Saturday, March 31, 2012

Pic of batch #1, and bottling #3: American Pale Ale

#1: Coopers Real Ale

Well, a quick beer update. Tried Batch #2—the Black Rock Pilsner—this week, which is close to 4 weeks old now. It's still a little young I think, but it has come out as a super drinkable, refreshing Pilsner. It's got a bit more depth than the Batch #1 thanks to the Copper Tun enhancer, but still not as hoppy as I'd like (think Wigram Bohemian Pilsner, or the Three Boys Pilsner). This may change over time, but I definitely think the addition of some Riwaka or Tettnanger Hops would do the trick. Also, Batch #1—the Cooper's Real Ale—is heaps better now that it is 8 weeks old. The sugar taste is still there, but its flavorsome and quite nice. The picture above is of the Coopers Real Ale.

Today my friend and I bottled Batch #3, which will hopefully be close to an APA (American Pale Ale)—a hoppy, aromatic ale that's bitter, but not quite as bitter as an IPA. Here's a run down of the ingredients, and a few pics to boot.

Batch #3: American Pale Ale (APA)

Method: Kit + Enhancer + Hops
Ingredients: Muntons Traditional Bitter Kit (35-45 EBU, 27-33 EBC), Copper Tun English Bitter Enhancer, Golding Hops (0.5oz pellets as a tea), Chinook Hops (1oz pellets, dry hopped)
Original Gravity: ???
Final Gravity: 1020
ABV: ???
Bottles: Glass (500ml, 330ml).
Bottled: 31-03-2012

Grabbed the Muntons Traditional Bitter Kit, which had one of the higher bitter ratings off the shelf, and spiced things up with 2 varieties of hops (in pellet form). Using a pre-boiled and sanitised stocking, I boiled 0.5oz of Golding Hops in 3L of water, making a really aromatic hop tea (this method won't get any bitterness from the hops, just flavour and aroma). This replaced the hot water I usually use from the kettle. We then added the Copper Tun Enhancer, stirred well, and poured in cold water to make 22L at 22 degrees. It smelt awesome, and the kit was nice and bitter—more so than the last two kits.

Now here's were we made a mistake. We didn't stir the cold water into the hot, which meant that when I took a hydrometer reading it was only at 1030. We did gently stir and swish around the yeast, but yeah, the density of the mix was really uneven. When I took a reading from the tap, it was over 1090 (eek!). Note to self: stir before adding the yeast to aerate properly.

Four days later, I bagged 1oz of Chinook Hop pellets in a sanitised stocking and placed them into the fermenter. This will hopefully add more complexity to the flavour and aroma, and give it that APA touch.

Which leads to today's bottling. We had a sneaky taste of the beer, and wow! Nice and bitter, and smelt awesome. Obviously still pretty green, very opaque still (a light brown/mud colour), but that will change over time. Like the last batch, it never passed 1020. I wonder if this is from not stirring, or maybe I need some more fermentables as the Enhancer isn't enough. But apart from that, I'm really excited about this one. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Sex, Race, and Class: new book of Selma James' writings

The good folk over at PM Press have just released Sex, Race and Class, a collection of texts by Selma James (not to be confused with her excellent article of the same name). James has been at the forefront of the Wages for Housework campaign, and making visible the role of domestic work and unwaged labour (such as women's reproductive labour) in capital. From the site:

"In 1972 Selma James set out a new political perspective. Her starting point was the millions of unwaged women who, working in the home and on the land, were not seen as “workers” and their struggles viewed as outside of the class struggle. Based on her political training in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, founded by her late husband C.L.R. James, on movement experience South and North, and on a respectful study of Marx, she redefined the working class to include sectors previously dismissed as “marginal.”

For James, the class struggle presents itself as the conflict between the reproduction and survival of the human race, and the domination of the market with its exploitation, wars, and ecological devastation. She sums up her strategy for change as “Invest in Caring not Killing.”

This selection, spanning six decades, traces the development of this perspective in the course of building an international campaigning network. It includes the classic The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community which launched the “domestic labor debate,” the exciting Hookers in the House of the Lord which describes a church occupation by sex workers, an incisive review of the C.L.R. James masterpiece The Black Jacobins, a reappraisal of the novels of Jean Rhys and of the leadership of Julius Nyerere, the groundbreaking Marx and Feminism, and “What the Marxists Never Told Us About Marx,” published here for the first time.

