This paper was presented on my behalf by Tom Norcliffe on 27 September 2017, at the Australian Society of Archivists’ conference ‘Diverse Worlds,’ 25-28 September, Melbourne, Australia.
The origins of this paper can be traced back to September 2016, with the release of a draft document by the International Council on Archive’s Expert Group on Archival Description (or EGAD) titled ‘Records in Contexts – A Conceptual Model for Archival Description’ – RiC for short. My purpose is not so much to critique or challenge that document, as to use it as the starting point for a broader discussion.
The release of RiC marked a significant milestone in a process which started in late 2012, when the ICA formed EGAD and charged them with “developing a standard for the description of records based on archival principles.”[i] The intention was to reconcile, build on and integrate the four existing standards, for general archival description, ISAD(G); the description of archival authority records, ISAAR(CPF); and the standards for describing functions and institutions with archival holdings, ISDF and ISDIAH respectively.
In their introduction, EGAD outline some of the areas they see as contributing to their work. These include: the effect of digital and electronic records; the urgent need for cooperation and collaboration between record keepers and archivists; and the understanding that allied communities – libraries, museums, curated cultural sites, and similar – may have an interest in conceptual models and descriptive practices used by archivists.
The introduction also notes: “that the real world within which we live and work may be understood as a vast, dynamically interrelated network of people and objects situated in space and time”; and, that “RiC is intended to accommodate existing description practices and at the same time to acknowledge new understandings,” including “a more expansive and dynamic understanding of provenance.”[ii]
The document then lists its primary description entities:
- Record Component
- Record Set
- Function (Abstract)
- Documentary Form
There is much here to discuss, and for those interested I recommend reading through some of the responses to the discussion draft. Thanks in particular to Lise Summers for her work compiling responses in January on her blog ‘In the mailbox.’[iii]
In this paper I want to focus primarily on just one of these entities: Agent.
The origins of the term ‘Agent’ in the context of RiC are unclear. None of the four existing ICA standards use the term anywhere in their English text. The only appearance with the same sense I can find is in two French examples used in the standard for describing institutions with archival holdings. Google reliably informs me that the first of these instances roughly translates as:
The Brazza papers are part of private archives / papers of agents in the National Archives of overseas territories.
and the second:
Consultation of documents:
The requests for communication and reservation are made by the readers themselves on the computer terminals. Agents search for documents at designated times under the requestor’s name as specified in the reading room.
Whether or not the French members of EGAD were instrumental in the inclusion of ‘Agent’ is unknown; but in these two examples the term looks to operate as a synonym for ‘person’ or ‘individual,’ whereas RiC defines ‘Agent’ more specifically: “A person or group, or an entity created by a person or group, that is responsible for actions taken and their effects.”
Barbara Reed, in her comments on the conceptual model in early 2017, questions the rationale for separating out some of the primary entities on the list (rather than making them attributes), but does not question the inclusion of Agent. She writes:
Archives and records work deals fundamentally with three types of entities in relationship. This has been the bedrock of Australian archival practice for over 50 years. These entities are Records, Agents and Functions. These are the entities that we are professionally responsible for. Other entities introduced into the RiC may well be useful for description … But they are generic and not our core business.[iv]
The term ‘Agent’ also appears prominently in the new ISO 15489 standard (published in May 2017), which Reed was involved in drafting. Here the term ‘agent’ is defined on the first page as an:
individual, workgroup or organization responsible for, or involved in, record creation, capture and/or records management processes
with an additional note:
Technological tools such as software applications can be considered agents if they routinely perform records processes[v]
This definition allows for ‘non-human’ agents; and, in a move that will keep Bruno Latour fans happy,[vi] RiC opens the door even further, supporting the assignation of ‘Agent’ to entities “created by a person or group.” (Animals and plants, it would seem, remain excluded.)
Note that ‘Person’ here is a potential value for the type of agent, not a primary entity in its own right. What are the implications of representing agency (and archives) in this way? First, let’s consider the sorts of agency the term usually represents in an archival or record keeping context.
