Autistic Entrapta, the perils of dataist thinking, and fan fictions

A screenshot from Entrapta’s debut in “System Failure,” s1 of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the first time we see her in that episode.

Recently, I read a thought-provoking article by Bohyun Kim in Information Today, which I mentioned in my recent newsletter, where she talked about “data-ism.” She defined this term as data replacing our thinking to validate or invalidate a hypothesis, with data and algorithms seen as “a superior means to process data” and find meaning in it, as compared to human thoughts. She added that such a concept is enabled not by a particular technology but by a “specific group of people who will benefit from implementing data-ism society-wide at the cost of others outside that group” like those behind Facebook and Google. This brings me to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power where one character embodies this ideal above anyone else: Entrapta. You could say she is a dataist, pure and simple. However, she may not fully fall into this category as she has her own thoughts and experiences, like when she tries to stop the portal from opening or her decision to join Bow, Adora, and the other heroes. Admittedly, she is one of my favorite characters, correctly described as autistic by the show’s existing fandom, even having a tag on Archive of Our Own: “Autistic Entrapta.” [1] After all, she is autistic as noted on a leaked character sheet for the show itself. This is part of the reason I included her in some of my fan fictions, noted later within this post.

I must warn you, for those who haven’t finished Season 4 of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, that there are some spoilers, not only for that season but for the whole show. Long story short, Entrapta is a princess with prehensile hair who is a scientist and inventor always trying to tinker with ancient technology. A number of her experiments go terribly wrong, like the creation of murderous robots in “System Failure” (her debut in the series). She is originally portrayed as deep into her work and about experimenting with ancient technology (“First Ones tech”). In a later episode, she is unintentionally stranded in the Fright Zone, in “No Princess Left Behind“, the aftermath of the kidnapping in “Princess Prom.” This is where the villains, known as the Horde, have their home base. She later joins them in “The Beacon.”

This episode is why some, like Ana Mardoll, say there are “problems” with Entrapta. She argued, back in December 2018, that it is hurtful that the one neurodiverse (ND) team mate turned evil because she is supposedly “too much of a reckless fool to realize that evil is bad.” They further state that she is, in their view, a “collection of parodies and stereotypes about ND people being foolish and easily confused and laughably simple to lie to.” She also argues that Entrapta’s so-called “fall to evil” frustrates them because the show gives Catra complex reasons for why she stayed with the Horde and claims that Entrapta plays off “abelist assumptions” about ND people. While I can understand this perspective, it is clearly misguided. She is a character who is undoubtedly autistic, but also sweet and an “underappreciated technowizard.” The latter is key. Even though she joins the Rebellion, serving as part of the Princess Alliance, after “System Failure,” this is short-lived. Remember how Glimmer reacts to her in that debut episode: very negatively, often grumbling and sighing, only wanting Entrapta to join them in order to impress her mom and get the Rebellion “cool junk” to defeat the Horde. The fact that her and Adora both make fun of Bow for his pretty cool “trick arrows” says something about how they feel about Entrapta. What Glimmer declares, along with acting occasionally aggressive toward her does not bode well. The only person who sympathizes with her is Bow, saying:

She’s a brilliant inventor. She makes robots and rehabs old tech left by the First Ones. She’s a pretty big deal in the Etherian Makers Community…I bet Entrapta will like my arrows…Entrapta has traps set up all over her castle. They’re supposed to be really cool…Big fan of your work, princess. Maybe not this, but your other work.

He says the last two lines after he bows to her. She gladly accepts his praise, chuckling and saying “hi,” and he then kisses some of her prehensile hair courteously after she extends it to shake hands with him. The screenshot from that episode, showing her reaction is below:

She is pretty friendly and nice to Glimmer and Adora throughout the episode, even wanting a “date” with Glimmer to discuss how teleportation works. She even offers to give up her leg to save them from the murderous robots. As such, I’m not sure how people can call her “un-sympathetic.” After all, all of them, plus the kitchen staff, work together to take down the virus from the infected First Ones disk, with Bow and Entrapta working together. Not surprisingly, she, of course, puts the disk together again at the end of the episode.

Her only other appearances, before she joins the Horde in “The Beacon” are “Princess Prom” and “No Princess Left Behind.” In the first of these episodes, Entrapta comes to the prom, happily greeting Adora and Glimmer, asking if they are there for the “social experiment” where, as she describes it,

Different groups are forced to mingle. Hierarchies form and break. It’s the perfect place to observe behavior. And they have tiny food.

She pries a bit into Glimmer’s emotional uneasiness in the episode, making her annoyed with Entrapta, while Mermista doesn’t want to involve herself in that or in Entrapta’s observations. With all this excitement, Entrapta calls it “the best social experiment ever.” After all, she is a person who “loves science and refer[s]…to parties as “social experiments” while standing off to one side,” having trouble making friends. Later on, in the evening, Adora remains protective of her, with Catra helping her get a better vantage point. It is then that Entrapta and Catra become a bit friendly. She calls Catra her new “assistant…[who] brought snacks,” with Catra saying she stole her food, and asked Catra to spy on the crowd with her. She teases Adora with the idea this is “love,” who pulls Entrapta aside, reminding her of the allegiances she has agreed to:

Entrapta, she’s from the Horde. The people the Rebellion are fighting? The Rebellion you’re a part of.