The writing is lucid and without jargon. The ideas, never abstract, spring from the experience of organising, from trying to make sense of the successes and the setbacks, and from the need to find a way forward."
"It's time to acknowledge James’s path-breaking analysis: from 1972 she re-interpreted the capitalist economy to show that it rests on the usually invisible unwaged caring work of women."  —Dr. Peggy Antrobus, feminist, author of The Global Women’s Movement: Origins, Issues and Strategies
“For clarity and commitment to Haiti’s revolutionary legacy…Selma is a sister after my own heart.”  —Danny Glover, actor and activist

“The publication of these essays reflects in concentrated form the history of the new society struggling to be born. Their appearance today could not be timelier. As the fruit of the collective experience of the last half-century, they will help to acquaint a whole new generation with not only what it means to think theoretically, but, more importantly, the requirement of organization as the means of testing those ideas. In this respect, Selma James embodies in these essays the spirit of the revolutionary tradition at its most relevant.”  —Dr. Robert A. Hill, Literary Executor of the estate of C.L.R. James, University of California, Los Angeles, Director, Marcus Garvey Papers Project

“In this incisive and necessary collection of essays and talks spanning over five decades, Selma James reminds us that liberation cannot be handed down from above. This is a feminism that truly matters.”  —Dr. Alissa Trotz, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Director of Caribbean Studies, University of Toronto

“With her latest book, Selma James reaffirms what has been evident for some time:  she is—quite simply—not only one of the most outstanding feminist thinkers of her generation but, as well, an insightful and exceedingly intelligent political analyst.”  —Dr. Gerald Horne, historian and author, John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston

About the Author:
Selma James is a women's rights and anti-racist campaigner and author. From 1958 to 1962 she worked with C.L.R. James in the movement for West Indian federation and independence. In 1972 she founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign, and in 2000 helped launch the Global Women's Strike whose strategy for change is "Invest in Caring not Killing". She coined the word “unwaged” which has since entered the English language. In the 1970s she was the first spokeswoman of the English Collective of Prostitutes. She is a founding member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. She co-authored the classic The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community which launched the “domestic labour debate.”  Other publications include A Woman’s Place (1952), Women, the Unions and Work, or what is not to be done (1972), Sex, Race and Class (1974), Wageless of the World (1974), The Rapist Who Pays the Rent (1982), The Ladies and the Mammies—Jane Austen and Jean Rhys (1983), Marx and Feminism (1983), Hookers in the House of the Lord (1983), Strangers & Sisters: Women, Race and Immigration (1985), The Global Kitchen—the Case for Counting Unwaged Work (1985 and 1995), and The Milk of Human Kindness—Defending Breastfeeding from the AIDS Industry and the Global Market (2005).

Her writing is indeed compelling, conveying in simple and understandable terms the mechanics of capitalist exploitation, and its effect on women. Marx and Feminism is such a great piece, and it's worth getting the book for this alone. Other online articles worth reading are Sex, Race and Class; The Power of Women...; and Women, the Unions, and Work, Or... What is not to be Done.

Make sure you grab this one.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Images from the 1913 Great Strike

I've been looking through images of the 1913 Great Strike on BETA, the new combined finding aid for the Alexander Turnbull Libray and the National Library. After writing about it, its surreal to look at the images and then picture the event. Here's a collection of some of the best ones (sorry for the lack of captions—search '1913 Strike' here for more info).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Alec Icky Dunn

Thought I'd share the amazing work of Alec Icky Dunn, another Justseeds collaborator and radical cultural worker. Alec has kindly said yes to illustrating my forthcoming book on anarchism in New Zealand, which will be published by AK Press in the summer. You can find more at his blog here.

Urewera 4: hung jury

From October 15th: ‘We consider the inability of the jury to make a decision on Count 1 in the Urewera case a victory. The inability of the jury to make a decision on Count 1 in the Urewera case is evidence that the crown’s story doesn’t stack up. We have always said that this charge was laid specifically in order that the crown could use evidence it knew was illegal in order to secure convictions on firearms charges. It is a stitch up from start to finish’ said Valerie Morse from the October 15th Solidarity group.

‘The Supreme Court’s decision in September last year stated unequivocally that the evidence was illegal. It couldn’t be used against those charged only under the Arms Act. For the five who were charged under section 98A – Participation in an organised criminal group, the evidence was admissible, despite it being illegal. This charge should never have been allowed.’

‘Operation 8 was a multimillion dollar police operation designed to harass Tuhoe and political activists. After six years, the crown has secured a few firearms convictions based on illegal evidence. This whole episode reveals the sad face of a racist country determined to quash Maori aspirations for sovereignty.’

Friday, March 16, 2012

Digging through the vaults: past writing on design

This text was written and self-published as a zine, From Punk to Proudhon? An autobiographical look at the poster, design, and screenprinting ideas of Garage Collective in mid-2008. Despite its age, a number of points are still relative to my practice today. I also wanted to save it from Myspace obsolescence!

I never wanted to be a graphic designer. At least not in the traditional sense — the faceless middle-man servicing the corporate body was something I didn't want to be. And when that's often the only direction encouraged within the design world, it becomes increasingly hard to find and explore alternatives, let alone sustainable ones.

