Eira Tansey

What I learned from my third annual social media fast

tl;dr: it’s all bullshit, folks, and it’s bad for ya

This is the third year I’ve done a Lenten social media fast, where I cut myself off from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. With a couple of exceptions I feel OK about, I haven’t purposefully pulled up or logged in to any social media platform services except when really necessary (i.e. I had to get in touch with someone and had no clue how to reach them through phone, email, or snail mail). And unlike past years, this year I really, really, REALLY haven’t missed social media except for a couple of fleeting moments where I thought “Hmm, wonder what archivist twitter thinks about this?” or “Hmm, this would be a really cute picture of my cat to post.” I think 2016 was the year of binging on The Internetz during the election, and in the wake of the (Electoral College) election of (Popular Vote Loser) the 45th President, I needed a fucking break. And this third fast I have felt so unbelievably free and liberated. Let me count the reasons why:

*It feels GLORIOUS to not instantly know what a shithead Trump and his merry band of mediocre white guys are. I still pay attention to the news, but there’s only so many times you can refresh the NYTimes and Guardian apps, whereas Twitter has an endless hot take firehose. Sometimes I do feel behind on the scary shit going down, but the stuff that is truly heinous usually makes it on to my radar in multiple ways (e.g., the passenger that United dragged off the plane), whereas the stuff that is more of a viral outrage du jour (e.g., a tone deaf advertising strategy) sort of shambles onto my radar once or twice before mercifully receding into the viral trash heap. I’m pretty good with the trade-off of not knowing INSTANTLY about everything in order to be able to sustain a slow burn outrage over the truly long-term bullshit that will affect us for decades, like changing the tax code, court cases, and the gutting of environmental and science programs.

*I have far too many shitty experiences with men on social media, including some men I actually know and (used to) respect who act like assholes when there’s a screen between us. I’ve often thought about setting up a folder I share with selected people (i.e. other women) of screenshots titled “Men Explain Things To Me,” but hey, living well is the best revenge. I have been semi-doxxed, insulted, harassed, and had my work erased on every social media platform I’ve ever had an account on, except instagram (probably because I mostly post pictures of my chubby alien cat and trees from my hikes). A lot of what Lindy West said in this interview resonated with me. (Also, in general I love the Twitter quitter genre)

Given that post-election there is emerging evidence of a rise in aggression against women, why should I spend my time in spaces in which women are devalued at best and actively harmed at worst? Shit, who knows when the nukes are going to start launching. I might as well spend my screen time liking instagram photos from my hair stylist who makes me and other curly-haired women around this city feel like goddesses rather than dealing with men who make me feel awful.

*And on the flip side, sometimes I can be the asshole on social media. I like not worrying if I put my foot in my mouth or offended someone because most of what I share on social media is, by default, a first draft. And often it’s a shitty first draft that ends up requiring an apology, slice of humble pie, or deep and exhausting introspection.

*My attention span returned. I can actually sit down and read long and involved complicated books and not get distracted after 5 pages. It’s amazing.

*Unlike that time I tweeted about the Ohio legislature rushing through some totally bullshit abortion legislation and it got retweeted like 2,000 times, I enjoy the feeling of not worrying that something I tweet will go viral and I’ll have to babysit it in case anyone starts making actionable threats.

After my first two social media Lenten fasts, I went right back to my normal interwebz habits. This year I’m putting some protocols in place once Lent is over, because I think I need it to recalibrate my relationship permanently with social media, especially to mentally handle an unending terrible news cycle, and continuing to focus on projects that ultimately bring me joy and meaning, rather than succumbing to an unending exercise in passive horror scrolling.

Ultimately, speaking only to my own personal experience, social media is very similar to alcohol in that it can quickly become too much of a good thing. A few years ago, I dialed back my alcohol consumption, because I didn’t like the way I acted when I drank too much, and dealing with hangovers is a ludicrously stupid waste of time. I have a set of protocols to keep myself in check, and as a result I now enjoy alcohol responsibly without turning into an asshole juggling hangovers and guilt. Similarly, I’ve found that when I’m on social media too much, I don’t like the person I turn into.

I’ve honestly entertained deleting all of my social media accounts entirely (so tempting!) however I’ve noticed that despite my repeated pleas to get my friends to holler at me about upcoming social justice-y type events (whether we’re talking local activism, or library/archives professional stuff), it somehow hasn’t taken, and the vast majority of these things are primarily shared on social media. But I don’t feel lonely – the folks I’m closest to I either see in person, call, email or text back and forth with on a pretty regular basis.

