SAA I&A Steering Share

This post first appeared on the Society of American Archivists’ Issues & Advocacy Section’s blog.


Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This introduction post comes courtesy of committee member Steve Duckworth, University Archivist at Oregon Health & Science University.

What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

My favorite thing about the archives profession, in general, is that within every collection I’ve seen, even the ones that are 95% bland meeting minutes, I manage to find something that intrigues me or makes me laugh (often just at the absurdity of the past). And I think this really informs how I see and deal with the present. I’m a late-comer to the archives profession so perhaps this will wear off someday, but I rather hope not.

The thing I enjoy most about my current job though, is that I get to work with and mentor a couple of library school students. I work in a health and sciences archives (i.e., medical/nursing/dental/etc. school), so we don’t have a library program. However, we do have a bit of money in the budget to hire student workers and since Portland has an MLIS program (at Emporia State University), there is a good pool of library students to hire for these positions. So, even though I don’t officially teach any archives courses, I do get to train and mentor these students in archival practices; help them shape their resumes and cover letters, and navigate the job application process; and guide them as they find their own voices and places within the profession. I get to answer their questions, learn more about what they are being taught in school, and have my choices and assumptions questioned. So, not only are they learning and gaining professional experience, I’m constantly learning from them and reevaluating the work I do.

Having been a music teacher before embarking upon the archivist lifestyle, getting this experience back – of teaching what I know and learning from those I teach – is something I highly value having in my life again.

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

I had already been involved with I&A – having been on one of the on-call research teams for 2 years. Being still relatively new to the profession, I was finding my niche and really liked what I saw coming out of the I&A Section. I liked how they tackled both issues within the profession itself and within archives, as well as related concerns in current news and events. And I was also drawn to the different forms of blog writings that they had invited anyone to contribute to. To me, it seemed like they were working hard to make anyone feel like they could be a part of the change they wanted to see.

I especially liked (and even once wrote for) the “Archivists on the Issues” series – where the ever ‘neutral’ archivists were finally allowed to have a public opinion. Anyway, after two years of on-call news searching and blogging, the call for Steering Committee members spoke to me … I could have a say in the future of this group and the initiatives they take on for the next two years. So, now I get to manage one of those news teams, write blog entries (such as this), and help shape the direction of I&A.

What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

One of the thorns in my side with the archives profession how we value our labor – or do not value our labor. We have a lot of unpaid labor happening, and this is something many people have spoken of. We also have a lot of under-paid labor. And a ton of temporary positions. And contract positions. Many of us are aware of these concerns. I was personally lucky enough to move into permanent employment after one project archivist position, but I know plenty of people who bounce around from project position to project position – and not out of the sheer joy of relocating every year or two.

I have a related issue with passion. I truly hope you love your job and enjoy going to work every day. However, if you’re being paid to work 40 hours per week, but end up working 50, 60, or more hours on a regular basis because of your passion (or the tenure-track-inflicted passion you are required to exude), you are also part of the problem. I’m sure this statement will bother a lot of people, but unpaid work in all forms devalues the work archivists do. When we accept lower pay and higher hours, we signal to people that we can get by, that our work isn’t worth that much, that money isn’t a huge concern – because we love what we do. [Editor’s note: Fobazi Ettarh writes eloquently about this in her post “Vocational Awe?”]

This devaluation also hinders access to the profession. If you can afford to be underpaid or potentially unemployed after a 2-year position ends or move to a new city to take one of these jobs where you’ll likely have to pay for your own healthcare and miss out on employer sponsored retirement savings – you probably have some privilege you may not even be aware of. Your privilege may also allow you to work extra hours because you can afford to only have one job or you are single or don’t have children or are coupled and have easier access to child care (there are a lot of ways this can play out; I’m just trying to make a point). This leaves the not-so-privileged trailing behind in the race to find a job – and then the rest of us sit around and try to figure out how to diversify the profession. I don’t mean to rant here, but perhaps this is where my passion has gone. Perhaps working as a struggling freelance musician for over a decade before entering this profession taught me more about the value of work and the joys of employee-sponsored benefits. Perhaps I’m trying to use my own privilege to affect some change. And obviously I don’t have this all figured out yet. But, this is definitely an issue that needs more attention.