Inspired by one part ego, one part punk, and a good dash of 'politics', my alternative to the overly commercial realm of graphic design ended up as 'Garage Collective' — the banner under which my design and screenprint output has come to be known. Over time, Garage Collective has had a number of projects and sometimes confused directions — from local and international band's gigposters, grassroots political campaigns, features in a few exhibitions (as well as one of my own), numerous zines and writings (This Is Not A Mannifesto — Towards An Alternative Design Practice), and my own personal screenprinted projects. It's these personal projects that have encouraged me to re-think, not only my own practice, but Garage Collective itself — it's current position and the possibility of other creative directions. The following text is the manifestation of that re-think.

Garage Collective was set up in my garage in Christchurch, New Zealand around August 2007, with the explicit intention of avoiding the design industry and all that it encompasses — advertising, profitability, marketing, consumption, and ultimately, the advancement of our current exploitative and illogical system — Capitalism. By setting myself up independent of this mainstream conception of design, I have been lucky enough to participate in projects which, in my mind, have been far more worthwhile and productive than encouraging profit margins, consumer culture, and an elitist design minority.

Whole-heartedly subscribing to the punk ethic of Do-It-Yourself, my dad and I built most of the equipment required to screenprint from scratch — a lightbox for exposure, the vacuum table — both crafted from some basic internet plans and a few trips to the hardware store. And while I knew I wanted to focus on the medium of screenprinting as a way of merging my interest in punk and design into screenprinted gigposters — my knowledge of screenprinting was basic at best. The best way to learn is by doing, so my skills as a rather lo-fi printer grew as I dived head first into production.

For me, gigposters are chronologically linked to the community notice board of old, as well as those decadent Victorian broadsheets packed with oxymoron's, chaotic type, and more often than not, a slightly warped sense of humour. They both spoke to a particular audience, and in the case of gigposters, not much has changed. The visual language of a subculture — gigposters often convey, through particular imagery and aesthetics, a set of codes meant only for those in the know. This idea of communication between like-minded individuals, bands, and other screenprinters and poster makers inspired the name 'Garage Collective'. Although not a literal collective, for me it has come to mean a loose gathering of shared ideas and ideals, of both the people I've physically worked with, as well as the people I get to share my visual interpretations with on the street and at the shows.

So, the initial phase of my practice was to design and print unique, hand crafted posters from my garage — gigposters, political posters — anything that was not intended to profit off the backs of others. No design firms, no major label bands, no advertising. To exist in this fashion, completely independent of the design industry, was in my mind, a political feat.

For close to two years this idea of independent and alternative printing has sustained Garage Collective and my individual practice. However, a growing interest in community and workplace struggle, and the ideas of non-hierarchal, direct action politics has meant I'm revaluating the direction of Garage Collective. My interest in band posters has dwindled, towards a greater interest in the role cultural and graphic work can play in political agitation and radical, collective struggle for social justice — as well as a more tangible political stance for Garage Collective, rather than simply existing independent of the design industry. This hasn't been a sudden shift in thinking — political and social causes were always on the agenda, as well as a visual sensibility that is (hopefully) more though-provoking than your typical band poster. Rather, it is a shift in priorities, with emphasis on the political winning out over the musical.

'Political' is a rather ambiguous term, one that can cover the spectrum of elections, political parties and parliamentary democracy to stencil art and sidewalk graffiti. The definition of political work I lean towards is what some may consider a-political — that is to say, completely devoid of parliamentary politics, with an emphasis on community building, self-determination, empowerment, economic emancipation, and most importantly, class awareness via cultural production. Sound like a mouthful? That's because it is, and comes with a number of issues that, as a creative person educated on the unfailable idea of artistic individualism and a bourgeois concept of 'insistence on form and knowledge of form' — can be rather problematic.

Subcultures, like elitism, are often extremely exclusive. Unfortunately, large aspects of design, art, and even activism can be rightly regarded as exclusive in their own ways — the uber fashionable, money-driven design culture, or the alienating, dogmatic 'know-it-all' vangaurdism of activism. Thus a problem arises — how do I, as an individual 'designer' interested in making socially concerned work, do so in a way that is inclusive, worthwhile, and ultimately empowering — not just for myself, but for those around me? When society places such an emphasis on the 'individual genius' of the artist and their final output, rather than their social commitment, it makes it rather hard for those completely disenfranchised by this understanding of artistic work to construct alternatives, completely free of the established connotations.

More than ever, I am finding that I am no longer concerned with the visual language of subcultures, whether it be musical (gigposters) or cultural (design) — but with building sustainable relationships and decentralised, social organisation with communities and everyday working people — in short, a wider and more inclusive demographic. Again, problems arise — what gives me the right, as a somewhat privileged, white, 'middle class', university educated designer, to seek out and interpret those communities through my creative practice? Is this kind of cultural approach even valid when compared with the various forms of drudgery forced upon us from every angle — that being social, economic, and political? Would my energies be better served somewhere else, in an entirely different form? These realities of everyday, working life strongly influence my thinking — whether it be artistic or not — and figure with a lot more clarity than they had previously.

