Where things come from

Archives Music

Lately I’ve been very taken with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an trio of fine musicians reinventing the African American string band tradition in their own unique way. Their latest release, Genuine Negro Jig, is an absolute masterpiece, but is still no substitute for seeing them live. I’ve been to a couple of their shows over the summer, and aside from being blown away by their energy and charisma, I was really fascinated by how invested they are in explaining the origins of each song they play. Thank goodness they know how to tell a story (and thank goodness the stories they have to tell are entertaining) or it would be really boring. Instead, knowing the stories behind the songs makes them more meaningful, interesting and powerful. In fact, as I realized through the haze of two bourbons on a Thursday night at the Bowery Ballroom, it substantially changes the way in which the audience listens.

But this post isn’t really about the Carolina Chocolate Drops, or performance styles, or even about music in general. No, it’s about that other thing I love to think, talk and write about: archives. See, us archivists also really like to talk about where things come from. In our case, those things are the unique and historically significant materials (whether letters, photographs, emails, tweets or data sets) that we’re charged with preserving and making accessible. There’s been a lot written about this idea of “where things come from” in the archival setting. We’ve even got a fancy name for it; provenance.

According to the Society of American Archivists, the word has two meanings:

  1. The origin or source of something.
  1. Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.

This is all well and good, but it’s not a very specific definition, is it? What exactly is this “information regarding the origins, custody and ownership” supposed to entail? Most statements of provenance that I’ve seen are pretty basic, and consist of a sentence or two that say something like, “This collection came from Joe Retired Professor in July 1982. Additional material was added after his death in 1993.” I don’t think that’s good enough. I think we need to to a better job of explaining the processes behind the creation of the records we’re describing (not just the name of the person who last owned the records). We need to do a better job in telling the stories behind the materials we work with. Which brings me back to the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

As an audience member, I found myself listening more intensely than I usually do at a concert. Let’s face it, most of the time you go to a concert, you’re paying attention to a lot of things, like the people you’re there with, the dancing guy next to you who’s threatening to spill your drink, or the bad sound, or who knows what else. Everything, in fact, except what’s going on onstage, which is ostensibly the reason you’re there in the first place. Not with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The audience not only listened intently to the in-between song banter, but responded to the songs in a way that seemed out of proportion to three musicians playing traditional songs on acoustic instruments.

I think archivists can learn something from this. If we want people to respond to what we do in way that makes our work valuable, we absolutely need to do a better job of explaining where the things we work with come from. As I see it, there are basically two components to this: the creators and the creating processes. Who made the materials (whether it’s a person, a corporate body, or a computer program), and how exactly did they make them (with a quill pen, a typewriter, or WordStar 2.0)?

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some really good efforts already to describe more fully the provenance of archival materials. The Society of American Archivists and the Berlin State Library have developed Encoded Archival Context ““ Corporate bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) which is a really great start on developing more structured data describing the creators of archival material. And Aaron Rubenstein at UMass has developed a nifty Provenance vocabulary to be used in linked data applications. Still, we’re a long ways away, and we to think seriously about what kind of information we want, and how to structure it in a way that makes it as useful as possible. If we do that, I’m confident we can get people not only excited about the materials we have in our care, but also looking at them in a whole new way.