So… I’m trying to figure out what a recalibrated social media experience looks like. I’m not breaking the fast until the protocols are in place. I honestly don’t know what the answer is yet. Maybe it’s logging in once a week to do a brief check-in on upcoming events and actions, maybe it’s deleting some accounts, maybe it’s setting up a metering system to charge myself for social media use (this is probably more tracking than I want to do, but I love the concept – like a micro-tithe to the EFF or something for every time I login to twitter!) And given that social media is designed to be addictive and the favored delivery method via smart phones captures a disturbing amount of our waking hours, I realize that uh, there’s a reason why we hear a lot more about people quitting altogether than saying “Here’s how I use social media less than I did before.”

I don’t really know what the long-term answer is, beyond “whatever works for me,” but I know that this fast was really necessary, and was the reset button my brain desperately needed. I am trying to heed the words of Wendell Berry:

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

North Central Regional Branch 

Visit #6: North Central Regional Branch, March 4, 2017

As a longtime member of Toastmasters, I thought it would be fun to read this book on Obama’s oratory style. And the book on time-use speaks to my interests of feminism and labor issues.

Citizenship for our sanity and safety, Part 1

During college, I spent a semester abroad in Britain, attending the University of Sheffield, and living in an old house full of students from England and Wales. I was the only American, and it was in 2006, when the Bush administration followed every American abroad with an embarrassing shadow. I will forever be grateful for my time in Sheffield, for the many things I learned inside and outside the classroom. Perhaps one of the most curious things that living for several months in Britain taught me was a new appreciation for America and my American citizenship, something that was often hard to feel in the throes of the Bush administration’s “You’re either with us or against us” calumny that denied the creative imagination that patriotism could be about love for something that can never be tried in a court of law or legislated away. Being the proxy for endless questions about the insanity of the Bush administration during my time abroad helped me discover that my patriotism is a deep and abiding love for the diverse peoples of America, the food of America, the music of America.

I am still in Facebook contact with a handful of my old housemates. When Brexit came down the pike, many of them were devastated, because their work and career plans were dependent on the assumption of continuing close ties with the EU. It was awful and I felt helpless to watch their reactions online. Several months later, it was my turn. I asked a friend of mine who works for the Guardian if he could give any post-Brexit advice for us terrified Americans, and he said he was hoping we wouldn’t screw up our election. Well, fuck.

Last year, two major cases went to the Supreme Court that made me realize how quickly I felt like my rights were being held hostage above a massive federal abyss: the Friedrichs case and the Whole Women’s Health case. This was also happening against the backdrop of the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. The former could have potentially gutted public sector unions across the country. The latter would have been yet another blow against abortion rights by legitimizing the shenanigans of the Texas state legislature.

As someone who has been committed to abortion access since I was a teenager, and as a public sector union member, these cases terrified the shit out of me. It felt like my rights were hanging on by the thinnest of threads, and the truth is… they were. They still are. They probably will be for as long as I inhabit my female body and live in a society in which the presence of capitalism is so ever present it becomes invisible. I was able to catch my breath when Friedrichs tied the court, and the Whole Women’s Health case was decisively reversed, but those feelings have always felt like temporary victories rather than long-term assurances, even when I had hope that Clinton would win (for the record, I thought she would win, but if she did, it would be by the slimmest of margins – which I guess is a kinda sorta true, but painfully absurd, version of how it played out).

I have been trying for weeks to write follow-ups to my immediate post-election post, and I have several half-finished drafts waiting in the wings. Indeed, I think it’s safe to say the majority of the US, if not the world, now has their own version of standing at the edge of the abyss, wondering how far and how devastating the drop will be.

The thing that concerns me above everything else about this new administration is I do not, for one second, trust the new President to protect us from threats foreign and domestic. We know at some point a terrible tragedy will take place during Trump’s administration. If it lasts as long as 4 years, we’ll likely have several. It could be something predictable that the United States seems desperately in denial about ever doing anything about, such as a school shooting with a gun that was more easy to obtain than healthcare, or a devastating hurricane that breaches infrastructure we have deferred maintenance on for far too long because billionaires have more right to shelter their income than pay their fair share to public works. Or the tragedy may take the form of something that will be used as an excuse to erode our civil liberties even further under the guise of protection. We only have to look at the many ways the language of patriotism was coopted by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 to justify erosion of American civil liberties.

Even in the total absence of any tragedies, we know going forward over the next 4 years that the onslaught on the rights and liberties of those who call America home will be relentless. Before inauguration day, the GOP signaled that they will not take seriously the safety and security of the American people, by setting the stage to repeal the ACA before an adequate replacement has been shown to the public, and by supporting the nomination of a man who is grossly unfamiliar with the dangers of lead contamination. These are just two examples of dozens, but let’s be clear: these examples alone have the potential to gravely affect the health and mortality of millions of American women, men, and children.