Ultimately, cultural production is the most direct means available to me at this point, and as such, seem to be the most logical way to approach the vices of everyday life — vices which are not only perpetuated by social, economic, and political means, but increasingly cultural as well.

Cultural production, such as print and electronic media, plays an integral role in the current way of life. It is the means by which a monopoly of content and control by a few over the rest of us is kept in check. Consumption, and the spectacle of consumption, contribute to the alienation and social poverty we currently experience. "The powers that be are no dummies: they know that power largely rests on the unfettered spread of emotion, on illusions of success, symbols of strength, orders to consume, and elegies to violence" (Eduardo Galeano in "Upside Down"). Mass culture not only encourages us to buy and sell, it actively maintains the necessary prejudices and stereotypes that keep division, isolation and fear prominent in our class-based society.

Design is a conscious proponent of this hegemonic process, and an affluent one at that. That is why it is increasingly important to create alternative cultural perspectives or values, and illustrate the points of views based in reality that have been long silenced by the establishment — values that resonate with the majority of working people, rather than those of the folks selling it to us. And not just to create or romanticise these values on behalf of the 'low income' census statistics — but to empower and create awareness within, and amongst communities — of the effectiveness of class consciousness and direct, collective action towards social change.

Increasingly, I'm coming to realise that to do this, images are not enough. Like individual acts of dissidence — on their own they may educate, encourage or enrage — but unless they are linked with some aspect of wider struggle, they become obsolete.

So, the direction a socially concerned design practitioner could take becomes two-fold — cultural production that questions the dominant values and constructions of today, which in doing so, explores alternate possibilities — without alienating people and without their ideas becoming watered down in the process. Also, a practice that could deconstruct the privilege of the individual 'artist' while grounding their work in the realities of everyday life — in our communities and in the workplace. Whether this takes form as a co-operative print shop, art and screenprint workshops, community art or poster projects, or something else entirely — is something that I feel really excited (and challenged) to explore.

Thankfully, these ideas are not located in a void. Print collectives such as the Justseeds Visual Resistance Artists' Co-Operative, designers and websites such as those found in the Groundswell Collective, various exhibitions and community projects such as the Peoples History Project, Street Art Workers, and Paper Politics, as well as designers and artists (both home and abroad) — all are beginning to counter the webs of hegemony and control with their own communal and egalitarian forms of artistic solidarity — between practitioners and people, between creativity and community.

Alternatives to the mainstream conception of art and design do exist. It's just a matter of creating them ourselves.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Home brewing: the start of an obsession?

20 x 500ml bottles of Black Rock Pilsner

As a kid, I grew up with home brew. My dad had a whole heap in the garage or in the hot water cupboard, and I distinctly remember that malty sweet smell of the wert pre-mixing. So I guess I was always going to end up giving it a go at some stage. Little did I know it would take over my thoughts as much as it has! Despite the fat that I've only put down two brews so far, and despite only tasting one of them, I can't help but elaborately plan the next one in my mind. In the meantime, and to distract me, here's a run down of my initial brewing experience.

Batch 1: Coopers Real Ale

Method: Kit
Ingredients: Kit, Cane Sugar
Original Gravity: 1040
Final Gravity: 1010
ABV: 4.5%
Bottles: Glass, 750ml, 500ml, 330ml.
Bottled: 26-01-2012

After talking about beer one afternoon, my friend and neighbour Caleb rocked around a week later with a fermenter and related gear he had found cheap on trade me. He also picked up our first kit, a Coopers Real Ale. A week or so later, after sanitising all our gear, we got to work.

Unfortunately we didn't really do much other than follow the instructions. We used white (cane) sugar, and only found out after the brew was fermenting that it's cane sugar that creates the cidery, sour taste usually associated with home brew. Apparently things have come a long way, and using Beer Enhancers or different fermentables (such as extract or other kinds of sugars) is now the way to go. We also had no o-ring on our lid, took hydrometer readings by removing the lid, and when we bottled, we didn't invert the bottles to mix in the priming sugar.

Nonetheless, considering the primitive method and lack of temperature control (it stood alone in the garage), the brew came out a nice copper/amber colour, with plenty of bubbles and a nice head. After two weeks the beer really was quite cidery, but with age it has improved considerably. Last I checked it was very drinkable, but still had that slight cane sugar taste and lacked complexity.

We used a number of bottle sizes, to experiment with taste and because I think 750ml would be too much for us to drink if you only wanted a glass after work. So my bottle of choice is now the 500ml short, stubby bottles as used by Emersons.

