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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):

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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,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a shame...

12:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, found your blog through BoingBoing. As a former archivist, maybe I can add a little context here. It is standard professional archival practice to delete routine correspondence, regardless of format, after a fixed period (often three years).

As you might expect, archivists use the term "archives" differently than most of the rest of us. An archives is a collection of records (another term with a very specific meaning for archivists) that usually represents a mere 3-5% of all documents created. So mass deletion of e-mails is standard practice and not actually ironic. And because the decision was made after the e-mails were appraised for evidentiary value confirms that there will likely be a minimal loss to history.

Paul Lagasse

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like IA's wayback machine has a nice screen-scrape of the Archives list archive at*/ Too bad, though, that the crawls didn't go to the next level (the actual messages). If, as Rick suggests, this is a valuable treasure trove for future historians and other interested parties (not, as Paul notes, a reason that SAA should maintain it), maybe the solution is to make sure that IA's Wayback Machine has a final dump of the TOC *and* all the contents of the archive before the plug gets pulled by Miami U. of OH?

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that when you post to a public space, you should not expect to be able to rescind your comments.

No, wait, I didn’t mean that.


1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an archivist, I can see the reasoning behind dumping the old messages from the previous incarnation of the listserv. When the list activity is monitored, the same basic questions come up over and over. Suggestions and feedback about techniques, equipment, and theory are bound to surface again and again.

Also, when you look at the listserv as a whole, there are many, many messages that are frivolous or unrelated to the archival profession. It may be too time consuming / expensive to weed those out. This is not to say that I do not enjoy these diversions, but they don't really have lasting value.

Then there's the issue of ownership of the messages. If this was the only issue, I would ask why they don't keep the messages after the list moderators added the disclaimer that all messages posted become the property of the list?

All in all, I hate to see the old archives go (I used it just recently, as a matter of fact), but life will go on. In another year, we probably won't even miss the old list!

Best wishes,
Bridgette K.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Sherman Clarke said...

This is pretty amazing. Searching the archive of a busy list (Autocat or ARLIS-L also come to mind) can seem like a big haystack with some needles that look pretty similar but .... some of those needles are real or even indispensible treasures.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting!

7:25 AM  

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