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A collection and its many relations and contexts: Constructing an object biography of the police historical/archival investigative files



Purpose The purpose of this paper is to report the results of an ethnographic study that used object biography with an archival collection of police surveillance files, the Police Historical/Archival Investigative Files, housed at the City of Portland Archives & Records Center in Portland, Oregon. Design/methodology/approach Document analysis, participant observation, semistructured interviews, and object biography were conducted over four years, from 2013 to 2017. Findings Using object biography with the Police Historical/Archival Investigative Files uncovered numerous personal and public relationships that developed between people and this collection over several decades as well as how these records acquired, constructed, and changed meanings over time and space. Originality/value This paper argues that the biography of objects is a useful way for studying the relationships records form, the values people assign to them, and how people and records mutually inform and transform one another in shifting contexts of social lives. Recognizing records as having social histories and applying object biography to them contributes to and grows the greater biography and genealogy of the record and the archive—a genealogy important not only for discovering something about the lives of those who create, encounter, steward, and use records and archives but about our shared human experience.
A collection and its many relations
and contexts
Constructing an object biography of the police
historical/archival investigative files
Kathy Carbone
Department of Information Studies, University of California Los Angeles,
Los Angeles, California, USA
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to report the results of an ethnographic study that used object
biography with an archival collection of police surveillance files, the Police Historical/Archival Investigative
Files, housed at the City of Portland Archives & Records Center in Portland, Oregon.
Design/methodology/approach Document analysis, participant observation, semistructured interviews,
and object biography were conducted over four years, from 2013 to 2017.
Findings Using object biography with the Police Historical/Archival Investigative Files uncovered
numerous personal and public relationships that developed between people and this collection over several
decades as well as how these records acquired, constructed, and changed meanings over time and space.
Originality/value This paper argues that the biography of objects is a useful way for studying the
relationships records form, the values people assign to them, and how people and records mutually inform and
transform one another in shifting contexts of social lives. Recognizing records as having social histories
and applying object biography to them contributes to and grows the greater biography and genealogy of the
record and the archivea genealogy important not only for discovering something about the lives of those
who create, encounter, steward, and use records and archives but about our shared human experience.
Keywords Art, Archives, Ethnography, Records, Object biography, Police surveillance
Paper type Research paper
[W]e have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses,
their trajectories. It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human
transactions and calculations that enliven is the things-in-motion that illuminate their
human and social context (Appadurai, 1986, p. 5).
A record is a trace of living behavior left behind that someone deems important to save in a
manner that stabilizes its structure and content so that the record remains reliable, authentic,
and accessible over time and across space, whether that be for a nanosecond or millennia
(McKemmish, 2001, p. 336). Records bear witness to, serve as evidence and memory of, and
reflect in some fashion the original activity and contexts that gave rise to them. And
although archival processes and systems preserve or fixthe structure and content of
records, by being put to new uses in new contexts and subject to different interpretations,
records are continually shiftingthey are always in a process of becomingwrites
McKemmish (2001, p. 335), a notion Brothman echoes, stating that over time, a record is an
object that occurs as something that is the same as and different from itself(2006,p.260,
italics in original). Both of these perspectives highlight the dynamic qualities of records and
Police archival
The author would like to thank the peer reviewers for their time and generous and constructive
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 7 June 2019
Revised 13 December 2019
Accepted 13 December 2019
Journal of Documentation
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JD-06-2019-0111
resonate with Ketelaars seminal view about the activationof records. He states: every
interaction, intervention, interrogation, and interpretation by creator, user, and archivist is
an activation of the record(2001, p. 137). These activations, then, become part of what he
terms the semantic genealogyof the archivethe accumulations of meanings and values
ascribed to records that in turn affect future perceptions, understandings, and uses of
Every activation of the archive not only adds a branch to what I propose to call the semantic
genealogy of the record and the archive. Every activation also changes the significance of earlier
activations...Current use of these records affects retrospectively all earlier meanings or to put it
differently: we can no longer read the record as our predecessors have read that record (2001, p. 138).
Archivists have long been interested in the activations and itineraries of records in order to
understand the contextssocial, cultural, political, technological, institutional, and
ideologicalin which people create, interact with, and find and make meaning with
records. Ketelaar urges archivists to reconstruct the paths records take from their origins to
the archive, recovering and recording the voices of the authors of documents, the
bureaucrats, the archivists, and the researchers who all used and managed the filesto
discover the manifold meanings that become connected to records through their use and
reuse (2001, p. 141). Relatedly, [u]nderstanding the human experience of information seems
vital,writes Gorichanaz (2016, p. 4), and within the discipline of document studies and the
neodocumentation movement over the past few years, scholars have been calling for more
research into human motivations, involvements, and experiences with as well as relations to
documents (Buckland, 2015;Latham, 2014;Gorichanaz and Latham, 2016;Gorichanaz, 2016).
Moreover, Gorichanaz and Latham argue that considering documents from diverse and
multiple perspectivesfrom their physical, mental, and social aspects, for instancecan
produce better understandings of them and stress the need for renewed consideration of these
aspects to further documental knowledge (2016, p. 1115).