Some say that she feels a bit oblivious, but perhaps perhaps her heart isn’t into the Rebellion. After all, who, other than Bow, has actually treated her with respect? Even Adora is pretty forceful with her. Add to this what happens in “No Princess Left Behind”: Entrapta goes with Sea Hawk, Mermista, Perfuma, and Frosta to rescue Glimmer and Bow. She becomes enamored and enchanted with Horde technology, even re-programming a Horde bot she names “Emily,” later shown in the episode, “Promise.” Even the patience of Perfuma is tested by Entrapta, while Mermista is a bit annoyed as well. Still, they all feel awful when they think Entrapta is killed in a blast during their escape. That brings us to “The Beacon.” Mardoll is saying that Entrapta is a “reckless fool” for not realizing that the Horde is “bad” and that she is taken in by Catra’s lies. But is this really totally the case? Catra already had a rapport with Entrapta after Princess Prom, so iThey already know each other to an extent. Even Scorpia knew who she was. As she told them, their cuffs weren’t holding her. She stayed there as her choice. On the one hand you could say that Catra tapped into Entrapta’s insecurities. On the other, no one, apart from Bow, treated her with respect when she was part of the Princess Alliance. They all tried to use her. Of course, the Horde also wanted to use her too, but I doubt she is naive to such an extent that she does not recognize what the Horde is doing to the planet.

Rather, as Beth Elderkin pointed out, it isn’t clear whether she even knows she defected, or if she even cares what side she is on. This is clear in the “Ties That Bind” when she tentatively says she is on the side of the Horde, only after Glimmer asks her “Entrapta, are you on the Horde’s side?”. Here’s her full response to that question:

I’m on the side of science. But I am living at the Fright Zone now and the Horde is supplying me with tools and materials for my work. So, yes, I guess?

Rather, she only cares about the pursuit of knowledge, with people around her “only worth the data they [can] provide.” As a result, she is often undergoing dangerous experiments, taking notes, and “making hypotheses based on the results.” This means she is person with clear “moral ambiguity” but seems to not even care about what the Horde is doing to the planet as a whole. Catra, to quote again from Elderkin, serves as a “listening ear” to Entrapta, showing her new technology and giving her free reign. This allows her to hack the planet, with her restraints gone, beginning in “Light Hope,” while ignoring the signs that Catra plans to use her technology to hurt millions, possibly because she doesn’t care. The same could be said for the fact that her experiment almost destroys the world but is reversed thanks to the combined power of the princesses in the Season 1 finale, “The Battle of Bright Moon.”

Mardoll also quotes from Abigail Nussbaum, who writes another criticism in “The Problem of Entrapta“, claiming that Entrapta is “the embodiment of the idea that you can’t trust mentally ill and ND people with guns or power or being president or whatever,” or that it is “impossible to “redeem” Entrapta with a reveal.” Rather, she argues that Entrapta “has to face her actions and atone,” while further claiming she is “being written in a way which seems to suggest that autistic folks lack that capability to self assess.” She even claims that “the overall collection of her personality traits has a high correlation to us [ND people], so the portrayal of her fall to villainy needed to be handled with care–and it wasn’t.” She further declares that Entrapta “was turned through a combination of being profoundly foolish and utterly lacking any empathy: two harmful stereotypes about ND folks.” This is an incorrect reading of her character. To bring in Elderkin again, clearly Entrapta is naive, but she is also adorable, and is “so disconnected from the world’s problems that she doesn’t even know she’s a villain,” making her a true “morally grey character.” To say she is foolish is silly. She could have left the Fright Zone at ANY TIME. But, she did not. Why? She has a “cheerfully wobbly moral compass” and more importantly a “Oppenheimer-like joy of discovery” above any ethical choices. This is a reality that neither Mardoll nor Nussbaum can recognize. Surely, she doesn’t fully recognize that her experiments are “not just hypothetical ideas, but real things that affect real people” to quote from Elderkin. But that doesn’t make her a bad person.

What about those that say she “often exemplifies the clinically un-empathetic autistic stereotype”? This belief tied with the claim that she is “evil by lack of “theory of mind”” is incorrect. While I agree that it would be great if she could “grapple more with morality, manipulation, and pursuing obsession” and have more of “her emotional and compassionate empathy…revealed to the audience,” she does express emotions in relation to Emily, a robot she had modded out of a Horde robot, to help her with her work, just like those robots she modded out as war machines in “The Frozen Forest.” Without a doubt, she is blindly dedicated to research, no matter the cost, and undoubtedly has social anxiety. Even so, she finds humanity in the villainous Hordak, working with him to build an inter-dimensional portal, starting in “Signals.” After seeing him break down with weakness, she creates an armored suit for him, allowing them to become friends, beginning in “Huntara.” This suit is later damaged by Catra in the most recent season as a way of manipulating him to do what she wants.

