What the Archives Student Learned from the Artists: A Reflection on Two Sessions

Artists listen as Heather Gendron shares final remarks at the Archiving for Artists Workshop in the NCMA's Blue Ridge Atrium

Artists listen as Heather Gendron shares final remarks at the Archiving for Artists Workshop in the NCMA’s Blue Ridge Atrium

In the three weeks since the Archiving for Artists Workshop at the North Carolina Museum of Art, I have had time to reflect on the two sessions I taught: Physical Storage and Email, Web, and Social Media Archiving, which were, in a way, the two furthest fields from each other. In theory, human beings have been working through philosophies of organizing physical materials for a long, long time; think of basic survival decisions, like choosing to gather and hide food sources in one place. Over time, we have developed highly sophisticated systems of organization in libraries, museums, and archives. As a general rule, if an object exists, we have standards for cataloguing and placing it in a physical space.

Email, web, and social media, however, proffer a very new problem. The Internet hit wide public use in the 1990s, and the last twenty years or so have seen attempts, failures, and varied successes at tracking, organizing, and saving this kind of information. It’s a brave new world, and we don’t know what the future will hold or what we’ll need, but as a profession, we’re trying our best. The Library of Congress is harvesting tweets (though not doing anything with them yet), and the Internet Archive has archived 439 billion web pages.[1] The era of big data has us in a hustle. We have all this information and all the research and history potential that holds, but we’re not quite sure what to do with it yet (or if we’re really even doing the right thing).

The concerns and approaches of the artists in my physical storage and web archiving sessions at the NCMA earlier this month reflected these differences in analog and digital comfort. Some of the questions posed in the physical storage session were archive-based, and I was able to advise the artists with the standard best practices from the information organization world: for example, if you pile up materials on desks, use boxes to time-date and keep related materials together; if you file materials, keep a standard vocabulary of file folders for each project; if you let things pile and occasionally “spring clean,” then set up regular monthly or bi-monthly times to clear out and label materials. Other queries, however, were best answered by artists consulting other artists in the room: the best way to build a rack for canvases in your studio; the best print shop in the Triangle for scanning artworks; how much interleaving/what kind of material to place between different kinds of works. Book and print artist Lisa Beth Robinson, for example, was consulted more than once on conditions, types, and conservation of paper. I felt that between answers from archives standards and the community of artists, participants left with very solid answers.

The email, web, and social media session was likewise successful, but in a very different way. Again, I could advise on best practices from within the profession: for example, how to export to multiple and safe places; how to folder and archive emails; how to select metadata for naming those saved files. I have to admit that these ideas, however, are conjectural. We can call them “best practices” because they are in fact the best we have at the moment, but we don’t know that they’re certainly going to be the right answer in the future.

Just due to the nature of the media, digital materials, as Colin discussed in his Digital Preservation and Storage session, require a more sustained type of curation than analog items. A letter can rest on a table for ten years, and its script may have faded but will not have shifted to a language that our eyes can no longer read. A digital file, however, waiting patiently in a thumb drive for ten years may be completely inaccessible due to physical degradation of the drive or obsolescence of the storage media — and there may no longer be a digital “eye” capable of reading the corrupted language. Maybe eventually we’ll have highly-sophisticated and intuitive backup systems that we don’t have to blink at, but until then, it sometimes feels like we’re flying a little blind.

This greater sentiment of anxiety manifested in the room and conversation of the web session. Compared to the studio storage discussion, there was less a sharing of tried-and-true advice on organizing studio space and more an environment of airing uncertainties and frustrations. Artists lamented lost information, feelings of unease about what does and doesn’t need to be preserved, and inability to safely recover and protect that data.

Digital information in general, and information on the web specifically, feels more abstract, out of reach, and beyond our capture than the physical papers, canvases, and objects that make up our workspaces. We can only enact the best practices and evolve with them as they adapt to an ever-changing digital network. It likely seems more daunting than deciding which kind of canvas rack will work best for your space.

The most important takeaway, however, was the same for both sessions: empowerment fuels success. You may have to start really small, and you may make some mistakes, but ultimately the important thing is that you put an effort into the preservation and organization of your materials. Consult your community of artists, consult an archivist, and consult Google. A complete, customized, and cared-for archive is not only possible, it’s also worth the effort.

[1] While LOC is a public, governmental body to be open and sustained in perpetuity, IA is semi-private, donation-funded, and not necessarily accountable to extended sustainability. Nonetheless, the existence of both projects proves the impulse for preservation.