Object biography,[1] from the field of anthropology, is one method for uncovering the
activations of records as well as how people experience, interact with, and ascribe meaning to
records, and for contemplating the physical, mental, and social aspects of records and their
effects on human endeavors and lives across contexts and tem poralities. Anthropologist Igor
Kopytoff introduced object biography in 1986, which centers on the idea that an object
cannot be fully understood if regarded from only one point or stage in its existence and offers
a way to study the production, use, exchange, and disposal of an object as well as the
connections that occur between people and an object over its lifespan. Moreover, object
biography explicitly focuses on unearthing what kinds of relations, understandings, and
significances evolve between people and objects through social interactions in shared
This paper is an object biography of the Police Historical/Archival Investigative Files,a
collection of police surveillance records that reside at the City of Portland Archives &
Records Center (PARC) in Portland, Oregon, USA. From 1965 to 1985, the Portland Police
Bureau, as part of its surveillance of 576 activists and civic groups as well as individuals who
were simply practicing everyday democracy such as writing letters, signing petitions,
joining organizations and attending lectures or school board meetings(Jacklet, 2002a),
amassed thousands of photographs, notes, intelligence reports, news clippings, and materials
generated by political and civic activists. Under surveillance were groups and organizations
such as the Black Panthers, the United Farm Workers, the Womens International League for
Peace and Freedom, Greenpeace, the Chicano Student Movement, and Amnesty
International. In 1981, after Oregon law made it illegal to conduct surveillance on
organizations not linked to a criminal investigation, the records were slated for destruction.
However, a lead detective in the surveillance program removed the records from the Bureau
and after his death in 1989, the records ended up in a barn. In 2002, the Portland Tribune
newspaper attained the files and subsequently ran a series of articles that caught
the attention of Portland City Archivist, Diana Banning. Banning laid the legal groundwork
to acquire the files on behalf of the city of Portland, and in 2004, the records were transferred
to PARC where PARC archivists processed and named the collection, the Police Historical/
Archival Investigative Files (henceforth, the Files).
I used object biography with the Files as part of my methodological toolkit while
conducting an ethnographic study (UCLA IRB#13000010)[2] of the inaugural artist-in-
residence program at PARC (2012-2015), during which resident artists, investigative poet
Kaia Sand and interdisciplinary artist Garrick Imatani, mobilized the Files to create poetry
objects, spoken-word performance, sculpture, and photography in collaboration with
activists whose lives they encountered in the records. They entitled their residency project,
the Watcher Files Project[3]. For Sand and Imatani, investigating and revealing the origins,
contents, forms, contexts, uses, and management of the Files as well as how people have
encountered and experienced them was important to their art practices and productions. In
order to comprehend the artistswork with so many aspects of these records, I needed to
follow suit with a method that would provide me the opportunity to also examine and
understand the origins, forms, contexts, and contents of the Files and their relevancies in and
to peopleslivesall of which object biography afforded.
In this paper, I provide a brief introduction to object biography for the information studies
field and the archival studies field as both lack deep consideration of the relevance and
applicability of object biography as a mechanism to explore and understand how records
acquire, construct, and change meaning; gain personal and public significances; and share
linkages with people across time and space and the relevance of this interconnectedness to
the stories records can be used to tell. This study builds upon and extends the growing body
of archival scholarship focused on the affective dimensions of records (Carbone, 2017;Cifor,
2015;Gilliland, 2014) and neodocumentation scholarship within information studies
contemplating what documents do and how they affect, mediate, and engender situations
and human activity (Frohmann, 2007,2008;Irvine-Smith, 2016).
Object biography
Object biography is primarily used within anthropology, such as MacKenzies often-cited
study of looped string bags in Papua New Guinea (1991) and Hoskinss work in Eastern
Indonesia that focused on six objects in relation to the life stories of those who own the objects
(1998). It has also gained much traction over the past several decades in archaeology, where
scholars have gainfully applied it to objects such as sailcloth and fishing net samples, Irish
gravestones, and Chilean rock art (Fowler et al., 2016;Gallardo et al., 1999;Mytum, 2003).
It has also been used in museum studies to recover forgotten histories (Poulter, 2013) and
trace curatorial histories of archaeological collections (Friberg and Huvila, 2019).
Although the key impulse behind object biography is uncovering the relationships and
histories between objects and people, and the meanings that become associated with objects
during their involvements with human activities and lives, it further aims to understand
how both objects and people inform and transform each other. Gosden and Marshall explain
that at the center of the idea of object biography are questions about the links between
people and things; about the ways meanings and values are accumulated and transformed
(1999, p. 172), and as people and objects gather time, movement and change, they are
constantly transformed, and these transformations of person and object are tied up with
each other(1999, p. 169). From this perspective, then, investigating the biography of an
object entails not only paying attention to the objects social aspects, such as how it signifies
or how people understand it over time, but also the ways in which the object and the people
Police archival
who interact with it both shape and transformand are shaped and transformed byone
Object biography draws from the literary genre of biography, which is an interpretive and
inherently subjective accountanarrative discourse(Nadel, 1984,p.8)organized by
symbolic, representative, and descriptive language. Through this language, a biographer
composes the life of their subject by bringing together distinct facts of their subjects life with
modes of plot structure(Nadel, 1984, p. 8) so as to form the facts into a new whole(Nadel,
1984, p. 8),expressly a story about a person, or in this case, an object. Conducting a
biography of an object is like conducting a biography of a person in that one asks questions of
an object similar to those one would ask about the life of a person, such as: Where did the
object come from, who created it? What has been its career/path so far? How does the objects
use change with its age? According to Kopytoff, asking such questions of objects can make
noticeable or significant what might under other circumstances remain obscure (1986, p. 67).
Just as individuals can have different kinds of biographies such as professional or familial,
an object can have diverse (and often overlapping) biographies. For instance, one can
construct an object biography around foci such as an objects technological, social, physical,
or economic histories (Kopytoff, 1986, p. 68). Whatever the focus, however, Joy notes that
object biography is inherently relational(2009, p. 544). Echoing Gells belief that as social
individuals we are the sum of our relations with other people (Gell, 1998, p. 222), Joy writes
that as the biography of a person can be thought of as the sum of the social relationships that
constitute that person,an objects biography can be thought to comprise the sum of the
social relationships that constitute the object(2009, p. 544).
