Eira Tansey

Posts for the ‘archivists’ Category

The Necessary Knowledge

This is an annotated version of the lectern copy of my opening keynote at NDSA’s Digital Preservation 2017: Preservation is Political in Pittsburgh on October 25. You can watch the recording here.

There is something I didn’t tell people in my formal talk, but I want to share here. Prior to my keynote, the last time I was in Pittsburgh was when I drove up the day after last year’s presidential election (after having worked the entire day as a poll worker in a Cincinnati suburb), because I was on an environmental panel for the Association of Moving Image Archivists annual meeting that was being held in downtown Pittsburgh. During our AMIA panel, everyone said, “Well I did all my preparation a few days ago, who knows what will happen to the EPA or Paris agreement now?” So it felt like things really came full circle for me to be asked back to Pittsburgh, a city that I love and a city that has such strong environmental and cultural ties to my beloved hometown of Cincinnati, but the site where, among archivists, I processed much of my immediate post-election grief and shock. And so it was a profound and moving experience to return to the same location, a year later, to speak in such a public way about one of the topics nearest to my heart. I am so grateful to the NDSA/DLF organizers for that opportunity.

When I wrote this keynote, there was a lot I left on the cutting room floor. Since I am only planning on revising a small part of my keynote for subsequent publication, this is my main opportunity to throw back in those bits as footnotes, and additional thoughts about the weird times we are all living through. The main text is the lectern copy I used during the keynote itself. The images are the slides I presented in Pittsburgh. Following the lectern copy text are a list of sources, and my extra bonus content annotations.



In 1889, an item appeared at the bottom of the Pittsburg Dispatch. Just a few lines long, and sandwiched between reports of train accidents, it read:

Health officer Bradley, of Allegheny, has started a crusade against the doctors who have not reported their cases of typhoid fever, and threatens to fine them $50 for their neglect. There is both an act of the Assembly and a city ordinance requiring these reports, and blanks have been to sent to all the city physicians.

The Act of the Assembly had been in place for years, and it would be expanded as the death tolls rose. Pittsburgh had a disproportionately high number of typhoid cases, and this modest notice foreshadowed the struggles that link environmental protection, public health, and recordkeeping in a way that American society struggles with to this day.

River Pollution

The lack of consistent morbidity reporting by physicians, despite their legal requirement to do so, reflected part of the long transition to government vital record keeping. Record keeping had expanded as government responsibility grew for public health matters. Public health matters were becoming urgent as industrialization and city crowding endangered the health of Pittsburgh’s air and water. As typhoid fever cases accumulated, the requirements regulating reporting and other measures went from half a page of legal guidance, to nine pages of guidance 2 decades later.

25 years after enough death records were issued, researchers established horrifying links between the health of Pittsburgh’s rivers and the health of those who drank from it. Pittsburgh is bounded by the Allegheny to the north, the Monongahela to the south, and both converge to form the headwaters of the Ohio River. Recordkeeping alone had not reduced the prevalence of typhoid, but it provided clear and convincing evidence that river pollution was to blame for the disease. No one could simply write it off as the fault of squalid tenement living or of tainted milk. The primary culprits were political and corporate leaders who had allowed the rivers to be used as a dumping ground, and neglected to create large-scale water treatment facilities. No one could say exactly how much was dumped in the rivers, but everyone knew that industrial waste of iron and steel mills, tanneries, and slaughterhouses, and the human waste of communities upstream from Pittsburgh, had seriously compromised local water.

With sufficient death records to establish links between the water supply and typhoid fever, the picture was stark. Pittsburgh had one of the highest typhoid fever death rates in the United States, far higher than any other major city. Reformers pointed to other cities with successful water management systems, where typhoid fever deaths were a fraction of Pittsburgh’s. During a nine-year period following the health commissioner’s threat to fine doctors, the death toll was between 104 and 130 per 100,000 people, while cities like Washington and Philadelphia had close to half this rate (Wing, p. 66). After four years of political delays, during which an additional 1,500 deaths stacked up, Pittsburgh’s water filtration plant finally went into operation.

This assessment was part of a several thousand page study on Pittsburgh at the turn of the century. Carried out by dozens Progressive Era social researchers, the work of the Pittsburgh survey was published in six volumes between 1910 and 1914, and it covered dozens of topics, including women’s working conditions in sweatshops, the status of orphans and foster children, and steel worker unionization after the deadly Homestead Strike.

Pittsburgh, the home of US Steel and the cradle of Andrew Carnegie’s wealth, was a showcase for the fallout of America’s Gilded Age. One of the frequently occurring motifs of the Pittsburgh survey is a city coated in soot, dust, and grime.1. This grime was inescapable, from factories where workers were directly exposed, to homes where the dust settled inside the walls. The grime was the inevitable outcome of a city that was the steel capital of the world.

Progressive Era reformers drew explicit connections between the wastes of industrialization and public health in ways that ranged from the graphic exposure of books like The Jungle, to the less-visible work of improving the kind of medical and municipal recordkeeping that we now take for granted. Bureaucratized recordkeeping, such as death certificates, were increasingly widespread by the Progressive Era thanks to advances in increased literacy, the emergence of professions, and the role of the state in controlling public health. However, early recordkeeping was inconsistent, presenting issues for researchers. The Pittsburgh surveyors reported challenges accessing and making sense of municipal and corporate records. Surveyors researching workplace injuries relied on coroner’s and hospital records, as only some employers were willing to share their records. Even then, available records omitted pertinent information, or were illegible. Others investigating public sanitation records noted that while violations were often recorded, prosecutions were rarely initiated.

The typhoid surveyors didn’t just draw on death records to establish links between the city’s water supply and typhoid fever, they also created their own records as part of a case study assessing the disease’s economic impact to over 300 families. This work was carried out under the charge of a local settlement house nurse named Anna Heldman, whose existing relationships with local families was viewed as a critical asset for data collection (Wing, pp. 72-74). The surveyors found that there were significant income losses due to sickness from the contaminated rivers. This echoed a problem we continue to struggle with, which is that environmental pollution disproportionately impacts poor communities.

But perhaps what the typhoid fever investigators did best was making records visible in ways that humanized the blandness of statistics. An exhibit of some of the survey’s findings were exhibited at the Carnegie Institute, and the walls featured a frieze depicting over 600 silhouettes of men, women, and children. These represented the area’s typhoid fever death toll from the previous year, and the borders of the published report were similarly decorated. To illustrate the entire 25-year long death toll, the surveyors superimposed a line starting at the courthouse and ending near a filtration plant on the Allegheny River. The line represented an end to end body count of more than 7,422 citizens who had lost their life to typhoid fever, or according to their measurements, a death toll equivalent to almost 6 miles long.


As the field work of the survey started in 1907 (Butler, p. 4), a child was born 14 miles northeast of Pittsburgh (Souder, p.24). She grew up seeing the smokestacks along the Allegheny River, where a century later, a bridge was renamed in her honor on Earth Day. She transformed the US environmental movement through the publication of a book that shook the country and exposed the hubris of unquestioned technology.

Rachel Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women, located in Pittsburgh’s East End, and today known as Chatham University (Souder p.26).2 She studied biology, and went on to become an information specialist for what eventually became the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Souder, p. 5). There she summarized scientific research into information for the public. Before writing her most famous book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson publish highly-regarded and wildly popular books about the ocean, making her a household name well before she turned her attention to pesticides.

