Author Archives: Adam

History of Records Law in the United States, Part 2

Welcome back! My last post in this intermittent series considered the records implications of the grievances articulated by the colonists in British North America against King George III in the Declaration of Independence, making it more of a prequel to US Records Law because the United States was not an independent country in 1776. This post will cover the first law passed by the United States Congress which addressed issues of records and information management, the Records Act of 1789, formally known as an Act to provide for the safe-keeping of the Acts, Records and Seal of the United States, and for other purposes. This was just the fourteenth law passed by the first Congress!

The act itself is broken up into seven sections, in which a number of information management issues are addressed. The first section, however, simply renames the Department of Foreign Affairs as the Department of State, the name by which this executive branch department is still known today. The second section is where things get a bit more interesting for our present purposes. It directs the Secretary of State, upon receiving information about the passage of a new law by congress, to “cause every such law, order, resolution, and vote, to be published in at least three of the public newspapers printed within the United States, [and shall also] cause one printed copy to be delivered to each Senator and Representative of the United States, and two printed copies duly authenticated to be sent to the Executive authority of each State; and he shall carefully preserve the originals, and shall cause the same to be recorded in books to be provided for the purpose.” 1 Stat. 68 (Chapter 14)

Here, we see the recognition that providing access to the law of the land was a fundamental responsibility of the newly formed federal government. As newspapers were a vital channel for information dissemination in the colonial and early republican eras, this was an obvious choice for the nascent federal government to utilize in spreading the word about new laws across the country.

Thanks to the magic of the Library of Congress’ digitization efforts, we have an example of this process in action to examine. Here’s the link to a printed version of this very law: U. S. Laws, S. (1789) An act to provide for the safe keeping of the acts, records, and seal of the United States, and for other purposes. New York: Printed by Thomas Greenleaf. New York. [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2020767853/. This broadside printed in New York City would have helped spread the news of this law’s passage.

Interestingly, the responsibility around these records and information management tasks were placed within the Department of State in this law. As one of the original cabinet departments established by George Washington, this agency has a long and wide-ranging history and has been involved in many different activities over time. Remember that the National Archives and Records Administration will not be founded for 145 years! How many laws concerning records management in the federal government will be cover before then? Well, you’ll have to stay tuned and find out in my next post! For now, that’s all on the Records Act of 1789 and the first attempt by Congress to regulate the management of government information in the new United States.

History of Records Law in the United States, Part 1

This will be the first in an ongoing series here on my site where I plan to introduce and explore the laws and policies which have governed records in the United States throughout its history. In a number of the courses I teach, historical perspectives on contemporary information issues have proven to be useful for my students and I’ve regularly included these explanations as part of my lectures. To get my thoughts on these laws down on (virtual) paper, and to see what I’ve missed along the way when thinking about these topics, I will be moving through records management legal history here on the blog! With that, let’s get into the Declaration of Independence, that foundational national document which identifies records management as a concern for the then-rebellious British colonies.

The Declaration of Independence does not begin with its most famous phrase but rather with the more demure “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” articulating the fact that this document represents an intention to break away from Great Britain and establish an independent country. Following this, the famous line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” appears, establishing an ideal for the country that we’ve been holding ourselves to ever since. After these first two paragraphs, a majority of the rest of the document consists of a list of grievances the colonists have against King George III. While some of these may be familiar to those readers who have taken courses in American History, one important grievance (for our present purposes) takes aim squarely at the records and information management practices of the crown, and how this was used to rule the 13 colonies in ways that they felt was unjust.

The fourth listed grievance states “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.” This appears before complaints about garrisoning troops in colonial homes, taxation without representation, and manipulation of the colonial judiciary. What the Second Continental Congress acknowledged with this statement was how important records are to the functioning of a representative government.

Through his powers as King, George III had the ability to dictate where colonial legislatures met. However, given that during the late 18th century copies of records, laws, and judicial decisions were not plentiful in the colonies. Therefore, when a colonial legislature was forced to meet in a secondary city, they did not always have access to the public records which they could use to conduct business, advocate to the crown, or interpret royal proclamations. This was an issue for colonial leadership as they sought to govern themselves and assert their own identity to the monarch across the ocean. When understood alongside other perceived royal misdeeds, this situation led the continental congress to vote for independence and freedom from Great Britain, leading to the Revolutionary War and the ultimate establishment of the United States as a nation of its own.