It is evident that Entrapta believes that her data and calculations will give her the method to discover the “answers,” no matter the cost. Take what she said in “White Out” as an example of this mentality:

Entrapta’s observation, in response to Catra telling them they need to leave, is correct

With that all being said, I would not say she is “un-empathetic” or that she does not have agency. She willingly stays with the Horde, a decision that the princesses respect in “Ties that Bind” and “The Signal,” although they disagree with it. That’s at least how I’ve always seen it. She even sticks up for Catra and is able to convince Hordak she is valuable, which leads him to send her to the Crimson Waste to get a specific artifact in “The Price of Power.” You could claim she doesn’t listen to Adora trying to talk sense to her, telling her to not use the Sword of Protection to open the portal in “Moment of Truth,” but she does actually take into account what Adora is telling her. And after doing some tests, she realizes that Adora is right! Sure, she trusts the data, but she uses it with her own thoughts and analysis, making it a bit different from her typical dataist thinking. In same episode, she has a revelation that shows this to be the case: the anomalies of the portal will be “catastrophic,” unhinging time and space, “creating a warped reality that would collapse in on itself, erasing us from existence.” She tries to warn Catra about this, saying she has to tell Hordak, but she angrily zaps her with a stun gun, ordering Scopria to send her to Beast Island, which she reluctantly complies with. Catra then lies to Hordak, claiming Entrapta was on the side of the princesses all along, and he does not discover this lie until the end of Season 4. As this season comes to a close, Catra opens the portal and almost destroys the whole world, as recounted in “Remember” and “The Portal,” with Adora barely saving the day. Apart from Angella’s sacrifice, the latter is partly thanks to the help of Entrapta in the bizarre alt-Etheria world, who helps them, to an extent, fix reality in the best way she can. At the same time, she has compassion, saying to Adora at one point: “it was nice being friends with you” as she fades away from existence, at least in this bizarre world.

For much of Season 4, she doesn’t make an appearance, with Scorpia concerned about her, as shown in “The Coronation,” while Catra angrily wants her recordings, noted in “Princess Scorpia.” Almost, as a sort of payback, Entrapta, along with Adora, is one of those people who haunts Catra in her dreams in “Flutterina.” In a later episode, “Beast Island,” Adora describes Entrapta as having “purple hair and really likes robots. Like, really, really likes robots,” and they discover she is still alive. She is said to be heading for the center of the island, and when it seems all hope is lost, she literally saves them (Bow, Swift Wind, Micah, and Adora/She-Ra). So much for saying she doesn’t have compassion. Here’s what she says after she rescues them, with a smile on her face:

In the following episode, “Destiny Part 1,” her life on the island is explored a bit more. Clearly, she is overjoyed that the island is full of “technological monstrosities,” calling it “paradise,” glad to help them learn about the heart of Etheria. She brings them to an ancient temple, calling it “amazing,” saying the answers she is looking for are there, pulling up a directory of various files. She reveals to them that all the princesses are part of the Heart of Etheria project, with She-Ra as the key, channeling the weapon, with the First Ones using the sword to control and use her. Adora learns she doesn’t get to refuse this task, to her horror, and Entrapta wants to stay on the island, no matter what:

Bow and Adora are able to pull her away from this, although she struggles thoroughly and claims that no one understands her, which is partially true, based on her past experience with the Princesses and the Horde. As it seems she will be engulfed by the vines, Bow talks to her about friendship and then, Adora, as She-Ra mentions they came on a ship with ancient technology. This pulls her out of her funk, although she admits that Bow’s talk didn’t affect her. Despite this, she is glad that her and Bow are friends. This means that Entrapta goes with them back to Bright Moon because of data and scientific discovery, not because of friendship or anything else. In many ways, her character subverts the Entrapta from the original She-Ra series whom is a “villainous technician…a skilled inventor, and is credited with designing advanced equipment for The Horde…[and] her speciality is devising different traps for members of The Rebellion.” She also can “design and create complex machines and inventions to be used by The Horde….mentally control her long hair at will…[using it[…to capture enemies or to control her various machines.”

In some ways, her character reminds me of Peridot in Steven Universe, even more than Spinel (who also struggles with friendship), as there are a lot of parallels. For one, both characters have, at first, a love or attachment to their robots, rather than people or other beings. Entrapta has her robotic servants, and later Emily, while Peri has her robonoids, which Steven says are “like her babies” in her debut in “Warp Tour,” and adeptly uses technology as shown in “Marble Madness.” Later she works with Jasper, treating Lapis as an informant (and prisoner) as noted in “The Return” and “Jail Break.” However, her plans revealed in “Keeping Together,” and she is injured by the Crystal Gems in “Friend Ship,”  is poofed by them in “Catch and Release.” Due to a friendship with Steven, she grows in the coming episodes, becoming more aquainted with Earth culture, helps them build a drill to the center of the Earth, and begins to respect other beings more (“When It Rains“, “Back to the Barn“, “Too Far“, “Steven’s Birthday” (non-speaking), “It Could’ve Been Great“, “Message Received“, and “Log Date 7 15 2“, “Super Watermelon Island“, “Gem Drill“, and “Same Old World“).