Published in 1962, Silent Spring has been called “a beautiful book about a dreadful topic” (Oreskes & Conway, p. 216). Carson shined a spotlight on the indiscriminate applications of popular post-war insecticides like DDT, which was starting to show up in the food chains of insects, fish, birds, mammals, and eventually within the bodies of humans. A counterweight to corporate boosterism of better living through chemistry, Silent Spring painted a horrifying portrait of lifeless rivers that previously teemed with fish, silenced backyards that used to host busy bird feeders, and agricultural workers who fell in fields. Carson showed that indiscriminate use of pesticides could not be isolated to a single area or species. Chemical toxins accumulated in the bodies of non-target species with profound consequences. A bird might die from DDT or its chemical cousins by eating contaminated worms, by ingesting DDT itself, or by starving to death as the insects it ate were wiped out during a spraying campaign.

Rachel Carson knew about the dangers of widespread pesticide applications for years. As a Fish and Wildlife employee in the late 1940s, she edited reports on the division’s tests of DDT (Souder, pp. 7-8). The main regulatory law affecting pesticide use at the time was the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), but it was primarily a registry and labelling law overseen by the US Department of Agriculture. FIFRA was not expanded to examine toxicity on wildlife and public health until 1972 – the same year that the US banned use of DDT (EPA, “FIFRA” & “DDT”).

To write Silent Spring, Carson relied on her well-honed approaches of pursuing correspondence with field experts, reading staggering amounts of scientific literature, and working closely with librarians. In a nod to the enduring importance of librarians’ labor to her writing, she acknowledged that “every writer of a book based on many diverse facts owes much to the skill and helpfulness of librarians” and specifically thanked Department of Interior librarian Ida Johnston, and National Institute of Health librarian Thelma Robinson for their help. Carson drew on everything from Audubon Club bird watcher reports to Congressional hearings to federal agency reviews to research studies in international journals of medicine.

Carson was not the first person to raise the alarm about the danger of pesticides (Carson, p. 31, 170). But what set Carson apart was her ability to synthesize many bureaucratic reports and scholarly scientific findings into a form that resonated with the public – and compelled regulatory action. She knew that the accusations she lodged against pesticide practices were incendiary, and she took enormous care in documenting all of her claims, insisting that the publisher include a fifty-page guide to her sources. This wasn’t just to ensure scholarly rigor – after all, Silent Spring was a book for a general audience – it was to proactively address the very real concern that Carson and her publisher might be the target of a libel suit.

What happened to Rachel Carson next was a blueprint of attacks that have been replicated against researchers whose findings turn out to be very inconvenient to industries and their government enablers. When Silent Spring was published, corporate interests came for Carson with a viciousness that feels both dated and alarmingly contemporary at the same time. She was castigated for her lack of an advanced degree, her suspicious love of animals, and for being just another hysterical spinster. Carson took care in her measured prose to note that she was not opposed to all pesticide use, but that her opposition was to the unrestrained way in which they were used with scant attention paid to existing safety studies.

Eight years after Silent Spring was published, Richard Nixon signed a reorganization plan that created the Environmental Protection Agency, consolidating responsibility for dozens of existing environmental laws – including FIFRA – into one agency. Many of these laws were expanded to require significant new record keeping responsibilities to document pollution emissions, and assure citizen’s right to know about potential toxic exposures. The EPA’s original charge included the mandate that it “[gather] information on pollution” to “strengthen environmental protection programs and recommend policy changes.” (Nixon, p. 5). One of the greatest underrated legacies of the EPA’s creation is that it has enormously expanded the amount of environmental information available to the public through monitoring, reporting, and permitting record systems3. We do not often think of the creation of records as a victory, but effectively addressing pollution without those records is incredibly difficult, as we can see in today’s Pennsylvania landscape.


Shortly after President Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, he stated “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” (Woodall, 2017).4 While the city of Pittsburgh has made notable progress towards a fossil free future, it is also in the center of the Marcellus Shale region, the largest U.S. natural gas field and which covers three-fifths of Pennsylvania, as well as parts of Ohio, West Virginia, New York and Maryland (EIA, 2017a). For the last four years, Pennsylvania has been the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer (EIA, 2017b).

Much of this growth has been due to the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Fracking has been around for decades, but it was not widely deployed until the early 2000s (EPA, 2016; Congressional Research Service, 2015a). Fracking is a process where large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals are injected into deep wells to fracture, or crack open, rock formations to release oil and gas deposits. Fracking’s immediate environmental risks come from potential links to earthquakes, methane leakage, and water contamination. Many of the rural residents in the Marcellus Shale region have complained that fracking operations have contaminated their water supplies.

Fracking poses documented danger to water supplies. But establishing a conclusive link to hold energy companies accountable is difficult because of an absence of industry and governmental records 5. The oil and gas industry claims there is minimal risk, because fracking happens in rock formations below any groundwater supplies. However, there are many other routes to water contamination, including onsite chemical spills, failures in the underground pipes, and improper waste disposal. Contamination of well water, a common water supply in rural regions, is especially difficult to prove because there are often no baseline water purity records prior to fracking. Furthermore, many industries avoid full disclosure of their fracking chemicals by claiming confidential business information (Congressional Research Service, 2015b; EPA, 2016).

Regulation depends on reliable record keeping. Regulations mandate what records will be created in order to ensure health and safety. Industries with potentially serious environmental impact are often not regulated until there is significant public outcry. There is often spotty documentation, at best, on early environmental impacts of new technologies, leaving citizens without the information they need to to prove pollution claims. The problem is worsened by regulatory agencies that struggle with underfunding and an inability or unwillingness to exercise their enforcement powers. It is further compounded by politicians hostile to environmental regulation. These issues can be seen in recent failures of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to regulate fracking.

In 2014, the Pennsylvania Auditor General audited the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), reviewing their performance in monitoring and investigating fracking’s effects on water supplies. This is a huge issue because if you think fracking has contaminated your water supply, you have to start by making a complaint to the DEP, which then triggers an investigation. The audit found failure after failure in both DEP’s regulatory responsibilities and its record keeping practices (Pennsylvania Auditor General, 2014). When citizens filed complaints, they did not consistently receive a final letter stating the conclusion of an investigation, inspection records were kept inconsistently, there wasn’t independent verification of industry’s self-reported waste, records were not organized in a way to answer simple big-picture questions such as “How many complaints were related to impacts on water supplies?” and DEP routinely cited confidentiality concerns as an excuse to block access to public records. The Auditor stated he could not conclude whether “public health is being threatened by the gas industry” because “their record keeping is so poor” (Hurdle, 2014). The findings of the state auditor are similar to what much of the scholarly literature on fracking says – that the dangers to water are known, but no one knows quite how widespread it is because state and industry record keeping is so inconsistent. Although the DEP has recently improved some of its online public records access – including crucial citizen complaint records – finding and making sense of the records is notoriously difficult.

