Friday, April 03, 2009

Unmediated access: just a canard, or the worst thing since unsliced bread?

Sometimes of a Friday morning, with too much caffeine or not enough, my hackles become unusually sensitive to stimuli. This morning, it was the word "unmediated", followed by its new friend "access", both applied as a phrase describing archival offerings on the web, that set me off on a little rant. In a nutshell, it came down to this: is "unmediated access" just a highfalutin' oxymoron, or is it really the future bane of archival patrons everywhere?

If by "unmediated" we mean "not communicated or transformed by an intervening agency" (Merriam-Webster's current definition), then no access to materials in archival repositories is truly unmediated. If it's on the web, archival staff scanned it. Heck, if it's in the repository in the first place and not just in a pile on the floor somewhere in storage, it has been touched by archival staff (after, let us also note, being preserved by someone who thought it worth saving and turning over to a repository in the first place. But I belabor the point. Apologies.)

If by "unmediated" we mean that the reader coming to it on the web will be unhindered by any of the machinery of the archival repository, then I think it may be the worst thing I can think of. (Hopefully, this won't turn into an SNL-like satire on Orwell's 1984, wherein I'll find myself consigned to some hell constantly confronted with exactly what I most fear.)

In a world of unmediated archival materials, every reader coming to any document will find the document alone. Even groups of records, where this letter over here may fall in filing order behind that report, will appear alone. What motive force brought these items together? Why are these seemingly disparate topics all found in this collection? What era, what milieu, what context shaped this grouping and impinged on its creation and retention?

Without the context that can be--and to date has routinely been--added to those archival materials by the knowledgeable men and women who maintain them (I won't say "process and describe" since these are being made synonymous with a Luddite mindset), each researcher coming to the materials must create the context de novo. Can you imagine the snail's pace at which future historical analysis will progress if each writer is required to conduct research on every document to ascertain its true context before moving on to a consideration of its importance to any given thesis? Good heavens, it would be like removing every secondary source from the library and requiring people to scratch out those texts in outline before moving on to their tertiary analyses!

In much the same way that MPLP shifts the burden of processing from processing archivists to reference staff, "unmediated" digitization projects shift the burden of contextualization to readers. As a sometime researcher myself, I protest! I know that staff at any given repository know a lot more about a collection than I do coming to it cold; why must that information be denied me? Unbiased, always. But unmediated? I hope it never comes to that.

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