular imagination associates with the information profession: she’s old, slightly crooked, and most importantly, sports a large top knot bun complete with chopsticks.” They also note rightly that while she “seems like a textbook example of the librarian stereotype” she is a “leader among the Jedi,” sitting on the Jedi Council, is “known for her fighting skills and spent her youth exploring the galaxy” along with continuing to “carry a light saber to commemorate her years of active service” along with “intimidate nasty patrons” (lol).

Furthermore I do not agree with David Mattison that distinctions between librarian and archivist “as we maintain on Earth in the 21st century may be meaningless” in the Star Wars universe, as it is a part of popular culture and created by people. [1] After all, archivists have clearly claimed Madame Nu as one of their own. For example, a presentation by Amanda Oliver & Anne Daniel of the Western University Archives (“Seeking an Identity: The Portrayal of Archivists in Film“) says this film has an example of “restrictions” by the archivist and facility, while archivist Samantha Cross of POP Archives wrote about this in 2016 and former SAA president Randall Jimmerson gave a speech about this in 2005. While I’ve already written about this topic in the past, extensively, I see no need to quote from that post and repeat what I have said here. Instead, I’ll first rely on the retired Star Wars Databank and the Wookiepedia entry on Madame Nu, to further my analysis.

We first learn that the Jedi Temple Archives contained “possibly the single largest source of information in the galaxy” where huge “amounts of data were stored electronically and holographically.” But this data was carefully organized by investigators and Jedi scholars. We also learn that within the archives were “sacred and ancient texts,” with the main hall of the archives being nearly 2,500 years old, with most information “in holobook format, an ancient self-contained technology requiring only small amounts of energy.” Additionally, the archives was said to be complete enough that there was “forbidden lore” like the only known “Sith Holocrons, information repositories of dark knowledge whose existence was revealed to only a few select Jedi Masters.” The Star Wars Databank also adds that the “vast repository of information” within this archives was cared for by “Madame Jocasta Nu, the Jedi archivist” whom was said to be of a “sprightly demeanor and an abrupt temperament.” Additionally, Madame Nu was noted as a person whom “served as Archives Director for over 30 years, attending the position after a decade-long term on the Jedi Council” with her robes “indicating devotion to knowledge and learning,” with, apart from her role as “custodian of the records, she would prepare mission briefs for Jedi taskforces and Knights on assignment.”

This is where some complications come in. According to the Star Wars Databank, the architecture and vaulted ceilings of the Jedi Archives were inspired by… “a variety of real-world libraries, including the Vatican and those found in old English estates.” This why people will see it and shout: its a library! Some could even say the holobooks, which stored information in the archives, are like blue-glowing books. However, even Wookiepedia, the same place that can’t get it straight about Madame Nu as either “Chief Librarian of the Jedi Archives” or “archivist” (with a quote from Nu herself calling her a “Master Archivist”), admits that holobooks were slim, crystalline boards used to “store vast amounts of information” and were incredibly durable, some of which dated back to “the origins of the Republic.” It is further noted that these resources have to be properly stored and maintained, providing interactive interfaces to their knowledge, allowing readers to “delve as deeply into their subject manner as desired.” In this way,  perhaps it could be said that these records are like rare books, not just regular books as they require specific care and maintenance unlike just books sitting on a shelf.

There is again, another complication, While the Wookiepedia entry notes that the archives contained “historical records dating back thousands of years; maps of the entire galaxy; scientific, mathematical and astronomical journals; engineering and technology documents; and Jedi records on the Sith,” along with detailing “geography and cultures of various planets and species across the galaxy, as well as their zoology and botany” and the “secrets about how the Jedi used the Force and biographies of numerous Jedi and their identification details were also housed in the Archives,” it was originally based on a place called the “Great Jedi Library” with this archives holding “remnants of the texts” once stored there. The entry gets worse, saying that the archives had “four wings branched out from the rotunda and held tens of millions of books,” along with a reference desk, with the person they call the “Chief Librarian” (actually the chief archivist) assisted by “associate librarians” (actually associate archivists), along with various analysis droids. They do admit that Madame Nu was the lone arranger of the archives during the Clone Wars, assisting “Jedi in finding the information they needed” while also controlling “controlled access to the restricted Holocron Vault” within the archives, a combination of archivist and librarian tasks. Furthermore, it is noted that as the Star Wars series continued, the forces of the Empire studied “the records about the Jedi and their combat forms” while Madame Nu went into a “secret vault within the Archives,” and was apparently mad that the Grand Inquisitor “dared to read her books only to toss them aside.” From there, as the entry goes on, Nu retreated to a computer and “subsequently purged all the archive files.” After that, the temple itself, which contained the archives became the personal palace of the Emperor, with the empire destroying “the remaining secrets within the Archives, removing all Jedi-related material and destroying much of their history in the process within a year” of the seizure of the archives. While that would seem to fit with an archives, there is another problem: the main archives room we see in Attack of the Clones is “actually an almost exact digital reconstruction of the Long Room of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland” with its imitation extending “to the busts of the Lost Twenty, which, in Trinity Library, are busts of alumni.”

In essence, the confusion between libraries and archives was clearly intentional, as the space itself was based on a place that is not only “the largest library in Ireland” but it has “over 6 million printed volumes with extensive collections of journals, manuscripts, maps and music reflecting over 400 years of academic development” and it also “pioneers modern methods of resource discovery and developments in the teaching, learning and research processes.” So, when this space was shown in Attack of the Clones, they clearly wanted to invoke, for the audience a sense of a library. However, the fact that there are clearly records which are unique, irreplaceable, unique, specialized, fragile, original, or rare, with specific guidelines for use, it would be best to say that the Jedi Archives, officially the Jedi Temple Archives, is an archival institution with a library within it, hence the “glowing books.” We do not see how the holobooks themselves are arranged however, so we can’t say whether they are arranged according to the person/organization whom created them, or by subject. After all, as the SAA notes, as quoted earlier, an “archives may have library as part of its name, or an archives may be a department within a library.”

There is one more factor that shows that this is an archives rather than a library. While it is said to have one of the biggest repositories of knowledge in the galaxy, can anyone come in to access this information? Or is it emblematic of  the Library of Congress’s original purpose…to be a library for Congress? What I mean is it seems the only users of the archives are Jedi (effectively religious warriors and a bit like samurai you could say), from what we can tell from the animated series and 2002 movie, so it is clearly an exclusive place that not everyone can access easily. You could say, rightly, this sets a bad image for archives as exclusive, dark places that only certain people go. But, this viewpoint is changing as archives are not only taking in concepts from the realm of libraries, rightly so, but expand access to their holdings as they, like all institutions, adapt to our world, which is becoming more and more digital all the time.


[1] Is it any surprise that he calls her simultaneously “a Jedi Archivist/Librarian” and a “Jedi Archivist.” Also his point that “it was probably Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious, played by (Ian McDiarmid) who erased the record” is wrong, because all hints are that Count Dooku (played by Christopher Lee) erased the record, as ONLY Jedi can erase records from the archives, and Palpatine/Darth Sidous was, by all accounts, NEVER a Jedi.