MLIS: Archives, Preservation, and Records Management, 2013 (University of Pittsburgh)
MFA: Creative Writing, 2012 (Colorado State University)
BA: English/Religious Studies, 2009 (Tulane University)
Seafarers International Union AFL-CIO based in Camp Springs, Maryland. Mark began as Content Curator in 2013 and has since taken on the additional role of Assistant Director of Communications for Seafarers Log.
Archives Assistant, Point Park University; Library Assistant, Morgan Library at Colorado State University. Mark has also taught English Composition and Creative Writing at middle-school and college levels and has worked as a Market Analyst tracking consumer trends.
Tell us a little bit about the Seafarers International Union and your work there.
The SIU is a labor union representing unlicensed merchant mariners on American-flagged vessels—essentially, those who work on a ship’s crew, with the exception of the captain and his mates, and so forth.
On most vessels the type of work handled by the unlicensed crew is divided into three departments: Deck, Steward, and Engine Departments—and there are lot of different positions within each. The Deck Department is usually concerned with the needs related to the voyage and the purpose it serves—these are the people dealing with anything from keeping the cargo in good shape, taking care of the vessel’s exterior, and providing general labor. The Stewards take care of the human needs on the ship—the kitchens, food prep, upkeep of crew rooms and officer’s rooms. The Engine Department is taking care of the needs of the ship itself, the machinery, and there are a lot of complex roles within that.
When people think of seafaring, they think specifically of sailors who get on a cargo ship or a tanker and go out to sea to international ports, but that's not necessarily the case. There are all sorts of different types of maritime work that are represented in the union and likewise that goes for our records.
I work specifically for the newspaper that the union publishes—the Seafarers Log—which has been in publication since 1938. The Log’s purpose is to let union members, along with outside stakeholders, know what's going on within the union as well as with other maritime issues in general. It began as a weekly publication with the intention of being the primary news source for the membership. Eventually it became a bimonthly publication, and then a monthly.
While we do have many records pertaining to what happens onboard a vessel, a lot of our materials deal with the lives of sailors when they’re not on the ship—“on the beach” as it's called, when they’re at shore or in port. When they’re not on the job, these sailors are interacting with different cultures or using the union hall as a social space. These folks come into the union hall and read our newspaper or play cards to occupy their time while they're waiting for jobs to open up on a ship.
The union halls also organized different holiday events for sailors, since part of the seafaring life is missing holidays with loved ones because the goods still need to be delivered. The halls facilitate a sense of community that you don't really get while at sea—yeah, you have the community of the people on the ship, but you’re not really interacting with the rest of the world when you’re in the middle of the ocean for lord knows how long!
The weird ways that the culture of maritime work shows up in the newspaper itself is fascinating. For instance, in the 1930s-1950s, cooks would not just submit recipes, which everybody would kind of expect, but they'd also write these opinion columns just to insult other cooks’ food! I've always thought those were really interesting.
We also deal with materials that document the unique role that mariners have played within the larger labor movement, especially the eras of the labor movement that were ripe with conflict and owner/worker strife—the seafarers developed a reputation for being kind of the muscle that would come in and protect workers of other industries when they were going on strike back in the days when you had to worry about companies hiring essentially armed thugs to either corral workers back in or to break up strikes.
A page from Seafarers Log with articles featuring the strange experience of an SIU sailor who went bald while at sea, cooking tips from the galley, and a letter to the editor describing the experiences of SIU sailors while at port in Guanta, Venezuela. February 9, 1945.
There are so many examples that come to mind that are of historical significance—especially during the 1940s and the post war period. During World War II, the major labor organizations in the country signed no-strike pledges as a way of keeping solidarity with the war effort. Of course, once the war was over, every industry said, “It was unpatriotic to strike during the war, so it should be equally unpatriotic to assert your rights in the workplace now,” and the labor unions replied, “That’s ridiculous! We took a time-out because it was for the good of the country and now what we need are people in jobs and a healthy workforce to get the post war economy going.” We know now that that did happen, but there was a lot of strife and conflict that took place in order for that to occur.
One of the strikes that I think is most interesting and probably seems downright bizarre by modern standards is the United Financial Employees strike of 1948. Our membership was there to provide security and show solidarity with UFE—and this was on Wall Street, back when working on Wall Street was not a glamorous thing, not some million dollar, high-rolling enterprise. Most of those who went on strike were women—they were clerks and they were secretaries. Financial labor in the 1940s did not exist within the context of super macho, money everywhere, high-testosterone, Michael Douglas, Oliver Stone Wall Street trappings as we think of it today.