She thinks about the Gem plans for Earth just like Entrapta does about her inventions, as shown in “It Could’ve Been Great” and “Message Received,” but these types of thoughts change. She learns how to be better with people, strikes up a relationship with a water gem, Lapis Lazuli, another one of my favorite characters, apart from Peri. Both are skeptical of each other in “Barn Mates” but later get more acquainted after “Hit the Diamond” and in other episodes (referenced in “Too Short to Ride“, “Beta“, “Earthlings“, and “Back to the Moon“). As the show’s episodes continue, she becomes more comfortable with herself and her connections to other beings (and people) (as shown in “Kindergarten Kid“, “Gem Harvest“, “Adventures in Light Distortion“, “The New Crystal Gems“, and “Room for Ruby“), although she is not as adept at social situations. For instance, it is revealed she lied to Lapis so she’d feel better (in “Raising the Barn“) and she begins to suffer depression (beginning in “Back to the Kindergarten“) after Lapis leaves Earth. She makes such an impression on Lapis, that this water gem references her as part of her song in “Can’t Go Back“. Apart from handing out flowers at Ruby and Sapphire’s wedding in “Made of Honor“, the first gay wedding in a commercial cartoon, embrace each other in “Reunited“. Both her and Lapis help the fellow Gems fight the Diamonds in “Change Your Mind“. And of course, she appears in the recent Steven Universe movie, having a vital role there, determining the injector fluid with her robonoids and technology.

There is one major difference between Peri and Entrapta. Unlike Peri, Entrapta has not opened up to others in the same way. But this is not surprising, due to the fact she was in environments where people either felt displeased about her (among the princesses) or exploited her skills (among the Horde). When she appears in the season finale, “Destiny Part 2,” there’s nothing she nor Adora can do to stop Light Hope’s plan, at least at first. Hordak learns about Catra’s lies about Entrapta and attempts to kill Catra with his laser canon arm. In this episode, Entrapta only gets a few lines, but they are important ones, for the story. For instance, when talking to Bow, who asks what is happening, she says, “it’s a portal. A big portal. With the planet balanced, the portal capabilities must be back online. We’re getting pulled through.” A screenshot from that scene shown below, indicating she is a bit excited about what will happen next:

She tries to be optimistic, noting they aren’t in Despondos but are in the “wider universe” now. Adora is able to stop Light Hope’s genocidal plans but cannot stop the arrival of Horde Prime with a huge fleet of warships. She-Ra is destroyed, Adora thinks, because the sword is gone. These events, sets the stage for the next undoubtedly eventful season…

That leads me to the second section of this post.

Building upon Entrapta’s “dataism” within my fan fictions

A screenshot from her debut episode

I mentioned Entrapta in one of my first stories, where Queen Angella laments to Samurai Jack about Entrapta working for the Horde:

Entrapta would be the perfect person to help you with constructing such a device, but…she is now working with the Horde, bringing her technology genius and inventor abilities to the side of evil…Our spies inside the Horde have indicated that the Supreme Leader of the Horde, Lord Hordak, is building a portal, likely with the help of Entrapta.

I then built out her character more when Adora, Glimmer, Bow, and Jack go to the Crystal Castle, with Light Hope able to see Entrapta’s thoughts, as she worked with Entrapta to improve a portal which surprised Adora, asking herself why she was “working to turn the lightness of the world into darkness” and wondering if she had a “conscience of her own” or not. It also is part of the reason she breaks down later in the same story. In a story later on, characters suspect she helped hack into Light Hope, and she ends up being one of those who wants to shroud the planet in darkness, working with Hordak. I described her “almost slavish dedication to “science” no matter how much it hurt the planet,” and noted the “evil look in her magneta-colored eyes as her prehensile lilac hair quickly tapped on the keyboard,” as she said:

“Progress is going great! Our hack of Light Hope was a success…and the crumpling of that crystalline structure means it will be so much easier to get First One’s tech for our machines. The Rebellion will think it’s gone and done for, allowing us to go in without a trace. Now, if we could hack into all the runestones, perhaps we could even track the princesses…this…I must say…is all so exciting!”

Catra and Entrapta interact, I believe in episode, ‘The Frozen Forest.’ This is likely what she would have looked like as she typed onto that keyboard in my fan fic

In the same story, Hordak praised her on the progress she had made. At one point, with only one Horde robot created by her remaining near the Crystal Castle, Bow directly addresses her:

Entrapta, someday you’ll regret all this and realize the destruction you have caused to this planet…what you are doing is wrong…it’s not for science, as you may think, it’s for evil. I hope you change your mind.

Despite this, his words don’t move her and she rigged the remaining robot to explode, which happened in “Frozen Forest.” Later, Entrapta greets Samurai Jack “with a friendly, and warm, smile,” and is very fascinated by his desire to travel back in time and across dimensions. Sadly, Jack isn’t moved by the pleas of his friends, and he accurately saw:

a 30-year-old woman who was kind, but lonely, having a positive outlook on life, and dedicated to pursuing knowledge and discovery through her experiments and research. It filled him with joy to meet someone thrilled with learning new information, although she seemed a bit obsessive in this process. Even so, he could see that such dedication would lead to a disregard of morality, meaning she would not recognize that her work could hurt others. In a thundering voice, he told the rest of them his intentions and why he had come there.

He then defends Entrapta, although she warned him not to use the portal due to the possibility of error. Even so, she feels oligated to help him despite “her reservations about the safety of the portal itself” and he travels across dimensions, although not to the world he wanted. Ultimately, there is nothing she can do other than “shutting down the whole portal.”

Entrapta has a breakthrough with Hordak in the “Signals” episode.

