nobody will ever see this

As I grapple with feelings pertaining to signing my name to words and the unpredictability of audiences in the digital dogpile era, the thought that nobody will ever see this is a positive affirmation at times. In other frames of my life the statement served other purposes: as a young freelance designer with a technically solid but un-hip and boring portfolio, nobody will ever see what I have to offer. As a library worker, it was the two straight weeks I spent nearly in tears in the sub-basement of the building, unpacking and numbering thousands of mineral potential maps that arrived some decades before, and were casually deemed unimportant enough to languish in the backlog. They sent us two copies of each, so half of them were immediately. “If we don’t have them in the collection already then we’re keeping them,” I was told. For reasons I will not get into here, I had reason to believe it was a punishment of sorts. Nobody will ever see this. It took several months to get them all into the collection and I am very happy that the student who helped me on this uses me as a reference. Nobody will ever see this. I don’t think anyone will ever benefit from our months of work.

The double-edged sword when it comes to working at biggest and best institutions inevitably falls on the worker. Grand-gesture appraisal and selection decisions, made in virtuous regard for hypothetical users, infrequently account for the real workers

From a researcher’s perspective, I understand that hearing such archival promises is seductive: it was in a photographic appraisal lecture, at a miserable time in my life, sixteen months after the conclusion of a research degree that kicked the confidence out of me, I learned that you might be holding the only documentation of an event, these photographs in your hypothetical archive. This comment made me reflect on and reject my insecurities regarding the methods in my own work, and was the beginning of my grad school recovery. Keeping lots of things around, even if we never look at them again or they’re never seen, helps us feel better about ourselves in periods of intellectual insecurity – whole folder structures of year-long periods of time left unfinished, left to stare at you not deleted out of shame – and of course we all have a tendency to overthink things, to defer decisionmaking as if backlogs are an item that can be slid onto someone else’s plate like the remaining 1/3rd of an entree –

The details:

  • death by a thousand paper cuts from crown land mining maps that nobody ever looked at and nobody will ever look at, but I dealt with
  • Contents of box 12: faxes of website printouts, file folders of individual emails, bent business cards, lighters, expired OTC allergy medication
  • as long as it’s sitting there, there’s work to be done, and that’s your job
  • the feeling that if you disappeared no one would notice because no one will ever see this
  • fractured and socialized hierarchies that lead us to be suspicious of the accomplishments and ambitions of others

Instead of investing in the infrastructure that is killing us slowly through environmental racism and climate change: re-invest in people. Slow down expectations, slightly. Employ us all again to deliver exactly what people want from archives and collections. Reform copyright. Be realistic about community interest and make no assumptions about them and certainly do not drag a storage locker of stuff onto the floor assuming someone with student loan debt and a family who is thankful for the opportunity to work here for under living wage will sort it all out for you because the future. Who have we heard enough from, who have we heard enough about? Listen to resource sharing over digital preservation concerns. How much of a future do we really have anyways?