So, you have these female financial workers picketing, and the seafarers are protecting them from the police. Our guys are all wearing their trademark white hats—the Lundeberg Stetson, named for the founding president of the SIU, Harry Lundeberg. Wearing the white hats at strikes or other events within the larger labor community became our calling card. Our members still wear them at events to this day.
How does your work as Assistant Director of Communications and Content Curator of a labor union news publication tie into the realm of archives? What are the primary responsibilities of your position? Tell us a bit about the nature of your holdings.
The scope of my work is dealing with the records of the newspaper, primarily. I was originally hired on to digitize the newspapers themselves and get them into some sort of searchable and usable form. After we discussed the pros and cons of getting them digitized, we digitized microform copies of them. The newspaper originals from 1938 and leading up to the 1960s are so brittle and so difficult to handle due to the usual issues you have with newsprint. It's just a crappy material to work with, but on top of that, it had not really occurred to anybody to do anything with them other than to put them in an envelope, stuff them in a box, and put them away in a closet—someone was at least aware of the historical significance of this stuff to keep it around, but there was never any sort of archivist or custodian keeping on top of this content, so that provided a serious challenge.
I also manage the publication’s photographic collections. We have digital collections for our current stuff, but the bulk is still in physical form—about 60 linear feet of photographs. These photographs were either featured in the newspaper or were taken for the purpose of being included in the newspaper. Not everything makes it in; for most events, we only used one or two images in the paper even if dozens were taken on assignment. There's a really
interesting mix of photos taken by staff members of the newspaper, and union workers who took their own pictures and then submitted to the newspaper. We also have a lot of pictures that came from other related organizations—from the Coast Guard, from newswire services, the Associated Press. If we were running a feature on a foreign incident, for instance, especially the further back in time you go, we couldn’t have everybody in all spots in the world where things were happening, especially in the maritime industry where any major port could be the site of a developing story. We used newswire service photos to fill those gaps. As you can imagine, there are some rights issues involved there that require detangling.
Some of our photographs are from our affiliated maritime school, the Paul Hall Center, which has its own collection of archival materials and its own library. Those facilities are outside of my scope, but there’s a good deal of interplay between our collections and theirs. In the process of bringing me on for the job of Content Curator, the possibility was discussed that I might also be responsible for their records and I explained I would have enough on my hands managing the records of a 78 year old publication as it is. This is especially considering that our office—the whole union administration—moved from New York in the early 1980s to its present location in Camp Springs, Maryland, right outside of DC.
There was also a fire at some point, but as far as how much or how little of our material was lost as a result is a really good question—nobody was really taking into account how much there was to start with and that has provided an immense challenge for me, one that I didn't really expect going into this. These materials have been through so many different periods of undocumented custody. In some cases it's been benign-neglect, but in other cases it's just been neglect-neglect. It's nobody’s fault necessarily that things went down this way, they didn’t really know that the records needed to be taken care of up until now. I guess when I went into this position, I was hoping everything was in the same spot as it was in New York and it got moved in a nice and tidy way to DC with the file structures intact with people keeping track of how everything went down, but of course the reality of it is: no archivist is ever so blessed!
Over the course of that move, many archival materials were either misplaced or mislabeled or otherwise not really handled in the best way. Because of the organizational chaos that occurred around the time of the move, there are gaps in the records. The biggest issue is not even so much about things being totally lost forever, it’s that there’s so much that isn’t discoverable in its current state—things were either just basically put into boxes without any kind of metadata. Now we have folders with labels like: “People - Men, Women, and Children.” From an archival standpoint, that's not useful information in the slightest! It doesn't tell us anything about what these documents are about. So that's the bigger problem resulting from the move.
Another interesting tidbit: we have records pertaining to a Stanley Kubrick film called The Seafarers. He filmed a promotional piece, about a half hour long, for the union in the 1950s, just sort of documenting the thrills of a life at sea. It was actually when Kubrick perfected his steadicam technique—he was having a difficult time shooting on the ship while it was bobbing around on the water and dealing with the corridors of the ship where you're only really able to move sort of back and forth. It’s really interesting that we played a part in developing the style of one of the most famous directors ever!
Until the mid-2000s, the Seafarers Log employed staff illustrators. We have the original artworks of two or three of those illustrators, and those are definitely a preservation challenge. Many of these works of art were sharpie and white-out on tracing paper.
