After pursuing a Masters of IT (Library and Information Science) Lachlan Glanville became the University of Melbourne’s first full-time digital archivist in 2018. His writings on the Germaine Greer archive have been published in the Journal of Archives and Manuscripts and feature in the Conversation‘s academic podcast series Essays on Air.
Can you tell readers about your journey into archiving?
My undergraduate was in Fine Arts. I started a Masters of IT (Library and Information Science) at QUT in 2008. At the outset I was interested in special collections, but didn’t have a firm grasp of the distinctions between different collecting practices. I did a professional placement at the NLA in the Pictures branch, and was able to get some short contracts there in 2011, initially doing retrievals but eventually working in collection management for Manuscripts. This is really when I ‘got’ archives and realised that this is what excited me.
In 2018 you became the University of Melbourne’s first full-time digital archivist. What skills do you regularly draw on in your role?
I think the real crucial knowledge working with born digital archives is getting towards an understanding of the make up and characteristics of data and how different layers of representation of digital objects overlap. The detail of what, if anything, a file is, the distinction between a file and a file system, distinctions between different character encodings. Our early projects have involved a lot of digital forensics for the recovery of content from obsolete media, so in the first instance I had to learn how to distinguish between different carriers (not always as straight forward as you think!), different file systems on said carriers, and the different paths to recovering the stored data in a way that preserved as much context as possible around it. I came to the role without a lot of technical knowledge, but have learned a huge amount in a very short space of time.
This is really testament to how generous the digital preservation community is. When we were in the beginnings of trying to establish some sort of digital archiving program, we reached out to a few people and organisations who were further along the road than us and I was really stunned by how readily they shared their processes and thinking around the problems we were grappling with. Nowadays there’s a lot of local knowledge sharing facilitated by the Australasia Preserves community. We’re also trying to build some more formal teaching and workshops around digital archives and preservation via workshops. A number of us in the community delivered a draft Digital Preservation Carpentry workshop as part of the IDCC conference last year which was really well received, so we’re working on extending that further into a two day workshop.
That said, traditional archival skills are still really important. The core of what we do does not necessarily change because of the format of the material. But technical skills can help underpin traditional archival skills to allow you to make decisions in relation to appraisal, arrangement and description. For instance, knowing a scripting language is a huge labour multiplier and can free up a lot of time spent doing repetitive tasks like file organisation to allow you to focus on the more complex work of description and analysis.
You have written fairly extensively about working on Germaine Greer Archive. How does archiving shape your creative practice and vice versa? Do you think there is a creative component to archiving?
I think they certainly intersect. Anyone with an eye on contemporary art practice will notice how frequently ‘the archive’ is cited. Description is always going to be a creative act. Within the team working on Greer we had a lot of conversations about the purpose of description. You can strive for something like objectivity, but inevitably you are going to give weight to some things while downplaying or dismissing others. The curator of the Greer archive Rachel Buchanan has a background in journalism, and she approached arranging and describing the archive as very much a collaboration between Greer as the originator and ourselves as practitioners. Of course, the creation of an archive is also a creative act. Throughout the Greer archive there’s so much evidence of the work, time and effort Greer put into maintaining and organising the archive. It’s one of the most interesting questions to ask when describing an archive such as this, what did the creator imagine this would be used for? To what extent are we supporting that through our description, and how limited is this vision? What are the counter narratives that run through the archive and how do we bring them to the surface? Ultimately what’s made available to researchers is going to be some hybrid state between the records in their original context, the records contextualised by the archivists and the records interpreted by researchers. This process is always ongoing, the records are constantly in a state of becoming.
How engrossed do you become in the material you are archiving?
It is an occupational hazard. With Greer I was very lucky in that we had the time and resources to do detailed description, which is sadly rare in the era of More Product Less Process. We’ve had a lot of discussions recently about professional distance, particularly in relation to the authority of the archive. Michelle Caswell’s work on radical empathy is incredibly valuable here, particularly when we’re working with material by or relating to Indigenous and marginalised peoples. If we don’t make an effort to some extent stand in their shoes when we’re processing and describing these materials we’re going to end up reinscribing those power structures. The other side of that question is that archives have the potential to traumatise, often the subjects of the records but also the archivists who process them. Michaela Hart and Nicola Laurent have done some important work on vicarious trauma in archives. This is sometimes talked about in relation to institutional records such as care leavers, but it also applies to personal papers. It can be really confronting to be totally immersed in the material evidence of another person’s life, and walking that tightrope between empathy and maintaining personal boundaries can be very difficult. I felt this most strongly when I was processing Greer’s General Correspondence series. The nature of her work means that many people have written to her in an almost confessional role, sharing incredibly personal and confronting episodes from their lives. Most of these have been closed to researchers for privacy reasons, but doing the work of identifying sensitive material that should not be publicly accessible is really challenging.
What advice would you like to give GLAMR students and new professionals?
Make the most of your placements. They can be pathways to work and other opportunities, but can also really clarify what it is you’re specifically excited about.