Cataloguing Culture: Histories of Documentation in An Ethnographic Museum / Hannah Turner (University of British Columbia)

This paper will discuss the history of museum record keeping in an ethnographic museum to make the case that the history of anthropology is also a history of documentation media. The paper is based off of my forthcoming book, Cataloguing Culture: Legacies of Colonialism in Museum Documentation (UBC Press, 2020); where I detail the long history of collecting, recording, and documenting ethnographic material culture data at the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History. In the book, I trace the development of the standards of description at the institution, from the establishment of field collecting guides in the 19th century; the use of ledger recording books; the development of organised information classifications; the development of the card catalogue; and eventually the computerized index and database. I argue that these media forms – present in many bureaucracies around the world – have both durable and performative qualities that render the objectivities of colonialism both ever present and invisible within the recordkeeping practices of the museum. Documentation media in museums have not been subjected to the same criticism directed at visual media like photography or film. Yet, the collecting list, the paper register, and the card catalogue were foundational technologies in the development of the anthropological discipline in the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and they created the conditions of possibility for contemporary digital databases. The ways that ethnologists (and later, anthropologists) made use of paper and digital technologies worked to reinforce the authority and integrity of scientific colonialism. I argue that we must be attentive to the historical and grounded practices that have organized material culture as “specimens,” while at the same time remaining cognizant of the socio-political ramifications when conducting histories such as these. To understand how colonialism operates as both a productive and reductive force, it is necessary to investigate how categories were applied to material culture and became routinized through bureaucratic documentation in collecting institutions. This paper will therefore present an overview of the book and look carefully at how museum records are often taken to be neutral or privileged sources of knowledge. Doing reparative work in museums, especially concerning the repatriation of Indigenous belongings and heritage, requires a lot of “paper” work: digging into archives and museum catalogues to establish claims of ownership and “authenticity.” This is a kind of performative institutional knowledge, and it includes naming, standardizing, classifying, and excluding; practices whose legacies reach far beyond the present. This is a deep investigation into the pressing issues that arise when we address the work of documentation in museums back through time. The goal of this paper, and the book itself, is to raise broader questions how ordering human beings takes many shapes and forms, from the mundane to the profound.

Archives, Classification, and the Digital World / Ciaran Trace (University of Texas at Austin)

The need to classify and to arrange is a part of a deep-seated human desire to impose order on the world and in doing so to render sense and meaning from it. In this paper I draw from the archival literature to present an historical account of the factors and influences that have contributed to evolving notions of digital archival classification from the 1960s to today. The paper begins by examining how Australian approaches (particularly the series systems and the records continuum) reshaped traditional notions of archival ideology and its embodiment in the theory and practice of classification and arrangement. The Australian methodology is portrayed as one in which archivists are enmeshed with, and their record control processes supportive of, a dynamic and flexible system for the intellectual and physical control of records that are created and managed in and across time. Such geographical influences are, in turn, shown to coexist with disciplinary ones, with harbingers of change coming increasingly from spheres of influence external to the profession. From the era of machine-readable data files (1950s and 1960s) and the influence of data librarians and social science data archivists, to the processing of born digital materials (1990s onwards) and the synergy with the field of digital forensics, today’s archival landscape is shaped by computer science and its applications of artificial intelligence and machine and deep learning. This is the world in which the product of archival classification can be reimagined through the auspices of computational methods of parsing (content recognition, natural language processing, and data summarization), modeling (graph theory and graph analytics), visualizing (information visualization and visual analytics) and discovery (faceted interfaces). Taken as a whole, it is evident that complications with the notion and principles of classification adhere at the conceptual and at the practical level. An understanding of the contestations over the boundaries or scoping of that part of the world that is to be brought under control is a good place to start. At the most basic level, a tension resides in our understanding of the nature of the record. In the analogue world, objects live firmly in place. The archival bond is evidential. Sedimented in the filing process records are connected to each other and to their origins. In the digital realm archivists have tried to slough off this material reality, particularly as it relates to the archival fonds. However, the tools and methodologies of digital forensics draw archivists back to the physicality of the digital object at hand. Digital forensics allows archivists to uncover the inscription of the record, its places and manner of storage, and its interrelationships in ways that are both profound and elemental. Yet, new computational data models can also push past these notions of sedimentation to reveal multitudes of orderings at will. Here the significance lies not in understanding and unpacking the digital object and its immediate material context but in uncovering and enabling surrounding and almost limitless contextual relationships.

Enriching Metadata for Irish Traditional Music at the American Folklife Center / Patrick Egan (University College Cork)

In the past ten years, a number of music related projects have emerged within libraries that focus on using Linked Data to generate connections between cultural heritage materials across the World Wide Web. Linked Jazz, for example, continues to demonstrate that metadata transcriptions and open source material may allow research to open up the archive to new possibilities for researchers. In Irish traditional music, advances have been made with the creation of a digital ontology at the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) in Dublin, Ireland. Irish traditional music can now be described using this ontology. However, the ability of these frameworks and ontologies to harness digital resources in other libraries and across the World Wide Web presents opportunities and challenges for the researcher. This paper introduces Connections in Sound, a Linked Data case study based on audio collections of Irish traditional music from the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress. The project represents a novel approach to working with metadata from audio materials of Irish traditional music, song and dance at the Library. In order to explore the potential of linking a large cross-section of collection materials, we worked closely with reference librarians in identifying relevant material, gathering data from fieldworker and recordist documentation and transcribing audio data from a range of performance contexts. The wide range of metadata allowed us to make connections between and unite metadata descriptions of audio material that had previously existed within separate sections of the archive. Uniform Resource Identifiers (or URIs) are used to identify resources on the World Wide Web. In the absence of URIs, we describe the possibilities afforded by Linked Data when proof of concept URI examples are used instead. This allowed us to move beyond the limitations of unavailable digital infrastructure at the Library to connect with a recently published Linked Irish Traditional Music (LITMUS) ontology developed at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. The resultant datasets and code demonstrate the numerous and unique ways in which code and datasets may or may not unite music in the Library and beyond. The case study also demonstrates the particularities of a range of metadata, formats and fieldwork methods from material in collections that span the twentieth century at the AFC. Whilst the project does not represent all instances of Irish traditional music that are available at the Library of Congress, a substantially large dataset was generated during 2019. The results of this approach emphasize important insights, opportunities and challenges that are encountered when using a novel approach to these collections. This paper suggests potentials for continued research in this area and offers insight into advancements for Linked Data with traditional music in general.