We had an Information Specialist who did catalog a few things primarily in the early 1990s. She really sort of kept to herself and a lot of her work just never cohered, just from looking at the materials that I've seen; I think there was a technology barrier that she hit after a while. She generated a number of inventory lists which helped me understand how things were organized at one point in time. She generated a thorough list of keywords and subject terms and worked backwards from there, but eventually that work just trails off. That work was done in some
very primitive, at least by today’s standards, database software program and it was all printed out on dot matrix printers and put into binders. A lot of that work—some of it's been preserved, some of it hasn't.
So in addition to managing those materials, I am also involved in the administration of our social media accounts. That responsibility evolved as an offshoot of my other roles here, mostly trying to get the historical content out on the internet. I’m also putting together an online database that the public can access to pull up our newspapers and select photographic collections.
What does your day to day work entail?
I have a lot of day to day responsibilities, many of which come with the territory of being a lone arranger type of figure in a communications office, in a newspaper production environment. I’m not in a library, I’m not in a traditional archival setting, so there are things that I have to do that other archivists might not have to deal with or projects that are managed elsewhere by larger teams of technicians. A big portion of what I do lately is trying to get things in place for this online database which means a lot of metadata entry into Omeka. When I had a summer intern, I was able to train them and delegate that work. It is very time consuming to generate this metadata, especially with the digitized newspaper copies—trying to get a better understanding of the content of the newspapers, the scope of which is beyond just full text searchability, so generating keywords and identifying even just the headlines can be very time consuming. I do basic preservation work as well, which was a much higher priority when I first started in the position, identifying which records were most at risk and addressing those needs immediately. Now that I've done a more comprehensive inventory and have had the chance to process some collections, the preservation concerns are not as pressing. Another regular task is getting the historical material out on social media—every Friday we put up a collection of archival photos on our Facebook Page and on Twitter.
Do your social media interactions inform your work?
We will put up unlabeled or unidentified photographs on Facebook from time to time, and to get a better understanding of it, we will reach out and ask, “Hey this is a really cool looking picture but we have no information about what's going on. Who are these people? We don't know anything!” We are often quite amazed at how frequently members and even visitors and stakeholders outside of the maritime community will have information about who is in a picture or what ships are involved and whatnot. That information becomes really useful to the whole fonds if they identify one picture and we have it in a folder that all has pictures of the same event, for instance. It gets reflected in the metadata for the whole records group.
When we get answers from the public, we do try to make sure the information is documented in some form. That being said, we certainly do try to verify all of that information before it becomes metadata. Different people remember a ship being in a different part of the world in a different year, for instance. Sometimes we get varying accounts but other times we’ve even had information professionals who work for other maritime organizations pop in and help us identify things. Our colleague, Jonathan Hoppe, Digital Asset Manager for the U.S. Naval Institute, has verified certain items, namely old photographs of old shipyards.
What other types of requests do you receive? Who’s reaching out—who are your users? Do you receive requests from within the SIU, in addition to outside researchers?
The types of reference requests are all over the place. Filmmakers who reach out asking for period specific information, documentary makers, people inquiring about shipwrecks or particularly contentious moments in labor history—I’m asked to provide insight and expertise. I definitely do get a lot of genealogical requests, mostly people wanting to know about different voyages that relatives may have been on. I really can’t provide too much information on those inquiries because the documentation and
administrative records are beyond the scope of my work; and naturally, there are legal considerations involved with those records.
There have been a number of people who contact us and their relatives were either officials in the union or were involved in some kind of big news items—a rescue, or maritime catastrophe—those I can help with. Some of the people who are doing genealogical research reach out more because they are trying to get an understanding of this type of life and this type of work because it can be a confusing and insular work culture to those who aren't familiar with it. People will say, “Well my grandpa was out on the seas during WWII and I just want to have an understanding of what life was like,” and I can send them copies of the old newspapers from that time. We do get a number of scholarly researchers looking for primary source material for projects. We’ve had one or two museums contact us for information for exhibit design purposes, trying to understand how they should incorporate contextual information into their museum programming.
Requests from within the organization are also common. Sometimes, union officials will want to see when we publicized certain contracts, and ship owners or staff may need an understanding of various decisions that were made in the union's history. If we have former officials who have passed away or retired and we want to acknowledge them, we’ll do some internal research. Our union has a lot of varied sort of larger than life historical personages in terms of its leadership, almost literary-type figures.
We also get a fair number of reference requests pertaining to other labor unions that merged with us. For instance, in 2001, we merged with the National Maritime Union, the NMU, which had been the SIU’s bitter rival throughout most of its existence. In its earlier years, the NMU was very communist-oriented in terms of its outlook and sympathies. The competition between the SIU and NMU in the post-World War II years came down to the SIU philosophically rejecting the idea of labor unions striving towards communism, whereas the NMU did not. The feud persisted ever onward. While the merger helped resolve a lot of the acrimony between the organizations, the NMU offloaded most of its archival material prior to the merger to other collecting institutions rather than put it under our custody. I have to refer researchers to places like Rutgers, Cornell, and NYU archives for those records on a rather consistent basis.
