Blackwell Family Papers Digital Collections

Katie Fortier: A Curatorial Tagging Case Study of the Blackwell Family Papers Digital Collection; Or Making the Case For Archival Performance Transparency


My capstone project uses the Blackwell Family Papers Digital Collection (BFPDC) as a lens through which to examine issues of archival performance transparency or pertinent contextual information that could enhance access points to digital collections.

Archivists have traditionally viewed themselves and their institutions as objective and impartial presenters of documents. In more recent decades, some have debated the agency and mediation that they practice in their profession, in terms of appraising, arranging, and describing archival records. Some have pushed the debate further, arguing that archival users should be more involved in these processes, particularly by generating descriptive metadata, as a complement or alternative to traditional taxonomies and controlled vocabularies, which some archivists have more recently scrutinized.

Philosophical discussions revolving around archival transparency address several issues; for instance, what are the means by which archivists explicitly outline their archival decisions and intentions? What role do archives play in constructing cultural memory and power? Can providing additional contextual information about archival methodologies prove useful to researchers? Can including additional context prove beneficial to archivists themselves by serving as an administrative tool? Lastly, and perhaps most difficult to assess, when instituting new practices, like tagging digital collections to enhance transparency and accessibility, is it possible for an archivist to consciously document his or her own biases?

In 2012, Schlesinger Library initiated a tagging project to enhance access and create new pathways between records in the extensive collection that had been fully digitized in 2014. The process and challenges encountered in tagging the BFPDC—inconsistency, the lack of objectivity, and the uneven distribution of curatorial tagging—provide insight into social experiments in archival description. Creating and applying tags to provide contextual information aptly highlights issues related to descriptive practices in general. My capstone outlines the type of information that the project generated and attempts to evaluate its usefulness. It also highlights the anxieties of tagging in this fashion in light of postmodern theory and its application to archival theory, particularly archival description. It argues for the transparency of descriptive practices as a means of communicating to users important contextual information about the custodial history of archival records, including trying to articulate the combinations of different methodologies with which archivists applied curatorial tags. It finally produces several decision-making documents that one might feature on their digital online collections, to aid researchers in understanding the way in which they are seeing digital materials.

Blackwell Family Papers Digital Collections
Blackwell Family Papers Digital Collections. Schlesinger Library. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Harvard University.

Within the past 20 years, several archivists have made calls for contextual documentation of manuscript collections but a nomenclature for this action has yet to be standardized. My capstone uses the term archival performance transparency to describe a document or a set of documents that relay, explicitly, information outlining one, some, or all of these processes: custodial history of records; appraisal, processing, and descriptive decision-making (of the archivist and/or the repository); documentation strategies; archival methodologies; and personal or institutional biases. Archival performance transparency derives from the work of Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz who insist that “the archivist is an actor, not a guardian; a performer, not a custodian.” Archival performance transparency entails providing contextual information related to collections; it does not relate to discussions regarding the transparency of organizations and citizens’ abilities to access records.

My capstone builds upon the work of Michelle Light and Tom Hyry who, in 2002, appropriated the term colophon for the field of archives. The finding aid colophon, serving as an addition tacked onto a finding aid, translates into words the inevitable subjectivity of the archivist’s choices when making appraisal and processing decisions.  At present, few, if any, archives or repositories have put the idea of a finding aid colophon into practice. My capstone proposes a reimagining of the colophon for the digital collections environment; an environment where digital records often suffer from lack of context. Using the Blackwell Family Papers Digital Collections as a case study, my project argues that the transmission of records from its original finding aid to its representation in an online digital collection environment necessitates the creation of a series of digital collection essays. Digital collection essays can be defined as archival performance transparency tools to be applied to an online digital collection that describe the transmission and representation of digital archival records. These essays integrate archival performance transparency as well as educational and navigational information to breathe new life into the archival colophon.