From Fieldwork to Formalization: Implications for Archive Development


The fieldwork-to-formalization method is described by Clay Spinuzzi in the book Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. He explains that this method is often employed “in much user-centered design work” as a series of “descriptive, naturalistic studies of actual work…paired with abstract work models” (10). Spinuzzi acknowledges that these studies are “patterned after the ethnographies used in anthropology and sociology” that use “categorical and sequential descriptions of the work” as a way “to unearth the workarounds, innovations, and tacit practices workers have developed” (11). Ethnographic methods of description borrowed from other fields and applied in a user-centered design framework are, according to Spinuzzi, “suitable for generalizing, standardizing, regularizing, idealizing, and managing work” (11). In addition to the suitability of fieldwork-to-formalization methods to ground generalizations, Spinuzzi also contends that such methods “bridge field studies (including naturalistic work observations, unstructured interviews, and analysis of artifacts used in work) and information design” and “span boundaries between organizations…and between disciplines (11). The argument is that using a foundation of descriptive work practices is a useful way to connect what are often separated activities, the development of design ideals in an abstracted form with the realities experienced by those involved in their practical application. 

Spinuzzi’s discussion of this method is particularly relevant to this dissertation as it is an approach to the project I have frequently employed. The autoethnographic chapters are highly descriptive documentation of “actual work” practices, which are then “paired” with more abstract theory from scholarship in the analytic considerations. These narratives and considerations are then a suitable way of producing generalized knowledge about archive development while spanning the boundaries between archivists, rhetorical historiographers, and interface designers. 

In each of the autoethnographic chapters, the narrative description of the archival decisions and processes concludes with a discussion of several key considerations. These considerations represent generalizations from my particular experiences, in conversation with relevant scholarship, that have implications for researchers and archivists working with cultural archives. While serving as artifacts of the archive’s creation, these narratives make visible the often invisible work of archive development. However, by analyzing the narratives, clearly identifiable themes emerge that can be usefully applied as an instructive guide for other archive developers, regardless of discipline. They also introduce important questions into the scholarly discussions around archives about the material realities and theoretical positions inherent in this work. The implications below offer a summary of the most frequent and considerations raised in the autoethnographic data as a way to formalize the observations and reflections developed in the fieldwork. These conclusions operate similarly to how Collin Gifford Brooke explains his purposes for writing Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric on New Media. He offers, “My interest is in raising the concerns outlined in this book, not in answering them with any sort of finality” (197). This work functions in much the same way, without the explicit intention of producing a set of universal truths about developing archives, but to engage researchers in critical discussions, raising significant considerations, around the experiences described. The goal is not to use the fieldwork to formalize a set of answers, but perhaps to formalize the habit of reflexivity in archival work.


One of the most significant concerns for working with cultural archives is developing trust with stakeholders participants and the larger community. The entire project is founded on participation. From generating artifacts to obtaining accurate and detailed descriptions, and from helping to spread awareness of the project to engage with the constructed exhibit, having a solid foundation of trust is vital. It would be a mistake to assume participants will automatically trust researchers simply because they are a member of the community; operating from an external position as a researcher automatically creates a layer of distance between between the community and the researcher. It shifts the position of the researcher from one who is within to one who is outside and examining inwardly, which can insert a sense of distrust, a sense of caution about the researcher’s intentions and plans. It would also be a mistake to assume that participants’ pride in their culture and the strength of their connection to their cultural identities will supersede this trust-based concerns. Even if they have a desire to express cultural pride and share knowledge with others, researchers should not assume that they will be entrusted to receive or care for those expressions. The desire to build cultural awareness will not necessarily override those concerns and compel an individual to participate. 

Researchers should not underestimate the significance of robust participation for successful and valuable archive development. Assumptions about participation are often rooted in misconceptions about participant-researcher trust, and researchers must plan for the time and funding needed to build community trust as a significant part of the archival process. This may mean collaborating with trusted community leaders and organizations, investing in relationship-building by spending time with participants outside the role of researcher or artifact collector, and demonstrating a willingness to listen and learn, not as a way to further one’s own research agenda but from a genuine position of respect and humility. Trust is the life-blood of the cultural archive. It cannot exist without it. Time is needed to cultivate trust, but also to maintain it over the length of the project. Once the artifacts have been collected, the researcher should not assume that the need to continue developing the relationships with participants has ended. Transparency and communication about the project’s status, and continued invitations to participate in archival processes such as description, all feed into the development and maintenance of trust. A failure to maintain participant relationships is a breach of initial trust and constitutes an unethical practice in the cultural archive.