Writing about the Australian Recordkeeping Metadata Schema in 2006, Sue McKemmish, Glenda Acland, Nigel Ward and Barbara Reed define agents as:
social entities (for example, organisational bodies or other social drivers such as motherhood), persons, or legal and other such instruments
These, they continue:
may be responsible for creating, controlling, and managing records, or they may be engaged in their use.[vii]
This brings together the two readings seen in our French examples earlier: agents as creators or accumulators of records; and agents who are users. In 1992, when Terry Cook wrote about ‘The Concept of the Archival Fonds in the Post-Custodial Era,’ the term ‘agent’ doesn’t appear at all. He uses ‘organisation’ 10 times, ‘person’ 6 times, and ‘creator’ 58 times.[viii] Some aspects of archival thought are undoubtedly creator-centric.
Today, creation and accumulation – broadly, provenance – remain a primary focus for many. RiC, despite its expansive introduction, reveals these preoccupations in stating that the three standards created in addition to ISAD(G):
envisioned the separation of primary components of the archival description (creator-accumulator of a fonds; the functions that the records accumulated document; and the repository that held the fonds).[ix]
ISAAR(CPF) here is characterised as a tool for describing ‘creator-accumulators,’ not people. But people can be other things: correspondents; authors; subjects; objects. People are people, to quote Depeche Mode, but people are not always agents.
RiC’s answer to this seems to be its fourteenth entity, “Concept/Thing – Any idea or notion, material thing, or event or occurrence that can be associated with, or in some cases be the subject of, other entities.”[x] The Scope Notes for the entity is as follows:
Includes all RiC entities as well as the following: abstract concepts; cultural movements, named periods and events; named things, objects and works; legendary, mythical or fictitious figures, characters or beings.[xi]
Taking “Includes all RiC entities” at face value, this means people not involved in the creation, accumulation, maintenance or use of records are recorded (where they are described at all) as concepts or things, while others who are involved in such processes are recorded as agents.
If this is correct, people are described in two groups: agents and others. If it is incorrect, all people must be described as agents. Both options are problematic.
Consider what this might mean in practice. Uncle Larry Walsh is a 63-year-old Taungurung man and respected Aboriginal elder. He recently discovered that, on 25 May 1956, he was written up by the Victoria Police. The offence – Larry:
Was deemed to be a child in need of care and protection that is to say has no visible means of support and no settled place of abode.[xii]
Uncle Larry was given a criminal record, aged 2 years and 6 months. He only discovered this recently, but that record affected his life for sixty years. If I, as an archivist, want to create a record about Uncle Larry it seems an ill-fit to describe him as an ‘Agent’, defined as “A person … that is responsible for actions taken and their effects.” This case is a clear example of someone who was not responsible for the actions described or their effects. But I am equally troubled by the thought I might have to register Uncle Larry as a ‘Concept/Thing’ of Type: Person.
Why not just describe him as a person?
The argument might come back that describing people like Uncle Larry – the subject of the records – is not part of the core business of archival description. Here is not the place to argue the case; but even if we accept the argument problems may still arise.
What if I want to create an online digital archive of collections related to Victorian orphanages? As part of that, I might want to bring in collections developed by former residents of those institutions as well as institutional collections. The entry for a person in that context could readily be an ‘Agent’ with regard to their own collection, and a person with little to no agency in the institutional context. Their presence in the system may in fact reflect their journey toward claiming more agency over time. Agency here is contextual and on a continuum (both things archivists should understand), not something we are or are not in perpetuity.
Take as another example the repatriation of Aboriginal remains from museums. Are we comfortable recording these as ‘Concepts’ or ‘Things’? Or do we want to record them as people, as in the Return, Reconcile, Renew project? As people they certainly have no agency within the context being described; but treating them as things has been part of the problem. Alexandra Roginski writes:
To repatriate human remains is … not only to remove them from the museum, but also to attempt to remove the museum from within them, stripping away institutional context and ownership to allow rehabilitation of the subject.[xiii]
Subjects they may be, but using ‘Agent’ here claims too much. We cannot describe people as agents, regardless of situation; and we need alternatives other than designating some people ‘things’ on which Agents act. Our world – “a vast, dynamically interrelated network of people and objects situated in space and time” – is never so simple.
