Person explores archival culture through interviews with professionals active in the field.
Founded on Earth Day in 2015, ProjectARCC—Archivists Responding to Climate Change—is a task force of archivists striving to motivate the archival community to affect climate change. LAAC spoke with its founder and chair of the Preserve Committee, Casey Davis, along with Eira Tansey, chair of the Protect Committee, over email.
Words by Jennie Freeburg
Your mission outlines four key principles: protect, reduce, elevate, preserve. Could you talk about how you arrived at these four in particular and also how these principles guide the organizational structure of ProjectARCC?
Casey Davis (CD): The mission of ProjectARCC is to motivate the archival profession to take action on climate change, and we see this being possible in four ways:
- Protecting archival collections from the risks and impacts of climate change;
- Collectively working to reduce and eliminate our greenhouse gas footprint;
- Elevating our archival collections that are relevant to the issue of climate change with the goal of improving public understanding and awareness of climate change; and
- Actively preserving archival records and other materials that will help current and future generations understand this epochal moment in history.
The first of these four actions, “Protect,” was an obvious goal. As archivists, we steward and preserve archival materials for future researchers. And we must protect them with vigor in the face of global climate change. As greenhouse gases continue to trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet, we will and are already seeing dramatic changes in climate patterns, including an increase in hydrological extremes, such as flooding, droughts, and blizzards. All of these effects of climate change will greatly impact our current practices, our archival facilities, and our ability to preserve archival collections. It is time for us to educate ourselves on how to prepare, mitigate and adapt to a disrupted climate.
We (society) are making commitments now to one of multiple possible futures, and the choices we make now will create different outcomes. This is where “Reduce” comes in. To be very honest, the more I have learned about climate change and the more I follow the scientific literature, I become less and less optimistic about our collective ability to make the changes that need to occur fast enough. Yes, working toward more sustainable annual conferences by providing an app as an option instead of a physical conference program is a good thing. But what is needed are many citizens advocating to our elected officials to support funding to quickly move our energy systems off of fossil fuels. The alternative will lead to a further warming planet, and will further impact our ability to preserve archival collections. We have a responsibility to act.
Soon after I decided to form ProjectARCC, I reached out to Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. This was before we had scoped out the mission of what ProjectARCC sought to accomplish. I asked him what he thought archivists should be doing to make an impact on climate change. “This is the single most powerful thing your profession can do...How do you document and preserve for future generations this critical moment in the history of our local communities, our states, our nation, and the whole world?” This is where Elevate and Preserve came into play.
Many archives already preserve collections that help to tell the story of how we got here—how our actions led to climate change, and what ordinary citizens, scientists, journalists, and others are doing to mitigate its effects and educate a society that still has not come to accept the scientific evidence of climate change. Dr. Leiserowitz made me realize that it’s our responsibility not only to preserve this material but make it accessible, and elevate these materials to help others gain a better understanding of climate change, ultimately helping them make better decisions in their personal lives and—in my opinion, more importantly—in their voting behaviors.
Finally is Preserve. As I said, many archives already preserve materials that document climate change, but there is so much out there that is not being preserved. Like many records creators, most people aren’t thinking about the long-term value of their creative and scientific outputs. To preserve this moment in history, we must actively archive what’s being created. To do this requires significant outreach, even embedding archivists among records creators to preserve this content as it is being created.
Casey, what led you to form ProjectARCC? What sort of people and resources were helpful in the initial stages? And then could you both talk about how the membership began to form? Eira, what led you to the group? Is there much active recruitment of members? What does it mean to be a member, and how can others join?
CD: I formed ProjectARCC after being awakened to climate change in October 2014. Well, after about 4 months of being paralyzed in fear after being awakened to climate change. I was able to escape that paralysis when I began to think about how I and our profession could make an impact. With several other archivists who shared my alarm, we turned our paralysis into action. Many of the resources documented on our ProjectARCC Climate Change Syllabus helped me to gain an understanding of the science of climate change and how to communicate it to different audiences. But equally as helpful were the people I met outside of the archival profession—activists, environmental policy experts, and scientists—who I sought out as resources.
Eira Tansey (ET): ProjectARCC may be changing in the future as we transition to subsequent stages of work, but I originally came to the group as chair of the Protect Committee. The Protect Committee has focused on the climate change threats to archival repositories and archivists. My own research is squarely in the area of archival adaptation to climate change (see, "Archival adaptation to climate change," Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy, 2015, 11 (2)).
In your article, “Archival adaptation to climate change,” you mention the issue of campus emails being unavailable due to server damage during Katrina in New Orleans. Reading this I realized that in thinking of archives and environmental disaster there are issues of technology—both within collections and as integral part of archives management—that don’t come to mind as immediately as more traditional archival materials (I was about to say physical as opposed to digital, but what your email example demonstrates is that the digital is physical, and thus susceptible to our physical environment). Are there other issues facing archives in an era of climate change that people might find surprising, or are not as aware of as we should be?