Perhaps the most noxious preview we received of how little the new administration gives a shit about basic safety was the under-discussed example of Trump whining about fire code requirements and disgracefully calling into question the competence of fire safety officials that restricted attendance at his rallies because of safety codes. Building safety code requirements only exist because of tragedies in which far too many people have died needless deaths. At the time, many people laughed about Trump just whining because that’s what he does, right? For me, knowing my Cincinnati-area history of local fire and crowd control tragedies, it sent a chill down my spine. That Trump would compromise even the safety of his own supporters during a rally says everything about his regard for the safety and security of the rest of the American public he is now charged to protect.

Tons of people since 11/8 have written numerous guides about how to fight back, how to resist, how to continue fighting against the enormous odds. These are good resources, and I recommend that every patriotic American take inspiration and more importantly, action from these resources. I will continue to do all of these things as well. I also want us to be real: no adults are left in the building who are coming to save us. The Democratic party will not save us, Silicon Valley won’t save us, universities won’t save us. If we’re lucky, local and state governments will do what they can, but even this remains to be seen. We have to rely on ourselves to be patriotic citizens that protect each other from whatever comes that almost no elected leaders or public figures have shown the courage to do so far.

Swing State Voter Report: Some warmed-over hot takes

In recent days, there have been a spate of broadcasts and articles on “here is what historical precedent/constitutional law/the Magic-8 ball on my desk tells us about what to expect from a Trump presidency.” I understand this, and for a minute I was consuming this media as desperately as I refreshed 538 through the campaign. But the problem is we are in truly uncharted territory, where the historical past can only tell us so much about what to expect from the future.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we can learn from the Earth, and in particular, what Americans can learn from our relationship with the American landscape. And I had a pretty epic realization the other day, the kind that immediately made me look for the beer with the highest ABV in the fridge: Donald Trump is a lot like climate change itself. Historical data only gives us a baseline to measure how radical things are getting, but it can no longer provide us accurate predictions of the future because what has taken place is so unprecedented. This is why flood insurance maps/flood predictions get so politicized – they are based on historical flooding data, but historical data is no longer predictive of a world with a 2C temperature increase. But regardless of how unthinkable and terrible Trump and climate change is, this is really happening, and as things get underway, it seems to have a scary effect of accelerating things faster than we thought. We can predict things will be bad, but the timing of when shit will hit the fan and how bad it will be, or if we’ll only actually realize it hit the fan in retrospect, is part of what makes all of this so gut-wrenching.

I have a lot of thoughts about the many directions of fallout from this election. I don’t think I’m going to do a good job of unpacking all of them in one go, but here are my hot takes on everyone else’s hot takes, and I won’t even make you pay a subscription for my blog (but I always welcome a beer next time you see me if you like what I write).

First, a quick word on hot takes in general: A diagnosis is not a cure. A diagnosis is not a cure. A DIAGNOSIS IS NOT A CURE. Right now, I’m seeing too many postmortems and not enough “…and here’s how we win elections again and fight like hell in the mean time.”  I don’t know about y’all, but nihilism is not a solution (and it sure as hell ain’t a cure). In fact, I strongly believe nihilism is one of the most weaponized forms of oppression that people internalize far too much. Fuck nihilism, do whatever you need to do to be rested and ready for the road ahead. I’ll be back with more writing in the coming weeks.

Back to the title of this post:

How I’m Handling Existence At The Moment:

I don’t think it’s an accident that the vast majority of people who were checking in on me within the first couple of days after the election were women. Women know how to do emotional labor, and lord did the women in my life deliver it over and over as soon as it became clear what was going on. It really sucked to go from feeling like I was serving democracy by working the polls on Election Day (I definitely now feel entitled to my strong opinions about how elections are administered), to taking the express rocket into the post-election hell mouth. For the first 36 hours or so after the results I was dealing with physical symptoms of something (panic? shock? not totally sure but my blood literally felt cold and I felt like the skin on the back of my arms was going to peel off). I also had to drive up to Pittsburgh the morning after the election for a conference, and mostly made it there safely thanks to distracting podcasts and a long phone call with my best friend.

For friends and colleagues who reached out to me: thank you, thank you, thank you.

Why are we obsessed about the white working class and not the white McMansion suburbanites?

Ask yourself why coastal media outlets are so obsessed with profiling the poor white people who voted for Trump and not the similar numbers of middle- and upper-class white people who did the same. I have some theories, they involve two things: 1. White people acting like a six-figure salary and a college-degree makes them immune from racism and related dubious-political choices, 2. These same media outlets don’t want to piss off their subscriber base.