Another recurring theme throughout the autoethnographic data is the ongoing need to negotiate between stakeholder needs. It would be difficult to imagine an archival project, excepting perhaps a personal archive, without any competing stakeholders. Researchers and archivists typically work from within institutions, in various roles within those institutions, from certain disciplinary positions, in partnership with funding agencies, across organizational and disciplinary collaborations, and with members of cultural communities. This is in part because archival projects present such rich opportunities for collaborations across departmental, institutional, and civic boundaries They require tremendous resources and knowledge to initiate and grow, and there are often many components from the technologies needed to generate artifacts (photography, videography, digital audiovisual editing systems), to manage archives (accessioning and collection management systems), to developing the user experience of the archive (web design, interface design, metadata storage and maintenance). This is also coupled with the labor-intensive work of archiving, including tracking copyright permissions and correcting automatically generated transcriptions or OCR machine-encoded texts. It would be unrealistic to assume that one person could cultivate expertise in each of these areas or have the time to give to this work. Collaboration is often the best solution to achieve the intended outcomes; however, each of these connections shapes the archive as priorities and practices differ from group to group and researchers choose how to navigate between them. Researchers should anticipate that competing needs will be encountered at every stage, so it will be important to understand the power dynamics involved across archival stakeholders. 

When stakeholder needs contradict researcher purposes or are in conflict with the needs of other stakeholder groups, the researcher will need to evaluate the possible outcomes, weighing the ethical implications for those decisions, and proceed with transparency about the conclusions drawn. For example, collaboration with an institutional library may require using standardized interface design and ceding ownership over the archive to the institution. Obviously, the significant resources of an institutional library may help resolve the challenge of funding ongoing maintenance or having access to expensive archival technologies, but that benefit has to be negotiated with the drawbacks of lesser control over the exhibit design as a researcher and whether the standardization is acceptable in terms of authentic cultural representation. These conflicts cannot be governed by any universal set of rules, and each project must approach solutions that best manage such compromises. What researchers can do is develop a set of guiding principles based on the overall mission of the project. 

While collaboration is a powerful way to gain access to archival resources that aid development of new projects, researchers need to invest enough time in discussions with potential collaborators to understand exactly what they would require in exchange for their support, whether these requirements are negotiable, and what constraints the collaboration would place over researcher and cultural stakeholders’ autonomy. Before entering into a collaboration, researchers should evaluate whether the requirements are acceptable to the cultural group, understanding that some compromise—if not presenting an oppressive demand—may be acceptable in exchange for the benefits of resources and amplification. In the case of cultural archives that are designed to redress archival marginalization and exclusion, the mission must be to prioritize the needs of the cultural stakeholders above all others. This is the only ethical position that avoids further exploitation.

This implication is closely related to another key concept to emerge from the autoethnographic data, which is the realization the researcher operates at the intersection of many competing contexts and conditions that constrain agency at every level. It would be wrong to assume that researchers will be able to bring an idealized vision of the archive into existence as perfectly as it exists in the imagination. Limitations of time, funding, and knowledge often force the researcher to confront the conflict between an initial design idea or project goal and what seems possible in a given context of material realities. It is a common issue to realize that an archival resource, such as using PastPerfect software for collection management or using a robust content management system such as CONTENTdm, have associated costs that place them well outside the bounds of available funding. Funding impacts travel and artifact collection technology, which can also in turn require compromises, such as decreased image quality and fewer opportunities to grow the archive content. There are deadlines to be mindful of as well, whether those come from partner institutions, grant requirements, or from the timely production of a usable archive that can be delivered back to the donating community, and the need to meet such deadlines also often require that a compromise be made between an idealized outcome and one that can be realized in the given time frame. The researcher may also reach a knowledge limit where the imagined design is not readily achievable because the technological requirements exceed current expertise. 

While collaboration can aid in overcoming such limitations, there is again the constraint of time and funding (as compensation for the outside expert and their contributions) that may preclude the pursuit of such support. It will repeatedly be necessary to determine where an ideal must be sacrificed or expectations reduced as a result of these constraints. It does not mean an effective or valuable outcome will not be achieved, but it does mean that researchers should be prepared to deal with what can feel like a disappointing realization that the ideal is unattainable in the current context. The compromises should instead be accepted a part of the process, and the researcher should be prepared to make some concessions with contingencies in place for the most significant needs that should not be compromised. This reality of compromise and adjustment according to a principled mission is also indicative of the need to balance rigidly held methodologies with flexibility in the approach to adapt to unexpected occurrences. For example, in generating participation, I was confronted with the need to either expand my inclusion criteria from my originally conceived more narrow focus on the island of Sao Miguel or risk having severely limited family collections. While there are times where it is necessary to push through an obstacle to achieve a goal, making room for negotiation and flexibly adapting design to capitalize on the circumstances in reality are important in maintaining forward progress and growth.  

This acceptance of compromise can be ameliorated in some ways by transparent methodologies. Transparency, such an autoethnographic data, gives researchers a space to document the idealized goals while explaining and rationalizing the compromises. It allows researchers to acknowledge the limitations of the project and demonstrate that they are aware of any short-comings that still exist within the archive. It gives researchers a way to articulate that the compromises do not necessarily represent a failure of imagination or understanding about best practices, but that they do represent the best solution to the constraints. However, autoethnographic methods are not only self-serving; transparency creates access to creation and design processes that are often undocumented and hidden. This not only helps users understand the researcher’s positionality, biases, and assumptions and the archive’s developmental criteria and origins, it also can be useful to other researchers who want to develop archives as well. They can serve as a guide, identifying key decisions and pitfalls, but they also give researchers a tangible sense of the work.

