Programmers and Archivists


This morning, David McClure’s blog post titled “The anxious keystroke” came across my Twitter feed. For a variety of reasons, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about archival description and the principles that are (or ought to be) behind it, and as always I’ve been thinking in metaphors (one of the hazards of being a songwriter). I found the post resonated strongly with many of my thoughts about archival description, and in many cases McClure’s discussion of the work of programmers was directly analogous to the work of archivists.

Early on, McClure describes the work of programmers as fundamentally “to produce…expressions of process.” If there’s a better way of saying what it means to create meaningful archival description, I don’t know what it is.

McClure also talks about programming as an essentially volatile enterprise. Anyone who’s processed a large and complex collection will know the feeling of “a vast physical structure, hanging in a black void - a bundle of tubing that wires up in a constellation of colored nodes.”

However, it’s his discussion of the “Perfect System” that really grabbed me, and that got my wheels turning in relation to archival description. He defines the Perfect System as “completely intuitive, infinitely maintainable, and inevitable expression of what we intend.” Sounds a lot like what we want archival description to be, and speaks to why we’ve built up a constellation of standards and tools around it. The next paragraph is worth quoting verbatim:

Of course, we always build fallen systems. They have bugs. They compromise. What’s the closest we can imagine, though? I immediately think of concise, direct implementations of clever algorithms. Really, though, this is an asymptotic thought - the closest thing I can imagine to Perfect System is an infinitely small system. Take the limit of that sentiment, though, and the closest imaginable thing to the Perfect System is no system at all.

This idea that smaller is better struck a chord with me because of recent thoughts I’ve had about the work of archivists. I’ve been thinking a lot recently that what we archivists should be doing is figuring out how to connect researchers with archival materials, and then getting the hell out of the way. And yes, that means people will take things out of context and make factually incorrect statements and violate copyright and probably do a whole bunch of other stuff we’d like them not to do. And I’m fine with that. We’re bridge builders, not toll booth attendants.