Access and Description Reconsidered
What exactly is archival access, and how does archival description make it possible? I feel like that in some form or another I've been struggling with this question throughout my career. Recently, this blog post from The Top Shelf, the blog of the University of Texas at San Antonio Archives and Special Collections Department, came across my radar, wherein they write (emphasis in original):
UTSA Archives and Special Collections is among the growing number of archives to create an online presence for every one of its collections. ... We were able to utilize inventories generated by former and current collection assistants to create guides to the collection with folder-level and box-level descriptions. The project resulted in access to more than 130 collections and 2000 linear feet of materials.
What defines that accessibility? I certainly don't intend to be a negative Nancy about this - adding finding aids and other descriptive metadata about collections is obviously useful. But how has it necessarily increased access to the materials themselves?
Archivists in part provide descriptive, contextual, and structural metadata about collections, but ultimately, the products of our knowledge work are merely representations of a complex whole, teeming with relationships between facts, assumptions, and wild-arsed guesses. Thinking of arrangement and description as representation is not a new idea; cf. Yakel, "Archival Representation" (Archival Science 3, no. 1 (2003): 1-25) and Karen Gracy's class on Archival Representation at Pitt. But really, what is the end goal of that representation and how does that converge with what users and our professional peers (e.g. library and museum professionals) expect?
Our professional community is still a bit too sheltered, I'm afraid. I really disagree with Russell James' recent post "Why not 'records science'?" for a few reasons (just as I agree with him on a few points...for what it's worth, there is records science; it just happens to be called archivistics or archival science!). Archivists still have a ridiculous amount to learn about information science. It might not have seemed relevant during whatever graduate program you attended, but really, it's ultra-important!
I'm reading David C. Blair's Language and Representation in Information Retrieval (Elsevier Science & Technology, 1990) right now and am totally riveted by it. This and other works consistently prove to me that we have a lot of important lessons to learn from our counterparts in other fields, namely how metadata, indexing, and the like actually form sets of representations that unavoidably mediate access between a person with an information need and that information. This isn't new research, and it's not just a problem with electronic records. It's just incredibly unfortunate that there isn't a really good community within the profession to discuss this stuff.
You haven't heard the last of me on this yet, and I know this post has been quite rambling. Until next time...