Most of the labor union materials I’ve interacted with are housed in university archives, or with repositories who are actively collecting, rather than with the creating organization. How do the materials differ, hypothetically? What is it that you have that the universities do not? What do they have that you’re missing?
I’m an archivist for a labor publication, which is a different issue than managing either the records of entire labor organizations or the papers of prominent labor officials or union members—they are not focused on something as specific as the Seafarers Log. Most labor unions do not have their own archival programs; I’d say the majority surrender custody to universities or other collecting organizations.
It’s important to know that when the Seafarers Log was established, it was written as if it were the primary source of maritime news for its readership. While many labor unions put out newsletters or magazines, they seldom serve so broad a purpose. I imagine our publication has likely generated more records, with a wider scope, than most other union publications. Now that we are in an age where news is easy to come across, the Seafarers Log is more focused on the goings-on occurring within the union, related more directly to the union's interests—our newer holdings tend to be a bit more streamlined.
With union members on vessels scattered all over the world, I imagine your materials portray a vast number of different places, ports, waterways. Do you have materials specific to Los Angeles as a seaport?
I would say our L.A.-specific holdings are rather typical of records we have on major ports where the SIU has a presence. We have a lot of materials that connect to the political history of these places because ports and maritime commerce intersect with the political sphere rather often. With L.A. for instance, we have a rather large amount of material concerning Mayor Tom Bradley. He was pro-labor, keen on developing the Port of Los Angeles and maritime industry-dependant areas of L.A. such as Wilmington and San Pedro. We have some materials related to the political history of Los Angeles as a port, which is rather intriguing.
California has always been a hotbed of activity for different labor causes—the farm and fruit workers of course immediately come to mind—and we do have records related to that, too: some photographs, a couple of VHS documentaries such as No Grapes, this documentary about fruit pickers, narrated by Emilio Estevez. Believe it or not, we also have some photographs of Angeleno celebrities like Edward James Olmos; he’s actually very passionate about labor related issues, so he often shows up in photos taken at labor events across the country—you’d be surprised! Likewise, every so often our port offices are used for the backgrounds for films or tv shows, so we’ve got some pictures of, for instance, Don Johnson in an episode of Nash Bridges that was filmed at our union hall in San Francisco.
Southern California Port Council (SCPC) President and SIU Agent, Mike Worley, thanks Mayor Tom Bradley for his remarks at a SCPC dinner meeting. February 1986.
In your opinion, what is the most important skill for an archivist to possess? What skills have you found to be essential? Reflecting on your time as an MLIS student, how have your expectations of archival work panned out now that you’re working in the field? Do you have any advice for aspiring archivists?
I’ve been surprised by a couple of things that I had to learn over the course of this job. One big part of that, especially as a lone arranger, was just realizing the importance of project planning and setting a written list of goals, developing a thorough list of priorities and a plan of action. When I first went into this, I was very overwhelmed because here I was dealing with 78 years worth of archival content and there are all these issues of custody and intellectual control that had not been addressed or even considered before. I just felt so overwhelmed by all of that at first.
That leads into how my expectations of archival work shifted. The open secret of archival work is that despite all of our best practices and standards, there is only so much that can be done with the limited amount of resources. So much of what gets discussed in library school about archives are ideals rather than realities. We didn’t really talk very much about what to do when YOU are the one understaffed with limited resources, or no resources.
Another thing that library school didn't really touch was the experience of being an archivist in a less traditional environment—working for an organization that is not an ‘archives’, that is not a library or museum or historical society. So much of my job is dealing with all of these stakeholders that really don't have any familiarity with traditional archival environments. It's not like they really have the same reference point as those who have gone through an MLIS program.
How can we better position ourselves in those less traditional environments?
There has been this increase in discussion surrounding the idea of embedded archivists—an archivist that is attaching themselves to a community and working with them in real time. Looking at Helen Samuels’ work, which I did a lot of in library school, helps prepare for that in a way. The idea of documentation strategy lends itself more towards doing archives in a non-traditional environment, and that also applies to her work with functional analysis. After all, Appraising the Records of Modern Science and Technology was the seminal text of Helen Samuels and it was all about how do you take archival sensibilities and the archival mission and carry that out in a scientific environment? At the time, people were dealing with the records of 20th century Big Science and it was an experience that archivists really had to grapple with. Some of the most thought provoking work on archives within the archival community itself comes from thinking about how we can interact with and perform our duties and get the message about archives out to a larger audience, to different sets of stakeholders than your traditional library or university archives or historical society.