Apart from that, I talked more about her as a person in other stories, fleshing her out as a character:

The fact that Entrapta didn’t pick up their magical signatures, on her computer, had been a miracle. It was a happy coincidence she had been in a deep sleep. She needed rest, especially since she had an older age than many of the princesses, who were in their teens, having lived and breathed for 30 years on the planet…Preparing to attack them with her prehensile hair, Adora stunned her with a regulation stun gun which she had taken from a Horde soldier…Although she was in a daze, she could hear Pearl and Adora utter a few stern words, “Entrapta…it’s time to talk,” while the others surrounded her in a semi-circle. The time for reckoning was at hand

She then serves as a major part of my story that served as the capstone of part 1 of my “An Unlikely Alliance Against Evildoers” series. She asked why they had stunned her, and the heroes, including Glimmer, reminded her of the “scientific experiments she had conducted which “caused the destabilization of Etheria, almost killing them in the process.” After Hordak’s death devastated her she opened the portal, wanting to join the ultimate Horde leader, but she relented. In the same story, she had a self-revelation to everyone:

My god, you must think I am a monster. I can understand why you are angry at me. I only wanted to conduct scientific experiments, collect data, and test the boundaries of thought. I never wanted to hurt anyone. But, in the process, I blindly charged ahead, not thinking of how my actions would affect other people. I am sorry and I ask for your forgiveness

With this, some, like Perfuma, wanted to forgive her, while others wanted her to “pay penance for what she had done.” She did this by helping them begin dehordeification, starting with the Fright Zone’s destruction (which happened thanks to her “ingenious implosion”) after her materials had been moved back to her castle in Dyrl. Later, she talks with Peridot and works to “ensure that the new archives would have the appropriate technology,” even though she would also have a trial. She also had a minor mention in my recent story with Glimmer noting she is “awaiting trial,” although I didn’t give any more details at this point. Undoubtedly, she will come up in some of my future stories.

That’s all I have for today. Until next week! Comments are welcome.


Notes

[1] The Wikipedia page describes her as “the Evil Horde‘s chief technician…a skilled inventor…credited with designing advanced equipment for The Horde…[and has a] scientific and fact-based nature, and quickly warmed up to Catra and Hordak, with whom she forms an emotional relationship.” Other fans have speculated she was written with Aspergers Syndrome in mind or think it is highly evident without a doubt (see here, here, here, and here for example), even noted on TV Tropes.


Postscript

After posting this article on the She-Ra subreddit, I got some great comments on there I’d like to share here:

Super interesting to skim through. I think we tend to downplay the seemingly unattractive aspects of autism. Particularly the very data-driven robot meets interpersonal simpleton characterization. As an autistic woman in her 30s with a historical attraction to much older, evil men (ahem), myself, its defense often comes off as an attempt to soften those characteristics in order to make them more palatable to NTs. When in reality, many of the characterizations were misinterpretations of the autistic experience in the first place. Thank you for the analysis!- esjunsia

This was a really interesting read! Thank you for sharing! Entrapta is one of my favourite characters too and I agree with everything you said. The criticism you countered, that ‘it is hurtful that the one neurodiverse (ND) team mate turned evil because she is supposedly “too much of a reckless fool to realize that evil is bad”‘ – while I can kind of see where they’re coming from, I agree with you that it’s not entirely fair, not just for the reasons you mentioned but also because what evidence do they have that Entrapta even is “the one neurodiverse team mate”? I don’t see any reason to assume that. I’m neurodivergent too, but I actually recognise more of my own autistic traits in Adora. This post I found on tumblr explores that extremely well and I would definitely recommend reading it if you’re interested! – zutarakorrasami

I really hate everyone saying ‘oh she wanted Knowledge’ like her entire motivation for joining the Horde wasn’t believing her friends abandoned her – nor-fuck-pines

“He defined this term as data replacing our thinking to validate or invalidate a hypothesis, with data and algorithms seen as “a superior means to process data” and find meaning in it, as compared to human thoughts.” I’m on that field. No, noboby [sic] with a basic understading [sic] of statistics and/or pratical experience with data based analysis believes that. Some evangelists and vendors say that, but it’s because we need clients/funding. Human analysis still is the best by a huge margin – FellowOfHorses

I don’t know why autistic Perfuma hasn’t caught on. – Tropical-Rainforest

That’s all for now.

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 nerdiest 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 considered. 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” if 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 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.


Notes

[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.

Librarians should not be “everything to every community member”

From the “I Love Lisa” episode (s4, e15).

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 of 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.

Overall, 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.


Notes

[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 is the case with other people, 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 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 overall. 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.

Considering 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 Ancestry.com 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 must 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 must 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 talked about web archiving in several 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.


Notes

[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 academia.edu 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 ancestry.com 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 Library of Congress, its digital strategy, and crowdsourcing

Screenshot of the homepage of the Library of Congress’s Crowd program

In late October, I asked the Preservation Directorate of the Library of Congress (LOC), about what they decide to digitize and if they have a process similar to NARA (National Archives and Records Administration, called National Archives in the rest of this article), with their own digitization priorities including working with external partners. After thanking me for my interest in the LOC’s preservation work, Jon Sweitzer-Lamme of the Preservation Directorate responded by saying:

The Library’s digital strategy is available here: https://www.loc.gov/digital-strategy. Our prioritization is driven by demand, such as demand for our presidential papers collections like the newly released Theodore Roosevelt Papers (https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-18-132/), and preservation needs, especially if an item can’t be served to researchers anymore due to its condition. We have excellent in-house digitization capabilities and also utilize external contractors and partners to digitize our content.

