Left in folders next to the trivial and the mundane

Trawl industry news or employment classifieds (pick your preferred sector) using keywords like “research” and “information”, and you might find yourself thinking that the sum total of reality is digital, too big for mere human minds to process, and that making sense of it is best left to machines and software. It’s a world in which understanding is less contingent on a cognitive capacity for critical engagement and creative insight than it is on the accessibility of information. Access is all. It trumps (sorry) the value that large volumes of data imply. It trumps (where is William Safire when you need to pick apart a travesty of a word and find a pallatable substitute for it?) the value that fast data processing speed implies.

Access can be about a lot of different things.  It can be about decryption of safeguarded secrets, conversion to a usable medium, or translation of foreign language script into one that’s comprehensible.  At its most basic, it can be about the ability to directly observe information or physically possess it, on a drive, on paper, in a photograph, on a stone tablet. Sometimes it’s about finding a keeper of the secrets, and a place where the secrets are kept. Secrecy is a relative thing. It correlates directly with notions of access, and one of my favorite archetypal keepers, the archivist, is also the one I most frequently invoke when I’m talking to  colleagues, clients and friends about research specialties like  data science, e-discovery and open source intelligence.

According to this piece in the Village Voice on archivists, one of their number may well be  – with apologies for repeating a brutalized meme  – the most interesting man in the world. The “paradox of being an archivist,” it tells us, is that while archivists should know things so that they can help others know those things, “it’s not really the archivist’s place to impose his knowledge on anyone else… [i]ndeed, if the field could be said to have a creed, it’s that archivists aren’t there to tell you what’s important.” It’s a view that misses one of the most fundamental aspects of archival work, in that archivists routinely select what to preserve and what not to preserve, and so by definition impose their knowledge on others. It’s a point that the author explores and explains well. Ideal types are fine in isolation, and archival work is nothing if not isolating, but relegating keepers of secrets to the role of neutral, disinterested arbiters of knowledge strikes me as more than a little self-indulgent.

Archivists and archival investigators have a role to play as activists, especially if there’s a forensic element to the materials buried amid unprocessed and uncatalogued holdings. I can sympathize with the romantic view that “Historically momentous documents are to be left in folders next to the trivial and the mundane — because who’s to say what’s actually mundane or not?” But that’s about preservation, not discovery, and once discovered, one would hope that the discovering archivist would do more than just stare wanly at the information in question and then file it dutifully away, with nary a word of imposition about its singificance to anyone.

Archival investigation undertaken by living, breathing human beings unfolds at a comparatively soporific pace, and for investigators and researchers used to fast search engines and aggregate query results, it’s a practice that’s surely too musty and staid and boring  to be taken seriously or ascribed much worth. But plodding historical gumshoes poking about the stacks and sifting yellowed documents, for all their retrograde pathos, embody a particular spirit of discovery. Tech-savvy number crunchers and online seekers of insight surely experience their own versions of this. Smoking guns appear in all shapes and forms. But there’s a tactile, sensory difference between the two. “The need to pore through boxes forces you to connect with them,” writes our Village Voice author. It may well be, he notes, “one of the few kinds of formal research left. You can’t google — you have to think about what you want. You have to talk to an archivist, and find the right box, and go through that box.”