There are conceptual and philosophical questions we need to confront as we navigate these ideas. Is agency a property of a person, or is a person a type of agent? Within descriptive standards, ‘person’ seems to me to be a useful and relatively unproblematic primary entity; certainly more so than agent, which introduces specificity and constraint too soon. Chris Hurley writes with characteristic style:
persons are understood to have identity and definition apart from their records. Only the most hardline recordkeeper would insist on defining homo sapiens as a ‘records-creating mammal’.[xiv]
Hurley is in general agreement with Reed on the core functions of record keeping, referring to them as ‘documents,’ ‘doers,’ and ‘deeds’ in his response to RiC.[xv] While ‘doers’ incorporates some of the active qualities of ‘agent,’ Hurley argues convincingly for ensuring our entities are not constrained in and of themselves:
it is unwise to define entities in terms of the use to which they will be put in documentation. An agency is not a ‘records-creator’. An agency is a corporate entity which may be put to any one of several possible uses – including documentation of records-creation. Neither it nor any other descriptive entity should be defined in terms of the descriptive purpose(s) for which it will be used because that information (information about context, provenance, and recordkeeping activity) is itself wrapped up in the relationship which is yet to be established.[xvi]
Similarly, a person is a person, while information about agency – which may well be key to our descriptive purposes as archivists – is “wrapped up” in relationships. Which is to say: agency is relational – an idea found in the work of recent theorists.
One is archaeologist Ian Hodder, who writes about the notion of entanglement. Drawing on his interest in material culture and its contexts, he explores how things interconnect and flow into each other. This conception of the world goes beyond networks. Hodder views entanglement as something more sticky; something which captures and traps humans and things alike. Agency is not a property of individual elements, it is distributed within and through these webs.
Feminist scholar and theoretical physicist Karen Barad goes well beyond Hodder in complexity and ambition. In her view, turning relations into ‘things’ or ‘entities’ – called ‘Thingification’ – infects the way we understand the world.[xvii] Agency cannot be a property of humans and things, as Barad is: “trying to displace the very notion of independently existing individuals.”[xviii] Drawing on poststructuralist thought, queer and post-humanist theory, and twentieth-century physics, she portrays a universe where nothing is fixed, the ‘observer’ and ‘observed’ are inseparable, bodies have no inherent boundaries and properties, and matter is “not a thing, but a doing, a congealing of agency.”[xix]
Though their work is different, Hodder and Barad both recognise the way power operates in these complex systems. Power (like agency) is relational and distributed; but distributed unevenly. Hodder writes:
entanglements look different from different social positions and in relation to different interests … Human power to achieve goals and gain dominance over others leads to human-thing entanglement as resources are mobilized, ownership asserted and access restricted … Entanglements can be productive and distributive but also viciously unequal, destructive and disempowering.[xx]
A type of disempowerment, one that is keenly felt, is loss of agency.[xxi]
As archivists, working from positions of privilege – positions which give us access to our archives in ways few other users ever experience – we may claim ‘agent’ is just a term. If we define it broadly we may hope to navigate any misunderstandings and continue with our work. But this approach has limitations. Writing about the effect of colonisation, anthropologist Nicolas Thomas notes people can:
find their leaders powerless, themselves landless, and their crucial ritual practices proscribed. Such people will find the ‘working misunderstandings’ which sometimes operate so creatively in the inter-enactment of cultural structure do not in fact work.[xxii]
So what is our role here? Many of us operate in a world where agents, functions, and records sometimes seem to align rather too closely with people and groups of people in positions of power, the activities of those people, and the evidence of their activity. What silences does this create – not just in the archive itself, but in our descriptions of that archive? What would archival description look like if agency were treated as relational and contextual? What sort of data could this provide, and how could it help contribute to analysis and understanding of way power moves, shapes, and congeals around our collections and the people to whom they relate?