While the Declaration of Independence is not itself a records law, this important clause illustrates the an awareness of the power of information, and access to it, animated some of the conversations around American independence. As we will see in the upcoming posts in this series, other founding documents of the nation address issues related to records and information, with impacts that have lasted for centuries to come. See you then!

NB: The text I’m referencing for the Declaration itself is located here- where else but the National Archives?

A Second Hearing for AOTUS Nominee

Earlier today, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held its second hearing for Colleen J. Shogan, President Biden’s nominee to serve as Archivist of the United States. I watched as it took place live (you can view the recording here) and wanted to share some of my thoughts and observations of the proceedings. I further want to echo the statements published by the Council of State Archivists and the Society of American Archivists endorsing Dr Shogan’s nomination. I look forward to her receiving a confirmation vote before the full senate soon.

The hearing was led by Committee Chair Gary Peters and included questions from Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, Jon Osoff, Josh Hawley, Roger Marshall, and Thomas Carper, although not in that order.

Much of the questioning directed at Dr Shogan related to recent events that have put NARA in the national spotlight, a place which the agency is relatively unfamiliar. These include the incident involving March for Life protestors being asked to cover their shirts in Archives I building near the mall, controversies related to classified records being found at the homes of Former President Trump, Former Vice President Pence, and President Biden dating back to his time as VP, questions related to overclassification in general, large backlogs of records requests from veterans seeking records of their service to obtain benefits, and questions about records related to COVID. Overall, I felt Dr Shogan answered these questions to the best of her ability and indicated that she will work to maintain the non-partisan nature of NARA. Many of the issues which committee members spoke about are not within the jurisdiction of the AOTUS, most notably classification. This is an important point as it underscores the relative positionality of NARA as compared to other larger federal agencies which it seeks to work with on records issues. Creating agencies are responsible for declassification, and staffing challenges/funding priorities have made this situation quite poor across much of the government.

The hearing did include a few exchanges where the nominee was asked to speak about or defend previous academic work and social media posts which suggest that she holds liberal positions on a number of political issues. Senator Hawley in particular pushed Dr Shogan to respond to Twitter posts he had printed out, including a retweeted post in support of an assault weapons ban. She repeatedly answered “My social media is in my personal capacity, senator” which led him to further accuse her of grandstanding and evading his questions. In a move that’s squarely on the nose, he would later go on to post on Twitter about the entire sequence. Rand Paul would later step in and declare that her being a liberal was not a disqualification for this position because “If we got rid of liberals, we would not really have a lot of librarians or archivists.” Oh how true that statement is, perhaps revealing more about the situation than Senator Paul meant to suggest…

What does this hearing mean for the future of Dr Shogan’s nomination? Given the composition of the Senate, I think she has a good chance of appointment if brought up before a full chamber vote. That being said, given the entrenched positions of both parties regarding some key issues including document classification and Presidential Records, the vote may again spilt evenly along party lines, where it fell last fall. I, for one, would like to see the nomination proceed and for the national archives to have a permanent leader. Dr Shogan would be the first female nominee confirmed to this role and is well qualified for the job. My parting words to the senate: confirm her already and move on to more pressing challenges facing the country!

Media Roundup plus Bonus New Semester Playlist

We’re freshly into 2023 and the past year has been a big one for me on a personal level as my family welcomed our first child in June of this year. Amidst all of the activity I’ve been doing my best to maintain a steady media diet and devoured some interesting stuff in 2022. Below is a very much non exhaustive list of those things I’ve read, watched, and listened to over the past year that vaguely relate to my academic interests, or are things I can easily remember while typing this post up as the baby naps upstairs. Cheers! As always, I’m open to any and all suggestions in the comments. ☮

Books

Podcasts

Movies/Television

Music

Following up on the playlist I created last year on the invitation of some SLIS students, I felt inspired again as I return to the classroom following my parental leave this fall to make a new playlist to send me into the new calendar year as well as the new semester. These are some timeless favorite jams plus some more songs with echoes to current events, libraries, school, or the turning of the wheel of time. Enjoy!

Music Recommender Systems and CCR

I recently found myself, as I do more often than I should, scrolling through reddit. This thread caught my eye and confronted me with my own assumptions and biases about music listening and discovery in the age of streaming.

My first reaction was to think “Obviously someone who likes the Grateful Dead enough to be on the subreddit for the band also likes, or at least has heard of, Creedence Clearwater Revival.” While embarking upon my own CCR listening session, I reflected more on how the recommendation-driven approach of Spotify and other music streaming services has radically restructured the ways in which people discover new bands they might enjoy, even if those bands are both Bay Area rock bands founded in the 1960s.