Getting serious

Having discovered some books and websites, I decided to get a bit more serious. Again, trade me came to the rescue — I managed to pick up an old Kelvinator fridge that had been converted to a brew room, complete with heat lamps and thermostat, for a mere $30! This means we can brew at a set temperature all year round. Fitted it with a temperature gauge and removable shelves for bottle conditioning at controlled temps. I also picked up a better air-lock, temperature sticker for the fermenter, and an o-ring for a better seal.

Lights on in the warm box/fridge. Screws are to hold the shelf at back for bottle conditioning.

Batch 2: Black Rock Export Pilsner

Method: Kit
Ingredients: Kit, Copper Tun Pilsner Beer Enhancer
Original Gravity: 1.040
Final Gravity: 1.020
ABV: 3.2%
Bottles: Glass, 750ml, 500ml, 330ml.
Bottled: 01-03-2012

I wanted to try out a Pilsner, so we grabbed the Black Rock Export Pilsner Kit and this time used a Copper Tun Beer Enhancer, which is a sugar replacement containing dextrose, hops, malt extract, and other goodies. This is not a true Pilsner as it uses an ale yeast an ferments at higher temperatures (real lagers use lager yeast at cooler temps), but is still meant to be quite nice.

The smell and taste of the initial mix was considerably nicer than the first batch. You could smell a little bit of aroma from the Copper Tun—not heaps, but enough to be excited. Stirred in the yeast this time, and put it in the warmer at around 24 degrees. The airlock did its thing and so we waited a few days before taking a reading.

For some reason, the hydrometer never recorded anything below 1.020. I was worried about this, but a check online showed that many kits never reach their intended gravity. So we left it to ferment for a total of 10 days, making sure that fermentation had ceased and that the readings were constant. We bottled it using carbonated drops, and the beer itself looked a golden yellow. Smelt great too, a little bit hoppy but not super aromatic. Back into the fridge it went for a further 5 days at 20 degrees.

We're waiting a little bit to try this beer. This Thursday will be 2 weeks in the bottle, so after that I'd say. The beer has cleared heaps, has a good bubble in the bottle when inverted, and fingers crossed, will taste good. Bit gutted about the final gravity, but we'll see. Check back for an update! [CLICK HERE]

What's next?

I do want to give extract brewing a go and use malts and hops to get more control over the process, but for now I'd be happy with 2 or 3 really good kit styles, successfully customised and brewed. Next time around on the Pilsner I think I'll add my own hops—maybe whole hopped in the fermenter during the mix, and some dry hopping later on. Thinking Motueka Hops, or maybe Riwaka (as Emersons uses that and it would be interesting to compare).

Next batch I want to do is a bitter, maybe an APA, or even an IPA. There's some good write ups on the Coopers Brewmaster IPA kit that is apparently quite hoppy, so could try that with some added hops.

Also found a great home brew blog called Beer and Garden by Aidan in Nelson, which has been helpful and is definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Casualisation on the docks: a ship we all don't want to berth

Casualisation on the docks: a ship we all don't want to berth
Workers at the Ports of Auckland have been on strike this week, with solidarity actions spreading nationally and internationally. Wellington, Tauranga and Lyttelton workers all threatened strike action and refused to unload 'black' cargo — cargo that had been worked on bu un-unionised labour — before being forced to do so by the Employment Court, which issued injunctions with the possibility of financial consequences. Latest actions have seen up to 3,000 workers protest in the streets of Auckland (with international affiliates present), and Australian workers refusing to unload black cargo in Sydney.

So what is the action about? Judging the comments on 'Stuff' and other news agents, it seems the issue of casualisation is swamped by tirades against union strong-arming, the undeniable existence of a Protestant work ethic, or the strange case of workers blaming economic conditions on the Port workers, rather than capital: "Three hundred over paid, under worked, unskilled and ungreatful EMPLOYEES are going to hold New Zealand ports, businesses and public at ransom becasue during hard economic times they want more than the average Kiwi. SHAME!!"

Yet the strike, and the preceding boardroom struggle before it, is essentially about casualisation — that is to say, the imposition of capital into even more areas of our lives. In the name of 'flexibility' and 'efficiency' the Ports of Auckland want workers to be on call 24-7, working casualised hours without permanent rosters and the benefits they entail. "In plain language, the employers are seeking this: that workers will turn up on site as and when required with no guarantee of paid employment."

Now we all now when bosses talk about 'flexibility' and 'efficiency' its doublespeak for raised profits. It means an increase in unpaid labour time — that part of our labour that is beyond what is needed in terms of wages, or in terms of what we as workers produce. An increase in productivity means the bosses get more for less.

Instead, what the Port workers want — like most of us — is to have a life. A life that isn't dominated by work, as opposed to a life where in order to survive we have to sell the biggest commodity of all — our labour-power. In protesting against casualisation, port workers are opening up a struggle against whether capital has the power to impose work on even more aspects of our already work-ridden lives.