National Tracing Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives

by Steve Ammidown* and Steve Duckworth (original post appeared on the SAA I&A Roundtable “Archivists on the Issues” blog on July 7, 2016; this post updated on September 19, 2016 to include new information and articles)

Let’s talk about guns. And records management. And maybe some advocacy.

According to their website, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is

a law enforcement agency … that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. [They] partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public [they] serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology.

That’s a big job. But as we’re about to see, “information sharing” and the “use of technology” are pretty restricted at the ATF.

The National Tracing Center (NTC) is the firearms tracing facility of the ATF. Located in Martinsburg, WV, they are the only facility in the United States that can provide information to law enforcement agencies (local, state, federal, and international) that can be used to trace firearms in criminal investigations, gun trafficking, and other movement of firearms, both domestically and internationally. And they are drowning in records. From recent reports, roughly 1.6 million records arrive at the facility each month. Records usually come from defunct firearms dealers who are required to submit their records when they go out of business. (For dealers still in business, the NTC contacts them after tracing a weapon through its manufacturer.) There appear to be no standards in place for how dealers have to keep or submit these records. There is a form (4473) for the actual gun purchase, but other records can come in on computer media or hand-written documents. They often arrive somewhat damaged, with partially shredded or water-damaged records being frequently cited in news reports. Some people even send theirs in on rolls of toilet paper.

As it is currently illegal to create a registry of firearms in the U.S., the idea of a searchable database is also off the table. This leaves workers at the facility with the task of sifting through these records manually to complete traces. Upwards of 365,000 traces are requested each year, and the number will just keep growing (due in part to the Obama administration’s requirement that every gun involved in a crime be traced). While records are now being digitized to provide some easier access and relief for the physical space needed, the records remain non-searchable and amount to a newer version of microfilmed records. Even these digitization efforts are problematic, as a recent Government Accountability Office report showed. The GAO reported that digital records systems were in violation because, among other things, the records were kept on a single server, and allowed access to too much data.

Some of the problems at the NTC can be traced to the lack of consistent leadership and chronic underfunding. The position of the agency director was unfilled from 2006 to 2013 due to legislation backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that requires Senate confirmation to fill the position. In 2013, acting director B. Todd Jones was narrowly confirmed to fill the Director role, but he retired soon after (in 2015) and the position has yet to be filled permanently. Stagnant funding has prevented the ATF from keeping up with demand. In addition to the overwhelmed workers at NTC, the agency has just over 600 inspectors dedicated to inspecting the record-keeping at over 140,000 gun dealers across the country.

The data collected by the NTC is also subject to the NRA’s legislative sway in Washington. As mentioned, they have been successful in heading off any attempts at creating a searchable database, arguing that such a mechanism would be a “registry” in violation of the Second Amendment. Taking it one step further, a set of provisions known as the “Tiahrt Amendments” has been attached to every U.S. Department of Justice appropriations bill since 2003, prohibiting the NTC from releasing information to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. The law effectively blocks this data from being used in academic research on criminal gun use or in civil lawsuits against gun sellers or manufacturers. It also prevents the ATF from collecting the inventory information from gun dealers, which would further help identify lost or stolen guns. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence argues that these amendments only empower criminals and reckless dealers.

Restrictive laws and a lack of quality management lead to a massive backlog of records and a very limited system of filling the great number of trace requests the NTC receives. The antiquated measures required by the NTC restrict law enforcement’s ability to perform their duties. While public opinion regarding gun sales seems to be turning (unlike Congress’s voting record), the idea of a database seems quite far off. An effective and permanent director at the ATF would be a good starting place, but as of this writing, a nomination doesn’t appear to even be in place (and given the current political climate, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon).

