Kairos 17.3

Construction for the Infinite

As archivist-researchers, our positions are marked by time and geography. A primary marker of this location in time and geography is what Kenneth Burke (1966) has called our terministic screen. Although we are unable to avoid these screens that shape our reconstructions of these cards, we are able to acknowledge them and to help researchers acknowledge the shaping force of these screens in the meaning they take away from the archive. As an acknowledgement of these terministic screens, our construction of the archive has sought to make explicit the ways in which the archive is a reconstruction of the cards housed within it—only one possibility from an infinite number of ways this could be done.

The clearest way that our terministic screens shape the archive is through the subject heading vocabulary that describes the cards. This vocabulary reflects collaboration that began when Stephen and Katie entered the first 24 cards into the archive and continued as Michael and our undergraduate interns joined the process and began looking at the cards. It was through these conversations about what it was that we were seeing on these cards that we were able to begin uncovering the terministic screens that shaped the ways each of us saw them. For example, we were forced to ask ourselves, at what point do we assume that a group standing on the beach is a family or that a man and a woman are a couple? The terministic screens marked by our current time and local geography provide answers to these questions.

Head southwest from Oklahoma City on Interstate 44 and you'll pass Ninnekah, Oklahoma, the destination of postcard DS-17 in 1907. This card, titled [Man and Child], was sent to one Mr. Geo B Alben who was in “Indian Territory” when he received this card from an unsigned sender in Howe, Indiana. A balding man with a young boy on his shoulder is pictured on this card. When the card is held to a bright light a woman in the arms of a handsome man with dark hair and a mustache appear in the background. The card hints to viewers that the young boy on the man's shoulder is his son and that the woman in the arms of another man is the balding man's wife. Writing "hold this to the light and you will see," the original sender of this card seems to coyly hint to Mr. Alben, stationed on the frontier at the turn of the century, that this is what his wife does with a man named Jack when Mr. Alben is not around.

What do we as archivist-researchers see when we look at the imagery on this card through the terministic screens that emerge from our location within the 21st century university? What, we are forced to ask ourselves, are the visual markers of gender? family? marriage? race? How do we negotiate these borders of time and geography in our construction of the archive? As we reflect on these questions, we are reminded of Heather MacNeil’s (2012) observation that archival description constitutes its own genre and is itself a form of social action (p. 3).

While there is no one rule guiding how we will answer these questions, we have made it a point to be consistent in the data that the research-archivists working on this project are entering. To ensure this consistency, we have developed a password-protected wiki to which all of our archivists have access. This wiki reflects the work of our archive to carry “recordkeeping systems forward across time and domains of use” (Cunningham, 2008, p. 532). Adrian Cunningham also wrote in “Digital Curation/Digital Archiving” that the challenge of preserving a sense of records in their context within a digital archive is “achieved through complex, dynamic, interlocking and finely engineered metadata regimes” such as the two that we are continually working to develop within the FSU Card Archive (p. 533). This wiki reflects the dynamic nature of the archive and the metadata vocabulary that we are using the represent the artifacts within it. This vocabulary has been collaboratively formed through a series of exercises in seeing, exercises that confront our terministic screens and force us to take these screens into account as we shape and reshape the archive.

The archivist identified PC-DS 17 [Man with Child] as a greeting card because of the greeting in the lower righthand corner of the card: "Unlucky man, yours is a mournful lot; To mind the kids and cook the meals, while wifey joys forbidden steals. It's better to be single, is it not?" After identifying the genre of the card, the archivist went to the wiki and choose from the subject headings that are listed there. For example, the subject headings for this card are: humor, man, boy, child, couple. As we construct for the infinite, however, this wiki continues to be a critical tool for the archive (Werner, 2011). It allows the vocabulary to evolve slowly over time as more cards are added by archivist-researchers and user-added tags grow in popularity. These tags reflect the terministic screens of visitors to the archive—terministic screens that should not necessarily be excluded from our subject headings. As the frequency of these tags increases, archivists will add these tags as subject headings to our wiki.

Neal ・ Bridgman ・ McElroy