Archivist Occupations

The weather is clearer, regrouping has occured, and now the Occupy Wall Street protesters are reappearing in parks all around the city. The Librarians of OWS have done an amazing job keeping the members of the movement well-read and well-informed by providing research and leisure materials in all of their incarnations.

But what about the memory of the events themselves?

Area Archivists from as far as Queens College and as close as NYU have realized the importance of these events and the necessities to preserve them. These professionals see an opportunity to seize the moment, as it were, by approaching the protesters as they protest, spreading the word of proper preservation and narration when it comes to blogs, videos, signage, and any other ephemeral materials.

Jeffrey Young, in today’s edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, writes:

Mr. [Howard] Besser, who spoke at the conference wearing an Occupy Wall Street T-shirt that he had made by hand at the event, said he led a group of volunteer archivists to create the postcard, which will soon be given out at rallies. The card is titled “Why Archive,” and stresses that the efforts could help future “mobilizations” understand what happened today. The bottom of the card says in bold lettering: “Record and Collect what’s happening around you. Preserve the record.”

But are their archival sensibilities taking the organic nature of history astray? Young mentions how tensions are rising due the inclusion of archivists in the ‘protest circle’:

Even Occupy protesters who become convinced of the value of such archiving have rejected traditional relationships with the archivists, however. NYU’s library is working to collect and store materials from the protests, but groups such as Occupy Wall Street have refused to sign “donor agreements” that are common and grant the library permission to use the materials. That felt too much like a trapping of the traditional hierarchical organizations the group is protesting, says Mr. Besser.

Fellow professionals understand that these Archivists are simply attempting to seek out history at its source. With the knowledge they have from years of collecting, processing, and describing unknown materials, they can’t help but see an opportunity to acquire materials void of gaping information holes and misnomers. But are they proceeding the right way?

At the [Coalition for Networked Information] conference on Monday, David Millman, the NYU library’s director of digital technology services, said that his staff has also given protesters recording equipment and asked them to tape their meetings, which are famously run with a “human microphone” where members repeat speeches line by line even without a sound system.

One challenge has been getting protesters to note key details that will help future historians organize the vast trove of digital materials. That information, called metadata, includes things like the date and time that recordings were made, said Mr. Millman. “We asked them to follow naming conventions” for their audio and video files, he said, “but they didn’t follow that.”

I personally feel that you can’t force history to preserve itself. Ideally, yes, collecting that information at its source at the time of creation is ideal. With a series of events such as these, however, taking time out to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s prevents the actual history from unfolding.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. The work of the Archivist volunteers in this movement have been an excellent influence on the profession and those involved in protesting and advocating for their cause. This is however, a fine line of power v. force. We need to teach those involved the importance of preserving- and how it does no one any good as professionals to become upset when the momentum of history gets in the way of that. Think of all that we’ve learned from historical events that were without proper metadata recording devices and University funding.

In addition, the OWS Librarians evolved to fill a need. They were activists who took a professional eye to a situation, created order, and used that order to teach and inform. Is it so wrong to think that there are no Archivists in the movement that would do the same, with the unbiased, additional *guidance* from Archivists in the Metro area?


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