I now realize that I held an almost comically idealized vision of the people who created the metadata in the digital archives that were vital tools in my history education. As I combed through archives in search of photos, diaries, government documents, and newspaper clippings to help me make sense of my research for my senior thesis, my mind would occasionally drift to the erudite angel that made these assets available to students like me. This mythical archivist sat at a heavy wooden desk, wore a black turtleneck sweater, and gently pressed their gold-rimmed glasses up their nose as they dutifully typed archival metadata while jazz floated in the air around them – all for the benefit of over-caffeinated budding academics stooped over their laptops in the dark and who hissed like opossums when, invariably, vital files you swore to Beyoncé you downloaded are nowhere to be found.
When I leapt at the opportunity to be a part of Apartheid Heritage(s) and to work under Dr. Angel David Nieves, my initial confidence wobbled slightly when I dug into assignments to create and research metadata for such important and critical subject matters. I was a far-cry from the cerebral archivist of my imagination; rather than sitting in a richly appointed office, I sat cross-legged at my dining room table on Saturday evenings, listened to Amerigo Gazaway, and took breaks to wrestle with my dog. Although Nieves clearly articulated that he wanted new perspectives and vouched for my abilities from the beginning, my doubts still lingered.
Quickly, I began to see that all the misgivings I had about myself were assets, and the idealized image of an archivist that I held in my mind began to crumble. As my work with Apartheid Heritage(s) progressed, I ran into ethical dilemmas that required collaborative solutions and new approaches to metadata that showed me that the future of the field did not lie with my imagined bespectacled graying archivist, but, dare I say, with people like me. Attempting to answer the moral dilemmas of metadata and digital archival work meant making decisions to intentionally challenge institutional thought when it is necessary and ethical to do so. Before I address some of the thornier issues I encountered, let me give a brief insight into the initial framework I worked within.
What is metadata?
Metadata is, on the surface, data about data. Its purpose is to describe data, such as a photo or postcard, in such a way that it is searchable and people can understand what it is, where it came from, and how or why it was created. On Instagram, for example, hashtags are a form of metadata. Imagine trying to find photos of adorable pitbulls without having the ability to search or follow #pibble. Without metadata, which in this example are in the form of hashtags, trying to find specific data becomes a daunting task. Unfortunately, metadata for digital archival purposes is much more complicated than the ‘gram’s hashtag system.
There are specific rules and controlled language that partially dictate how and which words are used to describe the data in an archive. For Apartheid Heritage(s), Dublin Core (DC) provided the standards and prescribed language I would use to create metadata. The DC standards were chosen because, frankly, they were less complicated than other standards: they were straightforward, worked well with the Omeka platform that undergirds Apartheid Heritage(s), and they allowed a degree of flexibility that Nieves and I would use in attempts to deal with the moral dilemmas of metadata.
Again, Instagram proves to be a handy example because it uses certain standards and prescribed language in its application of metadata. Accounts are preceded by the at sign, @, and there can be no spaces in the name of the account: these are a form of metadata standardization and prescribed language. For example, dog behaviorist Cesar Milan’s account is @cesarsway, without any spaces or additional special characters, so it adheres to the standards and prescribed language of Instagram. By using standard language, Instagrams “metadata” is consistent and searchable.
Addressing ethical challenges
You may be thinking, “this is all well and good but where’s the problem? How can data about data pose moral or ethical challenges?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Metadata, in practice, can be very impersonal and dispassionate. This became evident when I looked back at the digital archives I haunted in school for some examples of how I, a brand new and somewhat self-taught metadatist, would approach this slice of academia. Generally the basic information for the item is listed, such as date, creator, location, etc, followed by a brief description without additional context to the item or the history surrounding it.
For Apartheid Heritage(s), we decided that it was not only inadequate to use metadata in such a sterile manner, but also unethical. How can item descriptions written absent of critical race theory or subject labels, which are prescribed and controlled language under DC standards, be chosen without addressing the white power structures that exist in archival language? We decided that, whenever possible, additional subjects and descriptive context would need to be provided in order to ethically archive the materials and begin the difficult business of decolonizing the archives.
Take, for example, this photo of a mine dump near Johannesburg. Rather than simply identifying the subject of the photo at its surface (Gold mines and mining-South Africa; Hardrock mines and mining- South Africa; Twentieth century; etc) additional labels were added in an attempt to highlight the power structures that led to and were codified during apartheid – in addition to the community erasure that continues to happen. By including the subjects Industrial wastes and Hazardous waste sites, as well as a statement in the description as to the location of these dumps (always near Black townships), and the ongoing hazards caused by mine waste sites for Black communities, we have worked within the controlled language to speak to the complicated legacies of these assets.
