Archivist in the Field
Jennifer Kishi is blurring the lines between archival work and social networking as an archivist for a contemporary LA-based artist studio and a founding member of the Los Angeles Archivists Collective.
As an archivist she is maintaining physical, digital, and intellectual control of the artist's’ studio archives through appraisal, arrangement, description, and preservation, and processing a vast collection of photographic materials, conceptual sketches, drawings, and renderings, textual records, publications, artworks, artifacts, exhibition ephemera, audiovisual and digital materials.
Outside of her work, she is bringing the Los Angeles-area archives community together to discuss, collaborate, connect, and support one another. With a mission to build a local community that encourages professional development and skill-sharing, LAAC hosts social events, workshops, repository tours, lectures, networking opportunities, and other activities to facilitate connections to local resources, and promote general archival awareness. Though a highly effective and well-designed website, LAAC is making archives more approachable with a comprehensive list of archival resources, one-of-kind archive zines, and providing the tools for collaboration, education, and archival participation amongst a wide audience.
1. Tell me a little bit about yourself - what are you working on, where do you work and what led you to that particular position?
I’m an archivist and a founding member of the Los Angeles Archivists Collective. I work at an artist studio in Vernon, CA where I manage and oversee the archive and library. The archive documents the activities of the studio and spans the artist’s career from his early works to the present. Though working for an artist studio is a fairly unusual path for an archivist, I knew that this would be a great opportunity to work with a complex and growing visual collection and help plan, establish, and develop an archive that would ensure long-term preservation and access to the materials. A friend who had recently visited the studio recommended that I apply, as the studio was looking to hire someone with a professional degree for the first time.
[Additional info about the archive: The collection is primarily visual, comprised of images documenting completed artworks, production processes, exhibition and installation images, as well as research and development materials. Also included in the archive are audiovisual materials, correspondence, publications, exhibition files and related ephemera.]
2. What drew you to want to work with archives?
Initially, I was just interested in working with and learning more in-depth about the collections I would be processing. Archives are of course much more than just an interesting collection but have the power to play a crucial role in the preservation and access to the historical and collective memory.
3. You have worked in several different archives throughout your career - what are some of the differences you have found with how these institutions handle their material? Have you approached archiving any differently within your current position ( i.e working in a contemporary artists’ studio)?
The main difference is a number of resources that are available for processing the collections and materials and the level of bureaucracy built into the system. Institutional archives tend to have established standards and protocols to ensure the materials are processed consistently, as their collections are often processed by many different students, interns, fellows, and project archivists. These institutions also tend to have a long backlog of collections that need to be processed. To get these collections out and available for researchers ASAP, the MPLP (more product, less process) approach is often utilized to expedite the time it takes to process collections. At smaller organizations, such as my own, there is often only one archivist on staff (the lone archivist) and rules may be a bit looser. At my current job, I have adjusted my approach to archival practices so that the way the materials are organized and arranged is logical and accessible by the artist and the studio staff. I also have to account for the fact that the materials and collections are continually growing and expanding.
4. Can you speak more on the idea of the MPLP (more product, less process) approach?
Sure, the MPLP approach was first coined by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner in 2005 The American Archivist article - "More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing". It’s an approach often taken by large institutions with a surplus amount of backlogged material because it allows for them to get the boxes in the public realm faster with minimal levels of work. Essentially with this approach, the material remains organized at “a box level” with minimal levels of descriptions and relatively rudimentary organization methods given.
5. You mentioned that the materials in your current position are continually growing and expanding - how are you able to accommodate for that within the systems that you have put into place?
I tend to deal with the materials as they come up - inputting and cataloging newer exhibition catalogs and materials before dealing and dealing with the older things on a slower schedule as they often times require more work.
As I mentioned before, being an archivist for an artist is not a typical position in my field. I try to mix it up with not making the studio’s archive as formal as the ways I have been trained in for institutional archiving, I am instead finding a balance with what works for the studio and what I think is best practices.
6. Has social media played any role in the archive you are creating?
I think it's similar for most archives, it's hard to find the time to collect ephemeral information from social media with so much other material already sitting in backlog. In an ideal world, we could document and collect everything, but it's not really possible at this time.
7. What, in your opinion, is the role of the archivist in contemporary archiving? What level of contextualization do you give the material you are working with? How does this influence how others may be able to use this archive in the future?
To me, the role of the archivist is that of service. The purpose of contextualization is to provide basic and/or known historical information about the collection while maintaining as neutral a position as possible. The idea is to empower future users to utilize and make their own interpretation of the materials.
8. In your experience, can you give some advice or best practices for artists or individuals interested in starting to build and maintain their own personal archive? What can an individual do to help a future archivist who might be handling their materials?