Although constructing an object biography generally includes asking questions about
and creating a sequential narrative interpretation of all the important phases of an objects
life, a biography can also be written in a nonlinear fashion according to Joy, because an object
can undergo many reinterpretations and reincarnations throughout its life trajectory. An
object, Joy explains, can die a number of times as it becomes part of and leaves different
spheres of relationshipsand as well can have different simultaneous lives which can run
concurrently as it acts in different relationship webs(2009, p. 543). Further, an object may
extend over many human lifetimes, and prior understandings about the object may influence
how people understand it in its present-day setting (Joy, 2009, p. 543). As such, Joy argues that
an object biography can comprise
a series of connected jumps as the object becomes alive within certain clusters of social relationships
and is inactive at other points in time and space, undergoing a series of different lives and deaths.
Conceiving of an object biography in this way has the advantage of allowing us to pick up on the
biography of an object at specific points and contexts where the archaeological evidence will allow us
to and not feel that the biography is lacking because we are unable to construct a neat linear life story
for it (2009, p. 544).
Joy goes on to describe that what makes this process biographical rather than merely
relational is the persistence and endurance of the objects physical formits identityacross
time and contexts and the researcher structuring the objects relationships as biography
(2009, p. 544). In essence, an object biographer can tell a story about the objects vitality in
particular circumstances and various temporalities, as opposed to having to give a
chronological historical account.
As introduced, during my ethnographic research at PARC, which comprised participant
observation, in-depth individual and group interviews, and document analysis of all
materials generated by and about the artists, archivists, activists, and a public art manager
involved in PARCs residency program, I employed object biography with the Files. This
entailed asking questions from points along the records continuum (the activities and
contexts related to the creation, capture, organization, and pluralization of records across
time and space), including: what is the provenance of the records, who authored them and for
what purposes? What were the social, political, and cultural contexts that brought them into
existence? Who has had control over the records? How have the records been organized,
managed, and used over time, in what contexts, and to what effects? At each of these points,
I also asked: What kinds of interactions occurred, relationships formed, and significances
materialized between people and these surveillance records?
I applied object biography to the Files in an iterative, nonlinear fashion across different
settings and activities throughout my years in the field. For example, during interview and
participant observation sessions with people who I knew had some type of connection to the
Files, I asked about their involvements with or what they knew about the records. I also
obtained answers to some of my questions during several of Sand, Imatani, and PARC
archivistspublic presentations about the residency program. In addition, I asked questions
about the records while studying the records themselves in the reading room at PARC (and
often while Sand and Iamtani were also working with the records), and finally, I analyzed
newspaper articles, journal articles, and books about the Files and the Portland Police
Bureaus surveillance program, all of which provided answers to many of my questions.
Important to note is that I did not speak with anyone at the Portland Police Bureau about the
Files as Sand and Imatani shared with me that they had: (1) contacted the Bureau and were
told that none of its current employees had created or worked with the surveillance files and
that the Bureau itself had no information about the Files, and, (2) spoken with a former Bureau
member who said he did not wish to speak with them about the Files. Given these two seeming
roadblocks in combination with my uncertainty as to whether it was absolutely necessary to
interview someone from the Bureau vis-
a-vis the needs of my research as I was finding much
information elsewhere, I dropped this line of inquiry.
Before turning to the object biography of the Files in the following sections, it must be
noted that the objectof this biography is the entirety of the surveillance records as a whole.
However, as this objectcomprises many smaller objects (records), there are times when
I narrow the biographical perspective to particular records within the collection.
An object biography of the police historical/archival investigative files
The provenance of the surveillance records
During the early 1920s to the mid-1980s, the Portland Police Bureau, like many other urban
police departments across the United States including the Los Angeles, New York, and
Chicago departments, kept a secretive police unit: a Red Squad.Donner explains that police
departments established Red Squad units after 1900 during a time of growing labor strife, in
order to keep watch over and repress radicals and groups such as the Socialist Party and the
IWW [the Industrial Workers of the World] as well as the yearly floods of hundreds of
thousands of suspect aliens entering American cities from abroad(1990, p. 30). By the 1930s,
fear of communism became a justification for these units to continue, and by the 1960s, the
core activity of Red Squad units was to identify anyone involved in protest activities (Donner,
1990, p. 66). Throughout their existence, Red Squads engaged in physical surveillance
activities such as observation, wiretapping, and photography as well as compiling records
and dossiers on political and social activists and groupsinformation that Squads used to
disrupt and undermine these groups (Donner, 1990,p.13). In response to a fear of
Bolshevism, the Portland Police Bureau formed their Red Squad unit in the 1920s with both
private and public funds (Jacklet, 2002a;Munk, 2011, p. 203; Serbulo and Gibson, 2013, p. 12).
By the 1930s, Portlands Red Squad served as an outspoken right-wing political gangwrites
Police archival
Munk, which spent its money spying on and infiltrating labor and political organizations,
organizing raids and provocations, and engaging in violent strike suppression(2011, p. 204).