Not unlike the rest of the gun debate, the political debate around the NTC and gun tracing data seems intractable and unlikely to change. Luckily for us, however, we’re archivists and records managers! We offer a unique perspective on this subject when we contact our elected officials on this topic. We’ve been in the dusty stacks (yes, we said it) and dealt with unwieldy access systems when time was of the essence. We should be arguing for the modernization and full funding of the NTC and the repeal of the Tiahrt Amendments, at the least to improve access to government information and at the most to help save lives. So consider this your call to advocacy (as mentioned at the start). If you feel this situation warrants some action, take it and contact your legislators now!

*Steve Ammidown is the Manuscripts and Outreach Archivist for the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Sources:

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), https://www.atf.gov

Government Accountability Office, June 2016 “Report to Congressional Requesters: ATF Did Not Always Comply with the Appropriations Act Restriction and Should Better Adhere to Its Policies” (GAO-16-552), http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/678091.pdf.

Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Maintaining Records on Gun Sales,” http://smartgunlaws.org/gun-laws/policy-areas/gun-dealer-sales/maintaining-records-on-gun-sales/

National Tracing Center (NTC), https://www.atf.gov/firearms/national-tracing-center, (informational brochure: https://www.atf.gov/firearms/docs/national-tracing-center-information-industry-members-atf-p-331210/download)

National Tracing Center via Wikipedia (good general overview), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Tracing_Center

The White House, “Presidential Memorandum – Tracing of Firearms in Connection with Criminal Investigations,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/01/16/presidential-memorandum-tracing-firearms-connection-criminal-investigati

News reports:

2016 August 30, GQ, “Inside the Federal Bureau of Way Too Many Guns,” http://www.gq.com/story/inside-federal-bureau-of-way-too-many-guns?mbid=social_facebook

2016 August 24, The Trace, “The ATF’s Nonsensical Non-Searchable Gun Database, Explained,” https://www.thetrace.org/2016/08/atf-ridiculous-non-searchable-databases-explained/

2016 March 24, America’s 1st Freedom [NRA magazine], “Where the ATF Scans Gun Sales Records,” https://www.americas1stfreedom.org/articles/2016/3/24/where-the-atf-scans-gun-sales-records/

2016 January 6, The Guardian, “Agency tasked with enforcing Obama’s gun control measures has been gutted,” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/06/bureau-alcohol-tobacco-firearms-obama-gun-control-measures-funding-understaffing

2015 October 27, USA Today, “Millions of Firearms Records Languish at National Tracing Center” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/10/27/firearms-national-tracing-center-atf/74401060/

2015 March 20, USA Today, “ATF director announces resignation,” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/03/20/atf-director-b-todd-jones-resigns/25081713/

2013 June 11, Media Matters, “How the NRA Hinders the ATF Director Confirmation Process,” http://mediamatters.org/research/2013/06/11/how-the-nra-hinders-the-atf-director-confirmati/194412

2013 May 20, NPR, “The Low-Tech Way Guns Get Traced,” http://www.npr.org/2013/05/20/185530763/the-low-tech-way-guns-get-traced

2013 March 13, InformationWeek, “ATF’s Gun Tracing System is a Dud,” http://www.informationweek.com/applications/atfs-gun-tracing-system-is-a-dud/d/d-id/1109062

2013 February 19, WJLA ABC7 (Washington, D.C.), “ATF National Tracing Center Traces Guns the Old-Fashioned Way,” http://wjla.com/news/nation-world/atf-national-tracing-center-traces-guns-the-old-fashioned-way-85417 (YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lFdLaYcDNQ)

2013 January 30, CBS Evening News, “Tracing Guns is Low-tech Operation for ATF,” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/tracing-guns-is-low-tech-operation-for-atf/

2011 November 2, Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Federal Law on Tiahrt Amendments,” http://smartgunlaws.org/federal-law-on-tiahrt-amendments/

2010 October 26, Washington Post, “ATF’s Oversight Limited in Face of Gun Lobby,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/25/AR2010102505823.html

Research Post: Fire at the Cinemateca Brasileira

This post first appeared on the Society of American Archivists’ Issues & Advocacy Roundtable blog.