A word for those who want this election to be permission to write off the Midwest and South forever: you’re telling me that women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks who live in the middle of the country don’t matter.

You want some progress from flyover country? Send the folks in the South and the Midwest who are DOING. THE. DAMN. WORK. some help, money, or prayers, or STFU. I really, really, really need the national Democratic party leadership to not abandon the Midwest right now, because my reproductive rights will literally depend on it the second Roe is overturned at the federal level and bullshit trigger laws start taking effect. I don’t want to have to get on an airplane if I ever need an abortion (something that is already a reality for a lot of women in this country).

Do you know how hard people in places like Texas and Ohio work on things like reproductive access? Harder than you can possibly imagine. We work our tails off because it’s not abstract, it’s not theoretical, it’s very, very real. I’ve been a part of a supporters’ group affiliated with Planned Parenthood for a couple of years now, and people who do not spend time in this area have not a damn clue how bad things already have been for years now.

I don’t need condescension right now from Midwest ex-pats who live in coastal areas that say things like “Ugh, I’m so glad I don’t live there anymore.” I don’t need people to engage in narratives that erase the diversity of the Midwest by trying to say we’re all homogeneous and parochial white people. I REALLY don’t need bullshit secession fantasies

For those of us fighting the good fight right here at home, we need your money, we need your organizing strategies, and if you’ve ever thought about moving, or boomeranging back, to the Midwest, I can’t think of a better time to come here and help us. We need all the help we can get. And assuming we don’t all perish first in nuclear war, you know you’re going to want to be in a state that has access to some of the best freshwater sources on Earth when climate change really fucks things up.

Where are the geographers? 

I really need some good, county-by-county breakdown on WTF happened in Midwestern counties that went Obama-Obama-Trump by the political geographers out there. I’ve read probably a dozen theories by now, but much of it is highly speculative (as well as lazy, uncritical, and self-serving), and there has been precious little comparison of in-migration/out-migration demographics (i.e., did the eligible voter population change in the last 4 years in a way that favored Trump), how voter restrictions might have affected the populations in those particular areas, how gerrymandered legislative districts might have affected turnout for the national ticket, etc etc.

Because I haven’t seen any articles from anyone who seems to know what the hell they’re talking about when it comes to Ohio political geographic analysis, I went and looked at the counties that Democrats have carried in the last several elections (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, disclaimer: I have not verified wikipedia’s sourcing of county return data against official state elections sources). While this is very quick and dirty, non-scientific, non-rigorous analysis, here is what I found. Basically from 2000-2012, Dems consistently carried an average of 17 counties per general election – in other words, most of these were reliable Democratic counties that we won despite whether it was Bush or Obama who won the White House. This year? We only got 7 counties (out of 88). I wish a political geographer would dig into this, but this is why I am losing my goddamn mind lately about the state of the state party.

We have been asking too many “why” questions during this election. In my opinion, going forward, we need to be asking more questions that start with “where.” The where matters, because as we all learned the hard way, a national election is not won by “how many votes did someone get?”, it’s won by “where are the states that deliver us 270 electoral votes.” I think the electoral college is horse shit as much as the next lefty, but until that changes, we need a geographic analysis for every single aspect of our organizing. We need to start asking questions like, “where are the counties that we can flip back from Trump? where are the precincts that suffered the most disenfranchisement, and how do we prioritize those precincts for voter registration the next election? where are the most brazenly gerrymandered districts? where are the union halls that we need to make sure the candidate actually shows up to visit if they give a damn about winning labor’s vote?”

The GOP has been building their party up for 40 years and we were asleep at the wheel

We have so much ground to make up because of breathtakingly incompetent leadership who walked away from the 50 State Strategy to concentrate on easy wins or galas or whatever else makes the Democratic leadership confuse schmoozing donors for actual organizing. Meanwhile, not only was the GOP doubling down on the Gospel of the 1%, they rarely left a contest uncontested, turned gerrymandering up to 11 following the 2008 election, all while marinating in decades worth of propaganda from Lee Atwater to Jerry Falwell to Karl Rove.

Maybe the Democrats haven’t completely lost their moral compass, but I sure as hell wish we’d figured out how to win more races in the meantime. Because right now the GOP has an unbelievable lock on both state and federal governance.

Right here in Ohio, we have a habit of throwing promising leaders, who are often young, under the bus. We did it a few years ago. Then the Party came back for more humble pie  this year, outdoing itself by cutting down P.G. Sittenfeld in order to back a candidate who had a compelling millennial outreach strategy that involved telling his younger opponent that politics isn’t like playing Little League. Meanwhile, the “it’s their turn” establishment Democrats get their asses kicked at election-time, and people freak out about who the next generation of leaders will be. Sound familiar?

