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An appropriation-friendly, image-rich, experimental research library. Independent and open to the public.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Archivists' archives reprieved (for now)

After many archivists protested, the Society of American Archivists Council has reversed its decision to purge the archives of the SAA listserv. I counted over 200 messages of protest in four days. Many of us hope the archives are preserved and made permanently accessible — I hope the Internet Archive is one of several repositories. --RP

Here's today's announcement:

Subject: [archives] Appraisal of A&A List (1993-2006)
Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2007 15:35:09 -0500
From: "Nancy Beaumont"
To: "The Archives & Archivists (A&A) List"
Reply-To: "The Archives & Archivists (A&A) List"
Reply-To: Nancy Beaumont

Posted on behalf of SAA President Elizabeth Adkins:

To: A&A List

From: Elizabeth Adkins, SAA President

Subject: Appraisal of A&A List (1993-2006)

The SAA Council convened via conference call last night to review the feedback on our previously announced decision to dispose of the A&A List archives (1993-2006). We are impressed by, and grateful for, the range and depth of responses to our announcement – particularly as they relate to concern on behalf of the profession. After taking everyone's thoughtful comments into account, we've decided to work with Miami University of Ohio to explore the option of transferring the list archives to another repository.

We remain concerned that transferring the list archives raises administrative and legal considerations that must be addressed, but we are willing to work to find ways to address those issues, if at all possible. We have contacted MUO, which has agreed to extend until further notice the date by which the list archives must be taken down to give us more time to work out the details. Should it become necessary, we will arrange for a download of the archives list files that could be used in a transfer to another repository.

Clearly this experience demonstrates that appraisal is something about which good archivists can disagree, and we respect the passionate disagreement of the list community with our original decision. I want to thank all who have expressed their concern, publicly or privately, and for the constructive suggestions that many of you have made to address SAA's concerns.

We will be communicating with the list as we progress through next steps.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Society of American Archivists decides to nuke its listserv archives

I joined the Society of American Archivists last year and attended their 2006 conference in Washington, D.C. It was a fascinating gathering — there were panels about challenges posed by newly-found records of the illegal Portland, Ore. Police Bureau Red Squad, which turned up in a policeman's garage; about archives and social justice in South Africa; about blogging (with Jessamyn West); and much, much more.

Their listserv is a high-traffic list whose postings range from trivial to sublime. It's full of how-tos on everything from preserving the contents of time capsules, to disaster recovery, CD-R and DVD-R longevity, copyright, and (illegal) reclassification of Federal government records. I've subscribed for 6 years, maybe longer.

Now comes word that the SAA Council has decided that the archives of its own listserv are no longer worth saving and will be "disposed of" at the end of this month. After an appraisal of their value, they've determined the cost of keeping these bits is higher than their "evidential or informational value." Because of what seem to be legal issues (one poster wants his/her posts removed and is threatening legal action -- see below), "there are significant legal and administrative impediments to transferring the archives to another institution for preservation and access."

If this happens, it will be a really big mistake. This list contains much valuable information, and is a thick and fascinating record of how a legacy-ridden field responded to the Internet revolution. The irony of an archival organization disposing of its own archives (and the archives of an entire profession) is obvious. -- RP

Here's the official letter (a contact for comments is below):

- - - - - - -

Subject: [archives] A&A List Archives, 1993-2006
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2007 11:38:37 -0500
From: "Nancy Beaumont"
To: "The Archives & Archivists (A&A) List"

Posted on behalf of the SAA Council.

To: Archives and Archivists Listserv Subscribers
From: The SAA Council

After seven months of discussion – informed by an appraisal recommendation from SAA’s archival repository, the recommendations of a Task Force, and a communication from Miami University of Ohio, the SAA Council considered the following motion during a conference call on March 8:

THAT the Archives and Archivists List Archives that has been maintained at Miami University of Ohio, representing material created from 1993 to 2006, be disposed.

Support Statement: The SAA Council has determined that the cost of retaining, administering, and maintaining access to the 1993-2006 archives of the A&A List is substantially higher than is warranted by the evidential or informational value of the archives. Further, there are significant legal and administrative impediments to transferring the archives to another institution for preservation and access. Thus the Council has determined that the archives will be disposed of at the end of March 2007 when Miami University of Ohio is no longer able to support it.

