Critical Work: Archivists as Maintainers


Archivists have an invisibility problem. Our work is misunderstood, undervalued, and often taken for granted. At the same time, we are complicit in making others - both inside and outside of the profession - invisible. We need to fix those things.

Over the past year, I’ve been introduced to maintenance theory, an avenue of inquiry that I think can help us address these problems.

In putting together this talk, I’ve developed a list of of further readings, which might be useful to you as well!


Recently, scholars in science and technology studies have examined maintenance in an effort to correct narratives that valorize individual innovators and disruptors, arguing that this emphasis on newness and innovation erases labor and bodies. Asking “who does maintenance work, when and where and why?” they look to reveal and empower maintenance and the people who do it.

Maintenance theory is closely related to the history of infrastructure, systems and repair,1 and is also indebted to feminist care ethics, which locates morality in affective understanding,2 real relationships, concrete responsibilities and specific contexts.3 It draws on the arts as well.4


So what exactly is maintenance?

Maintenance is, first and foremost, a practice. It has to be done, and done continuously. However, maintenance is iterative rather than simply repetitive. This means that the quality of maintenance work can and should improve over time, and maintainers can and should become more competent.

It is also work which requires maintainers to be in relation to people, organizations, machines and processes. Through these relationships, maintainers gain expertise so they can filter and understand contextual clues.

Because it is relational, maintenance also involves emotional labor, or work which requires the performance of certain emotions towards others. For example: nurses who remain calm and polite while engaging with people in severe physical and psychological distress; tech support or “customer care” workers who apologize for whatever technical difficulty one may be encountering; or hotel staff who greet arriving guests with a smile.

Due to these characteristics, maintenance is often invisible, at least until something breaks.6 When it does, the maintainers have to clean up the mess, whether it’s a tree that fell on power lines, garbage that wasn’t picked up, or a levee that was breached.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about maintenance work is that it is subject to power relations in society, and can also reveal the nature of that power.7 Because it is largely invisible labor, maintenance work is generally performed by individuals marked and marginalized by race, class, or gender. As a result, maintenance workers have a complicated relationship to power - it’s not as though they have no agency - but their power is largely the ability to withhold.8

Implications for archivists

I said at the outset that archivists have an invisibility problem. As a profession, we’re chronically underpaid, and our programs are understaffed and filled with temporary employees. Popular narratives portray archivists as iconoclastic “save-iors”9 or erase our labor through stories which celebrate the “discovery” of “lost” archival records.10 Consumer products use the word “archive” to refer to functionality that removes information from view without deleting it, and scholarly discourse often treats “The Archive” as an abstract concept and theoretical state rather than a real place where real people do real labor.11

Within the profession, we have our own blind spots too. Our funding, professional discourse and attention are focused disproportionately on anything that uses the word “digital.”12 This usually comes at the expense of archival functions which more easily align with maintenance, like collections management, preservation and reference.13 And we’re complicit in erasing our work - often in the name of “impartiality” or “professionalism” - by failing to expose it through publicly documented appraisal decisions or robust processing notes.14

What that ultimately means is that we treat archivists differently based on the work that they do. “Digital archivists” like me get special privileges: more professional development money, faster promotion, better salaries.15 Meanwhile temporary, part-time and paraprofessional staff do the work that keeps archives running: moving boxes around, processing collections and doing data entry.16

I want to propose maintenance studies as a framework that can help us respond to these problems.

Archivists, all of us, are maintainers.

We do the hard and invisible work of maintaining records. Not only do we perpetuate the physical existence of records through preservation activities, we also manage ongoing access to records, in part by maintaining the context of record creation and maintenance through arrangement and description processes.17

But we maintain more than records, I argue. We also maintain networks of contextual relationships with records creators, subjects of records, our users, and larger communities, including the archival profession.18 This is really care work, I argue, which means that it involves mutual (but not necessarily symmetrical) responsibilities and obligations. It also means that we perform substantial emotional labor in the face of our own and others’ emotions, which can range from joy to anger or depression. Providing assistance to a demanding researcher, negotiating a gift agreement with donors grappling with personal loss and death, maintaining a “professional” tone while disagreeing vehemently with a colleague about workplace fairness: all of these are maintenance.19

Finally, we maintain memory and accountability. And that, I argue, means that our work is embedded in, and shaped by, power, just like other maintainers.

Why does it matter, you might ask, if archivists are maintainers? How does it solve the invisibility problem?

First, it means we are not alone. There are others out there who understand our work. Let’s get together with professionals who have a history of effective organization - like janitors, sanitation workers and domestic workers20 - and start building solidarity through shared resources, strategy and action.