No matter where they are in life, people feel like their vote doesn’t matter and that’s a problem

Look, I tried to warn y’all about this idea that voting is an individual act of conscience, and how dangerous this ideology is, especially when it comes to turning out the vote. And what’s happened is because we keep acting like voting is this individual declaration of intent or some personal branding signal, then of course when you’re on the losing side, it’s going to feel like your vote didn’t matter.

Some of you may know that I did some voter registration and canvassing for Clinton in the area near where I live. I also served as a poll worker on election day. The areas I canvassed for the Clinton campaign were mostly low-income neighborhoods, and the residents are predominantly people of color. One day when I was doing voter registration, a young black man told me he doesn’t vote because he doesn’t believe it matters. The area where I served as a poll worker was in an area that was middle to upper-class, with predominantly white residents. During my very long day checking people in to the voter registration book and issuing ballots, some older white people also grumbled and said “None of this matters anyway, our votes won’t count.”So folks, this is where we’re at: no matter where they’re at in life, tons of people in my own corner of Ohio feel like their vote doesn’t matter. This is true across the country.  How do we get people to recognize that their vote does matter, at least in the herd immunity position I’ve argued from? Do we highlight stories where razor-thin margins show just how much one’s vote counts? We have these stories in abundance from local and state elections. Again, I feel like the focus on the top of the ticket has really hurt politics overall – of course in a national election, your vote has less “weight” simply because of volume. On the other hand, local elections mean your vote has much greater weight.

When my husband and I were encountering friends during this election season who simply couldn’t be convinced to turn out for Clinton, we at least implored them to still show up to vote, and vote for the down-ballot tickets. But this is never a message that official get out the vote machinery will say – it starts with “Vote for (Presidential Candidate) and oh, also, by the way, for these down ballot issues and candidates”. I suspect people’s brains click off after they decide “well I’m not voting for the President, so why bother showing up at all?” This would have to be confirmed by comparing overall turnout numbers with how many people voted a blank race at the top of the ticket. I hope someone does it.

Either way: even though this election has global implications that I fear will reverberate for decades, nothing has brought home for me how much local politics matters than this one. And that’s where I plan to put an enormous amount of my work in over the coming years.

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/

PASIG 2016 talk

This serves as a placeholder for the talk I will be giving at PASIG later this week. The talk will be posted after I deliver it, since I have a tendency to revise all the way up to walking to the lectern.


Swing state voter report: Voting for herd immunity

As America’s longest presidential election finally gets underway (particularly in the 34 states that have early voting), and as a voter in the great swing state of Ohio, I have started to think that the best metaphor for voting in this election is that of the social responsibility of mass vaccination. In order to be clear about my personal views, I believe this election is between an experienced politician with profound shortcomings [1], but who fundamentally understands the three branches of government, the interrelationships between local, state, and federal governance, and what the Constitution does and does not allow a President to do. In contrast, her opponent is a man who has never been elected to public office before, or ever served in any civilian or military public service, who exploits frightening bigotry, and who has shown very little understanding of the functions of governance or the Constitution.[2]

During this election cycle, and particularly in Ohio, there has been a lot of grumbling along the lines of “Both candidates are terrible, so I am going to stay home or vote third-party, because neither one reflects my views.” I am distressed by this idea, because it suggests that voting is a personal act, or a personal expression of one’s views. From where I stand, we need to think of voting as a collective action, because it is not an individual act for which one reaps individually allocated benefits or drawbacks (note: this may have been different during Gilded Age machine politics when you could literally get paid for voting for a particular candidate or party). And like any collective action, whether it’s union membership approving a new contract, or an activist group deciding strategies for protest, there is inevitably an evaluation that comes down to: “this contract or action is not going to meet the needs of everyone, but do we think the larger gains that could be realized outweigh the parts that we have discomfort with?”

In the 2016 general election, a terrifying amount is on the line.[3] We have now gone over 8 months without any visible movement towards confirming a new Supreme Court justice, leaving the court with only 8 members. Of the current membership, three of the members are currently over the age of 75 (Kennedy, Breyer and Ginsburg), which means that the chances are pretty good that a second, or even third court vacancy will occur during the next presidential term. Few decisions at the federal level have the potential to shape the American experience more than what comes out of the Supreme Court – Plessy v. Ferguson, which institutionalized racial discrimination, was the law of the land for 58 years before being overturned by Brown v. Board of Education. And this is precisely why the top brass of the GOP keeps gritting their teeth and has taken only the feeblest steps to publicly disavow Trump – because they know that if they are able to control the Supreme Court membership, this is likely their last chance to embed right-wing values into the country’s long-term legal infrastructure, even as the rest of the country is in the midst of a massive political realignment.