ET: In much of the climate change literature and popular dialog, there are two main intertwined strands—mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., carbon, methane) that are associated with climate change, while adaptation is about identifying and implementing the necessary changes required to live within an increasingly unpredictable world. Adaptation is critical, because even if the global community switched rapidly to zero greenhouse gas emissions, there is a certain degree of warming that is "locked in" due to previous emissions. From my perspective, adaptation encompasses an incredible range of things that archivists will need to begin grappling with over the coming decades. There will be dramatic questions—such as the records issues associated with people who may be forced to relocate due to their geographic vulnerability (for good work on this, see Australian archivist Matthew Gordon-Clark, who has written about the national archives of Pacific Island nations). But there will also be more mundane matters that, over time, have the capacity to force archivists to reckon with big questions. For example, while the US Midwest won't have to deal with rising sea levels or hurricanes, we will have to deal with heavier downpours and hotter summer temperatures—both are events that can seriously tax the building infrastructure of an archive.
What are some recent projects that you are excited about? And How can we help? As practitioners reducing our carbon footprint, but also in supporting ProjectARCC as an organization? I realize such a question doesn’t have any simple answer, but what are your thoughts on important and impactful first steps for archivists?
ET: I think there are some great things in development that archivists should keep their eyes on—for example, the Society of American Archivists just approved an information brief on Archives and the Environment which has a number of ideas for how archivists can engage with this topic. I'm also really excited about the Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene colloquium taking place next year. Archivists should absolutely consider this an area that requires urgent work And not just repository-based solutions, but as an area in desperate need of additional research, writing, and cross-institutional collaboration. There are many opportunities for collaboration with our colleagues in other cultural heritage sectors, like libraries, museums, and historical societies. I also hope that we begin to build bridges with archivists who have already done critical work in the area of human rights, since climate change has the capacity to exacerbate shocks to vulnerable communities, particularly those that already face other forms of marginalization (e.g., warfare, famine and drought, disputes over natural resources, etc.). I'm dedicating much of my future research agenda to the intersection of archives and the environment. Right now I'm working with Ben Goldman and Nathan Piekielek of Penn State University on some preliminary mapping of continental US archives vulnerability to climate change. Ben and I presented at SAA's Research Forum (you can download our slides at the bottom of this page), and our early findings were very well-received and sparked some good discussion.
To be honest, this can be a really grim area to work in, and I hope we get to a point where far more archivists are working on these issues so the few of us who are doing this work begin to feel less alone. So if you have an idea for research, outreach, collecting, or advocacy around these issues, I think you should go for it.
CD: Like Eira, I am also excited about our recent work with the Society of American Archivists on an issue brief on Archives and the Environment, which was just approved by SAA Council. Also, the Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene colloquium in the works for May 2017 will be the first major event focused on the topic of climate change and our relationship to it. Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, will keynote. The event has received tremendous response—we are currently reviewing 61 proposals and will announce the program in September. Another event taking place in the nearer future is a 5 panel stream on Archives and the Environment taking place at the annual Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference in Pittsburgh, November 9 - 12. I encourage all archivists to attend, regardless of your work with moving images or lack thereof. The stream will be valuable to archivists of all flavors.
As Eira said, ProjectARCC is currently in a transition phase. Much of our work to date has been more advocacy focused. In addition, some of our members have been taking action on a more individual level. For example, at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, we have curated exhibits on public media coverage of climate change, and we are actively growing the collection with materials that document endangered species and biodiversity. And I have been working with a project called DearTomorrow to collect and preserve letters about climate change from parents to their loved ones. During this transition phase, we will be considering how best to target our continued collective efforts. If your readers have thoughts on how ProjectARCC can continue to motivate the profession to take action, please contact us or better yet, get involved. Other ways to support ProjectARCC are to think about how you and your institution can address the four goals of ProjectARCC. In what ways are your collections at risk? How can your institution prepare, mitigate and adapt to a changing climate? What can you do to reduce your footprint? What steps are you willing to take to advocate to your elected officials? What collections do you have that help to tell this story, and how can you make them more accessible to your communities? And what records are being created in your community that aren’t being preserved?
Perhaps others have felt this way, but some days I read an article or simply sit and think about climate change and I become very afraid for our future. Other days, I do my best not to think about it without even trying not to think about it. A first step for archivists is to think about it. Read some of the literature available on our Climate Change Syllabus. The second step is not to be afraid. A third step is not to deny it. The fourth step is to take action. We’ve suggested a lot of ways that you can take action as an archivist, but there are also lots of activist groups that are doing great work in local communities. Get involved in one way or another. Soon after we started ProjectARCC, SAA past president (then president) Kathleen Roe wrote to us and reminded us of a quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”