Imagina(ry)/tive Finding Aids

In next Tuesday’s class we’re heading to the NYPL, where we’ll meet with archivist Thomas Lannon for some straight talk about finding aids. A little archival description deliberation. An inventory interlocution. A little procedural parlance.

We’ll return to our lab at The New School for the second half of class, where I had initially planned to have us all “create a hypothetical finding aid for an imaginary collection.” I’ve been thinking about how to organize such an exercise. I still might find a way to make it happen. But I’m just not sure that our few readings and preliminary discussion about finding aids will prepare us to do anything meaningful, or even remotely illuminating, in practice. I’m wondering if it’s best, given how green we all are, for me to put out a box of assorted materials and set y’all loose on it, to EAD the hell out of it.

Instead, we might spend our time looking at some creative applications of the finding aid — or at finding aids for unorthodox collections. We’ll start by looking at some “straight” takes on finding aid preparation — like the Library of Congress’s “Creating Finding Aids in EAD” or the “Style Manual for Archival Finding Aids for the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center” or this LIS student’s video documenting the process by which she created a finding aid for the Joe Hirsch collection.

We might then look at the David Wojnarowicz Papers at NYU’s Fales Library. We read about the processing of the Wojnarowicz collection in our fall class. Marvin Taylor, Fales’s director, addresses the concerns specific to the processing of artists’ materials:

There are two common processing strategies for archival materials: the literary and the historical… These traditional models do not work for artists’ papers, for instance—and perhaps never really worked all that well for literary and historical collections.  Artists work in very different ways. Objects are much more common in their creative process and serve as source materials. Traditionally, archives have shied away from collecting non-paper-based materials because of storage, lack of preservation expertise, and difficulty in describing such items. Of course, this is a prejudice within the epistemology of library and archival practice that is self-perpetuating. The same rationale removes all media from its context within a collection and all photographs to separate divisions of archives, if the materials are even collected in the first place.

At Fales we process all the materials from an artist’s collection together in the “finding aid” so that the intellectual organization of the artist’s materials is maintained. We separate the materials for storage, of course, but we are committed to maintaining the artist’s intellectual organization. My favorite example is David Wojnarowicz’s Magic Box. [See photo]. Wojnarowicz kept this old orange crate under his bed and didn’t tell anyone about its meaning, even his partner, Tom Rauffenbart. It contains about 80 objects, including a primate skull painted Klein blue, a plastic dog, a cloth snake, a metal globe, a crucifix, and other various objects. If you know Wojnarowicz’s work, you find physical representations of his set of symbols and metaphors that he uses in his painting, photography, films, and writing in the box. This is the very kind of thing that most archives would not accession or would refer to as “realia” and not describe in any detail. For me, the Magic Box is essential to understanding Wojnarowicz’s artistic practice and central to the collection. We borrowed descriptive methods from museum practice to accession each object in the box as a part of the whole, so there is a number for the box itself, a “parent record, and each object within it has a number as a “child.” We are able to blend these styles of description because of the flexible nature of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) that is used now as a standard to create finding aids. For me, each time I bring in a collection that confounds typical archival practice, I am reminded that libraries and archives are grand narratives of culture that impose the epistemology of their time onto materials rather than merely describing those materials.

And here’s Fales’s finding aid for those objects and artifacts in Wojnarowicz’s collection. In folder 092.2.0107, for instance, we find a “seated monkey warrior wearing headdress and holding scepter, pierced ears, possibly depicts hanuman, monkey general of Hindu mythology.” I love this.

Last year the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture hosted a fantastically imaginative event — modeled after the finding aid — that explored “the intersection of experimental art practices and community-based archiving. The Finding Aid: Black Women at the Intersection of Art and Archiving was structured in three parts:

  • The first part of The Finding Aid: Black Women at the Intersection of Art and Archiving will be structured around the historical note section of a finding aid. Our historical note will be a panel discussion between traditional archivists, archivists/artists and artists who enlists archival traditions. The purpose of this module is to contextualize our ideas and will ground our audience for the rest of the event. The panelists will engage in a dialogue around that artistic sweet spot – that intersection of something that is seemingly functional and pedagogical while also being beautiful. We will answer such questions as: Who “counts” as an archivist? and What tools can we use to democratize archives and the role of an archivist?
  • The second part of The Finding Aid: Black Women at the Intersection of Art and Archiving will be structured around the scope and content note section of a finding aid. A scope and content note summarizes a collection and provides descriptive information such as what materials makeup the collection, how those materials were created and what information can be found within them. The purpose of our scope and content note module will be to introduce the audience to the participating artists’ collection(s) and archive(s)
  • The third part of The Finding Aid: Black Women at the Intersection of Art and Archiving will be structured around the container list section of a finding aid. During this module, each artist will exhibit fragments from her collection(s) in the atrium. We are so excited to interact with Salome Asega’s Sistah Friends Project mobile archive prototype!


[Featured Image: Wojnarowicz’s Magic Box; via NYU Workshop in Archival Practice]