Category Archives: archives

Atheists Believe in Systems

When Richard Dawkins sued webmaster and forum moderator Josh Timonen for embezzlement a little over four years ago, it made an impression on me, then newly out of graduate school and fresh from my internship in the Archives Division of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. It was a painful episode for me of course, being that I considered both men to be friends, although I was not pleased at how the forum at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science had been abruptly scrapped by Josh. Richard ultimately dropped the suit.

Later, when I had the opportunity to be an archival consultant for the aviation museum for which I had volunteered for years, I asked to be the assistant archivist, and to have a lead who would also be my mentor. The Richard-Josh mess was the direct reason for my request. It was my first paid consulting gig, but that was not the reason; I was sure of my capabilities and my grounding in archival theory. The real reason was that I did not want to be in the same position that I perceived Josh had been in, with free reign quickly given to him, and without oversight. I wanted oversight.

As it turned out I was wise to ask for this. Not because I needed a mentor – the lead archivist seconded by decisions and judgments, told me that I did not need her, and converted much of her paid hours into supplies for the museum instead. As it turned out, the politics of nonprofits can be emotional and nasty, and suddenly in the middle of my project I was saddled with a bossy, narcissistic former volunteer who tried to press an Air Force cataloging system upon me (we were not Air Force) and who, not unlike many “dedicated” volunteers, seemed to think that the museum owed him something for his time – wasted, in my opinion, in creating what was essentially a parts catalog in Microsoft Access instead of a registry of artifacts – and for his donation of supplies, which were useless.(Commercial plastic bins are not archival, as they have a low melting point, much lower than the flash point of nonacidic cardboard archival boxes.)

All this happened while the blackguard who brought back this volunteer to “help” me went around falsely accusing a staff member of embezzlement (ironic, no? There was no stealing in this case) and alienating what staff and volunteers who were not already alienated by my new friend (old to them). The writer of the grant got involved somehow and began moving the goalposts of the grant. It was a nightmare! “I don’t envy your position,” my mentor told me.

I handled it. I managed to bring the grant back from its elegance creep to its original goal, made the volunteer turn over the information he had taken home and hoarded as a bribe to come back, and let the board member who had saddled me with him what I thought of the situation. The board member resigned soon afterward and both men were out of my hair!

I had applied the lessons learned from the lawsuit by Richard against Josh: human beings need systems in order to do their jobs correctly, in order for there to be accountability, in order to remain honest. It is not enough that people are good, honest, and have integrity; we need layers of accountability and peer review to ensure that they stay honest. In my case, I had a bona fide archives expert, a consultant with many years’ experience, to back me up. It was a smart move for me to request this. It would have been a smart move for Josh to request that he have someone to report to, someone to check his work and render opinions on his decisions.

My aviation museum descended into a paranoid pit of rumor because that board member and my “helper” had had free reign for too long, and I recognized that I had been given free reign as well. Though I was a certified archivist and these men were basically blowhards, they had the ear of other board members and so I had to marshal my forces to push back. My mentor backed me up and wrote up some conclusions to help me, and I did push back. I also asked advice from my archivists’ listserv, who proved to be very insightful and helpful. We archivists lean on each other a lot; there are a lot of standards, and these are constantly being refined in our still relatively young profession. No one can remember every policy, every preservation method, or be informed on everything.

I don’t care who or what you are – we are all prone to greed, mistakes, and confirmation bias. Power corrupts. Individual morality or expertise is not essentially the question. Our system of government is a system of checks and balances, as is the scientific method (via the efforts of colleagues to replicate one’s results), as is peer review, and so on. As I’ve often pointed out, I worship no one, not even Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins. As an atheist, I believe in systems that prevent fraud or the malignant concentration of power.

(You can see the photo of me with NASM staff, all of us posing as patrons, here. I was wearing my polka dotted dress for the Interns’ Ice Cream Social later that day. Photo by Eric Long.) 1271

My photo of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega at NASM

The Hazards of Interdisciplinary Writing, Part Three

I pitched a book review to the editor of a prominent magazine devoted to critical thinking and pseudoscience: “Well, I don’t see how it will fit with our magazine, but go ahead and submit it.”

I submit it.

“Looks good! We have it slated for the [date] issue, and we’ll send you the proof soon!”

[UPDATE: My review now appears in the March/April 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.]

Yeah – unfortunately, wherever science walks, pseudoscience lurks, ready to pounce.

I pitched a different review of the same book to the reviews editor of a prominent scholarly journal devoted to archival science. (The same one, incidentally, that refereed my paper.)

“I really don’t see how this fits with our focus, but go ahead and submit it.”

Heh. You shall see!

With a writer as talented, articulate, and far-seeing as Christine Kenneally, you bet your boots one can write multiple reviews of The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures from different areas of focus, her book is that innovative and multi-faceted.

Everyone on the planet should read her book! (That also goes for her first book, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language.) This is important work; this is exactly the kind of interdisciplinary research writing that I aim to do. I have a new hero!