Dissatisfied with the status quo, activists have filed numerous public records requests in order to assemble information in a manner far more accessible and comprehensible to the public. The Pittsburgh-based Public Herald literally went to DEP regional offices to scan thousands of citizen complaints which they’ve mapped and made available on their website, publicfiles.org.6


In each of these regional stories, reliable record keeping has been essential to documenting the links between pollution and polluters. When industry and government roll back regulations that require reliable record keeping, we’re quickly on the road to pollution without polluters, in which we know that  water and air is being contaminated, but we lack the reliable evidence to document exactly who that polluter is.

Last year’s keynote by Bergis Jules, was titled “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives.” Bergis called for us to “[acknowledge] our willful ignorance around the histories of marginalized people of color and to allow new knowledge to affect how we do our work.” The failure of care is a theme that comes up time and again when one considers how injustices perpetrated against the land, air and water are inseparable from the injustices perpetrated against marginalized peoples. Pollution of air and water disproportionately affects poor communities and communities of color, and yet with all our knowledge about this reality, we have failed to embed the concept of care into the way we approach environmental information and record keeping.

What does care look like in an environmental record keeping context? It looks like record keeping that recognizes that impacts to the environment are inseparable to the impacts on our bodies and communities.

While I was preparing for this keynote, I ran across an intriguing example of what this looks like in a story from the Allegheny Front, a website dedicated to regional environmental journalism. The story profiled a local summer youth employment program in which teenagers are working in the predominantly black neighborhood of Lincoln-Lemington on lead poisoning (Holsopple, 2017)7. The neighborhood has older housing stock which means a higher likelihood of lead paint, and like many cities with aging infrastructure, Pittsburgh is grappling with serious lead concerns in its water lines. There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, but the CDC has established what is known as a “reference level at which the agency recommends public health actions be initiated” (CDC, 2017). The reference level is anything above a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). In 2013, 7.5% of tested children here in Allegheny county had blood lead levels above the reference level, and several thousand more children have some level of exposure above zero (Allegheny County Health Department, 2015). The Allegheny County Council recently passed mandatory lead testing for one and two-year old children, and the law will go into effect on January 1 (Deto, 2017). A councilman supporting the legislation stated, “Lead testing gives us information, and without information we can’t assess the problem that we are facing” (Boren, 2017).

Over the summer, the students in the youth employment program mapped buildings in the neighborhood, talked with residents about  their lead exposure mitigation strategies, and conducted surveys in cooperation with the Allegheny County Health Department. The students spent 3 days in Flint Michigan talking to activists and community stakeholders there.

I recently spoke to Denise Jones, who served as the project’s director 8. She noted that while there was much quantitative data, there was little qualitative detail. The Health Department might be able to say how many houses were built with lead paint or had lead service lines, but it didn’t have information on how caregivers employed various strategies to keep their children safe. Knocking on doors, clipboards in hand, these students filled in the care-based details that are all too often missing from records that rarely account for how our environments impact our lives.

Preserving and making environmental information accessible is essential if we hope to bring any eventual accountability to power, because the legal and cultural context we live in requires documentary evidence in the form of trustworthy data and reliable records. Polluters know this, and it’s why rolling back regulations that document who is polluting and how is often the first line of attack in what they call bureaucratic red tape – but the documentation that that red tape creates is essential to building legal cases and moral claims against polluters. A disturbing number of today’s attacks on federal environmental protection involve attacks on information.9 Some of these have rolled back proposals for industry to increase its monitoring and reporting of methane. Methane has even more heat-trapping potential than carbon, and methane leaks are highly associated with fracking. Industry claims natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, but methane leaks undermine that claim. If we don’t require record keeping for methane emissions, it’s hard to determine the extent of our current contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.10

I often think about how many libraries have an uncomfortable inheritance of what the Gilded Age steel industry wrought on air and water, and on the bodies of its workers. Andrew Carnegie made his fortune from steel and he made it here in Pittsburgh, and it was his philanthropy to over a thousand communities that nearly doubled the amount of public libraries in the United States.11 Many of our libraries and archives we work in are deeply tangled in fossil fuels – from institutional endowments invested in BP or Exxon, foundation-funded projects seeded from the money of oil and gas barons, preservation of our digital content on coal-powered servers, and reliance on fossil-fueled transportation to come together to dream of a better future.  Environmental information is critical to our ability to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and I believe as information professionals we have an ethical obligation to incorporate environmental care in our professional practices.

I’ve been working around these issues of archives and the environment for a few years. The  profession knows we need to do something, but we’re not really sure what it is. Should we rewrite our disaster plans to incorporate climate change? Should we put rooftop gardens and solar panels on top of our buildings? Should we incorporate the environmental footprint of cloud storage into our contracts with digital preservation services? Ideally we would all answer Yes to them – and yet they avoid the critical question of environmental information.12

Before we can ask “What should we do about environmental information?” we must answer, “How do we as a profession develop an ethic of environmental justice?” Because we can’t sustain the issue of preserving environmental information for the long haul until we make caring about the environment a very normal and routine aspect of our personal and professional lives. People arrive at an ethic of environmental justice through different routes, but at its core, it depends on cultivating a sense of care and duty for the places in which we live and work, and understanding how environmental degradation compounds existing injustices.

In the archives profession, the “archivist as keeper and caretaker” trope has been thrashed for its implications that archivists are passive agents worshipping at the altar of neutrality. But as multiple archivists have recently asserted the importance of ethics of care in our profession, I would like to think we’re on the way to reclaiming archivists as caretakers in the best and most feminist sense of the word – that to care for something is a profound act of great importance, it’s essential to our ongoing existence, and it is the bedrock for preservation 13. To ensure that information is preserved so that it can be used by citizens for a safe and healthy environment is the opposite of passively keeping information – it is to assert that preservation of information, preservation of the earth, and preservation of public health, are very closely linked.

As we saw after the election, many decentralized efforts took place to address concerns over access and preservation of federal environmental data on websites like the EPA/DOI/NOAA/NASA. In some of those efforts, librarians and archivists played an active leadership role, while other efforts barely had any librarians or archivists present. Why was this? I suspect it is because for many of us, we do not have environmental justice incorporated in our sense of what it means to be an information professional. This information may be invisible to many of us most of the time, but if you like to breathe clean air and drink clean water, you should care very deeply about this.

As I’ve laid out, effective environmental protection depends on environmental information. That space is where we as information professionals most strongly bring our talents. So to return to the question, “What should we do about environmental information?” we need to identify the unfolding threats to its preservation and accessibility, from local to international stages. It’s not just at the federal level, and it was a problem long before the current administration, and will be longer after it. If we’re not given a seat at those tables, to paraphrase Shirley Chisholm, then we need to bring a folding chair.14 We need to assert that we, as information professionals, deeply care about environmental information, especially if we also claim that we care about the communities we serve.

Just as there is not a single solution for climate change, but multiple paths to transitioning to a fossil-free future, there are multiple ways we can work towards ensuring environmental information is preserved and used:

  • We can get involved in groups working on federal environmental data issues, many of which are represented within the DLF community
  • We can become friends with scientists and journalists to organize around our common interests
  • We can help citizen science projects with data management and preservation plans
  • We can teach local environmental activists how to find and use environmental information
  • We can surface new sources of environmental information in our collections, such as weather and ecological data from diaries
  • We can prioritize local environmental topics for our collection development policies
  • We can demand that industries voluntarily disclose more information about their environmental impact
  • We can interrogate the appraisal and retention decisions of regulatory records to ensure records are retained long enough to support the public interest
  • We can fight back against deregulation that rolls back reporting and monitoring recordkeeping requirements

The balance of power concerning the creation and access of environmental information has favored polluting industries for far too long. I’m gravely concerned this imbalance is becoming more severe, at the exact moment when crises of climate change, ecological collapse, and environmental injustice are becoming too urgent to ignore any longer. Whether we identify as librarians, archivists, curators, records managers, or some other branch of the information profession family tree, all of us can – and need to – contribute to preserving environmental information and ensuring its usability.