I&A Research Teams are groups of dedicated volunteers who monitor breaking news and delve into ongoing topics affecting archives and the archival profession. Under the leadership of the I&A Steering Committee, the Research Teams compile their findings into Research Posts for the I&A blog. Each Research Post offers a summary and coverage of an issue. This Research Post comes from On-Call Research Team #2, which is mobilized to investigate issues as they arise.

Please be aware that the sources cited have not been vetted and do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

Summary of the Issue

A fire broke out in the film library of the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paolo on February 3, 2016. The exact cause of the fire was not reported, but the area involved was where nitrate film was stored. This material is known to be volatile and can spontaneously combust due to environmental factors. Sources reported that approximately 1,000 rolls of film burned in the fire. All is not lost, however, as the institution states that all films lost in the fire had been preserved in other media formats (though some of the reports stated that 80% were preserved in other formats). Reports of the fire came out soon after the event occurred, but updates and further information has not been located. While there are many reports, especially reports in Portuguese, almost all of them date from February 3 or 4. They each appear to leave some questions on the table.

The fire occurred in one of the institution’s nitrate film warehouses, which are specially designed to house such film; there is no electric grid and interior walls do not reach the ceilings. Most sources report that it took about 30 minutes to contain the fire. Some video footage of the scene can be found here.

The Cinemateca Brasileira holds some 250,000 film rolls, including features, short films, and newsreels, as well as books, papers, movie posters, and other paper records; this loss represents 0.4% of their film holdings. The history of the Cinemateca can be traced back to 1946 as the Second Film Club of São Paolo (after the First had been closed by the Department of Press and Propaganda in 1941). In 1948, the Club became affiliated with the International Federation of Film Clubs and, in 1949, with the film department of São Paolo’s newly created Museum of Modern Art. In 1964, it was incorporated into the Ministry of Culture, becoming a governmental institution. Previous fires have occurred in 1957, 1969, and 1982, all due to nitrate film. The institute moved into its current facilities, built under the technical guidance of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), in 1998.

The Archivist Rising blog reported that the institution suffered somewhat recent budget cuts due to a large financial crisis. Blogger Aurélio Michiles blames the incident on the previous budget cuts as well, but describes the cuts as more of a punishment towards the administration rather than having to do with an overall financial crisis. Further sources state the number of employees has been reduced from over 100 in 2013 to just over 20 currently, though it remains unclear how many employees are governmental workers and how many are actually employed by the Cinematheque’s Friends Society (Sociedade Amigos da Cinemateca) and whether or not that affects the various numbers reported from different sources. The truth behind this budget controversy is left for further research – and preferably by someone proficient in Portuguese.

bibliography of coverage of the issue:

“Some thousand film rolls burnt in Cinemateca Brasileira fire.” EBC Agencia Brasil. Accessed 2016 March 25. http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/en/cultura/noticia/2016-02/some-thousand-film-rolls-burnt-cinemateca-brasileira-fire (EBC manages TV Brasil, TV Brasil International, Agência Brasil, Radioagência, and the National Public Broadcast System. Besides the commitment to public communication, their values are characterized by editorial independence, transparency, and participatory management.)

“Cinemateca Brasileira.” Wikipedia. Accessed 2016 March 25. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinemateca_Brasileira

“Ministério da Cultura não tem plano para evitar novos incêndios na Cinemateca Brasileira.” Estãdo. Accessed 2016 March 25. http://cultura.estadao.com.br/noticias/cinema,ministerio-da-cultura-nao-tem-plano-para-evitar-novos-incendios-na-cinemateca-brasileira,10000014848

“Ministério da Cultura mudará gestão da Cinemateca.” Folha De S. Paolo. Accessed 2016 March 25. http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ilustrada/1220662-ministerio-da-cultura-mudara-gestao-da-cinemateca.shtml

The I&A Steering Committee would like to thank Steve Duckworth for writing this post, and Rachel Seale and Alison Stankrauff for doing key research on the issue.

I&A On-Call Research Team #2 is:

Alison Stankrauff, Leader
Katherine Barbera
Anna Chen
Steven Duckworth
David McAllister
Rachel Seale

If you are aware of an issue that might benefit from a Research Post, please get in touch with us: archivesissues@gmail.com.