That is why this struggle is an important one. The results of this struggle sets a precedent for working conditions across New Zealand, and as international supports have pointed out, across the globe. In essence, this struggle is about hanging on to what little aspect of our lives that are not directly dominated by work. Casualisation on the docks, in what has traditionally been one of the more militant union sectors, does not end at the shore's edge.

This struggle has begun to circulate, as is evident in the solidarity actions across various ports. However at the moment, the potential for this struggle to deepen seems tied to legal forms. It will be interesting to see whether port workers will go beyond employment law and the motions of the court, motions so obviously stacked against them. For example, it took the employers a matter of hours to bring injunctions against solidarity strike action (which is already illegal under law, thanks to the Labour Party), yet the injunction taken by MUNZ has been given a processing time of 2-3 weeks.

There is no doubt about the consequences such a move would mean. The full weight of the state, as evident throughout New Zealand's history, is poised against the workers. Yet the prevailing mood, a heightened sense of something being broken, and the conditions affecting all aspects of our working lives, has the potential to create possibilities. The circulation of struggle, especially one around the further imposition of work into our lives, is something almost all workers would benefit from. Making the issue of casualisation clear, and with a perspective that questions the extension of work (indeed, work itself), could resonate widely.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sedition #1: A Journal of Australian Anarchist Thought

Hot off the press is Sedition #1: A Journal of Australian Anarchist Thought, a beautifully designed collection of contemporary anarchist writing from Australia. The product of collaboration between MAC, Jura and Organise!, Sedition looks to be a good read.

From the Anarchy website: "Sedition is a mutual collaboration between three geographically disparate Australian anarchist collectives; Melbourne Anarchist Club, the Jura collective from Sydney, and Organise! – the Adelaide anarchist communist group. This project is a constructive medium for discussing the way forward for anarchist groups and anarchism in Australia, both in theory and praxis. We aim to establish better communication and organisational networks between our groups and to produce thought provoking literature."
Download it here, and have a peek at their website while you're at it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

'Walking the tightrope': article for NZLIMJ

The following is an article I wrote for the latest edition of New Zealand Library & Information Management Journal (Vol 52, Issue No 3 Oct 2011 ), on the balancing of archival principles with web technology.

The public library has been used by many, if not most, members of society—from toddlers to lifelong learners. Yet how many people have ever used an archive? How many know where their local archive is, or why it exists? Unfortunately (or thankfully, depending on one’s viewpoint), the use of archives pales in comparison to that of libraries and museums. The perception of archives, and those who staff them, remains squarely in the shadowy realm of dust and dank.

Yet the far-from-dim world of digital technology provides new opportunities to make potential users aware of archives, and encourage their use. Web sites, chat technology, and interactive web tools (referred to as Web 2.0) are “changing the ways that archivists interact with their patrons,” and how patrons “approach archival research and how they view their archival interactions” (Daines & Nimer, 2009). Digital technology can also improve the services already drawn upon by archival users (such as genealogists, historians, and students), and make them more effective.

Archives—to create awareness and promote use—have embraced some of this digital technology. Online exhibitions have become a common feature on the websites of archives, and virtual reference (including chat service) is being offered by many repositories. However the move from onsite to online has raised a number of concerns, from the loss of archival principles to the provision of far-from-effective service.

If the use of digital technology is to play an important role in the perception of, and access to, archives in the twenty first century, the implementation of that technology is increasingly pertinent. Regardless of their current shortcomings, archives need to continue to invest in digital technology—not only to avoid becoming “quaint anachronisms in a world of instant data communication, high technology, and rapid change” (Jimerson, 1989, p.333), but to provide effective service for current (and future) users of archives.

The Digital World Meets Archives
Effectively harnessing digital technology offers archives and their users countless possibilities. As Lester argues, “technological developments mean that the web offers archives the chance to develop new and innovative ways of conveying their message,” allowing users “a greater exploratory and active role, thus enhancing the learning experiences available” (2006, p.88). Both the access and use of the repository’s holdings can be improved through digital technology.

An archive’s homepage and its web presence (online exhibitions, themed websites for children, and social media) “offers greater prospects for promotion” (Lester, p.87). But it is the improvement of archival services that digital technology offers the most potential. Being online makes access available to reference services, collections and records previously off-limits due to geographical location or time restraints. “Many more people will have the opportunity to exploit the archive’s holdings, through research facilities such as online finding aids and email requests, and digitalised or transcribed representations of specific records” (Lester, p.88). For budding genealogists, busy historians, or students without means of travel, the digital realm opens a new door to the archive.

While historians conducting in-depth are likely to prefer browsing physical records (Duff & Johnston, 2002), the increasing number of non-academic users with less time or less needs would benefit more from web innovations (Cox, 2007). Genealogists using Archives New Zealand would find its digitalised records of the New Zealand Military Forces extremely helpful in their search for family activity during the First World War, while the in-depth administrative histories offered on Archway [Archives New Zealand’s finding aid] provide a great source of secondary information for students and others, at the click of a mouse.