To return to my original metaphor – voting is best thought of as not a personal expression of your values, but as a collective action you take on behalf of a larger group. And I think an apt comparison is that of mass vaccination.[4]

Mass vaccination has been one of the most breathtakingly successful ways in which we’ve reduced devastating disease and illnesses that used to routinely strike fear into populations – even within well-developed countries like the US (if you’re young and have never asked an older person what it was like before the polio vaccine – ask. You’ll probably hear some heartbreaking stories about kids they knew who were paralyzed or died). Mass vaccination works because of what is known as herd immunity. In any given population, there are members of the population who cannot receive vaccines, because they may be immunocompromised, or have a potentially deadly allergic reaction to the vaccine ingredients. Therefore, they rely on the rest of us to close off potential entry points for the disease to get into the population. When diseases that were long-thought eradicated pop back up, it’s often because vaccination levels have dropped below a certain threshold. This is dangerous not only for those who could be vaccinated but were not, but especially for those who cannot get vaccinated at all.

Part of the problem with those who decide not to vaccinate against all the advice of the medical and public health communities is that they view this as a personal choice, and not a critical thing they must do for the benefit and health of all. Those who choose not to vaccinate for personal reasons (anti-vaxxers) because of a perceived risk of vaccination are not entirely wrong – any vaccination does have a non-zero risk of side effects. However, the benefits (individually and collectively) of participating in mass vaccination is so overwhelming compared to the risks, that when an increasing number of people prioritize the infinitesimal unlikely personal risk over the overwhelmingly certain public benefit, everyone suffers.

As long as herd immunity thresholds are high enough, anti-vaxxers effectively become free riders. They get to have their cake (benefit from herd immunity) and eat it too (continue to indulge their personal beliefs about vaccination risks). It’s here that I see the most parallels to those who would rather sit this election out, or cast a vote for a third-party candidate, than to grit their teeth and vote for Hillary Clinton.

Like a single vote, a single vaccination is not sufficient to protect one against illness – a disease may mutate and still infect you, or the vaccine may only cover the most common strains of a disease, or you may experience side effects of immunization. However, you incur a major risk by choosing not to vaccinate: you’re rolling the dice that your participation is so marginal that it won’t affect herd immunity, and that the risks of your actions won’t bring about something far worse than you could have imagined, particularly for those who cannot receive a vaccination because of medical reasons.

Let’s look first at the effects of individual actions on a collective decision, because that’s effectively what both vaccination and voting are. If a certain number of people don’t get vaccinated, the herd immunity drops below a certain threshold, and a disease can re-enter the population. Likewise, if enough people don’t vote for a candidate, another candidate will win. And unless you live somewhere with instant runoff voting or alternative voting mechanisms, it’s generally going to be the candidate who is “first past the post.”

Now let’s take a look at some of Ohio’s recent 4-way polls:

Ohio 2016 GE polling

According to my back of the envelope calculations, the combined Johnson and Stein margins are anywhere from 1.4 times (the Baldwin Wallace poll) to 13 times (the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll) the margin of difference between Trump and Clinton. This means that if even a small number of third-party voters switched their allegiance to Clinton, it would make her election far more of a sure thing than the extremely tight race depicted above. By choosing to stick with third-party candidates, these voters are effectively withholding a contribution to the only collective action that can prevent a Donald Trump presidency – a vote for Hillary Clinton. Until we have an alternative voting method like instant-runoff voting or proportional voting, a third-party vote, especially in an extremely competitive state like Ohio, is an individual contribution to a collective action that signals “I am OK with the possibility of a Trump presidency.”

Let’s return to the second set of risks when you choose to sit out voting for president, or voting third-party: that the risks of your actions won’t bring about something far worse than you could have imagined. As outlined above, I assume that those voting third-party or sitting this out are indicating by their actions that “both sides are as bad as the other” and that therefore, they truly believe the actual presidencies of each candidate would be indistinguishable. Going back to the vaccination metaphor and herd immunity (which protects those who cannot be immunized), what does this mean for those who cannot vote?

In the American electorate, there are three large populations that are disenfranchised from voting in federal elections. These include children, non-US citizens, and depending on the state, those currently incarcerated or with a felony conviction. Since childhood is a much more straightforward trajectory than citizenship or carceral status, this is why some political scientists distinguish between voting-age population and voting-eligible population.