Red Squads were at their peak in the United States during the 1960s, with over 300,000
police engaging in political repression, which Donner defines within this milieu as police
behavior motivated or influenced in whole or in part by hostility to protest, dissent, and
related activities perceived as a threat to the status quo(1990, p. 1). Munk correspondingly
notes an enlargement of the Portland Police Bureaus Red Squad at this time, stating that the
revival of activism in the 1960s caused an expansion of the Red Squad, whose files were
quickly filled with informer reports and photo surveillance of Portlanders exercising their
political rights(2011, p. 157). The increased monitoring of activistsespecially civil rights
activistsduring this period was also heightened in part by the federal governments efforts
to disrupt the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. The expansion of the FBIs domestic
counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO), led by Director J. Edgar Hoover, for example,
sent FBI agents to several states, including Oregon, to interrupt and discredit the Black
Nationalist movement (in Portland, the Black Panther Party in particular) (Serbulo and
Gibson, 2013, p. 14; Munk, 2011, p. 167; Medsger, 2014). Although the Portland police had
already been disrupting political organizations and watching over political activists for
decades, COINTELPRO afforded additional backing and legitimacy for such undertakings
(Serbulo and Gibson, 2013,p.1415).
It was during the mid-1960s when Portland Police Bureau Red Squad member, terrorism
expert, and member of the radical right John Birch Society, Winfield Falk, along with more
than 20 officers who were part of the Bureaus Criminal Intelligence Unit, whose mission was
to prepare for and prevent acts of political violence and terrorism(Jacklet, 2002b), started
focusing their surveillance activities on mainly left-leaning political and civic activist
organizations. This included surveilling both law-abiding groups (e.g. the police kept watch
over those who supported the civil rights movement or were against the Vietnam War) and
those involved in criminal actions. The police monitored rallies, marches, lectures, school
board meetings and kept watch over the homes of political activists (Jacklet, 2002a). Although
the police monitored groups and not individuals, the names of at least 3,000 individuals do
show up in the Files, in documents such as intelligence reports as well as in posters and
newspaper clippings in which their names are highlighted or underlined (Jacklet, 2002a).
During their surveillance activities, the police created numerous intelligence reports, took
surveillance photographs, and collected a wide range and a substantial number of materials
produced by activist groups, such as posters, flyers, event announcements, brochures,
magazines, and tabloid newspapers.
Although the bulk of the files date primarily from 1965 to 1985, the oldest document in the
files is a Communist Party membership card from 1924 and the most recent item a flier
promoting a rally for corporate responsibility in Central America and South Africa that was
scheduled for October of 1986 (Jacklet, 2002b). As mentioned, the police kept watch over
576 activist and civic groups, including the Black Panthers, Students Against the Draft,
Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Womens Rights Coalition, American Indian Movement,
Foundation for Middle East Peace, and the Portland Town Council, to name just a few. The
police kept file folders for each organization arranged in a quasi-alphabetical order, such as
A is for Americaas in American Indian Movement, American Civil Liberties Union,
American Friends Service Committee. B is for Black: Black Panthers, Black United Front,
Black Muslims. C is for Communists(Jacklet, 2002a). Besides the aforementioned items, the
files also contain documents such as job applications, property records, reports about
peoples sexual preferences (Jacklet, 2002c), signed petitions, bookstore mailing lists, the
license plate numbers of individuals who attended demonstrations (Jacklet, 2004), and lists of
campaign contributors, such as the names and addresses of people who contributed to a 1976
ballot measure supported by Oregonians for Nuclear Safeguards (Jacklet and Skinner, 2002).
There are also letters in the files, including one found within the Rape Relief Hotline file
penned by two women discussing Oregon rape laws, which they sent to the Oregonian
newspaper in March 1978. A note in the file states that the police ran a background check on
the two letter writers (Jacklet and Skinner, 2002). The police also kept index card files
containing thousands of index cards naming and linking individuals to various groups; cards
that the police organized by name, by group, by the first three numbers of the subjects
phone number, and by the last three numbers of the individuals license plate number
(Jacklet, 2002b).
In 1981, the Oregon State Legislature passed a law prohibiting law enforcement
agencies from collecting and maintaining information about the political, religious or
social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, association, organization,
corporation, business or partnership unless such information directly relates to an
investigation of criminal activities(Oregon State Legislature, 1981, Pub. L. No. 181A.250,
Chapter 181A 2017 ORS). However, Falk broke this law (as well as Portland Police Bureau
policy that prohibited police from collecting and keeping information not related to
criminal activity) and continued to amass information on organizations such as the
Hispanic Political Action Committee, Mackenzie River Gathering Foundation (a social
justice organization), and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Coalition of Greater Portland
(Williams, 2004,p.190;Redden, 2006). Although it is unknown whether Falk was carrying
out these surveillance activities with his superiors approval or on his own accord, post-
1981 intelligence reports that Falk directed to superior officers suggest that some officers
within the bureau knew what he was doing[4]. Further, not only did Falk continue to gather
information after 1981, he also took the files (which, per state law, were to be destroyed)
from police headquarters. Although it is uncertain as to when he removed the files and took
them home (Jacklet, 2002a),[5] and whether he was ordered to take the files or simply took
them without anyone knowing, Falks removal of the files from the bureau to his garage
and later to a barn in Washington was never reported (Redden, 2006). Falk died of a heart
attack in 1987 before the public would learn about his surveillance activities and how after
1981, he conducted them beyond the walls (and perhaps, oversight) of the Portland Police
Files uncovered
In the summer of 2002, writer and Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford was on the
search for the Portland Police Bureau vice squads files that dealt with gambling, prostitution,
and drug cases during the 1950s and 1960s after someone told him of their existence:
An old cop, who told me that the vice files had been spirited away some years earlier after the
department was ordered to destroy them, said he thought Win Falk might have taken them. Win
Falk was dead, of course, so I started calling around. One of the people I checked with was his ex [sic]
Susan Hauser. She told me she didnt know if the files still existed, but Im sure she was one of those
who suggested I track down Wins brother, Dennis[6].
Stanford was working on his first book, Portland Confidential: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in
the Rose City, and finding these vice files he told me, was going to be the big breakthrough.