Generally, that does answer my question, but unfortunately the answer from LOC did not come soon enough for a class assignment I had where I asked reference questions in the same vein of different institutions (AskUsNow!, Maryland State Archives, and UMD Archives). I’ll post that on Academia.edu likely later this month.

This also shows the site is made possible with a partnership via Amazon’s SES [Simple Email Service], a worrying infiltration of public institutions with those from the corporate world. Even so, the Crowd program runs on open source software, so that is a positive.
Most exciting of all is not the digital strategy, but LOC’s new “crowd” program, which is a bit like the citizen archivist initiative of the National Archives which I have participated a bit with in the past. While there are only five campaigns to transcribe, review, or tag information currently, but it is only in its beta stage, so this will likely be expanded in the future, without a doubt. This could become something of linked open data at its finest, not only connecting people with content, but bringing them further into the process to make the usage of records more collaborative for all, going beyond past efforts. In the coming days, I will test out the site and let the rest of you know on this blog what it is like. They even tied in the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address to this program.

With that, this new program fulfills the digital strategy of LOC (without a doubt different than the one in 2000), which states that their mission is to “engage, inspire, and inform the Congress and the American people with a universal and enduring source of knowledge and creativity,” with initiatives such as this one trying to ensure that “all Americans are connected to the Library of Congress.” This is also connected to their strategic plan which has four major goals: expanding access, enhancing services, optimizing resources, and measuring results. As for the digital strategy it also notes the role of digital technology in fulfilling the mission of this institution, while also “throwing open the treasure chest, connecting, and investing in our future.” This strategy is also forward-thinking, stating that:

The Library’s content, programs, and expertise are national treasures…We will make that content available and accessible to more people, work carefully to respect the expectations of the Congress and the rights of creators, and support the use of our content in software-enabled research, art, exploration, and learning The Library will continue to build a universal and enduring source of knowledge and creativity…We will expedite the availability of newly acquired or created content to the web and on-site access systems…We will explore creative solutions to reduce the barriers to material while respecting the rights of creators, the desires of our donors, and our other legal and ethical responsibilities…We will continue to enable computational use of our content and metadata…The Library offers an incredible wealth of content, programs, and services to Congress and the American people. We strive to connect with more users by making those services and content accessible for all…Many of the Library’s digital users come directly to our websites to discover content. To expose even more people to the Library’s content and services, we will bring digital content to users by making more of our material available in other websites and apps that they are already using…We will continue to participate in professional organizations and cooperatives that expand our perspectives and enable us to share our experiences. Additionally, developing partners in industry can allow us to connect the Library with new areas of expertise and resources…We will cultivate an innovation culture by empowering our staff, who have expertise in a wide range of subject areas, including the work of Congress, United States copyright law, American and foreign law, and our collections…Our plans for the future must entail preserving and protecting our collections and content…While we plan for our future, we are also paying close attention to innovations and trends that will present future challenges and opportunities. Newer tools, such as augmented and virtual reality, computer vision, natural language processing, and machine learning, are already transforming how we live and work.

Screenshot of the opening section of LOC’s digital strategy

There aren’t many other articles on this subject [1], from a quick online search, but all of the ones I found are relatively positive, although some are more critical than others. Roll Call, in their article on the subject, described how the digital strategy is “digital forward,” advocated strongly by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden (who heads LOC, and formerly the Pratt Library in Baltimore), and Kate Zwaard, the Director of Digital Strategy. Most interesting in this article was not that Accenture, a huge contractor, won a contract “to build the long-planned new data center” for LOC, or that the plan includes “employing user-centered design to invite digital and physical visitors to explore more offerings” but that the organization has been stuck in the past, trying to shed this past, because it has “a computing system built in the 1970s to static processes for staff.” Having a 21st century computing system is important for LOC, which holds over 167 million items in its collections which sit on “approximately 838 miles of bookshelves,” making it the “largest library in the world.”

FedScoop also wrote about the digital strategy, noting that the “The Library of Congress…is interested in exploring what artificial intelligence and similar technologies can do for its mission,” saying this focus on digital aspects is not “out of the blue” as LOC launched labs.loc.gov, “a home for digital experiments…last year…[and] it…recently began experimenting with geographic information systems mapping as a way to explore collections online.” Both are positive aspects, to say the least.

Finally, there is Cory Doctrow of Boing Boing, which often has short articles with little content other than the document(s) they are quoting from. Regardless, Doctrow describes how the digital strategy supports “data-driven research with giant bulk-downloadable corpuses of materials and metadata…crowdsourc[ing] the acquisition of new materials…[and] preserv[ing] digital assets with the same assiduousness that the Library has shown with its physical collection for centuries,” among other aspects. He interestingly notes how the LOC has an “outsized role” in the current digital era because it contains the Copyright Office, which is “patient zero in the epidemic of terrible internet law that reaches into every corner of our lives.” This clashes with the fact that Carl Hayden, the Librarian of Congress “is the most freedom-friendly, internet-friendly, access-friendly leader in the Library’s history, replacing unfit leaders who were brought down in grotesque corruption scandals” even though her leadership has fallen short, in Doctrow’s view, because “the Copyright Office is still a creature of Big Content, and it has direct oversight over your ability to modify, repair, sell, and use all of your digital property.” Still, he argues that

…this digital strategy is a very bright light, but it shines in a dark and menacing cave. I love the Library — I love its work, its collections, its diligent and thoughtful staff, its magnificent building. But for all that, the Library has become a locus of terrible policy that runs directly counter to its mission. The contradiction between the Library’s mission and its real role in policy has never been more clear than it is in this wonderful document. [2]

That brings me to the end of this article. What are your thoughts on this new digital strategy of LOC and its new Crowd program?