The Hazards of Interdisciplinary Writing, Part Two

In response to a request I am going to highlight a part of my paper to illustrate what can happen when specialists in their field look for evidence from another field and unfortunately misrepresent that evidence:

“Greene, Boles, Bruemmer, and Daniels-Howell assert that ‘the universal nature of archives is neither universal nor natural’ (a sentence to which one is tempted to add, “Discuss,”) and explain:

‘The whole notion of archival truths and the “nature” of archives and records is itself a fundamental weakness… If one is religious, ethics and morality may still be universal and immutable (for example, the Ten Commandments define right and wrong immutably and objectively for believers). But we can no longer even talk about the “nature” of electrons, for example, or the “nature” of light as if they are immutable and absolutely objective. Darwin, Freud, and Einstein blew apart the ability of most of Western society to accept such absolutes about the physical and psychological realms of our existence. Even less do human made things such as houses and cars have “natures”—they are what we say they are. Their characteristics and functions and forms change over time and from society to society. We might suppose that records and archives, also being purely human constructs are fairly plastic and pragmatic things—concepts that help accomplish some larger goal and that can be changed and modified to help achieve that larger goal (Greene et al, 10).’

“With all due respect to these great minds, this is incorrect, and unfortunately repeats a popular misunderstanding of quantum mechanics: that it describes a world in which subatomic particles do not, and thus everything else cannot, have a ‘nature.’ (Do houses and cars really change their functions over time or cultures? Why document functions, then?) Yet physicists do speak of the nature of the electron: it has a quantifiable magnetic moment or ‘spin’ and a negative[1] charge always, and either travels free or is locked in orbit around atomic nuclei, never in the nucleus. These are its static attributes; however, when the physicist attempts to quantify the dynamic attributes of position and momentum, yes, the electron can be said to not possess them absolutely: the more precisely one measures its position, the less precisely one can measure its momentum, and visa versa. This is an empirical, objective scientific observation, not a social construction. In fact all objects display this Heisenberg Uncertainty between their dynamic attributes[2] and that is a far cry from denying that they have a nature.

“As for archives, of course they are what we say they are, but it is what we say they are that evolves, being so inextricably linked to human nature, and this is the rightful province of theory. Of course archives have sociological aspects; of course they are socially defined. Human values, culture, history, art, and justice and are what we say they are, and our conceptions of them evolve, but not haphazardly, and neither do our conceptions of archives change erratically. How, then, do they change?” [What follows is a discussion of Eastman and my thought experiment.]

[1] Negative because Ben Franklin decided to call its opposite charge “positive”; of course, these terms are arbitrary (Krauss, 2001, 24).

[2] The error is too small to be perceived, however, in everyday experience. Greene et al may be interested in George Biddell Airy’s electron diffraction experiment, in which a stream of electrons is aimed through an adjustable circular iris at a phosphor screen which records each electron’s arrival as a “dot.” When this iris is made small enough one can sit and watch the “dots” slowly accumulate, but over time these electrons, which are all in an identical state as they approach the iris, upon going through it and striking the screen form not a central circle but an interference pattern— with concentric rings, like an archery target—an unmistakable feature of waves arriving in and out of phase. This can be described by the equation Ө = 70(L/d), where L is the wavelength, d the diameter of the iris, and Ө is the angular diameter of Airy’s disc (the “bulls-eye”) in degrees (Herbert, 1985, 63). Yet one sees each particle strike the screen in succession!

The Hazards of Interdisciplinary Writing, Part One

Life intrudes, so I finally got to reading again the comments on my peer reviewed paper just the other day. I realized that something unexpected was happening with one of the referees:

“I don’t understand your use of this word.”*

“Why don’t you define that word?”

“What are you talking about here?”

“Why would you explore this extreme example when you explicitly say that the cited writer does not call for this interpretation?”**

It seemed a bit picky at first (I did define that term below my first use of it, which was probably a mistake), but I resisted the urge to become defensive, because I realized that I was using language from another discipline to talk about my own, and that this was a problem. I, who have been a science writer and who grew up reading Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, had written a paper lauded by my professor, another Gould enthusiast, but which had made my classmates’ eyes glaze over and apparently was near-incomprehensible to one referee. I ignore this person’s criticism to my peril.

Despite the fact that I remain convinced that if archival science is to call itself a science, it must lean on and pull in other sciences, including information theory, it is incumbent upon me to communicate, not others to read more widely so that they understand *terms, and the concept of the **thought experiment.

The fact, is, while there has been much blogging and writing about interdisciplinary work in the past few years, archivists tend to be in a silo, librarians in another, information scientists in yet another, and here am I, employed in something completely different than all three while taking on the occasional archivist or indexer consulting gig. I do not have a silo at all. How to break down the language barriers between silos? That is something I am going to have to investigate.

At any rate, this national publication which kindly reviewed my paper (and I do appreciate it very much!) should find that my next submission will be more in line with traditional archivist work, highlighting a relatively unexplored topic in unpublished documents. Silos are also valuable, and form for a reason; I have discovered this, too.