He did indeed track the files down to Falks brother, Dennis, who told him the files were in a
barn in eastern Washington and who subsequently delivered the files to Stanford. Stanford
put the files in his basement and spent several weeks going through them. I was very
excited,he explained:
I started looking through them...and, I didnt find anything I wanted.. .I was looking for the vice
files, and this was all political surveillance, so it was a huge disappointment. I gave them to the
Tribune and let them do what they wanted with them...I was devastated[7].
Police archival
Although devastated that the files did not turn out to be what he was looking for, Stanford
knew they were worth pursuing; however, he was not interested in writing about them as he
was hot on the trail of something else,and instead gave the files to the Tribune[8]. The
Tribunesnews editor at the time, Lora Cuykendall, was interested in the files and similarly
thought them worthy of attention and assigned Tribune journalist Ben Jacklet as the lead
reporter on a special investigative project on the files. The Tribune, which at that time was
located on the fourth floor of a building on SW 5
Street in downtown Portland, kept the
boxes of surveillance files in a small office space on the sixth floor of the building. Jacklet
described that for approximately two months he would come in to the Tribune, go to his
regular desk, and then disappear up to this solitary room with the filesfor prolonged
stretches of timereading, taking longhand notes, and marking pages for photocopyan
experience he described as exciting, yet daunting,as there were so many files and boxes[9].
During this time, Jacklet would also brainstorm with the project team to decide what the
stories, illustrations, and headlines were going to beessentially, trying to turn the files into
a story somehow[10]. He also contacted and interviewed former city and police bureau
employees as well as people whose lives he came across in the records to learn what they had
to say and how they felt about the police surveillance program and its recordsthoughts and
emotions he incorporated into his articles.
Jacklet broke the story about the surveillance program and its files (dubbing the files,
the Watcher Files) on September 13, 2002. The Tribune purposely timed the series of
articles entitled The Secret Watchersto come out close to September 11 because one of
the big debates in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September
11, 2001, was over civil liberties, including how much surveillance should there be (if any)
in a free society. After the publishing of the series, over 800 people contacted the Tribune
to find out whether they or the organizations to which they belonged had been under
watch, and the newspaper provided thousands of pages of photocopies of the surveillance
files to those represented in them. The Tribunesarticles also caught the attention of
Portland City Archivist Diana Banning, who was at once interested in moving the files
into the citys archives. After laying the legal groundwork to do so, Banning worked with
the editor of the Tribune to transfer the files to PARC in 2004. PARC named the files the
Police Historical/Archival Investigative Files and joined them with the Red Squad Files,an
earlier collection of Portland Police Bureau surveillance files that document how the
police kept tabs on suspected communists from the 1930s through the 1960s (see earlier
At PARC, a few responses to the files
Curious to know about some of the ways in which people have responded to the surveillance
records since their transfer to PARC in 2004 and leading up to artistsexperiences with them, I
asked archivists Banning, Mary Hansen, and Brian Johnson if they had any memorable
response storiesthey might share with me. Johnson recalled that Kent Ford, founder of the
Portland Black Panther Party, was one of the first persons to come in and look at the Files.
Ford examined the Black Panther Party (BPP) file, which according to Johnson, is pretty
much his [Fords] personal file[11] because as the leader of the BPP, the police kept close
watch over Fordas they did with anyone who was heavily involved in a group or
organization under police surveillance. Johnson also remembers Ford chuckling as he looked
at some of the accounts the police had recorded about aspects of his life, many of which
contrasted with his own personal memories. For example, in one of the documents, an
informant details the layout of Fords house and notes the existence and location of a gun
closet; however, as Ford explained to Johnson, a gun closet did not exist in that location. In
fact, Ford never had a gun closetthe object in that spot was Fords refrigerator. Johnson
recalled how Ford found the misinformation about him in the official record entertaining
and went on to describe that this was not the only incidence of people finding errors in the
Filesover the years he and other PARC archivists have witnessed numerous people
discover inaccuracies about past events or their livelihoods in this collection[12].
Johnson also related a humorous anecdote about a man who came to the archives to see if
he and his wifeboth of whom were politically active during the surveillance erawere
named in the index card files. Johnson remembers the man being ecstaticand tickledupon
finding his but not his wifes name in the Files, as the man believed that his presence and his
wifes absence in the Files verified that he was more radicalthan she was[13]. Relatedly,
Hansen also had experiences she found curious and amusing working with people who did
not find themselves in the Files:
People expect to find themselves in there [in the Files] and when they dont, they seem disappointed,
which I find very interesting...sometimes people are really disappointed and they will say to me:
I know I am in those filesand I say to them, well, you can come in and take a look and well pull
the card [index cards with individual names] and see...some people are very disappointed, which
I find pretty humorous...because they just want to be present there[14].
Collaborating with and transforming the files
In 2013, social justice and disarmament advocate Joanne Oleksiak sought out Imatani and
Sand after reading an article about their artistic engagements with the Files in the newspaper
Street Roots. She contacted the artists to share her stories about the records as she was very
familiar with them: when the Tribune broke the story about the Files, which included a list of
all of the activist and civic groups who had been under surveillance, Oleksiak requested and
obtained from the Tribune copies of files pertaining to the activist groups with whom she had
an affiliation. Within the reproductions, Oleksiak found among other things some of her
Plate 1.
Red Rose School
brochure by Oleksiak,
1984.The Police
Investigative Files,
PARC. Photo courtesy
of Sand and
Imatani, 2017
Police archival
artworkhand-drawn flyers and brochures she had created for various social action events
and activist newsletters in the 1980s[15] (see Plate 1).