Notes

[1] Through a further search I found a snippet from the report on infodocket, dh+lib blog of the ALA, and the Digital Journal.

[2] James Tanner of Genealogy’s Star makes a similar point, but says that LOC is not “certainly not the leader in the number and value of their online offerings” since the “the recent history of the Library of Congress is far from promising” with the closure of the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room in 2013, and the “inherent contradiction in the current efforts of the Library of Congress due to the fact that they are also the agency responsible for the controversial access policies inherent in the United States Copyright Law because the Copyright Office is an integral part of the Library.” This means, as Tanner argues,due to “Congressional action, use and access to many valuable research materials have been overwhelmingly restricted” while adding that “policies and budgetary constraints at both the Library of Congress and the National Archives have severely limited the number and availability of digitized records from both institutions. It would be a huge change if this present plan includes real changes in the number and availability to access items in both institutions collections.” Still, he is optimistic, saying that “it will be interesting to see what will happen, although I do not expect any significant changes during what is left of my lifetime,” although he says that the Internet Archive “may become the largest library in the world considering its growth during the past few months and years assuming they catch up with the National Library of Australia.”

A novel idea: a library on wheels to serve the homeless?

Since the 1980s, the homeless population in the United States has expanded due to Reagan administration policy which deinstitutionalized those deemed mentally ill, coupled with a breakdown of marriages, stagnant wages, spread of illegal drugs in cities, increased poverty, and expensive housing, all putting strain on public services. In the city of Baltimore, the main library, the Enoch Pratt Free Library (herein called the Pratt Library) has a mobile jobs center, book mobile, and other services that help the homeless. However, their policies of no loitering, having offensive body odor, sleeping, lying down or appearance of sleeping on library premises, undoubtedly lead to conflict with those who are homeless, a population which does not have means of other individuals and may have mental illnesses. Homeless people are sometimes restricted by existing library systems, even though libraries are becoming pseudo-homeless shelters since libraries provide necessary services for these unique library patrons. [1] While the exact number of homeless Baltimoreans is not known, possibly numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands, 90% of whom are either Black, White, or Latino, who could be assisted by library services. [2] This blogpost, which was part of a submission which was unceremoniously rejected today by the board of In the Library with the Lead Pipe, focuses on the idea of a library on wheels, without a fixed location, that serves homeless Baltimoreans. It is my hope that this post will either inspire individuals to create an institution like the one posed in the scenario or to improve their public libraries to be more accommodating to the homeless populations in their respective cities.

A library without a physical location has been rarely been realized beyond the efforts of the Quaker Mobile Library in London, Street Books in Portland, Words on Wheels in Texas, Endita Kelley and her Book Bike in Los Angeles, a floating library in Norway, the Bibliomotocarro in Italy, Dashdondog Jamba and his library on a camel’s back, to name a few apart from mobile bookstores like the Book Barge, or bookmobiles of different types, with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions even creating guidelines for “mobile libraries.” Sharlee Glenn wrote about the latter in her recent nonfiction picture book, Library on Wheels: Mary Lemist Titcomb and America’s First Bookmobile, which focused on Mary Titcomb, a librarian who created the first bookmobile in the U.S. Let us suppose there is an institution called the Baltimorean Homeless Library, or BHL for short, which allows homeless individuals access to information, like usual patrons of library, and use other resources. It would have no physical building, but have bookmobiles, colorfully painted by kids in Baltimore City schools, displaying their name, website, and other contact information, let us suppose. This institution would hand out cards with food, legal assistance, shelter, employment, and welfare information like the Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) system. It would also, in conjunction, not charge fees for their service like the Pratt Library, would allow homeless individuals to use shelter addresses as their permanent addresses, and some members would give informational talks at Pratt Library branches, universities, and at other public institutions. With such resources at their fingertips, homeless patrons would be able to effectively participate in the U.S. society, including creating their own books, which would be added to the collection of such an institution. This library on wheels would, furthermore, go to where homeless people are living, whether in Baltimore’s varied shelters, tent cities, or wherever, having social workers, job counselors, and licensed practitioners on staff to serve their needs, including helping the homeless get more permanent places to stay, be that a home or a rented space. In order to accomplish this objective it would work with the Behavioral Health System of Baltimore, the BCPL system, Housing Our Neighbors, Homeless People’s Action Network, Youth Empowered Society (YES), St. Vincent De Paul of Baltimore, Archdiocese of Baltimore, Baltimore Outreach Services, Health Care for the Homeless, the Baltimore Station, United Way of Central Maryland, the Interagency Council on Homelessness in Maryland, The Journey Home, and the Baltimore City Government, including the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and the Baltimore City Health Department.