I will date myself and add a bit of self-deprecation here by noting that I bought the CCR compilation Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits at a Sam Goody sometime in the late 90s, and thought I was the coolest 12 year old a few years later when they were featured in The Big Lebowski and I already knew their songs (side note: I still don’t like The Eagles through no fault of their own because of this movie). I dimly recall my mom questioning my decision to buy this CD and wondered why I didn’t want something from a more contemporary band but I was not to be deterred in my quest to discover classic rock! In the early days of the internet, music streaming did not exist and the way my friends and I would find out about new music or expand our horizons was by listening to the radio, watching MTV/VH1, raiding our parents music collections, or getting someone’s older sibling/cousin/friend to share some hitherto unknown artist.

But I digress…what this post really got me thinking about was how fundamentally different music listening and discovery is today. To be clear, I do not think that the “old” way of stumbling into a given musical artist is better than what the streamers are able to provide for modern listeners, but I do feel that these recommendation algorithms can divorce music from its cultural context. Is this artist being recommended to me because they preceded the band I am listening to right now, or because they were influenced by them? Do they share a dummer? Or does the platform just have the data to predict that I’ll enjoy them based on the habits of similar users to me?

I guess I was just so struck by someone unironically asking on an internet forum if anyone had heard of Creedence Clearwater Revival that I have thought about it more than once in the past week. It speaks to the personalization that is part and parcel of streaming platforms, but also the solo nature of music discovery as opposed to the fundamentally social processes involved in hearing about new sounds from other humans. All of this is taking place at the same time as Americans are spending more time alone as we continue to churn through these not-quite-still-a-pandemic months. This trend even rose to the attention of national media recently, perhaps reflecting a situation where a lonely redditor, fresh off of putting his nickel down to hear Willy and the Poor Boys, has no one they’d like to talk to in person about their new favorite band and so takes to the internet to ask if their fellow musical travelers have heard of Creedence. In the words of the Dude, “that’s just, like, your opinion man”.

Also, I guess I will be writing about anything on here that’s on my mind that is vaguely about technology, cultural heritage, and related topics.

Twttr

While I was not necessarily optimistic about the future of Twitter following its acquisition by Elon Musk in October of this year, the rapid onset of volatility and chaos across the platform has been surprising. As others have outlined in detail, current leadership of the company is trying to rapidly raise revenue from existing users with limited success, laying off much of the existing workforce, floating bankruptcy, and generally posting through it.

I’ve been reflecting on the lives (and deaths) so social media sites more than usual this week and. I joined back in the summer of 2009 while working a corporate job in New York City in what feels like a different lifetime. I was also reminded that I’ve written no less than four papers which are specifically about Twitter. It’s a profoundly strange feeling to consider that the subject of these research studies may soon look quite different than it did when I wrote about it, if it exists at all.

Back in 2014, I investigated how archives were using Twitter to promote their collections, engage with users, report on events, and what else they were up to. At that time, all Twitter accounts had RSS feeds which made data collection of public accounts quite easy and reflected the original conception of the service as a “microblogging” platform, in contrast to “macroblogs” like this here website built with WordPress.

Following the 2016 Presidential Election and beginning of the Trump administration, I began collaborating with my colleague Amelia Acker at the University of Texas at Austin on a series of studies on Presidential social media, specifically the preservation of Presidential tweets. We first looked at preservation of Obama administration social media accounts and the first Presidential Social Media Transition, highlighting the platform-specific issues around managing these digital objects as federal records. In our next co-authored paper, we examined how APIs shape the ability of cultural heritage professionals and memory workers to collect, preserve, and provide access to social media platform data. Most recently, we returned to Presidential social media and unpacked how the role of Twitter as a private platform hosting public records affects issues related to digital preservation for presidential records.

What do these papers, particularly the most recent trio, portend about Twitter? Amelia and I have been working to highlight the deep tension between the platform’s identity as a private company and it’s function as a digital public square. We’ve pointed out more than once that the risks of leaving government records on private social media platforms is quite risky and creates major potential challenges for archives and digital preservation professionals. I remain proud of this work and confident that the ideas discussed in these papers will be valuable even if the platform changes on a fundamental level. An article published just today in the MIT Technology Review points out some of these risks and reaffirms the value of Twitter as a living historical record with the potential to inform our understanding of this era into the future.