Another example can be found in this press photo of a riot that broke out in downtown Johannesburg in 1941, seven years before the rise of the National Party and the formal beginning of apartheid. The caption on the back of the photo says that “thousands of police, soldiers and civilians participated in a serious riot” – but why did that riot break out? With a little research I learned that this riot was a result of the Ossewabrandwag, an Afrikaner pro-Nazi and anti-British paramilitary organization, harassing and beating white South Africans who supported or participated in warfare against Germany during World War II. By including this valuable context in the subject headings (Fascism-South Africa; Right-wing extremists) and in the description, an attempt is being made to challenge the white-washing and sanitization of archives and archival language. Further, I attempted to lead the user to understand that apartheid, like so many other modes of oppression, have a long and sinister buildup before they are formally recognized. The “pre-apartheid” period, to which this photo belongs, is not a discrete “from the apartheid era of history” but, rather, is essential in understanding the power structure under which apartheid would be built.
Hurray! Archives are being decolonized! The white-washing of history is being undone.
Eh…it’s complicated. There are many challenges that I continue to grapple with as I work on metadata for Apartheid Heritage(s). While providing contextual descriptions and thought provoking subject headings is an attempt to decolonize archives, I am still bound to their very controlled language. This is an issue for two reasons- one, I can only use subject headings approved by the Library of Congress and two, the lists are massive.
Navigating and applying the lists of approved subject headings require a degree of creativity because they continue to reflect white power structures and colonization. There are many examples that I have discovered and I am sure that as my understanding deepens and my research continues, many more will be revealed. For example, the only references to Nelson Mandela in 8,273 pages of small print are about a namesake park in England. Latin lovers is an approved Library of Congress subject heading but there is nuh-thing on Mandela beyond a park in England, a country that colonized South Africa and Black South Africans.
This illustrates the colonizing viewpoint of subject headings that complicates how I use the controlled language to appropriately describe assets in Apartheid Heritage(s). I struggled to describe, for example, the type of oppressive labor system that was established prior to formal apartheid, and certainly a hallmark of it during that period. Black South Africans mine workers were paid in company scrip, a type of coin currency that could only be used in company controlled stores. This promoted continued capitalist oppression and allowed white South Africans to remain largely in control of the markets that Black South Africans used.
Describing this type of labor in DC and Library of Congress subject heading language became difficult because it is a complicated system. Black South African mine workers were not slaves, so that particular subject heading did not apply, but they were oppressed and manipulated for the enrichment of white business interests, which certainly smacks of slavery. And they were paid – “kind of.” So how do I use controlled vocabulary to describe a “not slavery but kind of slavery where workers were paid but not really” labor situation?
Another issue I continue to deal with is navigating the lines between providing context and editorializing and ensuring that a certain level of historical emotional neutrality does not tip towards either accidentally normalizing egregious legacies or becoming biased itself. An example of this is the life and legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela, and a seemingly canonized woman nicknamed “The Mother of the Nation.” While the challenges she has presented me warrant a lengthy post of its own, I will touch on why she presents an example of the ethical questions I am still attempting to answer.
Beneath “Mama Winnie’s” acclaim as an ardent anti-apartheid warrior, exaltation for being one of the first Black social workers in South Africa, and celebrity as a fashion icon who used traditional xhosa clothing as protest – beneath these lie a legacy of vindictiveness, atrocious human rights violations, torture, and murder. My challenge with creating metadata about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is in knowing how far to push my descriptions so that I both ethically address the crimes she committed and resist pushing a bias, agenda, or viewpoint. This is a struggle and, at times, I have had to “take a break” from Winnie metadata for a while in order to let myself reset and step back, so to speak, from the emotions reading about her crimes cause to bubble up in me.
This difficulty balancing necessary critical evaluation from an unbiased distance is not limited to my work on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – it is something I grapple with for nearly every asset in Apartheid Heritage(s). When I meet with the Apartheid Heritage(s) team these questions frequently arise (and so, so many more):
- What is the context?
- How can I challenge colonization?
- Am I being biased?
- Am I editorializing?
- Am I accidentally normalizing?
- How can I make this as searchable as possible?
The many moral and ethical dilemmas and questions that remain in not just my work, but in the field as a whole, have entire academic journals dedicated to discussing and addressing critical librarianship and information studies. Continued conversation, discussion, and growth have allowed me to grow in my understanding of this field and subject matter and, as a result, the metadata is evolving and growing with me.
Occasionally my mind returns to the esoteric archivist and metadatist of my imagination. Like my attempt to do my part to decolonize the archives, it is time for me to challenge the gatekeepers of knowledge. At the conclusion of a riveting lecture about finding Aztlán in meso-American codices, Dr. Davíd Carrasco paused to address the students in the hall. After addressing the many “firsts” that were occuring at highly esteemed universities across the United States – first Latina president, first Black chair, and so on – he told students that, instead of being in awe or feeling intimidated by these higher institutions, they needed to say “what took them so long? Why didn’t this happen ages ago? They have been missing out!”.
It is this spirit that carries me forward in my personal growth and that is evident in many academic fields. Rather than being intimidated that I did not match the same image as my pre-conditioned notion of what an archivist should be, it should be taken into consideration and appreciated for what it is. For history, archives, and other fields to advance there is a critical need for people who do not resemble the stalwarts of the past.
My growth as a historian, metadatist, archivist, librarian…whatever label is most appropriate is contingent upon continued growth, collaboration, and conversation. If you have any comments, suggestions, or perspectives that you want to share with me that will help me be a better and more informed human, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take it easy,