So, I think that the discussion is begun in library school but I don’t think it's been taken as far as it really ought to go. There are a lot of things that we discussed in library school that were oriented more towards traditional repositories that are not quite as applicable. Some things are really out of my hands in terms of preservation decisions—environmental controls for instance—I do not have a space in which I have any level of authority over that. I play the hand that I’m dealt and occasionally make a stink if things are getting ridiculous, but in library school, we’re given this image of the archivist as being the master of everything within his or her domain and I just don’t think it’s the truth—or at least not mine!
When you're outside a university or traditional repository, you don't have the infrastructure that allows you to take that level of control. We really need to start accepting that reality in our professional literature, and even library school instruction. Our position is just asserting whatever little authority over the records we are given
and trying to make the best of it, rather than talk about these ideal situations where we all have unlimited resources and the full understanding of our organizations. There are really just so many more layers to the onion in reality that in library school they just basically train you to take for granted. I feel as if library school taught us to feel ashamed if we don’t follow best practices to the letter.
There's a lot to be said about the way our traditional understanding of archives is rooted in a patriarchal view: “Oh, I am the Archivist—I am in command of these records, they are at my disposal.” We saw some of these attitudes in library school, particularly among certain older, white, male faculty—or at least, that’s what this white male has seen.
In addition to your work as an archivist, you are also a writer, minister, and artist. I’m wondering, are these things mutually exclusive in your life? Does your professional work inform your creative and spiritual practice and vice versa?
Actually, I originally got into archives as a result of my writing. Before I went to library school, I was writing historical fiction and I realized that my preferred career at the time—going into academia—was just not tenable. The casualization of academic labor pretty much laid to waste the idea that I was ever going to have a tenured track position, so I thought, “What's something that I can do that will still allow me to be stimulated and think creatively? Well, I work with all these historical materials for research...” and that's how I got into archives.
The archives have informed how I think about things in a creative sense. I do a lot of paper art, collage work; I am now very cognizant of the differences in the types of paper I work with, because I know how quickly they'll decompose, or how long an adhesive will stay in place, because I deal with brittle old paper all the time, or tape or glue. It's amazing how those kinds of concerns will start to preoccupy you in an artistic sense.
Spiritually, that’s a really difficult question to answer. It has certainly complicated my view of the human experience more than anything else. Watching the collecting habits—being an archivist you see how things are collected and how people store things without really any consideration of the idea that anybody after them would use it. When I come across an unlabeled photo I always think, “Did people never think that anybody else would need to know what this picture is about?” It's not a consideration, I guess. In a way it really puts into perspective how our view of time is really fixed around ourselves.
The continuity of human experience, too, just seeing how time moves and how certain things change very gradually or very suddenly over a large course of time. To go to some post-structuralist thought, you really see this Deleuzian ‘univocity of being’—basically the idea of many, many voices becoming one voice, all these little patterns of things happening in history, moving in and out of different periods of time that still form this one continuous very singular narrative of history.
The idea of a larger human “collective consciousness” kind of becomes real in archives…
Yeah. That's informed my spirituality in terms of thinking about human experience beyond my own individual mortality—which can be a pretty real thing to have to think about! Our jobs deal with death a lot, of course. Most of the reason that we have anything in archives is because somebody died. Either a donor died and now you have their stuff or you’re trying to identify items and records that were left by people who are dead and can no longer explain to you their significance. So much of our job is dealing with the fact that when somebody's dead, you really don't have anything. You only just have these materials they left.
A lot of professionals have been saying that archivists should not ensnare themselves in too many larger philosophical questions about ontology or epistemology, these questions about knowledge and being and ways of knowing. I get that. There’s so much that goes on in a practical sense with archives that it's hard to keep track of it all, but I do think that it is necessary for archivists to read philosophy that involves both ideas about knowledge and knowing and learning and also the philosophy of history. Those are really important things for us to read and think about and apply to the larger frameworks of how we do our jobs. I’ve been working on an article about specifically the work of Deleuze, namely A Thousand Plateaus, which has implications on how different meta-structures of knowledge manifest in the archives. Likewise, despite people getting really confused about what it was meaning to discuss, Derrida’s Archive Fever asks how we should think about the need to “archive” anything. What role does the human need to “archive” have in the creation of new knowledge? These are questions archivists should be asking.