5 Apr 2013

A Living Archive: William McDonough

From Sustainable Brands

William McDonough, an American architect, is one of the first living archives. This New York Times article explains that McDonough "has started filming all of his meetings and recording all of his phone conversations. He will send them in something close to real time to Stanford, which will be making much of the material immediately accessible on the Internet." The article suggests that this will work in direct contrast with traditional archives in which an "aging famous person puts together his correspondence and drafts, hires an agent and sells the material to the institution that offered the most loot. [...] Scholars would then slowly come pick through the material, which sometimes carried restrictions for decades". 

The article’s tone suggests that the manner in which ‘traditional’ archives function should be superseded as they are based on commercial gain (loot), elitism (scholars) and cumbersome restrictions. The restrictions placed on traditional archives are sometimes requested by the author/donor, however, restrictions are also enforced by others – people referred to in letters, for example. Before it is made public, the archivist is responsible for combing the archive for material which may impinge on the privacy of third parties. The scholar using the archive is aware of the restrictions on the material.

Is the editing hand on McDonough’s ‘living archive’ as transparent? McDonough has to gain permission from those on the other end of the phone or in the meeting with him. McDonough suggests that refusal to allow permission has occurred “twice out of a thousand”. Although this assurance appears to dispel these queries and implies that we are receiving unmediated, open access into his life, the constant stream of material is still being shaped in hidden ways. For example, will third parties referred to in conversations have a say? The article admits that “The privacy implications of this are still somewhat murky”.

Another article on the subject draws attention to the opportunity for collaborative archiving. It notes “The libraries will use the digital components to create a set of open-source archival technologies allowing creators, archivists and selected contributors to actively participate in the project.” This sounds like, potentially, the most interesting and groundbreaking part of the project, although the details remain unclear at this point.

As archivists begin to create new parameters for dealing with privacy relating to born digital materials, ‘living archives’ offer both an exciting step forwards and a new set of difficult questions for archivists and scholars alike.