What has been outlined so far is only part of this scenario, as what would be needed is a collection development policy for the institution itself, which would serve as a way of developing the collection of such an institution. This policy, let us say, would be modeled after Goddard College’s collection development policy for the Eliot D. Pratt Library, and would be periodically reviewed and revised every two years, with input from all staff members, in order to make sure it is in tune with current trends and developments. Furthermore, this policy would support information needs of the homeless Baltimoreans by working with advocacy groups and governmental institutions, and making sure that selected materials led to social growth and information enrichment. Since such an institution would not have the resources of the Pratt Library, printed books, newspapers, and other publications would be the mainstay of its collections, but would have a few e-readers. Additionally, in order to encompass the whole swath of the homeless population, most of the materials of such an institution would be in English, but some would be in Spanish, and others would be specifically for those who visually impaired. In addition to these aspects, materials would be selected by the staff of such an institution, allowing recommendations from the served population, and weeding out any materials deemed unnecessary, ensuring that selected resources have high quality in their factual, artistic, or literary style. At the same time, the collections of this institution, let us say, would have a wide diversity of expressions and views, including the religious texts of all the world’s religions, some of which may be controversial to either users or staff, even when not every idea or representation within the collection is endorsed, and any items published by hate groups listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) not be stocked as part of our collection or any other content deemed hateful after consulting with advocates, and other institutions. Any materials that would be damaged by bugs, by mold, or smell smoky would not be brought into the collections of such an institution, and any challenges to materials would undergo a specific procedure.

Without getting into the specifics of this institution too much, it is worth noting what its organizational structure, based on the organizational structure of the Pratt Library let us say, would look like. It would include a chief coordinator, individuals concerned with public relations and institutional enrichment, and four departments: administration, patron services, collection development, and external relations to serve its homeless patrons. Let us also suppose that this institution is a public non-profit since its startup money came from a Mighty Cause crowdfunding campaign, with those who give money to an ongoing campaign getting perks for their investment in this effort, including hats, t-shirts, and tote bags. Let us also say that this institution would follow all applicable SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) regulations and federal laws, including the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, which specifically mentions crowdfunding. In the case of this scenario let is suppose that in 2017, $100,000 would be raised from crowdfunding, and $50,000 in projected 2018 costs. Once the transaction fees from crowdfunding, rewards to crowdfunders, crowdfunding plan, and all elements of library operations were considered, the general fund would only be $67,812 in 2017 and $26,124 in projected 2018 costs. [3]

With this scenario roughly outlined, I hope it has given another perspective to this topic which was not deemed “academic” enough for those In the Library with the Lead Pipe. I had hoped to publish there, but that isn’t going to happen, unfortunately.

P.S. The original article I wrote and sent to them in early October, minus the unnecessary beginning section, which I have uploaded to academia.edu for your consideration. They claimed this wasn’t academic enough, saying I hadn’t dug into the “literature on the homeless/diverse users and libraries” and that it “reads like a paper for a lib school class,” adding that at the time it was “not a journal article in its current form, even though it may be an interesting way of approaching the issue…I would suggest that the author rework the material and ideas, do deeper scholarly research on the topic.” I did rework it, and they STILL rejected it, which annoyed me.


Notes

[1] For varied perspectives on this topic, please see the Annoyed Librarian in 2015, “Libraries Don’t Need the Homeless,” a webpage about the Kansas City Public Library’s efforts, the I Love Libraries website, and a librarian writing about the homeless, along with articles in AP, Book Riot, Capital News Service, Delaware State News, Detroit Free Press, Fox2, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Reuters, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Salon, Sioux City Journal, South Seattle Emerald, The Guardian(second article here), and Washington Post (second article here, third article here).

[2] For more information, please see Colin Campbell’s Baltimore Sun articles in 2013 (“As Winter Approaches, Baltimore Struggles to Deal with How to House Homeless”) and 2016 (“Youth Homelessness in Baltimore Higher than Previously Thought”), Linda Loubert’s “Mapping Urban Inequalities and Analyzing Homelessness with GIS” in 2010 and a 2016 article in Afro titled “Baltimore’s Homeless Population Continues to Grow.”))

[3] For more on this topic, specifically on crowdfunding, please see “9 Things You Need to Consider for Your Crowdfunding Budget”; “7 Crowdfunding Tips Proven To Raise Funding”;  “Top 10 crowdfunding sites for fundraising”; “Top 20 crowdfunding platforms”; “The Real Cost of a Crowdfunding Campaign (And How to Budget Correctly)”; “6 Step Low Budget Guide to Getting Crowdfunding Backers”; “How Much Does Crowdfunding Really Cost?”; “Benefits and Drawbacks of Crowdfunding”; “How to Set Up A Crowdfunding Campaign”; “How to Choose a Crowdfunder”; “What Is Crowdfunding?”; “Crowdfunding 101: Writing a Budget”; “Crowdfunding Campaigns Come With a Growing Price Tag”; “What is Crowdfunding and how does it benefit the economy”; “The Basics of Crowdfunding”; “How to Set a Budget for Your Crowdfunding Campaign”; “What is crowdfunding?,” along with the small entity compliance guide of the SEC, appropriate SEC regulations as noted here and here, a SEC press release on crowdfunding rules, and specific parts of the Code of Federal Regulations which mention crowdfunding.