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My GLAM: Sitting at the Coalface

Back in October a good friend of mine at the Australian Society of Archivists Victoria Branch asked me to write a short piece describing ‘My GLAM’.

GLAM for readers that haven’t heard this acronym stands for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. In the article I described where my focus in the digital preservation world has been for the last decade.

I also suggested that one letter was missing from the GLAM acronym: ‘P’ for ‘people’.

The full transcript of this short piece is below:

Sitting at the Coalface


Today it is my honour to write this piece for the ASA Vic Branch newsletter. It comes at a different time in my life—just a year ago I was still working in government, but now work remotely as a software developer for (gasp!) a vendor. In the midst of a year in which the digital preservation community has, in many ways, mirrored the patriarchal politics of the world right now, writing from Texas in the US seems horribly ironic.

Digital preservation is a skill that sits at the intersection of all GLAM organisations. GLAM, which stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums, is a lovely acronym but it is missing one crucial letter; “P” is for people.

I have been working in this field for a decade, give or take a few months. Folks have come and gone. Some, seemingly more so than ever, are ejected from the GLAM sector. I see this caused by bad actors, or by witnesses remaining silent. I have seen people leave for better paid jobs in better paid sectors. I have seen folk just get tired and walk away. See Fobazi Ettarh’s 2018 article on vocational awe – credit to Andy Jackson at the British Library for bringing it to my attention.

The challenge of performing to impeccable standards with very little resource (see: “doing more with less”) is felt nowhere more acutely than at the coal face of archival practice.

I often hear folks talk about the promise of this or that new technology, such as block-chain or machine learning, and wonder what we are supposed to do while we wait for computers to solve our “problems” around appraisal, sentencing, and everything in-between. Do you also tire of hearing how broken and outmoded some of our practices and tools are? Yet you know you need to use them every day. How do we carry on with the decidedly “unglam” work of processing an archival collection while others chase after digital cure-alls? In one or two very big ways we cannot simply carry on.

Of the P in GLAM, there are three important groups. They are the agency or donor fulfilling their responsibilities to the Public Records Act, both for the sake of access to, and future maintenance of records; the public, our other communities, who demand and deserve access to records to support healthy democracy and research; the people processing and maintaining the records – ourselves.

When the “thought leaders” creep from their hovels, we can all say to them, we see the problems – but are you delivering the solutions? At which point, we reconcile the work on the coalface with the hypothetical by doing what we can for ourselves.

My GLAM (and perhaps yours?) this decade has been about myself and the teams I belong to, rigging numbereight-wire solutions around every process or policy we can – in order to make it work in practice.
My GLAM this decade has been about tuning out the noise and empty promises in the field at large, to focus on delivering what we can, with what little we have.

My GLAM this decade has been finding the wonderful people in our community, actually working at the coalface, and listening to them. There are folks, many at the Vic Branch incidentally, who continue to make our work, and our world, a better place; not by offering a panacea, but by showing us the building blocks we can all work with to make the P in GLAM really count.

Yes, this is a call to managers and executives to look at your staff and to ask, how you would hope to be listened to, remunerated, and rewarded for such care and dedication to an incredibly difficult task. But for everyone else, not quite there yet and yet still leading the way: Keep doing what you are doing. You are doing great.
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Ross Spencer is a Software Developer for Artefactual Systems Inc. He recently received the Archives and Manuscripts Sigrid McCausland award for emerging writers, for work inspired by his day-to-day duties while at Archives New Zealand. ‘Binary Trees? Automatically identifying the links between borndigital records’ (2017) Volume 45, Number 2, July 2017.

https://perma.cc/2YQN-FWTL

 

The Australian Society of Archivists Vic Branch newsletter (October 2018) can be read here: https://perma.cc/H7AT-NNQ7 and here.

Many thanks to Suzy Goss for the opportunity to reflect on and share a few thoughts on the state of digital preservation in 2018.