This includes reframing our frequently contentious relationship with people who identify as archivists but may not have formal training. Theorizing archival labor as maintenance allows us to see how these “citizen archivists” and community archives are allied maintainers, often doing a better job of managing relationships, understanding context and sustaining emotional labor than us “real” archivists. Our profession is strengthened through inclusiveness, and weakened by artificial barriers of credentialing, identity policing and elitism.

Before we can do that, we need to end our complicity in erasing others. Let’s stop filling ongoing operational maintenance work with unpaid internships, or part-time and temporary labor, even if that means rethinking the level of service we provide or closing down an archives altogether.21 Let’s help ensure other maintainers like our janitorial staff and paraprofessionals are afforded the labor protections and benefits of full-time, “professional” staff.22 When neoliberal austerity regimes ask us to “do more with less” let’s push back instead of pushing those pressures down on the shoulders of those below us.23 And let’s fight our tendency to take out frustrations with our own invisibility on our researchers through arcane rules, byzantine processes and unwritten behavioral expectations that require undue emotional labor on their part.24 We need to stop punching down.

Let’s give archival maintenance work the value it deserves by making space for intersectional thinking, experimentation, and failure.25 And let’s acknowledge and sustain the emotional labor that goes into this work and not simply measure success by numbers of boxes moved, researchers in the reading room, or items reformatted.26 Exemplary maintenance needs to be recognized, if not at the national level then at least in our local organizations. We need to correct the imbalance of prestige, power and money that favors innovators, even if that means taking those things away from people like me.27

Theories are ways of seeing, and conceptualizing archivists as maintainers gives us a particularly potent way of seeing, and perhaps new ways of being.28 It takes the normative distribution of power and visibility which favors innovators and disruptors and stands it on its head by asking that deceptively simple set of questions: who does maintenance work, when and where and why? Let’s start asking those questions in archives. In so doing, I think we’ll be able to see ourselves more clearly. And once we’re able to do that, I think we’ll be able to both find our place in the world as well as have the power to insist on our rights.

This is the text of a talk given at the Society of American Archivists’ 10th Annual Research Forum in Atlanta. I want to thank Azra Dawood, Chela Scott Weber, Eira Tansey, Jarrett Drake, Mark Matienzo, Maureen Callahan, Mike Rush and Stacie Williams for the substantial and insightful comments, which improved this talk exponentially.

[1] For example, see Geoffrey Bowker and Paul Edwards’ work on the history of information infrastructure and Ingrid Burrington’s writing on physical infrastructure, as well as the work of Steven Jackson, Lara Houston, Daniela Rosner on repair.

[2] A number of scholars have written about the application of emotion to archives. If you’re interested in finding out more, I’d suggest looking at the work of Ann Cvetkovich, Amelia Abreu, Michelle Caswell, Marika Cifor and Lisa Sloniowski to start, as well as a recent issue of Archival Science and a roundtable discussion at this year’s Association of Canadian Archivists Conference chaired by Mary Flynn, with contributions from Anna St. Onge, Rebecka Sheffield and Melanie Delva.

[3] One definition of care work says it usually takes three forms, all of which are relevant to maintenance: instrumental (the work of keeping things going, which is how we usually think of maintenance work), emotional (listening, providing advice or a shoulder to cry on, also an important part of maintenance) and informational (usually involves learning, which is how maintainers get better at their jobs).

[4] For example, see the “maintenance art” of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, which interrogates maintenance through the lens of performance art and oral history. Ukeles’ work relates very closely to the work of archivists, and in fact some of her performances in the 1970s involved janitorial work at galleries and other art spaces, including the Wadsworth Athenaeum. See her Maintenance Art Manifesto 1969!, which explicitly ties domestic and janitorial work to the notion of maintenance.

[5] A few other areas of maintenance work that have important implications for archivists: the relationship of maintenance to the notion of efficiency, and how maintenance can be a way for humans to cross boundaries of technological “obsolescence”. The relationship between standards and maintenance is its own talk, involving not just the maintenance of standards, but also how standards affect maintenance, which can be pretty complex (they both hinder and help, depending on the context).

[6] Disney’s utilidor system, built for the express purpose of hiding maintenance work and maintenance workers, is one example of how that labor - and those who do it - is actively erased. Coverage of environmental disasters in the run-up to the Rio Olympics is an excellent example of the results of deferred maintenance, and the ways in which those effects are both disproportionately felt and largely resolved by marginalized maintainers.

[7] I realize this could be said about all work. But bear with me here, for the sake of argument.

[8] Withholding maintenance is a tactic which exacts an emotional and financial toll both on the identity of individual maintainers as well as the credibility of their profession. It’s like when the nurses go on strike in Grey’s Anatomy: they still care about their patients and use a proxy (George) to extend care even though they are not physically there or, as Mike Rush says, “people invest personally in the importance of the systems they maintain.” For an in-depth application of care ethics (and by extension maintenance) to political action, see Joan Tronto’s book Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (Routledge 1993).