Rachel Carson lamented in Silent Spring that the evidence against pesticides was stacking up, but far too many people chose to ignore it.

She wrote, “Much of the necessary knowledge is now available, but we do not use it. We train ecologists in our universities and even employ them in our governmental agencies but we seldom take their advice. We allow the chemical death rain to fall as though there were no alternative, whereas in fact there are many, and our ingenuity could soon discover many more if given opportunity.”

Rachel Carson wrote those words more than 50 years ago, and yet it feels as if it could describe our world today. We need to build an alternative world, rooted in advice and ingenuity. We have the necessary knowledge. Now let’s use it.


Allegheny County Health Department. (2015). Community Health Assessment. http://www.achd.net/cha/CHA_Report-Final_42815.pdf

Boren, J. (2017). Allegheny County Council approves lead testing requirement for children. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. http://triblive.com/local/allegheny/12478182-74/allegheny-county-council-approves-lead-testing-requirement-for-children

Butler, E., & Russell Sage Foundation. (1909). Women and the trades, Pittsburgh, 1907-1908. New York: Survey Associates. https://archive.org/details/pittsburghsurvey01kelluoft

Carson, R., Lear, L. J., & Wilson, E. O. (2012). Silent spring. Boston: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). (2017). Lead. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/

Congressional Research Service. (2015a). An Overview of Unconventional Oil and Natural Gas: Resources and Federal Actions. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43148.pdf

Congressional Research Service. (2015b). Hydraulic Fracturing and Safe Drinking Water Act Regulatory Issues. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41760.pdf

Deto, R. (2017). Allegheny County Council candidate Anita Prizio thinks county’s new lead-testing rule should go farther. Pittsburgh City Paper. https://www.pghcitypaper.com/PolitiCrap/archives/2017/07/24/allegheny-county-council-candidate-anita-prizio-thinks-countys-new-lead-testing-rule-should-go-farther

EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration). (2017a). Pennsylvania Profile Analysis. https://www.eia.gov/state/analysis.php?sid=PA#2

EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration). (2017b). Pennsylvania Profile Overview. https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=PA

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). (2016). Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States  (Executive Summary). https://ofmpub.epa.gov/eims/eimscomm.getfile?p_download_id=530285

EPA. (2017). DDT – A Brief History and Status. https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/ddt-brief-history-and-status

EPA. (2017). Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and Federal Facilities. https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/federal-insecticide-fungicide-and-rodenticide-act-fifra-and-federal-facilities

Holsopple, K. (2017). “Teens earn and learn while educating their neighbors about lead exposure.” Allegheny Front. https://www.alleghenyfront.org/teens-earn-and-learn-while-educating-their-neighbors-about-lead-exposure/

Hurdle, J. (2014). “Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Faults Oversight of Natural Gas Industry.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/24/us/pennsylvanias-auditor-general-faults-oversight-of-natural-gas-industry.html?_r=1

Nixon, R. Reorganization plans nos. 3 and 4 of 1970, message from the president. Congressional document, House Committee on Government Operations. July 9, 1970. H.Doc. 91-366. https://congressional.proquest.com/legisinsight?id=12896-2%20H.doc.366&type=DOCUMENT

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2012). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. London: Bloomsbury.

Pennsylvania Auditor General. (2014). A Special Performance Audit of Department of Environmental Protection. http://www.paauditor.gov/Media/Default/Reports/speDEP072114.pdf

Souder, W. (2013). On a farther shore: The life and legacy of Rachel Carson.

Wing, F. (1914). “Thirty-Five Years of Typohid.” Kellogg, P. U., & Russell Sage Foundation. The Pittsburgh district civic frontage. New York: Survey Associates. https://archive.org/details/pittsburghsurvey05kelluoft

Woodall, C. (2017). “Trump: ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’”. Penn Live. http://www.pennlive.com/news/2017/06/trump_i_was_elected_to_represe.html


Fierce Urgencies 2017 event (Yale): When the Unbearable Becomes Inevitable

(I was honored to join Jarrett Drake and Bethany Wiggin at an event titled “Fierce Urgencies: The Social Responsibility of Collecting and Protecting Data,” hosted by the Beinecke Speakers Series at Yale University on May 4. Here is the copy of my talk + slides. Thanks to Hillel Arnold and Ben Goldman for helping me navigate my way to coherence as I wrote and rewrote my talk, and the Yale organizers who put together an important and compelling day.)

On April 2, curators of an archive in Canada walked into their repository to find a massive disaster unfolding. Water was pooling at the bottom of the storage area floors, and the curators realized with horror that some of the records in their care were lost beyond all hope. How could this be?

Predictably, it was an HVAC issue. The repository in question was the ice core archives at University of Alberta in Edmonton.[i] Scientists drill ice cores from glaciers in order to obtain historical climate records, and then the cores are split up into segments and stored in repositories that are so cold they require some serious protective clothing to enter. Ice cores are important, because they contain vital information about our planet over hundreds of thousands of years, including how levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have changed over time. This enables climate scientists to establish that not only are we experiencing increasing presence of greenhouse gas emissions compared to what we would expect based on past records, but that it has anthropogenic causes, that is, caused by human activity.

There is scarcely any place in the world that will not be affected by climate change. Whether our archives and libraries collect information about the environment scarcely matters, climate change will affect you as a practicing archivist, librarian, or curator, because it will also affect you as a citizen of the world. In many places, climate change has already started to impact archival work, even if we don’t realize it. And frequently we don’t realize it because archivists haven’t fully grappled with our professional relationship with the environment.

I find the story of the melting ice cores poignant and sad because not only did some of these ice cores come from glaciers which are rapidly melting and may not be around long enough to obtain replacement samples from, but because it also illustrates the astonishing gap between the way different fields conceive of the very concept of the record. Because of the information embedded in natural objects like ice cores and tree rings, scientists refer to them as proxy data or proxy records,[ii] and they are a vital part of climate science, since reliable written records on the weather and climate only go back a few hundred years.

However, if we look at how the American archival profession defines data, records, and archives, it becomes clear that we archivists think of records as something created by, for, and about humans. For example, the SAA glossary of archival terminology barely creates intellectual space for the idea that a record could be created by any process except human activity, or that archives would exist for any capacity beyond how they reflect our relationships with human institutions.[iii] Anything from the natural world may be considered data, and historically we have tended to leave data to other professions.



It has added to my growing conviction that the construction of archives as the product of human activity stymies our understanding of our work and its meaning in the larger environment around us.