Oleksiak arranged a meeting with Imatani and Sand at PARC, and besides
looking through the records together, she shared with them her personal archives of
activist materials she had created and collected from the 1970s and 1980s. About this
meeting, Sand recalled:
She came to see us in the conference room at PARC, and she pulled out her documents she
wanted to show us. I recognized her handwriting and her drawings, and I said to her: Ive been
seeing your drawings all along in the surveillance files, and I love this artwork(Imatani and
Sand, 2015).
Sand and Oleksiak decided to collaborate on something together. One of the things that
influenced their art-making process was Sands perception of the surveillance records as an
artist portfolio for Oleksiak. Sand explains:
Well, I always thought of these archives the surveillance records as being this kind of bizarre
artist portfolio for Joanne, because there were these drawings that she doesnt even own
anymore, theyre in these surveillance files, and I just thought that was so I was
thinking what if we made an artist portfolio based on the surveillance files in the archives, and
Joanne was interested in that, but she wanted it to not be limited to that (Imatani and
Sand, 2015).
Oleksiak and Sand ended up creating exceedingly small books, which they call inch-by-inch
books. The books have a zine aesthetic and are collections of Oleksiaks pen and ink line
drawings from her archives in combination with several of her drawings Imatani and Sand
encountered in the Files before they met her. Imatani, Sand, and Oleksiak made a large
number of these books, and Imatani and Sand gave them away at several of their exhibitions
and performances (see Plate 2).
The exchange of objects between people are turning pointswrites Dant (2001,p.12),
whether in the life of an object or in the lives of those who engage with the object.
Plate 2.
Drawing Dissent
inch-by-inch books by
Joanne Oleksiak and
Kaia Sand. Photograph
courtesy of Kaia
Sand, 2015
Further, these turning points are places of connection and tensionplaces of affect or
moments of intensity(OSullivan, 2013, p. 11), as different people interact with and
experience objects in distinctive ways. Tracing the turning points of the Filesbeginning
with their removal from the Police Bureau to Falks garage, then to a barn in Washington,
to Stanfords basement, to the Tribune, to PARC, and lastly to their transformations into
artworkaffords a view of some of the associations, frictions, and affects the Files have
engendered through time and space and how records can influence and negotiate human
actions and relationships.
For instance, Stanford was excited,and then devastatedby the records, or more
accurately, devastated by what he found absent from themcalling to mind the power of
what Gilliland and Caswell term imagined-but-unavailable records,which they state can
serve as fertile sources of personal and public affect that is not only a significant human and
ethical consideration in itself but also can be activated and manipulated for a variety of
political and social ends(2015, p. 55). Stanfordsimagined-but-unavailable recordsdid
indeed trigger a response with political and social intents: he gave the records to the Tribune
(which was not a given, he could have kept them, given them to someone else or destroyed
them), knowing the newspaper would think they were worth pursuing[16] and making
known to the public. Then, when the records moved to the Tribune, they evoked new
relationships between peoplebetween Cuykendall and Jacklet, for instance, as well as
between two other journalists who worked on the news story, Jim Redden and Anna Skinner.
The content and contexts of the records captured the interests of Jacklet, Skinner, and
Redden, motivating them to interview and interact with a wide array of community members
including police officers, activists, and city officials whose lives in some way intersected with
the records, all of which transformed social connections between the records and people and
entities within the Portland community. The Tribunes publication of the news stories then
moved Banning, prompting her to acquire and preserve the surveillance records because of
their value to the community of Portland (and beyond), widening access to these records and
possibilities for further meaning-making and personal and social relations with them, which
subsequently opened the door for Sand and Imatani almost a decade later to collaboratively
activate and transform the Files into art, telling new stories and creating new social relations
with the records.
Returning to Ketelaars idea that we can no longer read the record as our predecessors
have read that record,the connections and frictions associated with recontextualizations of a
record add meaning to the record that in turn change prior understandings about the record.
For example, not only can we read Oleksiaks pen and ink line drawings from the Files as
documents that the Portland Police Bureau collected in their efforts to keep track of activist
activity and what they thought were dangerous ideologies and activities and that are
currently part of an archival collection, but through the inch-by-inch books, we can also read
them as artistic mediums, aesthetic objects, a means to make a personal, social, or political
statement or as a component of an artists and activists oeuvre. This illustrates how records
are persistent potentialities that can be put to use, evince and support interpretations, and
enter into relationships and environments in ways their creator(s) never intendedand most
likely never imagined.
Employing object biography with the Files threw into sharp relief how records play
integral roles as activators, mediators, and transformers of human actions and relations,
instead of merely providing a stage settingfor human doings and relationships (Gosden
and Marshall, 1999, p. 169)such as how records brought Sand and Oleksiak together and
were intrinsic to their collaborative art-making process and resultant inch-by-inch books. A
majority of the records comprising the Files has been in existence for almost 50 years, and
undoubtedly there are more and other kinds of trajectories and relations beyond what I detail
in my work here. As each writer brings to a biography an idea of what is to be its focus,
Police archival
biographies are partial and subjective, as is my biographical account of these records: it is
but onealthough polyvocalview. Nonetheless, applying a biographical approach
provided the opportunity to ask particular questions about the Files and a framework
from which to analyze the answers and weave together a tapestry of stories not only about the
records and peoples experiences with them, but also about how people and records influence
one another.