Archives are not neutral here. If our sole purpose is “to curate the past, not confront it,”[xxiii] as Jarrett Drake suggests, we are helping to entrench inequality, and are denying our own ability to affect change. Moving from diversity to inclusion is about more than focusing on new types of collections and broadening our user base while continuing to rely on the language and perspectives of the past.
Digital humanities scholar Miriam Posner writes:
It’s not only about shifting the focus of projects so that they feature marginalized communities more prominently; it’s about ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it doesn’t reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.[xxiv]
One place to start is by rethinking who we document in our archives and why we document them, and broadening our standards and conceptual models accordingly. Even if we do not need to alter the core business of all archivists and record keepers, we do need to create space for agents of change.
[i] Experts Group on Archival Description, “Records in Contexts – A Conceptual Model for Archival Description” (International Council on Archives, September 2016), 1, http://www.ica.org/sites/default/files/RiC-CM-0.1.pdf.
[ii] Ibid., 9.
[iv] Barbara Reed, “Comments on EGAD – Expert Group on Archival Description, Records in Context – Conceptual Model,” Google Groups, February 1, 2017, https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/archives-and-records-australia/agents|sort:relevance/archives-and-records-australia/JMXIXsMdVRo/277WIgXhBwAJ.
[v] Committee IT-021, Records and Document Management Systems, “AS ISO 15489.1:2017 – Information and Documentation – Records Management – Part 1: Concepts and Principles” (Standards Australia, May 29, 2017), 1.
[vi] Bruno Latour, “The Berlin Key or How To Do Words With Things,” in Matter, Materiality, and Modern Culture, ed. Paul Graves-Brown (London ; New York: Routledge, 2000), 10–21; Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 63–86.
[vii] Sue McKemmish et al., “Describing Records in Context in the Continuum: The Australian Recordkeeping Metadata Schema,” Archivaria 48 (September 25, 2006): 14, http://www.archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12715.
[viii] Terry Cook, “The Concept of the Archival Fonds in the Post-Custodial Era: Theory, Problems and Solutions,” Archivaria 35 (January 1, 1992), http://www.archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/11882.
[ix] Experts Group on Archival Description, “Records in Contexts – A Conceptual Model for Archival Description,” 8.
[x] Ibid., 19.
[xii] Sylvia Rowley, “Guilty of Being Aboriginal,” NITV, August 24, 2017, http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/feature/guilty-being-aboriginal-0.
[xiii] Alexandra Roginski, The Hanged Man and the Body Thief: Finding Lives in a Museum Mystery, Australian History (Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Publishing, 2015), 2.
[xiv] Chris Hurley, “Problems with Provenance” (Chris Hurley, May 19, 1995), 3, https://www.descriptionguy.com/images/WEBSITE/problems-with-provenance.pdf.
[xv] Chris Hurley, “RiC: Quo Vadis? (Again),” Google Groups, January 28, 2017, https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/archives-and-records-australia/EGAD%7Csort:relevance/archives-and-records-australia/bPSdoJ4o_6s/NvZUvTSgBgAJ.
[xvi] Hurley, “Problems with Provenance,” 13.
[xvii] Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs 28, no. 3 (2003): 812, doi:10.1086/345321.
[xviii] Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, “New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies – Interview with Karen Barad,” New Metaphysics, 2012, doi:10.3998/ohp.11515701.0001.001.
[xix] Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity,” 812, 823, 815.
[xx] Ian Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 214.
[xxi] See Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 14.
[xxii] Nicholas Thomas, Out of Time: History and Evolution in Anthropological Discourse, Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology 67 (Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 113.
[xxiii] Jarrett M. Drake, “I’m Leaving the Archival Profession: It’s Better This Way,” Medium, June 26, 2017, https://medium.com/on-archivy/im-leaving-the-archival-profession-it-s-better-this-way-ed631c6d72fe.
[xxiv] Miriam Posner, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” Miriam Posner's Blog, July 27, 2015, http://miriamposner.com/blog/whats-next-the-radical-unrealized-potential-of-digital-humanities/.