Materials discovered by the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, now part of the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional

This conversation expands upon a talk Ida C. Benedetto gave on archival practice and knowledge management at SYPartners, as part of a night of discussion hosted by Are.na and SYPand.

Leo Shaw: I really liked the story you shared in your talk about handling these precious photo negatives in the Magnum Photos archive and being responsible for their survival. I think you described that encounter with primary sources as “listening to the contents of the collection.” I’m curious how we can continue to have that experience nowadays with non-physical media.

Ida Benedetto: I think that broadly, there are two modes of listening. There’s focused listening where you’re actually searching for something. Even if you’re not entirely sure what it is you’re searching for, you have a sense of it, and by engaging with a rich source of content you’re helping yourself refine and hone that sense, whatever that is, until you find the thing. Then there’s a broader, expansive listening, when all you have is a starting point from which to explore. This kind of listening is about diving in to all this stuff that’s there and seeing what comes up.

When I was in the Magnum Photos archive, I was doing an expansive listening. The reason I was in there was for a purely mechanical reason. Nobody cared what I thought of what was in there. I didn’t even have a particularly strong starting point, so encountering all of the content created this very expansive sense around the many moments in history that were represented by the photographs.

The challenge that we have now with so much digital material so easily accessible in huge volumes is that we tend to skip the listening because we have to. There’s just too much there. I wonder if in the past, encountering a really rich trove of content was a little more special and specific such that clicking into that listening was a much easier thing to do.

LS: It would have been a full body experience, too.

IB: Yes, totally. You would be with stuff of some sort, even if it was mediated stuff or written content. Your physicality was implicated in it, whereas now that physicality piece of it has fundamentally shifted. It’s not a given anymore.

So this technique of turning on your listening, or selecting what the body of content is—because it’s not necessarily obvious now, since bodies of content can exist together so easily in a digital space—is a more deliberate act. The seduction is always to skip the listening by going to the quantitative and just let numbers help you cut it down, or letting some sort of automated analysis on the material create the insights that you’re going for.

That’s super tricky, and I think that if it’s not done deliberately in service of a more human and qualitative listening, then the insights you’re going to get may be more relevant to the machine than the people who are actually caught up in it.

The Magnum Photos archive in New York City, circa 2005

LS: Right. Now that we have such enormous sets of information to try to synthesize, we use tools that are much more instrumental in how they help us parse collections of information.

I think you described that kind of listening as a skill that involves memory and emotion and association, and all of these qualities of human thought. I’m curious if you see opportunities to develop that skill even when approaching information sets that are so large you can’t exactly dive in at one spot.

IB: That’s an interesting question. My first hunch, if we’re going to think about this as a skill that can be deliberately developed, is to think about which information streams you’re exposed to already that you can actually turn off because they aren’t helping you either in your personal life or your professional life. I think limiting your access to that stuff might heighten one’s sensitivity to content and bodies of information that are deserving of a more human kind of listening.

For example, I’m somebody who can get really easily overwhelmed by the news, so I’m pretty selective about what news I expose myself to. Sometimes I feel guilty about that, but when I do stay informed all the time, it neuters these other capacities and I miss them so much. I quit Facebook in 2013 because it had a similar effect on me and my social circles. It’s like knowing so much about the people that I actually care about on an hour-by-hour basis numbs me to them.

Starting with a clear point of inquiry is also important. It requires, I think, a specificity in terms of what you’re looking for or what you’re curious about. It helps to pause before you dive in and just articulate to yourself, “Why am I doing this? What do I think I’m going to find?” You create a mental bookmark for yourself. That way, when you pull yourself back out and you’ve gotten excited about all this different stuff, you can look back and measure how what you’ve been exposed to actually compares to what you were looking for. It often helps you hone how you search or how you listen going forward.

LS: I guess it’s not an accident that pre-digital techniques for managing lots of information, like editing or curation or even scheduling, are also the tools we turn to for managing our time and attention these days.

IB: Yeah, I mean we might have more specific digital tools, but the activity of qualitatively dealing with information hasn’t actually shifted that much. I think allowing things to simmer and take time is also important. The kinds of connections that you’ll make from returning to something a week later or a year later is incredibly valuable.

Or if it’s a research process that starts out digital, print out some of the material. If you have a printout, scan it and put it on your desktop. I think transmuting content and letting it change forms a little bit creates different possibilities. So again, when you’re dealing with lots and lots of content and the impulse is to use automated tools to sort them, you can do that, but also ask, “What’s it like if it’s all just in a folder and you rifle through?” Changing the mode of engagement and allowing things to emerge in a way that feels hopelessly unscientific is also an important technique of listening.