Digital technology also empowers users previously on the margins of archival use. “Adaptive technologies” have the potential to “facilitate reference and access for handicapped patrons, including the visually impaired” (Cox, 2007). Optical character recognition for the blind, and other audio, visual and speech systems designed to enable further use by those with physical and mental disabilities, is just some examples of how digital technology could aid this often neglected demographic.

Similar interactive technology is also being used for the general user. The development of blogs, wikis, tagging and folksonomies—referred to as Web 2.0 technology—is increasingly employed by archives to encourage user participation and collaboration. Theses cumulative changes in digital technology enable software developers and end-users to use the World Wide Web in new and innovative ways to what it was originally intended (Wikipedia). It is also changing how archivists provide their services: “Web 2.0 technologies have transformed the Internet into a participatory experience,” technologies that could “radically re-contextualize [the archivist’s] work”(Daines & Nimer).

Blogs—websites formatted to provide diary-like entries of an individual or institution—“can be used by archives to publicize new items in the collection, as well as ongoing activities and events, while allowing for questions and feedback from users” (Perkins, 2011). The City of Vancouver Archive’s AuthentiCity blog, for example, uses photos, digitalised records, informative content and social media links to update users and promote further use.

Collaborative websites (wikis) that allow users to add or modify content about a repository’s finding aids, resources, and records, aid both users and archivists in innovative ways. Drawing on the users knowledge of certain collections, or their own search methods, provides a wealth of information for the effective use of an archive, with little effort to the archivist. “Reference archivists could take a similar approach [to reference librarians] in utilizing wikis to create a knowledge base of frequently asked questions” (Daines & Nimer), to the relief of the ever-busy archivist.

As well as adding content, allowing users to employ individualised keywords (‘tagging’) within online finding aids can enhance “the search and retrieval process as it allows users to implement their own natural language vocabulary and not be restrained by authoritative cataloguing terminology” (Yakel & Reynolds, 2006, as cited in Cox, 2007). In this way folksonomies “allow for another layer of access and description to be added to a collection, one which may establish connections archivists are unaware of” (Perkins). One example of this is the Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collection, a website which allows registered users to tag items.

However user participation through Web 2.0 also presents a number of pitfalls that archives need to be aware of. These include undermining the skills of professional content creators and archivists, the threat to “the authority and authenticity of archival collections” (Perkins), and the increase of user demands. As well as Web 2.0 tools, archives have to ensure that their general online services are effective. While digital technology can aid service, it can also perpetuate the problems experienced onsite, or worse, create a number of new issues.

Walking the Tightrope: Online exhibitions
According to Cook, public programming (including various digital technologies) taken to the extreme could “undermine both archival theory and the very richness of that documentary heritage which the new public programming would make available” (Cook, 1990/91). Too heavy a move towards the user from a materials-focus (and its related methods of appraisal, description and provision) could have major implications for the future of archives. Instead, Cook suggests a balance between increased promotion and core archival principles needs to be found.

Such a balancing act is particularly evident in online archival exhibitions. As Lester points out, if items are simply digitalised and made available without an emphasis on the archival principles of provenance and original order, or with no description of its context, the archival value of the record is lost (2006). Instead of simply downloading a digitalised record, or viewing it online as a stand-alone image, it should be accompanied by “the circumstances of their composition” in order to help the user determine “meaning, and why they were written” (Lester, p.93).

In order to combat the loss of context one would usually gain through the onsite exploration of collections, online exhibitions employ digital tools such as hyperlinks to point to contextual information, secondary sources, and finding aids to the record on show. Although “the virtual exhibition cannot provide an encounter with the ‘real thing’”, online tools can “allow the user to understand and be able to do far more than she or he could do in a physical exhibition” (Lester, p.95).

An Archives New Zealand exhibition, An Impressive Silence,[1] used video, hyperlinks and descriptive content to ground the records in the wider context from which they were created. Its free-flowing form and the rich historical information on offer provided an innovative source for students and others wanting to learn about New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War.

However the records themselves were pulled from their archival bonds without reference to provenance and original order. Apart from a title and an archive reference number, the user is not told who created the record, where it came from, and what else is the series. Such a neglect of archival principles, besides keeping Cook awake at night, illustrates the record’s loss of archival value when digitalised and displayed online. And although these issues are still present in a physical exhibition, the online exhibition’s use of digital tools gives the archivist a better chance of not falling short.