Many voters in the 2016 general election appear to have become so disgusted by the idea of “voting for two terrible candidates” or “always having to vote for the lesser of two evils” that they plan to vote third-party, or forego voting altogether to register their dissatisfaction. But if we accept the reality that only one of two candidates (Clinton or Trump) will win the election on November 8, we have a moral imperative to select for the least amount of harm for the greatest number of people. I firmly believe that a Trump presidency would be far more devastating for those who are shut out of voting, and therefore the only moral choice is to set aside my political differences with Clinton and vote for her.

Let’s look at this through the lens of climate change. Children have no voice in this election, and yet the actions that the United States takes – or doesn’t take – on climate change in the next few years could make the difference between a grim but adaptable future, and complete horror. These changes are already taking place, and will only accelerate by the time today’s children become part of the voting-eligible population and can legally vote their intent. Until then, we have a moral obligation to ensure that one of only two possible scenarios (Clinton or Trump) is the one that will inflict less damage than the other alternative. Clinton is nowhere near as visionary as she should be on climate change, however she accepts that it is a reality the US must address in cooperation with the rest of the world. Trump, on the other hand, believes that it is a fiction. Which viewpoint has the greater danger of harm for those who cannot currently cast their own vote?

If you truly cannot abide the idea of a Trump presidency, if the idea of Trump governing the United States fills you with horror, then there is only one rational choice you can make if you have voting rights: to vote for Hillary Clinton. Because if you can’t countenance a Trump presidency but you rely on other people to cast the ballot for Clinton you somehow aren’t willing to commit yourself to, you are contributing to a free rider problem: you want to vote your conscience, and let other people do the work of making sure Trump gets nowhere near the levers of power. Which then begs the question: how can you be sure that there aren’t too many others operating on the same mindset as yourself, which could then give Trump the number of votes he needs to be first past the post? Like anti-vaxxers who suddenly find their own children getting measles because too many other parents made the choice not to contribute to herd immunity, those who sit out or cast a third-party vote while fearing a Trump presidency are putting their own interests over the collective good of all.

Perhaps as a voter, you truly believe both a Clinton and Trump presidency would be equally reprehensible. You’re OK with either outcome. You’re willing to roll those dice. In that case, let me reframe the moral question as, “Who would you rather have as your political enemy?” In one of the smartest political commentaries I’ve yet seen on this totally appalling election, British writer Laurie Penny explored this exact question:

I do not expect a president of the United States —or any government leader, for that matter — to be radical. It is not capitulation to be realistic about what can be achieved at the ballot box in a modern democracy, particularly in a presidential election. It is not defeatist to understand that the very most you can hope for is to stop things getting worse as fast as they might otherwise have done. […]

A general election is about nothing more or less than choosing your enemy. Any government leader must be considered an enemy to those who believe in radical change. Hillary Clinton is not yet that enemy but by damn. I hope she gets to be. Hillary Clinton is the sort of enemy I’ve been dreaming of over ten years of political work. She’s the kind of enemy you can respect. I look forward to fighting her on her commitment to climate protection, on workers’ rights, on welfare, on foreign policy. Bring that shit on. That’s the sort of fight I relish. I want to argue over how the state can best serve the interests of women and minorities, not whether it should. That’s the sort of fight that makes me better. Four more years of fighting Donald Trump and his foaming acolytes would demean everyone involved.

My values are such that even though I disagree with Clinton on much, as a politician she is still playing by the same basic principles I expect from a President of the United States: to seek specialist knowledge from diverse experts, to wholly reject exploitation of racial, ethnic, and religious grievances for political gain, and to have previous experience on which to draw. On all of those counts, Donald Trump is an utter and spectacular failure. He routinely rejects the advice of specialists on domestic and foreign affairs. He exploits racial, ethnic, and religious grievances to an alarming degree. Finally, a person who has never served a day in public service, whether political, civil or military, is unfit to become a head of state, which requires an entirely different set of skills from running a for-profit entity.

Every day, normal people suck it up, grit their teeth, and roll up their sleeves for a vaccine. They might not like it, it might hurt for a while, but in the grand scheme of things, they are contributing to collective action that ensures the general well-being of those around us. If you are undecided, thinking about staying home, voting third-party, or a Republican who is leaning towards Trump even if he makes you sick to your stomach, on the eve of this election, I implore you to contribute to our electoral herd immunity. Suck it up, grit your teeth, and vote for Clinton for the general well-being of those around us.