Environmental metaphors permeate an incredible amount of archival literature, but the reality is that archivists have constructed “archives” as an almost entirely human enterprise.[iv][v][vi] And you will notice that when we do use environmental metaphors in our literature, it is frequently in a negative light. For example, in the 1987 English translation of German archivist Hans Booms’ work, one finds phrases common to the archival literature, like

●     “archivists have made unsuccessful attempts to staunch this flood of information” or,

●     “The mountain of data competing for storage also begins to grow at a more rapid pace”

When we use environmental metaphors in this way, it is almost as if we are replaying frontier narratives that imagine that environments are inherently wild and out of control, and that humans must subjugate them to serve our needs.

The unfortunate reality is that whether we want to think about our relationship with the environment or not, eventually climate change will force us to confront that relationship.

Even seemingly benign events may be a canary in the coal mine for the future. While coastal sea level rise and dramatic hurricanes capture our most apocalyptic fears, less obvious effects of climate change – like the intensification of Midwest thunderstorms over the coming decades – can lead to highly localized but incredibly devastating outcomes. In my city of Cincinnati, we experienced a taste of this over the past August when a spectacularly intense thunderstorm parked itself over our city, and overwhelmed the local storm water system. This led to flooding in neighborhoods that no one ever recalled flooding before, because of their distance from our local rivers. And yet this is the exact same thing climatologists are warning us will happen hundreds of miles inland. That August storm particularly affected a local institution, and their archivist told me recently it was only by luck that some their collections weren’t damaged in a room that flooded, thanks to being on tables that day.

I believe that there will be a point in our near future in which archivists will have no choice but to adapt to climate change in the way we perform our work. The challenge is whether we do it in a way that reinforces the very problems at our door, or in a way that puts us on the right side of accountability, justice, and community responsibility. In order to begin preparing for long-term adaptation, we need to ask a lot of questions we would probably prefer to put off.

What are some of the risks in a changing climate we might face? It depends on where you are:

●     Some may face immediate collection evacuation risks, prompted by wildfires, floods, and hurricanes

●     Some may face long-term relocation decisions due to sea-level rise and coastal erosion, or if a weather event is so devastating, rebuilding is inadvisable or impossible

●     Some may face increasing infrastructure and preservation costs when current HVAC systems can’t keep up with future increases in temperature and humidity

I suspect some archivists will find themselves being asked difficult questions one day from institutional risk managers who know nothing about archives or libraries. The insurance industry is already taking a cold hard actuarial look at the reality of underwriting certain areas. When our institutions and repositories can no longer have insurance, or afford insurance premiums for areas increasingly vulnerable, what difficult decisions will we have to make about how, when, and where to steward our collections?

What about problems that are likely to be so big that they cannot be resolved at the local institutional level? Will we be ready to meet these challenges profession-wide? These questions are becoming painfully relevant for many. Australian archivist Matthew Gordon-Clark has written about the legal and cultural struggles that will almost certainly arise with determining how the larger archival community should aid in the question of national archives from Pacific Island nations.



Many of you may know that here at Yale, there is a fantastic group of researchers who study the communication and rhetoric around climate change. The researchers periodically study how Americans think about climate change, and I think these stats are fascinating – 70% of us think CC will affect future generations, a slim majority think it’s already affecting the US, but only 40% think it will affect us personally. How do we make sense of this? It’s not as if we’ll have a clear red line from which we can say “Now climate change is affecting us.” We need to assume it already is, and act accordingly.

The Society of American Archivists Core Values states, “Underlying all the professional activities of archivists is their responsibility to a variety of groups in society and to the public good.” It is my strong conviction that professionally and morally, archivists have to step up and connect the dots between the public good, and climate justice. And we have to do it in a way that recognizes climate justice is fundamentally intertwined with struggles for economic, racial, and gender justice.

Across the globe, frontline communities – poor folks, people of color, and indigenous people –  will face the most severe effects of climate change, despite generally contributing the least emissions. You will note that historically, these are also communities that are underrepresented among archivists, and with whom we do not have a historically good relationship with across the board, and in many circumstances, have even aided in their oppression through description, acquisition, or access practices.

Many of these communities either face barriers in accessing the types of records needed to substantiate their claims of environmental injustices, or have difficulty getting those in power to take seriously the evidence and documentation their communities have gathered together in the absence of official records.

There are currently no comprehensive governmental programs in place in the US to aid coastal frontline communities who must move in order to sustain their cultures and community. This is already a reality for several indigenous communities, particularly along the Gulf Coast[vii] and Alaska.[viii] Our society’s failure to help these communities move is not just an abdication of responsibility for physical safety and wellbeing, but also yet another way in which the cultural heritage of vulnerable communities is marginalized and threatened.

I want to raise a cautionary note. I fear our profession sometimes suffers from a “Document, Collect and Preserve it, and they will come” mindset – either that if we gather material, we will ensure new groups of users will come to find our archives relevant, or that if we help preserve documentation documenting injustice, it will help people come to their senses. To return to my earlier conviction that archivists need to grapple with our relationship with the environment, I don’t think simply collecting about the environment is the answer. We need to completely rethink how to integrate climate change adaptation into our existing work, from appraisal to processing to preservation, because collection and documentation alone does not produce justice.



If we look at the history of the science of climate change, we can see that collection and knowledge-creation and preservation are not enough. Climate change is arguably one of the MOST documented phenomenons of the post-industrial world, and the general public has been exposed to it for over a century now, with mentions in newspapers going back to at least the second-half of the 19th century, and President LBJ mentioning the dangers of burning fossil fuels in a 1965 address to Congress.

So how is it that we have all this knowledge, but emission levels keep moving up?

Knowledge, on its own, is not enough to move policy. The reason that emissions are increasing is because we have a worldwide system in which vast and moneyed fossil fuel interests have historically been motivated to attack knowledge and expertise on the one hand, while behind the scenes influencing policy through buying their way out of any moral obligation to do anything about it. It is the reason ExxonMobil has joined the ranks of tobacco and the NFL in trying to cover up its own internal research showing how bad their product is (#ExxonKnew), but unlike cigarettes and traumatic brain injuries, their own coverup of documentation in the quest for unfettered profits could hurt everyone and everything alive on the planet now and in the future.

So as one of my friends recently said to me, so what do archivists do? Besides dismantling fossil-fuel dominated crony capitalism, I have three suggestions, starting at home. And I emphasize the phrase “at home,” because while climate change is a global phenomenon, it will have highly localized problems and therefore calls for localized responses:

1.    Start talking about it to anyone who will listen, and when you’re not talking, listen to the perspectives of front line communities in your area. Is there something as an archivist you can lend your voice and skills towards?

2.    Ask what your institution is doing for adaptation to climate change. You may find out that it’s “in the future.” Figure out how to be at that table once the future arrives, and start taking steps internally within your repository towards adaptation, so when the unthinkable becomes inevitable you’re ready

3.    Building professional solidarity with other professions, like journalists and scientists, who are committed to truth-telling.

Science historian Naomi Oreskes has talked about this gap between knowledge and policy: “It’s a cliché to say that knowledge is power. It’s not true actually. Knowledge is knowledge. In our society, knowledge resides in one place, and for the most part, power resides somewhere else. And that disconnect is really the crux of the challenge we face right now.”

Friends and colleagues, let us hope we can rise to the challenge ahead.