[9] For example, see a recent article in The Atlantic which valorizes collecting initiatives of an individual that are positioned as “disruptive” to professional theory and practice.

[10] As if archivists hadn’t acquired, arranged, described and preserved that record precisely so someone who didn’t know it existed could find it.

[11] For a deeper discussion of this issue, see Eira Tansey’s article Archives without Archivists as well as Michelle Caswell’s “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies.

[12] See also this comprehensive bibliography relating to archives and digital inequality, compiled by Katherina Hering and others. Of course, some digital archives work could also be considered maintenance, for example data “cleaning”, digital preservation activities like file format migration and fixity checking, and frequent updates for archival systems (and, let’s be real, the fact that many of these are open source means their maintenance can be challenging).

[13] SAA doesn’t offer an award for accessioning or reference, but there is an “archival innovator” award all recipients of which, it should be noted, were selected for work in the digital realm. There also aren’t a ton of grants out there for operational expenses in archives, but pull together a proposal that prominently features the words “digital” or “innovation,” and funding organizations will be falling over each other to give you buckets of money. See Ben Goldman’s Bridging the Gap: Taking Practical Steps Toward Managing Born-Digital Collections in Manuscript Repositories for more on this phenomenon.

[14] Thanks to Mike Rush for raising this very important point: “We systematically aspire to conceal the value we add, and then wonder why no one recognizes the value we add.”

[15] For some context on the development of “digital archivist” positions, see Caryn Radick’s article Ambiguity and the Digital Archivist.

[16] I’m hardly the first person to point out these problems. Stacie Williams covered this problem set in detail in her excellent piece Implications of Archival Labor and also proposes some compelling solutions that I think align with the direction of this talk.

[17] How meta is that?!?

[18] Here I draw directly from Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor’s article From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives, which applies a care ethics framework to archival practice.

[19] For more on the productive use of tension in the maintenance of interpersonal relationships (albeit in a non-archival setting) see Laura Ring’s Zenana: Everyday Peace in a Karachi Apartment Building.

[20] As Amelia Abreu writes, the synergistic relationship between organized domestic workers and the Civil Rights movement offers some compelling models for mobilizing isolated, part-time, temporary workers often overlooked by mainstream labor organizing. Eira Tansey also points out that teachers’ unions often emphasize the relational and emotional aspects of teaching during collective action, claiming that “Teacher working conditions = student learning conditions.” This may be another useful bargaining tactic for archivists.

[21] I realize this is a controversial position, but people come first. As Maureen Callahan pointed out, archives will always need people to process collections, bring boxes to the reading room, and reformat collections. Why do we insist on creating part-time and temporary positions to do this perpetual and continuous work? Especially when, as Chela Scott Weber notes, we often fund those positions with grant money that cannot be used for professional development, travel funds or relocation assistance? There are some hopeful signs in this arena though, for example a recent report from the Ford Foundation titled Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure.

[22] The etymology and intellectual lineage of “custodial” and “janitorial” work might be an interesting topic to delve into. Just saying.

[23] For more on this, see Silvia Federici’s Wages Against Housework, which summarizes the ways in which capital divides labor, and how we can combat those divisions.

[24] Contrast the accounts of researchers in Michelle Caswell, Marika Cifor, and Mario H. Ramirez’s recent article “To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing”: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives with to Marika Cifor’s account of entering the Lesbian Herstory Archives for the first time as “one of her most powerful archival encounters” because of the welcome she received and the space she was offered to explore, touch and feel on her own.

[25] When talking about methodology and processing, we often use MPLP as a punching bag. But as Maureen Callahan correctly pointed out when reviewing this talk, it’s a framework that can (and should) be used as a tool to empower archival maintainers who process collections by encouraging them to employ professional judgement toward what was previously considered rote and formulaic work.

[26] I think the SAA-ACRL/RBMS Joint Task Force on Public Services Metrics is doing great work, but those metrics don’t yet account for any of the (substantial) emotional labor of reference. I’d argue that we should be measuring competence in relation to a standard of care, which I think starts by explicitly stating organizational values and accepted behavior, as well as articulating “intangibles” and “soft skills” (a gendered term if there ever was one) in job postings.

[27] As Eira Tansey notes, individuals who present themselves as innovators or disruptors are massively rewarded in archives and libraries, particularly in upper-management positions. Their success is also generally measured in terms of new initiatives, and rarely in terms of maintenance.

[28] Ways that ask us, as Ralph Ellison says, to “run the risk of [our] own humanity.” See also “To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing”: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives by Michelle Caswell, Marika Cifor, and Mario H. Ramirez for more on the ways theoretical frameworks can alter reality.