For anyone outside of archival studies, the idea of “building an archive” can appear like a daunting task, but also one that feels a little like an opaque box of tasks. It is not clear what is inside, the scope and boundaries of the work cannot be seen, and the methods for starting and completing the work feel diffused across disciplines and multivalent. As Spinuzzi argues, autoethnographic methods often use “categorical and sequential descriptions of the work” that are suitable for generalization (11). In this project, the categorization results in six curatorial methods: concept, participation, funding, institutional influence, data collection and management, and interface design. Although the work is recursive, these categories are a good way to impose some boundaries on the work that make the development more manageable and focused. It gives other researchers a clear foothold and way of organizing the tasks and archival elements; it creates a generalized template that can be filled in with project-specific details. The categories developed here should not be thought of as fixed and static, and they should be added to or modified as needed, but they offer a comprehensive way to define the project’s scope and guide the specific areas that require documentation for transparency. 

Employing transparency in methods is a way to recognize the archive as rhetorical, discursive product. It is a situated history, constructed from an interested position. The archive is a kind of persuasive argument and composed articulation of how artifacts should be contextualized and understood within a larger relational network. Its development, organization, and design is an expression of that argument, which means that the modes of production are also rhetorical. Every decision is rhetorically salient. Each shapes the archive, its purpose, its audience, its representation of the world, and its contextualization of the artifacts. The totality of the decisions influences the way a user experiences the artifacts and how that experience intermingles with their existing knowledge to produce new knowledge. We understand that meaning is made at the intersection of the archivist’s curatorial decisions, the user’s lens (crafted by prior knowledge and experiences), and the materiality of the archival interface. We also understand that the archivist’s decisions are also shaped by layers of influence as well, from scholarly biography to scope of knowledge and skills. As such, we must attend to the issues around archivist ethos, the qualifications and positionalities that contribute to the decision-making process and archive execution. While this ethos is deeply connected to knowledge and skills, as well as being a function of access to technology and partnerships, it is important to understand that the archive cannot be detached from the imprint of the archivist; the archivist’s rhetorical performance of the archive significantly factors into matters of interpretation. Transparency that offers an opportunity to consider the archivist’s ethos is one way to take responsibility to the rhetorical implications of decision-making in the archive.

The transparency is also a key aspect of ethical archival processes. Working honestly and providing an opportunity for critique and feedback on the decision-making process is part of the ethics of working in cultural archives, which is another affordance of using autoethnographic methodology and including these narratives within the archive. Ethical concerns frequently centered around working with participants and the handling of their artifacts, both in preservation and representation. Although I would not be able to enumerate a list of ethical guidelines to effectively address every concern, I would argue that the guiding principle is one of respect and humility. It is a position that recognizes one’s own limitations and does not assume that the inherent authority to control the archive, especially as participants sign waivers and releases, is not absolute. That authority must be understood as always emanating from the participants and the cultural stakeholders. It is a permission granted to the researcher, a shared gift, not a power inherent in their position as the archivist. From this framework, the duty of the researcher is not to an externally developed set of archival practices, nor is it to an institutional sponsor or collaborative partner. It is not even a duty to the artifacts themselves. It is an ethically-bound duty to honor the people. Researchers should think less of their work as building an archive and more about what it means to help people learn about archives and the power of cultural representation that they can enable. It should be more about helping those people determine what archives can mean in their own lives, how they can be used, and in delivering those determinations in archival form.   

It is fitting that this conclusion about appropriate ethical positioning being more of an emotional stance than a regulatory one. In many ways, this entire project is connected to an affective attachment and emotional instincts centered around my grief and a desire to reclaim the cultural identity that felt threatened by those losses. It speaks to the way emotion is intertwined in the fabric of the archive, from the affective ties that inspire its conceptualization to overcoming the anxieties or self-doubts that can be wrapped around believing in the project’s validity and our own capabilities. We also see emotion emerge as an undercurrent in the archive when we engage in the relational nature of working with participants, generating feelings of trust and developing empathy for participants in extended interactions in their homes and with their personal stories. We see emotion in the concerns over the ethical management of artifacts and their presentation as a result of having been entrusted to do so by those participants and the deeply reflexive practices of evaluating the artifact contextualization. It comes in the excitement over sharing the archive with participants and the relief of their positive reactions. It comes in the validation from emails written by potential new contributors who reach out on the strength of the archive they have seen. While archival projects can be undertaken without emotional attachment, and often do, it does not mean that the inclusion of emotional connections will detract from the outcomes either, which is often the position of traditional scholarship. However, in operating more from emotion than from protocols, the archive is imbued with a depth of sincerity, a feeling of a loving hand. Like opening my grandmother’s hope chest and finding the carefully placed and gently arranged objects she chose to preserve there, we can feel the effects of the personal investment as users experiencing the archive, enriching our connections and opening different channels of understanding that transcend logic and fact. We are ethically bound to disclose these attachments, acknowledging their impact of design, but we should not be afraid to embrace emotionality in the archive. 

Works Cited

Brooke, Collin Gifford. Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media. Hampton P, 2009.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. MIT P, 2003.

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