Some basic steps you can take to help build and maintain your own personal archive is to identify, decide, organize, and make copies. Inventory and identify where your materials are located; decide what materials to keep, and get rid of any duplicate materials and junk (also known as deaccessioning); strategize and prioritize what materials to organize first - consider what is most important or at risk of being lost; back up your materials and have at least two copies. Some other best practices: come up with an archives/preservation plan and organizational structure that makes sense to you; create a file naming standard and stick with it; keep the highest resolution files as your master/archive copy, etc. I think the best thing an individual can do is to maintain their materials in a way that makes the most sense to them. When collections are being processed, most archivists maintain the fonds or original order of how the records were organized by the individual or organization, as it may inform or give insight into how the materials were accessed and utilized by the creator.
9. Institutional archives have a bad reputation for being very formal and hard to access - between needing to schedule an appointment way ahead of time, to needing all types of special permission to reproduce materials - do you have advice for artists or individuals wanting to use institutional archives as a resource or material for their work or personal research?
Yes, it’s unfortunate that these formalities do limit and make accessing archival materials difficult, especially for those new to the system. Some of these rules are set in place for practical reasons: to protect and preserve these one of a kind, primary resource materials; archival materials are often stored off-site, so it takes time to locate and pull the boxes from storage to the reading room; the number of seats in the reading room could be limited; permission to reproduce can be complicated with certain materials such as photographs and videos, and publications could be protected by copyright or trademark.
I would recommend planning ahead and giving yourself plenty of time. Archival research can often be a long and arduous process. Don’t just show up to the archive expecting to see the collection right away.
Review the collection access policies before visiting. Institutional archives usually have the policies clearly stated on their website. If something is unclear, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the archive and ask lots of questions. Or, if you are looking for something in particular and don’t know where to begin, ask a reference archivist at your local institution. If they are unable to help, they may be able to refer you to someone who can. Review finding aids and note collection names/numbers and potential boxes you would like to view. Depending on the institution, access may be prioritized or limited to researchers with specific agendas, i.e. not just open to anyone who is curious and wants to look at materials for fun. Some helpful resources - there’s OAC for collections in California, DPLA and Archive Grid.
10. Tell me a little bit about Los Angeles Archivist Collective (LAAC) and your involvement in its start. How did it begin? What role do you see it playing in the field?
LAAC was founded in 2014 with Angel Diaz and Courtney Dean. We met during our Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program at UCLA. After graduating in 2013, we realized that the community we had during the program quickly dissipated as people moved away to jobs or began working full-time. Though we were members of regional and national professional organizations such as the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and Society of California Archivists (SCA), these organizations only met once a year during the annual conferences and we found ourselves wanting to connect with our field more frequently and in a less formal setting. We created LAAC with the mission to bring together and build a local archival community that is free and open to all persons related to or interested in the field.
11. I think that’s so important in every field - to have space where you can talk with your peers informally, connect to a like-minded community and have a little bit of fun within your field of interests while shaking off some of the stuffy personas that are perpetuated in these formal organizations.
Yeah, we were inspired by similar regional informal archive organizations like The Archivist Round Table of Metropolitan New York (ART) and the Archivists of Metro D.C and were adamant on wanting to engage with not just professional archivists but also anyone who is interested in archiving or history and letting them also participate.
12. What has the response or feedback been within the community?
LAAC is a community-driven organization and we make a conscious effort to encourage participation. One of the first events we had was just a happy hour event we put out on facebook where we weren’t sure if anybody would show up and thought you know maybe we would get a few friends to come, but we ended up getting over 100 RSVPs and that really validated the need for this type of collective to exist with the community. I think partially the reason we have been so successful is because Los Angeles is such a sprawling community, and has such a high population of independent or lone archivists, we really were filling this void of informal gathering opportunities where these people are able to get together and talk and learn from each other.
13. How have your events grown or developed since that first happy hour?
The initial year or so of forming the organization required many hours of planning and organizing. However after restructuring a bit, our community outreach and event series has grown and expanded beyond happy hours and quarterly community meetings to include tours of local institutional and private archives, workshops such as “personal digital archiving workshops for non-professionals”, resume building and skills labs, as well as an online publication, ACID FREE, zines etc. This increase in programming and events is completely driven by our amazing subcommittee members.
14. Last but not least - what is your favorite archive you have ever visited? What archive do you most want to visit?
A few notable archives I’ve visited: The Interference Archive in New York is a community archive that is an “open-access, open-stack archive of cultural ephemera produced by and for social movements worldwide.” There’s the Internet Archive in San Francisco whose mission is to “provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.” I believe you can still join every Friday for lunch with the staff and a tour of their facility. In Los Angeles, I enjoyed seeing the Academy Film Archive and the Margaret Herrick Library’s incredible collections. But really there are so many archives and collections out there that I don’t even know exist, it’s impossible to say which is my favorite or which I’d like to visit the most.
“Dissecting the Archive” is a seven-part piece commissioned by Common Field for the 2017 Field Perspectives as part of the Annual Convening in LA. Read all seven pieces here.