[i]  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/11/climate/ice-cores-melted-freezer-alberta-canada.html

[ii] https://www.climate.gov/maps-data/primer/past-climate and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxy_(climate)

[iii] Data: Facts, ideas, or discrete pieces of information, especially when in the form originally collected and unanalyzed.(http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/d/data)

Record: 1. A written or printed work of a legal or official nature that may be used as evidence or proof; a document. – 2. Data or information that has been fixed on some medium; that has content, context, and structure; and that is used as an extension of human memory or to demonstrate accountability. – 3. Data or information in a fixed form that is created or received in the course of individual or institutional activity and set aside (preserved) as evidence of that activity for future reference. – 4. An instrument filed for public notice (constructive notice); see recordation. (http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/r/record)

Archives: Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. (http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/a/archives)

[iv] There have been a handful of notable archivists who have drawn out some of the conflicts between archival theory and an environmental perspective. Candace Loewen: “…[W]e need to move beyond the search for the obvious “human” element in records to a search for records of value to humans and to the planet as a whole. Perhaps we have been too “human-centered” in our approach to appraisal; in documenting human activities and institutions, the earth itself has been relegated to second place. We have neglected the earth, what Hugh Taylor calls “planetary evidence,” and by doing so we have done a disservice to humanity, to ourselves.” Loewen, C. (1991). From Human Neglect to Planetary Survival: New Approaches to the Appraisal of Environmental Records. Archivaria, 33.

[v] Erik Moore: “In order to gain a sense of the whole system and the trophic dynamic running through the archival ecosystem, archivists should refine archival theory by incorporating ecological models. Since the 1980s, a handful of archivists have done just that. Their work has been for the most part cumulative, but to date has not substantially moved archival theory and practice in North America beyond the focus of intrinsic and instrumental values to a more integrated systemic value.” Moore, E. A. (2007). Birds of a Feather: Some Fundamentals on the Archives–Ecology Paradigm.

[vi] Hugh Taylor (2000 Reflection to “Recycling the Past”, originally published in 1993): “…I believe it is necessary to develop an attitude and a mindset which sharpens our awareness of what we have gotten ourselves into and hence to value those sources which are seeking either to record past disasters as a cause of future comparisons, or, through scientific research, to help us towards the way out through a greater understanding of the breadth of natural complexity. I have been musing in a philosophical way about this subject for some time, and I am anxious that more archivists join in the debate now that I am laying down my pen.”

[vii] https://toolkit.climate.gov/topics/tribal-nations/relocation

[viii] http://www.npr.org/2017/01/10/509176361/alaskan-village-citing-climate-change-seeks-disaster-relief-in-order-to-relocate




PASIG 2016 talk: “The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: Preservation in the Anthropocene”

This is the lectern copy of the talk I gave at PASIG on October 28.  These were my slides (with apologies for how PDF conversion garbled the fonts). Thank you to the program committee for inviting me, and for the feedback and affirmation from the audience. I will be engaging with these ideas a lot over the coming months as I revise this talk for later publication.

Thank you to Hillel Arnold, Stephanie Bennett, Libby Coyner, Ben Goldman, and Erik Moore for their thoughtful remarks and editorial suggestions on the early drafts of this talk. I feel so fortunate and blessed to work in a profession with such generous colleagues.

Title: The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: Preservation in the Anthropocene

Eira Tansey



In less than 100 years, the raw materials of growth have transitioned from an economy based on natural resources to a knowledge-based economy.[1] Historically, economic growth was driven by the natural resources of seemingly abundant and untamed wilderness. Today, the knowledge economy is fed by the digital resources of seemingly abundant and untamed electronic records.

As our language of economic value shifts from natural resources to digital resources, as we talk more often about mining data stored in clouds instead of mining coal from a mountain, I suggest that we stop and ask the following question: what can our history with the ideas of wilderness teach us about managing a flood of digital information?[2] This deep reflection is critical to our survival as we enter the anthropocene,[3] a period in which human traces can now be found in the Earth’s geologic record, a period in which wilderness is perceived as scarce, and a period where an unceasing volume of electronic records have assumed the wild abundance once associated with unmapped frontiers.[4]

Abundance and Scarcity

America’s founding mythologies revolve around making the land bend to the will of the powerful. This process was sustained by the creation of records and archives that asserted that the land was a wild place: whether wild with humans to be killed or removed through treaties that would inevitably be broken, or wild with trees and rivers to be surveyed and divided up through land claims.[5]

Indeed, archives are so strongly identified with the land in which records are created and maintained that when the writers of the Declaration of Independence listed among the “facts submitted to the world,” they found King George had:

“[…]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.”[6]

The implication is clear, that records not only accorded legal rights, but that those records had a particular spatial significance as well. To be alienated from access to one’s records is to not just have one’s rights in question, but to be divorced from the land of legal rights. However, time and again throughout history, those who create and control records effectively control the land, and records articulate who is allowed to have a legal relationship with the land — and who can exploit the land for economic gain. I can think of no better current example than what is happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

America secured its nation-state status through conquering that which the colonists defined as wilderness. This process could not have been accomplished without the copious creation and use of records through maps, surveys, land grants, government reports, diaries, and letters that told us who or what was at the edge of civilization, and what value could be obtained by destroying indigenous people[7] and altering the landscape into profitable use.[8]

As the seemingly abundant wilderness became scarce, an influential group of white Americans began to rethink wilderness. Influenced by Romantic notions of beauty, and led by philosophers like John Muir, wilderness was re-imagined not as something to be exploited, conquered or feared, but as a precarious and precious resource deserving of protection.[9] However, there were vigorous disagreements about how this would be carried out. A group known as preservationists wanted to protect land for a panoply of aesthetic and moral reasons, with the implicit assumption that the main benefits would be realized by white nature enthusiasts. In contrast, conservationists argued that protection could be realized through the highly-regulated management of natural resources for economic growth, however this approach to management rarely, if ever, drew on indigenous land management knowledge and practices.[10] Once again, records were created to advance the arguments of both sides.

In the midst of the Great Depression, American wilderness and American archives rounded a similar bend. In August 1933, a major executive branch reorganization resulted in a major expansion of the National Parks Service, and less than a year later, FDR signed legislation creating the National Archives. In both cases, New Deal-era management brought together fragmented and endangered pieces of natural and cultural heritage under centralized control.[11]

As we transformed land into raw material for economic growth, and as we produced increasing numbers of records for the expansion of markets and the state, we have arrived at the point where we designate wilderness as a scarcity requiring legal management, and struggle to control an abundance of fragile information.[12] A common thread unites those charged with environmental preservation and those charged with digital preservation: the idea that their work is the “last line of defense” between continued existence – of land or of records – and of destruction.[13] A mountain that is strip mined can be filled in with grassland but the stratigraphy is effectively gone. A digital dark age looms over websites not yet crawled and files not yet checksummed, as archivists race to fill the holes and gaps of our digital cultural heritage.[14]

Three Questions

So what can we learn from our relationship with wilderness as we attempt to control a deluge of digital information? I propose the following questions:

  1. Who do we preserve for?
  2. What should we preserve?
  3. Are we preserving for today or for tomorrow?

Over time, land and records preservation benefitted very narrow populations. The earliest national parks were set aside not for ecology or to benefit the majority of Americans, but for the recreational enjoyment of primarily white, usually wealthy, nature enthusiasts, sportsmen, and tourists.[15] Likewise, the earliest American archives were established not to preserve documentation for all people, but of privileged government interests and the transmission of elite memory.[16] Over the last several decades, an increasing awareness of ecology and the erasure of indigenous populations and people of color has led to new approaches to federal and state land protection.[17] Likewise, the expansion of the “archival multiverse” recognizes the need to represent those who had been historically excluded from archival memory, whether by new appraisal or collection strategies, or by the establishment of community archives outside of oppressive institutions.[18]

What we preserve reflects societal values of collectively-shared resources. Protected land frequently takes different forms; National Parks with varying levels of tourist development, national and state forests with large areas dedicated to logging and mineral extraction, and historic neighborhoods with residents and protected buildings. Land often passes through different types of protection designations over time depending on a variety of legal, cultural, and environmental factors. Likewise, archivists have based decisions on what should be preserved – a function we refer to as appraisal – on a variety of values and frameworks. Records are sometimes appraised based on their inherent value, or their usefulness to others, including scholars, institutional users, or society at large.[19]

Finally, is our drive to preserve motivated by today’s needs or tomorrow’s? By designating something for preservation – land, records –  we imply that it has some form of inherent value that outweighs the costs. And it is here that preservation of land and preservation of digital information face their greatest challenges: the tendency of American culture to value immediate profit or realize short-term gains with the assumption that “tomorrow” is something we will never have to deal with. Otherwise, how do we explain why we even entertain the idea of oil pipelines despite every scientific recommendation urging us move to non-fossil fuel power as soon as possible? Why do we continue to buy more storage to attempt to save everything digital, ensuring the digital replication of the massive paper archives backlogs archivists a generation ago worked so hard to eliminate? In both cases, we have constructed the risks to be something that won’t actually catch up to us in immediate ways, and therefore we ignore  the real impact.

However, the anthropocene demonstrates that  the chronological window between “today’s needs” and “tomorrow’s needs” is rapidly collapsing.[20] Scientific observations demonstrating how much faster the Earth is hitting climate records than originally anticipated shows us that what we thought of as “tomorrow” is arriving on the edges of “today.”[21] Choosing to preserve for tomorrow’s needs is preserving for today’s. As yesterday’s mines become today’s servers, and as data becomes the coal of the 21st century, abundance and scarcity alone cannot guide our preservation decisions. Friends: we must also consider for whom and why we preserve in the first place.


[1] Powell, W. W., & Snellman, K. (2004). The knowledge economy. Annual review of sociology, 199-220.

[2] Throughout this paper I deliberately choose qualifying words around wilderness such as “seeming”, “perceived”, and “ideas” to reflect the position of many environmental historians that almost no landscape has been free from human manipulation.

[3] It has become very hip in environmental and futurist discourse to cite the anthropocene, and I am aware of my reinforcement of this in doing the same. However, there is an emerging scientific consensus on an actual geological epoch called the anthropocene, with actual geologists coming to a commonly-agreed upon point at which human influence can began to be seen in the geological record. For more information, see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth and http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/the-anthropocene-as-environmental-meme-andor-geological-epoch/?_r=0 . The official scientific working group dedicated to this work can be found at http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/

[4] A small but persuasive group of archivists have previously made strong arguments for conceptualizing archival theory through philosophical frameworks of ecological health and sustainability. I owe a great deal of intellectual debt to those who’ve navigated this land before me: Abbey, Heidi N. “The green archivist: A primer for adopting affordable, environmentally sustainable, and socially responsible archival management practices.” Archival Issues (2012): 91-115, Loewen, Candace. “From human neglect to planetary survival: new approaches to the appraisal of environmental records.” Archivaria 1, no. 33 (1991), Moore, Erik A. “Birds of a Feather: Some Fundamentals on the Archives-Ecology Paradigm.” Archivaria 63, no. 63 (2007), Taylor, Hugh A. “Recycling the Past: the Archivist in the Age of Ecology.” Archivaria 1, no. 35 (1992), and Wolfe, Mark. “Beyond “green buildings:” exploring the effects of Jevons’ Paradox on the sustainability of archival practices.” Archival Science 12, no. 1 (2012): 35-50.

[5] Two of the seminal works on American wilderness theory are Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and Bill Cronin’s responding criticism, The Trouble with Wilderness. Suffice to say that wilderness, at least in its American construction, is regarded by many environmental historians as an artificial construct. Early histories of wilderness are imbued with a historical outlook that at best, downplays or misrepresents the relationship that indigenous people had with the land at the time of European contact, and at worst, actively erases them from the narrative.

[6] Declaration of Independence, 1776 July 4, National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[7] These destructive actions also affected indigenous knowledge systems. An excellent account of recent efforts to establish tribal archives and decolonize American archival practice can be found in O’Neal, Jennifer R. “” The Right to Know”: Decolonizing Native American Archives.” Journal of Western Archives 6 (2015).

[8] There is an interesting strain in environmental history that cautions against declensionist thinking (see: http://niche-canada.org/2016/02/03/counterbalancing-declensionist-narratives-in-environmental-history/) but my archival training and outlook requires me to consider why records are created and for what function, and it would seem that early records created by colonists were primarily to function as introducing a legal function of control over the land.

[9] Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, Chapters 8-10. Bill Cronin, The Trouble with Wilderness. : Environmental History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 7-28. Finney, Carolyn. “Black faces, white spaces.” (2014), pp. 28-29.

[10] The main figures often identified with each movement’s early period are John Muir (preservation) and Gifford Pinchot (conservation). Muir’s early writings disparaged blacks and Native Americans he encountered during his travels, and Pinchot was an advocate of eugenics.

[11] https://www.archives.gov/about/history/building.html and http://npshistory.com/publications/timeline/index.htm When the National Archives opened in 1934, it started with a massive abundance of records – 1 million meters, with a growth rate that increased during WWII. See Cook, Terry. “What is past is prologue: a history of archival ideas since 1898, and the future paradigm shift.” Archivaria 43 (1997). The most famous residing documents of the National Archives were not all present after its opening – the Constitution and Declaration of Independence did not come into the National Archives possession until 1952, following negotiations with the Library of Congress.

[12] Wolfe’s “”Beyond Green Buildings” is an excellent examination of how Jevon’s Paradox intersects with the archival “age of abundance”

[13] Ericson, Timothy L. “At the” rim of creative dissatisfaction”: Archivists and Acquisition Development.” Archivaria 33 (1991).

[14] While it is beyond the scope of this talk, both environmental historians and archivists have an evolving relationship with the concept of authenticity. Many environmental historians have shown that humans have a long history of manipulating and altering landscapes, and archivists since Jenkinson have questioned the idea of archives as infallible sources of truth.

[15] Many National Parks were created by actively removing indigenous residents, or forbidding tribal access to lands for sustenance and sacred purposes. See Merchant, Carolyn. “Shades of darkness: Race and environmental history.” Environmental History 8, no. 3 (2003): 380-394, and Spence, Mark David. 1999. Dispossessing the wilderness: Indian removal and the making of the national parks. New York: Oxford University Press.