Diagram from the Traité de documentation by Paul Otlet, one of the originators of information science

LS: What you were saying made me think about the difference between preservation and research tools. Being able to passively save stuff on a drive and instantly categorize it means we can be more creative in how we explore it, even if it’s years later.

IB: Totally. As we got on the phone I realized I forgot to look up an essay that I had mentioned I worked on at some point, where I realized I’d amassed an unconscious archive of decks of cards. So I just went onto my archive and searched, “unconscious archive cards,” and the essay didn’t come up because it’s probably on some other hard drive, but the stuff that did come up–I’m like, “god, what a weird cross-section of stuff I hadn’t been paying attention to.” I didn’t even realize I had like Carl Jung’s Red Book on here. Though I guess it kind of makes sense that that’s coming up.

That kind of quick search, obviously, would not have been possible if all of this stuff was physical. I find so much delight and insight in not finding what I’m looking for. I love thinking about what does come up and why it comes up.

LS: We do a lot of accidental archiving that just happens in the course of using products that attach metadata to content we never really intend to see again.

IB: Yeah, provided your metadata is in shape.

LS: I’m curious how our relationship to information changes when we move from an individual experience to a group or organization. I guess that’s the problem at the root of “knowledge management”. Can we hold onto some of that solitary wonder when we work with groups, and there are certain goals involved?

IB: Right. I do tend to engage in these processes individually, but when I’ve worked in a more collective context I’ve always appreciated when everybody makes a decision about the approach. So if we’re in collecting mode, let’s not sort anything. Let’s just bring together all the stuff that seems right and then we’ll move on to trying to sort things.

LS: So it’s really important for a group to establish a methodology and an intention before diving in?

IB: Yeah. Just establish norms. This goes back to an article I first pulled up when we were engaging with this, the Harper’s Magazine piece about the police archives in Guatemala. A commission was set up after the civil war there ended in 1996 to investigate evidence of widespread torture and the mass killings of indigenous civilians by the state. But as human rights investigators went back through them to build a case for prosecuting Guatemalan officials for genocide, they found so many documents and layers of information that a straightforward cataloguing system wouldn’t work. The person heading up the investigation immediately had to stop everybody from putting documents in chronological order. It’s such a commonly understood organizing principle that it wasn’t even overtly discussed before people started doing it. But for what they were trying to investigate, reorganizing the documents would have fundamentally destroyed so many necessary insights.

They had to shift the default norms in order to get out of it what they needed because they weren’t actually trying to just organize the material. They were trying to prosecute the people who produced the material, which in this case involved tracing connections between documents that constituted evidence of crimes.

LS: That story leads right into your bigger question of, “What is an archive for?” which I really enjoy because it asks how societies deal with collections of information, especially when the stakes are high for defining a common narrative. I don’t really have a single question but I’d love for you to expand on that.

Part of the Jesuit Slave Census listing the names of slaves sold by Georgetown University in 1838, now preserved at the Georgetown Slavery Archive

IB: If we think about political scenarios, you’re likely on contested ground, or even contested areas of knowledge, because that knowledge and the contents of that archive can be mobilized for different sides for different reasons. The way that the information is organized is incredibly integral to the legitimacy of a political process.

There’s another example—god, all my examples are horrific historical examples—but another example is the controversy that happened around Georgetown University and their participation in the slave trade. In that case, the university’s own archives not only demonstrated their complacency in slavery, but showed that the way the institution did it was considered a human rights outrage at the time in the 1830s, though they wouldn’t have used that terminology back then.

It was an unintended effect of the school’s meticulous Catholic record-keeping that contemporary scholars could trace this history. The archive was originally intended for ecclesiastical record-keeping and financial records, and then it ends up becoming this big political problem for this institution decades or centuries later.

I’m still talking around the question… The reason I called my collection that is because it feels like an open question. It’s not, “What can an archive be for?” An archive can be for a lot of things. “What is an archive for?” is more of a provocation. It’s only through the process of collecting and referencing material that the answer becomes apparent.


Ida C. Benedetto is an experience designer who sparks new insight through adventure and play. Her recent research outlines the design of transformative social experiences by comparing sex parties, funerals, and wilderness trips. She is currently a senior designer at SYPartners in New York City.