There’s so much more to say about all of this but it looks like this is the sixth paragraph of this post and, thanks to a tweet I read today, I know that if you write more than six paragraphs about any one topic, you f*cked up. The future of Twitter looks quite unsteady, that’s about all I’m willing to predict today. As for me, while I might try to post here on my own personal piece of internet real estate more frequently, you will still find me on Twitter until the bitter end, doomscrolling through niche memes, news stories, celebrity posts, sports updates, and whatever else pops up…

Reading Public Domain Ebooks

I recently finished reading A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe’s account of the 1665 Bubonic Plague epidemic in London. Only took me two and a half years of living through a pandemic myself to read one of the most famous historical accounts of a plague. The book itself apparently sits somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, and was full of detailed retellings of the trials and tribulations of English people living through a Public Health crisis. While this book was written some 300 years ago (it was first published in 1722), it reads as a remarkably recognizable narrative for those of us continuing to live through the COVID-19 pandemic. There are stories of people fleeing the city, their run-ins with locals in the small towns dotting the countryside, the ongoing work of keeping those who stayed in London fed and employed, tales of sickness, quacks and scam treatments, people celebrating the end of the plague before it was over, and much more. Despite the writing style this book felt remarkably relevant to me and I recommend it to anyone interested in considering our modern moment, its relationship to similar eras in the past, and how people cope with large scale crises of sickenss.

I also wanted to be sure to mention Standard Ebooks, a great site I’ve been using to access public domain books. In addition to A Journal of the Plague Year, I am also making my way through Moby Dick and have a number of other works in my e-reader queue. The quality and attention to detail of these files is top notch and I really appreciate the dedication of this project to providing professional level files though and open source model. Promoting access to free culture, public domain materials, and classic literature is always a good decision!

End of Semester SLIS Dance Party

It’s been a year, hasn’t it? Amidst everything going on we returned to in-person teaching at Simmons SLIS and the fall semester is almost concluded. An advisee of mine who is part of the leadership of LISSA (Library & Information Science Student Association), our student organization here at SLIS, asked me if I would be a part of their end of semester celebration by creating a 30 minute playlist for a virtual event they dubbed the “Serotonin Swing” Virtual Dance Party. Here’s what I came up with, the Spotify playlist is embedded below and I’ve got some more context and commentary after the embedded player. Consider this my personal liner notes for this playlist!

  1. “Dancing in the Street” – Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. This was the first song that came to mind when thinking about this playlist. It’s such a joyful celebration of self-expression, as well as a sort of anthem for the Civil Rights era (more about that here).
  2. “Pelota” – Khruangbin. I’ve been listening to this band so much during the past few years, and really loved their most recent album Mordechai which came out in June 2020. This particular song is catchy and danceable, with irreverent Spanish lyrics about the singer being a ball and going on various adventures. There’s also a music video which is pretty great.
  3. “Wrapped up in Books” – Belle & Sebastian. The chorus of song, from the 2003 album Dear Catastrophe Waitress, says “Our aspirations are wrapped up in books.” Is there any more appropriate sentiment for library school students? I think not. The music video looks like it takes place in a bookstore instead of a library, for what it’s worth.
  4. “Move on Up” – Curtis Mayfield. A classic funk/soul anthem from Curtis Mayfield, which you may recognize due to its sampled use in a latter day hit. The lyrics are about striving and working towards a brighter future, which is an inspirational message at the end of a long semester. For a different take on this song, here’s a live version from Curtis himself back in 1987.
  5. “Robot Rock” – Daft Punk. This song provides the perfect soundtrack to an interplanetary dance party. It’s the first single from Daft Punk’s 2005 album Human After All and a longtime favorite.
  6. “Hypotheticals” – Lake Street Dive. I suppose that one song released this year should be on this playlist. This is from LSD’s 2021 album Obviously and I think it’s a super catchy, fun, well constructed song. Bonus points for the fact that this band was formed at the New England Conservatory of Music, right down the road from the Simmons campus!
  7. “A Minha Menina” – Os Mutantes. This song is built on a memorable guitar lick and has an addicting groove infusing it with dance. Os Mutantes means “The Mutants” in Portuguese; this band is influential in 60’s Brazilian rock and has been compared to The Beatles. Can you hear the similarity in their sound?
  8. “Waterloo” – ABBA. I want to start by saying that this is my favorite ABBA song. I absolutely love that it’s about a pivotal historical battle and also a pop song about love. When I was a rebellious teenager who thought I was too cool for this type of song, my parents explained to me that ABBA was the international language of music. I eventually got over myself and now have a major soft spot them, this song in particular. Check out this 1974 clip of them performing the song as part of Eurovision, it’s a legendary performance.
  9. “I’m Amazed”- My Morning Jacket. This song, from the 2008 album Evil Urges, is a triumphant declaration of an approach to the world (with all its clearly visible flaws) from the perspective of wonder. It’s a relevant lens for graduate school, and life in general! Here is an alternate version of the song, from the David Letterman show back from 2010. I’ve been a fan of this band for years and have been fortunate to see them in concert a handful of times. Bonus fact: this album has a track called “Librarian” on it which was considered for this playlist but ultimately rejected because it was too slow for dancing, and because the lyrics are NSFW. Go look for it yourself if you’re interested in listening to more from this band 🙂