[16] A particularly interesting case study of early American institutional archives concerns the first formally-organized state archives. These were established in the South, and very explicitly reinforced a Lost Cause white supremacist version of history. See Jimerson, Randall C. 2009. Archives power: memory, accountability, and social justice. Chicago: Society of American Archivists (pp. 94-97) and Galloway, Patricia. “Archives, Power, and History: Dunbar Rowland and the Beginning of the State Archives of Mississippi (1902-1936).” The American Archivist 69, no. 1 (2006): 79-116.

[17] Everglades National Park was arguably the first NPS unit established with ecological concerns as the primary factor (as opposed to scenic landscapes), https://home.nps.gov/ever/learn/management/upload/2008%20DRTO%20EVER%20Final%20Supt%20Annual%20Report.pdf . For more on the relationship between the NPS and tribal nations, see King, Mary Ann. “Co-management or Contracting-Agreements Between Native American Tribes and the US National Park Service Pursuant to the 1994 Tribal Self-Governance Act.” Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 31 (2007): 475, and for federal/state land management and tribal nations: Wood, Mary C., and Zach Welcker. “Tribes as trustees again (Part I): the emerging tribal role in the conservation trust movement.” Harvard Environmental Law Review 32 (2008).

[18] McKemmish, Sue, and Michael Piggott. “Toward the archival multiverse: Challenging the binary opposition of the personal and corporate archive in modern archival theory and practice.” Archivaria 76 (2013).

[19]  Within the realm of archival theory and environmental history, American perspectives on appraisal and wilderness have respectively occupied notably controversial niches that have produced enormous quantities of arguments within the two bodies of literature. For this reason as well, considering them in parallel makes for an intriguing comparative analysis.

[20] My colleague Hillel Arnold also noted that there is a similar parallel of a collapsing window in the archives profession, with the increasingly short period of time in which to preserve the highly ephemeral records generated by historical events (e.g., social media archives of activist movements like the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter).

[21] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-ipcc-underestimated-climate-change/

A human impulse

Tonight I went to see Emily St. John Mandel speak at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library. Mandel is the author of Station Eleven, a novel I have been so wholly obsessed with since reading it last year that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve recommended it. It’s the only post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read that has filled me with awe and hope for our beautiful world, instead of wanting to crawl into bed and hide. The novel imagines a massive pandemic that kills the majority of the world’s population, and follows several characters back and forth through time. One of the main narrative threads involves a Shakespearean troupe (that has a caravan with a quote from Star Trek on the side) that travels around northern Michigan and Canada. In fact, Mandel said that this traveling Shakespeare troupe was the initial seed of the idea for the novel. She noted that when she began writing this part, she originally had the troupe performing a variety of plays and even television shows from the late 20th century, but realized that in a post-apocalyptic world without electricity, the idea of performing “New York real estate situation comedy” (I hope I got the quote right) rang hollow. As she researched both Shakespeare and pandemics, she realized that having a troupe performing exclusively Shakespeare held a particular resonance for the post-pandemic world in Station Eleven; Shakespeare was born during the bubonic plagues that were devastating England, and there was a certain transcendence in the idea of returning to a canon of work that pre-dated electricity in a post-electricity world.

Mandel has wonderfully dry Canadian wit, and talked at length about her research process (my favorite was when she discussed going down Google rabbit holes and reading “unsettling” survivalist message boards – having been down those same rabbit holes myself, “unsettling” is a very charitable way to put it!) as well as why she thinks post-apocalyptic stories are such a frequent part of contemporary culture. Towards the end of her lecture, she ended with a brief anecdote about visiting an exhibit of illuminated manuscripts. Mandel recalled seeing a book over 400 years old, noting that that book comes from a world that has effectively ended, even though human existence has continued – and so the world as we conceive it is continually ending over and over, but we don’t quite realize it because of scale.

There was a brief Q&A at the end, and I attempted to get my fan girl nervous shaky vapors under control (seriously y’all, the only other time I have ever been so overpowered by awe to be in another writer’s presence that I had to take a deep breath and remember to BE COOL was the time I briefly met my archivist writer hero Rand Jimerson) so that I could ask a question about the role of memory in Station Eleven. I managed to snag the last question-asker spot. Here’s a far (FAR!) more eloquent version of what I asked Mandel:

“Hi, I’m an archivist, and I want you to know that a lot of archivists really love your book. Archives often pop up in novels, and when we’ve talked about your book, we’ve talked about the Museum of Civilization, or the historical newspapers that pop up in it. Can you tell us a little bit about how you saw the role of artifacts or written traces of the past in your book’s apocalyptic future?”

She talked a little bit about how the Museum of Civilization came about in the story – she figured that at the end of the world, some folks would probably be stuck in an airport. And while today a 5″ stiletto or an iPad may not seem fascinating, in a world where life changes so dramatically, you could at least show a non-glowing iPad to your child and say “we used to be able to see someone on the other side of the world and talk to them through this.” But then Mandel said something that is very familiar to archivists working in fragile and vulnerable spaces: that after the dust begins to settle from a chaotic and devastating event, people have a “human impulse” to recall the past and to tell their stories.

Archivists who’ve worked around traumatic events know this well – that chaos is often a turning point in human history, but that in the midst of the chaos, preservation of our stories, records, and traces are generally the furthest things from the minds of those who are just trying to hold it together to survive another day. In addition, archivists must be extraordinarily sensitive to how memory can function as a prolonging of trauma. I lived and worked in New Orleans from 2008-2013 (in other words, 3 years after Katrina), and the trauma of the hurricane and federal levee failure was visible on a daily basis. I moved down just in time to evacuate for Hurricane Gustav, the first mandatory evacuation since Katrina. My roommate at the time had survived Katrina as a freshman college student, and her PTSD became fully evident as she got the hell out of town almost a whole day before I managed to evacuate. Towards the end of my time living there, many archivists I knew who had survived Katrina were quite resentful of others who did not experience the same trauma demanding them to tell their stories over, and over, and over to fit a particular narrative of resilience. More recently, my friend and fellow archivist Jarrett Drake, who helped create A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, has noted that creating documentation around traumatic events has the very real potential to effect significant harm:

To that end, it matters how we create more archives for black lives, and it’s important that we don’t re-traumatize communities or expose them for more white gaze, exploitation, and plunder.

We archivists have an understandable tendency to panic that if we don’t do something RIGHT! THIS! MINUTE! about archiving contemporary events or dealing with the unceasing volumes of records growing daily, that we may lose everything that matters to the world we live in now, and the world we hope will survive in the future. This was particularly evident to me today, since I spent the whole day in a workshop on managing digital archives. Archivists who care for what we call “born-digital” materials are prone to a weird combination of rampant anxiety and cautious optimism. I would call for another strong measure of something else – humility and grace. We need to recognize that the continuance of culture and memory does not depend on us alone. Even if every professional archivist on the planet disappeared tomorrow (and what a sad and sorry state of affairs this would be), I trust that our fellow human beings would find a way to create archives to continue the memory and the culture we champion as our daily reason for going to work, even if we might not recognize them as archives according to the practices and standards we’ve spent centuries formulating. As Mandel made clear, it is the human impulse to remember. When we archivists are doing our jobs right, we cannot and should not claim that we have the one true answer on what it means to remember. Rather, I hope we add to the multitude of ways in which memory persists through a world that ends over and over again, even as we humans somehow seem to keep muddling through it all.