Monday, October 23, 2017

Archival questions, archival answers?

by Rachel Fellman

There’s no single educational path into archives, though most of us do go to library school. If there were an archives degree, though, you’d really only need two classes: Exquisite Office Supplies and Making Tricky Calls. Archives is not a career to go into if you like your decisions clear and your guidance universal. A collection with 25 folders is a collection with 25 problems. Are this woman’s records likely to be covered by HIPAA? Who is the man in this photo? Do we respect the office’s original file order if it doesn’t make sense? No, hear me out: what if it sort of makes sense?

1.5% of the collection. Photo by author. Also shown:
sunlight, the archivist's enemy.
All this is leading up to the reason you haven’t heard from us in a while: we’re (re)processing files from the office of Peter Kohler, who was president of OHSU from 1988 until 2006. Dr. Kohler was a central figure in OHSU’s history – during his tenure, the university doubled in size and employee numbers. And his collection is huge. How huge? Somewhere around 200 linear feet. Is that big by archival standards? Maybe not, but OHSU’s collections tend to be small. The Kohler records are our second-largest one. (The largest is 400 feet long, involves human remains and 98 boxes of plaster casts, and has its own room which may or may not be haunted.)

Perhaps half of the Kohler collection was already processed. Our goal now is to process the entire collection into one coherent arrangement scheme. One of the many tricky calls in archives is how much time to spend on a collection in the first place. There's a whole school of thought, called "minimal processing," that argues that we should spend very little -- no refoldering, no relabeling, no removal of paperclips or staples, just a collection hurtling as fast as possible into researchers' hands. Most archivists acknowledge the wisdom of that without taking it as gospel. We try to process quickly, but also go back and reexamine things when we can. (And usually we can't resist taking the paperclips out. They can rust!)

In this case, many of the files we've been working with had been refoldered and relabeled by previous archivists. So for this iteration of the project, the three of us (student workers and Archives Assistant) are going back through these records and doing some polishing, including bringing some of the titles in line with current practices. We're also deaccessioning some records. Plainly put, we had to remove some of the stuff to improve access to the rest.

Some of the choices were easy. There were things that were obviously too private to show researchers, or too banal to be any use to them. Want to see Dr. Kohler’s 2005 tax returns, complete with his Social Security number? Well, you can’t, because I’ve shredded them. Want to see the receipts for his car phones, back when that was a thing? A hint: you will learn more if you just type "car phone" into Google Images, and you'll also see some pictures of people who are really living.

But there were also more ambiguous calls. Most prominently, Dr. Kohler’s office saved many years of letters from patients. Some are positive, others are critical, but all of them reveal ordinary people's experiences and feelings about the hospital. Per OHSU’s records retention policy, we should be throwing them all away, and for most of the length of this project, we have. But the questions creep up. How much does an institution’s records retention policy apply to its archives? How much do we owe to the patients – to make sure their stories are told – and how much do we owe to the institution – to tell its story in full? But also: don't we owe these patients their privacy? They never gave permission for their letters to be kept forever; permission is a privilege not everyone gets. So what's more important, what's the more vital right? Being remembered, or being forgotten?

I can’t provide an upside-down answer key at the end of this post, like on a magazine quiz. Archival questions are all unanswerable; that’s why they’re so tricky. But essentially, we've come down on the side of throwing them away. The record suffers from the absence of these stories, but people suffer when institutions do things without consent, and it's part of our professional ethics to value people over paper. We value the paper because we value the people. Still, there are always ambiguities when you try to be fair to everybody, and we need to keep these things in mind when we look at records that past archivists have processed. They may look neutral, but there are always decisions behind them.