Council members passed the motion, with 8 votes in favor, one abstention, and two absent.

Hence, as of March 31, 2007, the archive of the list from 1993 to 2006 will cease to exist. This was a difficult appraisal decision, but ultimately we agreed with the assessment of SAA’s archival repository that the costs of maintaining the list archives outweighed the benefits. We understand that there are some list subscribers who will strongly disagree with this decision, but we did consider the arguments in favor of preserving the list archives and concluded that they were not sufficiently strong to warrant the cost or administrative burden.

Given the undoubted interest in this issue on the List, some additional background is in order. Last year, when the A&A List was moved to a new software and administrative environment, the question arose concerning the fate of the 1993-2006 “archives” of the list still residing at Miami University of Ohio (MUO). At our May 2006 meeting, the Council discussed whether the List archives should be maintained indefinitely. Opinion was divided. We elected to hold off on the decision until some additional information could be gathered.

We requested an appraisal opinion from SAA’s archival repository at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (received at the August 1, 2006, Council meeting) that concluded:

The listserv possesses no significant value as evidence of SAA’s own history, functions, or activities…. In terms of informational value, the content of the listserv is highly uneven, consisting mainly of postings with current value (such as news items, job announcements, product recommendations), opinion pieces reflecting the views of particular individuals, and advice concerning specific practices and procedures.

…In further considering this aspect of the appraisal question, [we] consulted two archival educators…. Both agreed that the listserv possesses some short-term value for their students by exposing them to a wider community, current topics, etc. However, neither educator considers the listserv to be a significant or substantial research resource.

Then-President Richard Pearce-Moses and some Council members disagreed. Given the repository decision, they argued that SAA itself should permanently preserve and maintain access to the archives.

In September, new President Elizabeth Adkins created a task force, chaired by Vice President Mark Greene and composed of four non-Council members and SAA staffer Brian Doyle, to study the archives and recommend Council action. Its formal charge: “Review issues associated with retention of the Archives and Archivists List Archives and prepare a recommendation for the Council's consideration regarding…long-term disposition…. The review should take into consideration content analysis, cost maintenance and ongoing study of use of the data.”

The task force met via email. Among its resource materials were three research papers that had been prepared in the 2000s by SAA members as conference presentations and that analyzed the content and use of the List archives. A decisive majority of task force members felt that the List archives should be preserved by SAA, if at all, only if it could be done for nominal cost.

Three task force members (50%) expressed a clear and definite opinion that the List archive should not be maintained, period. Their rationale largely mirrored that of SAA’s archival repository. In addition, it was noted that there are legal and administrative issues that make preservation of the archives difficult if not ultimately impossible. Until 2001 the List did not have terms of participation, making it unclear who owns the actual messages. (And until 2001 copyright rests exclusively with posters as well.) Currently there are two requests pending from posters who wish to remove their posts, one of whom is threatening legal action. SAA feels that it has no choice but to accede to these requests and future ones, further undermining both the evidential and informational value of the list and making further administration by SAA continuously difficult.

Two task force members argued that the List archives should be maintained if it could be done inexpensively. One of these members noted that the value of the List was compromised because the List was not administered in the first place in a manner that would preserve its informational and evidential value.

One member of the task force did argue strongly for preserving the archives: “I think the listserv provides a unique insight into how our profession responded to the new networking technologies….”

Some task force members suggested that perhaps SAA could offer the List archives to another repository beside SAA’s archive. In the end this option was rejected in the task force’s recommendation to the Council because: 1) there is a question of whether SAA truly “owned” the messages up to 2001 and 2) it is unlikely that SAA could compel a repository to agree to remove messages into the future.

To address the question of how expensive it would be for SAA to maintain the archives List, SAA staff member Brian Doyle prepared a supplemental report, concluding that there was no method of doing so that was practical, did not entail significant time and expense, or did not substantially compromise effective access to the records and greatly diminish the usefulness of the archives.

In addition, SAA learned that MUO wished to discontinue administration of the 96-03 list at the end of March 2007, compelling a decision on Council’s part.

It was on the basis of all of this information that the Council took its March 8 vote.

Comments and questions can be directed to SAA Vice President Mark Greene,