This paper has shown that object biography provides a way to trace how the meanings of
records change and are renegotiated in different settings and temporalities. As a record is
unique to each individual beholder and moment(Gorichanaz and Latham, 2016, p. 1115),
tracking such moments or documental transactionsin Lathamsframing(2014)(how
people experience documents) not only reveals a records various singularities but also
how it accumulates different valuationspersonal, mnemonic, social, cultural, aesthetic,
and political valuesover time and space. Object biography offers theoretical and
methodological tools to broaden our analyses and understandings of records and to discover
something about the lives of those who create, encounter, and use them and the particular
settings and wider social contexts of which they are part. Obtaining stories about the
origins, trajectories, uses, and significances of records is important not only for archival
description purposes but also for growing our knowledge about our attachments to and
relations in the world. Knowing why someone creates and keeps a record tells us something
about human motivation and intention as well as what kinds of things we connect to and
value (enough to document and save for the future). Knowing how people use records, which
links people to other people, places to other places, events to other events, and time periods
to other time periods, reveals relationships and significances betweenand paves the way
to more complex and sophisticated understandings ofpeople, geographies, events, epochs,
and of course, records.
Within the fields of archival studies and information studies, there is much more work that
needs to be done using object biography. More theoretical and applied work in particular is
needed to investigate experiences of records from diverse perspectives to deepen knowledge
of what records are, how people activate them and for what purposes, and the kinds of
personal and social affects and effects they engenderknowledge useful not only for theory
building but also for people involved in building systems and designing technologies that
preserve and make accessible records, for instance. Object biography can also serve specific
functions within archival endeavors. For example, object biography can be a tool for archival
collection management, supplying collections additional context and helping to (re)
contextualize and remedy information gaps in underdocumented collections. In addition,
because of their accessible narrative form, object biographies can be put to use in archival
outreach endeavors to promote and spread awareness about collections in publications and
exhibitions or on websites and social media. These are but a few examples and this paper is
but a first step in exploring the potential of the use of object biography within the archival
studies field and the information studies field, with hope for more applications in research and
1. The term object biographycovers both the method for conducting research and the result or
product of that research.
2. This study stemmed from my interests and doctoral research in examining and understanding
through firsthand experience why, how, and to what effects artists use and transform
archival records and why, how, and to what effects archival institutions host artist-in-residence
3. For more on the work of Imatani and Sand during their residency at PARC, see: Carbone
(2015, 2017).
4. Ben Jacklet, in conversation with the author, July 27, 2015.
5. It must be noted that there are varying opinions as to when Falk took the files: Jacklet and his
sources did not know; however, Williams states Falk took the files in 1983, see: Williams, Our
Enemies in Blue, 190.
6. Phil Stanford, email message to the author, February 5, 2017.
7. Phil Stanford, in conversation with the author, July 25, 2015.
8. Phil Stanford, email message to the author, February 6, 2017.
9. Ben Jacklet, in conversation with the author, July 27, 2015.
10. Ben Jacklet, in conversation with the author, July 27, 2015.
11. Brian Johnson, in conversation with the author, February 25, 2015.
12. Brian Johnson, in conversation with the author, February 25, 2015.
13. Brian Johnson, in conversation with the author, September 5, 2015
14. Mary Hansen, in conversation with the author, February 25, 2015.
15. Joanne Oleksiak, in conversation with the author, February 26, 2015.
16. Phil Stanford, email message to the author, February 6, 2017.
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Corresponding author
Kathy Carbone can be contacted at:
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Surveillance, as a concept and social practice, is inextricably linked to information. It is, at its core, about information extraction and analysis conducted for some regulatory purpose. Yet, information science research only sporadically leverages surveillance studies scholarship, and we see a lack of sustained and focused attention to surveillance as an object of research within the domains of information behavior and social informatics. Surveillance, as a range of contextual and culturally based social practices defined by their connections to information seeking and use, should be framed as information practice—as that term is used within information behavior scholarship. Similarly, manifestations of surveillance in society are frequently perfect examples of information and communications technologies situated within everyday social and organizational structures—the very focus of social informatics research. The technological infrastructures and material artifacts of surveillance practice—surveillance technologies—can also be viewed as information tools. Framing surveillance as information practice and conceptualizing surveillance technologies as socially and contextually situated information tools can provide space for new avenues of research within the information sciences, especially within information disciplines that focus their attention on the social aspects of information and information technologies in society.
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The challenges related to the management of an increasing number of often poorly documented orphaned archaeological museum collections, described in literature as a ‘curation crisis’, are growing. This article proposes that writing collection-level object biographies (referring to the notion of Kopytoff) provides a means to generate useful insights into the longue durée of curatorial processes and to understand how curation crises emerge, how to avoid them, and how to manage orphaned, poorly documented and unorganised collections. The potential of using object biographies as a means to tackle the curation crisis is demonstrated through a study of the life history of the Valsgärde collection housed at Gustavianum – Uppsala University Museum relating to a well-known and often-cited archaeological site with the same name. It traces the management and use of the collection and scrutinises the causes and consequences of the problems of curating and making available archaeological collections.
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Over the past several decades the archival turn in contemporary art practice has produced a panoply of visual, performance and literary art works that activate the archives. Artists working within this turn often employ critical-aesthetic strategies to records in order to reconsider historical narratives, expose missing or silenced voices, interrogate modes of representation, or investigate relations between official and personal memory through art-making processes and works. Other artists combine these strategies with socially and community-engaged practices, as did poet Kaia Sand and interdisciplinary artist Garrick Imatani, who were artists-in-residence at the City of Portland Archives and Records Center in Portland, Oregon from 2013 to 2015. This paper explores how Sand and Imatani affectively engaged history and memory with a collection of police surveillance records, transforming records of control into works of art that commemorate the lives and work of activists. Employing interdisciplinary thinking about the nature, use and movement of records through time, space and circumstances, this paper argues that records are affectively charged objects able to evoke sensations and feelings, orient thought, and stimulate ideas about ways in which they can be used, which in turn generate new connections, relations and possibilities between the past, present and future.
