Tuesday, March 6, 2012

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Creating Context

Last week, I wrote that archivists focus mainly on the materials that they keep and not necessarily the people who make those materials. Now that I've cleared up a little confusion I found among some of my contemporaries about an archivist's role, perhaps this will befuddle matters once again...  It's time for another round of "More Finds at the Local Antique Shop." This time I have an agenda beyond my interesting finds. Of course archivists don't keep things just to keep "stuff." There is certainly more to it than that. So take a look at these two photos. Form your impressions about them and then read on...

These photos reflect diverse subjects and portray different sensibilities. The first feels like a snap shot. The second is most definitely a posed studio photo. The first gives us a sense of place. The second does not. The image with the building impels us to focus on the setting much more than on the people pictured, whereas the image of the woman makes us focus on the details of her dress, pose and expression -- essentially on her. Most obviously, the first image is one that can stand as representative of poverty and the second as one of wealth.

Unfortunately, these are "orphan" photos from an antique shop. I do not know who these people are. I do not know anything about their lives other than what I see here. Without doing some research, I do not know if my impressions about them are true or false constructs. I wonder if other materials that reflect the lives of these people exist somewhere -- either in a family collection or in a repository. I wonder if there is a collection that tells their full stories. If such collections exist, and if I were to somehow find them, would the other materials in that collection confirm my impressions of these people or would they negate them, A third scenario is that they may balance them, providing other dimensions to my first impressions to make me better understand the purpose of these images in the lives of the people depicted. Perhaps they would show the people in different circumstances, in different clothing, or in a different setting.

An archivist focuses on the materials for which we care, but equally importantly, we focus on the context of that material. Without context, all materials can easily be considered "orphaned." The collections archivists build aim to tell about their subjects by retaining a connection to those subjects or creators of the materials. We track from where materials came (provenance) to tell the history of the material itself and so that we can attest to its authenticity. We aim to keep order given to materials by their creators to further retain context. Though we keep groups of records with different provenances separated, we aim to put materials with related contexts together in larger "collections" with resources from multiple people and places reflecting a larger story. So while the safekeeping of materials is the archivist's main goal, it is a goal with a purpose of forming connections among similar materials to help shed light on the individuals, their communities, and the human condition.

Exercise: A Personal Item Out of Context

Pull a random item from your own collection. What does that item tell you about the person it reflects? If this is a subject you know well, is what you think of that item influenced by what you already know about the subject? Let's pretend you know nothing about the person or people pictured. Would you draw different conclusions about the image than you do with some background knowledge?

To make my point, here is an unusual photo of me from my family collection: 

What conclusions might one draw about me based on this image? What do you think I'm doing here and why? Do you think this is an important part of my story or just a simple snapshot? (This is in fact a highly significant moment in my life and an activity that has an ongoing presence in my household almost ten years after this photo was taken. I'll tell the story about it one day...maybe in a new presentation somewhere or when I'm hurting for blogging ideas...)

While going through your own images and documents, consider their context. What context do your materials retain? What is missing? How difficult is it to retain the context of materials? How easily can context be lost?



  1. Okay...just for the record, you have my vote for not resigning that photograph's backstory to the cast-offs pile. I live too far away from you to ever hear it in a live presentation, so I'm voting for its inclusion in a blog post, soon!

  2. ha! okay. Glad I piqued your interest. I promise that I will tell you the back story. And, as always, I appreciate that you took the time to comment Jacqi