[1] To me, these drawbacks are the standard left-wing criticisms of Clinton. She is too cozy with the wealthy, her climate change proposals are not nearly aggressive enough for what we should have started doing 20 years ago, her record on fracking is not good, and as someone whose job involves public records issues, the private server email business is totally appalling. Finally, my baptism into leftist politics was through protesting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, before I could even vote. If I knew Colin Powell was lying to the UN as a teenager, if I managed to get my slightly conservative Episcopalian church to help fund me to go protest in DC, there is still a part of me that can never quite move on from the fact that Clinton authorized the use of military force in one of the worst follies that has ever taken the lives of thousands of American servicemen and women, and countless lives of Iraqis. All this said, and despite my misgivings, I am early-voting for Clinton soon and even volunteering here and there for her campaign when I have a free hour in my schedule. The alternative of a Trump presidency is simply too horrifying to contemplate.

[2] And it goes without saying, but whose encouragement of his supporters to express and act on similarly bigoted views is beyond the pale.

[3] To be clear, every election is important, and local and state elections often affect your daily life as much, or if not more, than presidential elections. Failure to recognize this on the broad part of the electorate (and the get out the vote efforts of liberal/left political infrastructure) is how we have ended up with Republican-dominated governorships and state legislatures across the United States.

[4] To give credit where it’s due, the herd immunity parallel has popped up a couple times in the epic MetaFilter election threads. I think this might have been the comment that originally lit up this light bulb for me.

Catch me on WMKV talking about hiking

I’m super excited that I am going to be a guest on WMKV (89.3 FM in Cincinnati, and 89.9 FM in Warren/Butler counties), a local Cincinnati community radio station, this Friday, September 23 from 1-1:30pm Eastern. Good news out of town friends — you can stream WMKV through the website. Scroll down on the homepage or this link will hopefully work.

I will be interviewed by Carol Mundy, who is an amazing local naturalist (and full disclosure, my bff’s mom). We’re going to talk about hiking, getting outdoors, and about my section hike of the Sheltowee Trace. But I’ve also been told that Carol’s hosting style can be full of surprises, so you’ll just have to tune in to listen!

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.

Hot IRB news!

So today a story caught on fire around archivist and historian social media that the Department of Health and Human Services is now officially excluding oral histories from what’s known as the Common Rule, a shorthand for the federal regulations that govern Institutional Review Boards, which are found in hospitals and universities that conduct research with human subjects. I got as excited as anyone else and retweeted the story as well without looking too deeply into it. However, when I started looking into the story posted by Oxford University Press, I couldn’t find any reliable non-historian sources backing the story up, particularly the claim that HHS approved the exclusion on September 8.


Before I go on, here’s my disclaimer: I am not a federal employee, nor an IRB expert. I have read up on some IRB rules in the past for my records management work, but that’s the extent of my knowledge. So if you have information which refutes my understanding below, by all means, please share it.


It turns out that what actually happened on September 8 is that HHS posted to the Federal Register what’s known as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) — you can read it in all of its dense glory here. The proposal creates a new elevated category called “exclusions” which are a step liberated from “exemptions.” With the latter, you typically submit your research proposal to an IRB, and then the IRB approves the proposal as exempt from further IRB monitoring and oversight. If my understanding is correct, research now falling into the “exclusions” category would be totally free from even a preliminary IRB administrative review.


There is an excellent official HHS webinar which explains the difference between exclusions and exemptions. And here is what I gleaned from the NPRM page on the new exclusions category:
These activities will therefore not have to satisfy any regulatory requirements, nor is it expected (unlike exempt research) that they will undergo any type of review process to determine this status. (https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/09/08/2015-21756/federal-policy-for-the-protection-of-human-subjects#p-404)


From my perspective as an archivist, this is a REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY good thing to have “Oral history, journalism, biography, and historical scholarship activities that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected” under the exclusions category. I have gone through the IRB process before, and let me tell you, it is a real pain in the ass that you do not want to go through unless you absolutely have to and the ethics of your discipline require it. In addition, many IRB applications are wholly unsuitable for describing any type of archival/oral history activities or research.


Here’s the takeaway: This is still in proposal status, and we are in a 90 day comment period that ends December 7. Most of the comments thus far appear to be from medical schools asking that the comment period be extended. If you want to contribute your own comments, you should definitely do so!


Also, a very hearty thank you to Maarja Krusten who found an IMMENSELY helpful link for me when I started raising my eyebrow on Twitter. She noted the Federal Register had an announcement re: an open hearing that is coming up in Washington DC on October 20. Unfortunately it appears that the deadline to register has passed, but according to the announcement, the session should be live streamed.


What is still mysterious to me is what the timeline would be following the comment period — I’m not sure if there is one. If you know, please leave a comment!


Here’s the tl;dr: There is a proposal to exclude oral histories from IRB oversight. This is not official yet. The comment period is ongoing until December 7.