Let me know what you think about these songs! What did I leave out, what are your favorite songs about libraries, archives, museums, and/or organizing information? Thanks again to LISSA for inviting me to be a part of their end of term festivities, this was a fun task and I was honored to be asked.

The Last Archive, reviewed

I first read Jill Lepore’s A is for American in an undergraduate history course on the United States before the Civil War; the following year her book The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity was a key inspiration for my senior honors paper in which I tried to localize the historical memory of King Philip’s War around Bristol, RI, where the conflict ended following Metacom’s killing. She also wrote an article in The New Yorker in 2015 on web archiving and digital preservation that I assign to students and still recommend. When I saw the announcement of her latest venture, a podcast, I knew I had to tune in. It’s not like I have too much going on in the middle of this pandemic, plus the title was “The Last Archive,” so on-brand!

The stated goal of the show is to answer the question “Who Killed Truth?” over the course of ten episodes tracing a modern history of facts and evidence. I will admit that the first few episodes, on an unsolved murder case in Vermont, the lie detector, an invisible woman, and the invisible man, felt a bit scattered and without a clear focus. Perhaps it was a function of my thoughts on the current public health and political climate in our country right now but episodes 5-8 on computational election prediction, the polio vaccine, the failed attempt to build a National Data Center, and the 1977 National Women’s convention were spot-on in terms of tone and content. In each, Lepore provides historical context for urgent issues facing our society, giving the listener a better idea of how we arrived in a place where many people distrust vaccines but trust the private sector to manage vast stores of personal data about each of us. Episode nine, focusing on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, climate change, and citizen science projects documenting bird deaths was a reminder that more people should read that book, and the final episode ties things together neatly and enticed me to pick up a copy of her latest book IF THEN: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

The podcast is livened up by voice actors reading some of the records used to write the episodes, and the show’s website provides additional info on the archives and sources used in the production. The final episode featured the Computer History Museum and the Internet Archive, among other repositories. I, for one, think the internet airwaves would benefit from more explanations of punch cards and the efforts to extract data off of them!

Is this indeed the titular last archive? I hope not, for my own sake as an archival educator and researcher. What it is, though, is a fascinating and engaging history podcast for anyone interested in how we’ve come to construct truth and knowledge in the modern United States. Give it a listen, it’s well worth the addition to your COVID-era media diet.

Non-exhaustive list of media consumed during the COVID-19 Pandemic, briefly annotated

In these pandemic times we find ourselves in, the world feels as though it’s been tossed upside down and cast asunder. I find myself alternating between deep dives into the news, reading the latest developments and coming to terms with the reality of what’s going on, and periods where I force myself to turn away and consume other media. These are some of the things I have turned to in these moments. They are by no means recommendations and they are not even necessarily good. It’s just a semi-random and not complete list of what I’ve been watching, reading, and listening to while I work through these decidedly weird weeks.

Books:

Movies and Television:

  • Tiger King. Need to have something to talk to my friends about in our group chats. What happened to Carole Baskin’s husband? Sound off in the comments.
  • Vanderpump Rules. In my house we also watch plenty of other Bravo shows which I don’t like quite as much, but I will recommend VPR to everyone. The first few seasons of this show are truly transcendent reality television, if you don’t like them then there’s no hope in converting you.
  • What Men Want. A fun little rom-com starring Taraji P Henson, who should be given all the roles she wants forever and ever.

Podcasts:

Music

I’m had to move my teaching online and have been doing other stuff besides all this nonsense. If you’re reading this, know that I love you and hope to see you in person soon. We’re living through a global tragedy and I can only hope that we make it through and imagine how to collectively heal our world and create a more just environment. The pandemic has revealed the cracks in our society like never before and the need for justice is as urgent as ever. Now, I’m off to wash my hands!