Passchendaele Casualty Forms, another Archives New Zealand online exhibition, takes a different approach. Focused more on records themselves, this exhibition displays Army personnel forms alphabetically in order to seemingly meet the needs of genealogists used to searching by name. “Genealogists… wanted lists of names, or names indexes, or search engines that retrieved by name to facilitate their research” (Duff & Johnson, 2003, p.85). Large digital reproductions of the records indexed in a way familiar to these users meets such a need. Yet in this case, the emphasis on the records far outweighs the contextual information given, and like An Impressive Silence, does not find the successful ‘middle line’ (Lester, p.93). Unfortunately for the user, neither exhibition utilized Web 2.0 technology, which could have added a unique layer of interpretation to the records on display.

Education, and not just of historical facts, is a major component to online exhibitions. As well as creating awareness around the topic on show, educating the user on how and why archives are organised in order to promote more effective use is equally as important. For a generation of Google users, the uniqueness of archival principles can be alienating. If online exhibitions are light on archival principles then they fail in the task of archival education, albeit in an aesthetically pleasing manner. In the case of online exhibitions, digital technology may increase use; but whether that use is effective is open to debate.

Onsite vs Online Reference
One aspect of archival service that has radically changed through the use of digital technology is reference. “Technology now allows users to submit their queries… at any time from any place in the world” (American Library Association, 2008). Users, wherever they may be, can now contact a reference archivist electronically via a website or email, or in real-time using instant messaging and other means.

Virtual reference provides a range of new opportunities for those previously cut off from the archive due to disability, geography, or time. As described above, digital technology (and Web 2.0) can facilitate reference service in new and innovative ways. However it also creates new headaches for archives. Not only does virtual reference create more work for the archivist, the archivist’s work is expected to be carried out ‘instantly’; that is, at the speed of which Internet users have come to except.

The digital medium itself also provides issues. During onsite reference, archivists employ a number of verbal and nonverbal cues to make the user feel at ease, and to determine the user’s information need. Complex question negotiation is used in order to effectively match the user’s real need to the repository’s holdings (Long, 1989, p.45), while instruction is provided so the user can “learn more about the collections by carrying out their own research” (Trace, 2006, p.134). A rapport between the archivist and user ensures these components are successfully met in order to be effective.

Such techniques, however, are difficult to replicate in a virtual setting. “Unfortunately, chat rooms are not as easily navigated as a face-to-face conversation” (Cox, 2007), and the lack of verbal cues creates problems during and in closing the conversation. To help make up for the lack of cues one would experience face-to-face, archivists use “text characteristics or characteristics of nonverbal cues such as punctuation, emoticons, font, capital letters or abbreviations” (Duff, 2011). These cues go some way in ensuring online users receive “the same communication and interpersonal skills” as other forms of reference (ALA, 2008).

According to ALA guidelines [there are no virtual reference guidelines as yet for archivists, an issue in itself], question negotiation is supposed to take place during remote reference. However time restraints, and the issue of writing versus speaking, can impact the quality of the exchange. I experienced this firsthand during a Library of Congress online chat—there was no reference interview, no question negotiation, and the process itself felt rushed. Compared to my onsite experience at the Macmillan Brown library, where I received a degree of question negotiation, the virtual reference was far from effective (and enjoyable).

Another major issue is instruction. Considering the difficulty most people have when confronted with the archival principles of provenance and original order, education plays an important role in the effective use of an archive. However this educational component can often fall short during virtual reference. A study by Duff & Fox found that “reference archivists spend almost half their time at the reference desk teaching onsite users how to use archival systems, however, remote reference services rarely involves instruction” (Duff & Fox, 2006, as cited in Duff, 2011). Again, virtual reference has a lot of complex issues to contend with if it is to ensure a service equal to onsite reference.

Nilsen argues that digital technology “is not improving or speeding up reference service… but perpetuating problems that have not been resolved in face-to-face-reference” (Nilsen, 2004, as cited in Cox, 2007). Likewise, exhibitions that do not strike a balance between interpretive information and archival principles fail to provide “a learning experience grounded in the content of the record,” at the expense of the document’s “archival significance and value” (Lester, p.96).

Having recently viewed of two online archival exhibitions, and experienced both onsite and online reference, Nilsen and Lester’s concerns seemed vindicated. The seeds of superior service were there, but issues with the digital technology I encountered meant delivery and service never fully bloomed.
However, issues concerning effective digital service are not the result of digital technology itself. Rather, it is the lack of effective education, investment and evaluation of the delivery of online services that is hindering the maximum use of digital technology by archives. Time, energy and funding would go some way in resolving the issues currently experienced in the digital realm. A key to this includes the training of staff in the effective use of digital technology: “only through up-to-date training” can archivists “expand their knowledge and refine their skills in response to the changes brought about by social and technological developments” (Luo, 2009, p.210).

Online exhibitions, blogs, wikis and instant messaging are all tools; tools (like appraisal and description) that need practice, training, and more practice. Archives and archivists should not be scared to get their hands, or in this case, fingertips dirty. New users and new technology demand it.

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[1] An Impressive Silence is currently offline, but is expected to be made available once it is migrated to the new platform. See