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This paper argues that the roles of individual and collective imaginings about the absent or unattainable archive and its contents should be explicitly acknowledged in both archival theory and practice. We propose two new terms: impossible archival imaginaries and imagined records. These concepts offer important affective counterbalances and sometimes resistance to dominant legal, bureaucratic, historical and forensic notions of evidence that so often fall short in explaining the capacity of records and archives to motivate, inspire, anger and traumatize. The paper begins with a reflection on how imagined records have surfaced in our own work related to human rights. It then reviews some of the ways in which the concept of the imaginary has been understood by scholarship in other fields. It considers how such interpretations might contribute epistemologically to the phenomenon of impossible archival imaginaries; and it provides examples of what we argue are impossible archival imaginaries at work. The paper moves on to examine specific cases and “archival stories” involving imagined records and contemplate how they can function societally in ways similar to actual records because of the weight of their absence or because of their aspirational nature. Drawing upon threads that run through these cases, we propose definitions of both phenomena that not only augment the current descriptive, analytical and explicatory armaments of archival theory and practice but also open up the possibility of “returning” them (Ketelaar in Research in the archival multiverse. Monash University Press, Melbourne 2015a) as theoretical contributions to the fields from which the cases were drawn.
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Reporting on components of an exploratory study (2013-14) of the inaugural artist-in-residence program at the City of Portland Archives & Records Center in Oregon, this article provides a view of the experiences and actions of the archivists, the artists, and the public arts manager participating in the residency. It pays particular attention to how the artists conceptualize, use, and respond to archival records, how and where the records circulate as works of art and poetry, and how connections are formed around the use and reuse of records. The study suggests that examining the records used in such a residency from the standpoints of their forms, uses, and paths through space and time is a productive way to reflect on the human transactions, experiences, and relationships that can occur between records, art, poetry, and the archive. © 2015, Association of Canadian Archivists. All rights reserved.
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An engagement with affect theory is a significant way in which dimensions of social justice for the archival field can be elucidated, fleshed out, and ultimately confronted. Affect theory provides tools for undertaking substantive analyses of power and its abuses in order to better perform, more critically understand, and challenge and reconceptualize archival functions and concerns in support of social justice principles and goals. In this paper, I provide an introduction for the archival field to affect theory, arguing that the contributions of Ann Cvetkovich, Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant can critically expose, complicate and further work toward social justice in three areas of archival concern. First, drawing on Cvetkovich’s work, I argue that affective value should be surfaced and explicitly applied as an appraisal criterion. Second, extending Ahmed’s work on pain and witnessing to the archival realm and building on arguments that archivists are witnesses (Punzalan in Community archives: the shaping of memory, Facet, London, 187–219, 2009; Caswell in Archiving the unspeakable: Silence, memory and the photographic record in Cambodia. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2014a), I argue that archivists are deeply implicated in webs of affective relations. Such relations require the archival field to expand its ethical orientation to address considerations of emotional justice. Finally, I build out of Berlant’s work to call out, define and analyze a different kind of archival relation, an affective investment in and attachment to damaging neoliberalist ideologies that shape the conditions of contemporary archival work.
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to advance document ontology and epistemology by proposing a framework for analysing documents from multiple perspectives of research and practice. Design/methodology/approach Understanding is positioned as an epistemic aim of documents, which can be approached through phenomenology. Findings A phenomenological framework for document analysis is articulated. Key concepts in this framework are include intrinsic information, extrinsic information, abtrinsic information, and adtrinsic information. Information and meaning are distinguished. Finally, documents are positioned as part of a structural framework, which includes individual documents, parts of documents (docemes and docs), and systems of documents. Research limitations/implications Scholarship is extended with an eye toward holism; still, it is possible that important aspects of documents are overlooked. This framework serves as a stepping-stone along the continual refinement of methods for understanding documents. Practical implications Both scholars and practitioners can consider documents through this framework. This will lead to further co-understanding and collaboration, as well as better education and a deeper understanding of all manner of document experiences. Originality/value This paper fills a need for a common way to conceptualise documents that respects the numerous ways in which documents exist and are used and examined. Such coherence is vital for the advancement of document scholarship and is the promotion of document literacy in society, which is becoming increasingly important.
This article details the discovery of early twentieth-century sailcloth and fishing-net samples pertaining to the lives of Aboriginal peoples on Point Pearce Aboriginal Mission (Burgiyana). Biographies for the samples are explored, from which it is argued that these objects may have many viewpoints assigned to them. The sailcloth and fishing-net samples allow the telling of complex stories from the past and present. These stories include the resilience, adaptability and strength of Narungga culture when exposed to colonial contextual risk. Indeed, these objects reveal the efforts of missions and government agencies to control the lives of Aboriginal peoples (through the lenses of ‘racism’, paternalism and self-interest), as well as agency and the involvement of Aboriginal peoples in capitalist economies. Objects as subjects can also reveal ongoing struggles for traditional and commercial fishing rights – with the aforementioned being informed by the traditional knowledge and lived experiences of Narungga peoples.
This article develops a model of a concept of record formation. Beginning with an analysis of the temporal qualities of the life cycle in archival practice, it goes on to show how the metaphorical language and concepts of life to which archivists are beholden, have empowered archival thought and practice, but also imprisoned them. Proceeding from this critique, the article then proposes that a helical figure, developed from certain medieval ideas of death, resurrection, and human identity, enables us to develop a temporal model that better accommodates the complex dynamics of "record formations." The characteristic coiled shape of helical figures permits the depiction of record formation as simultaneously unfolding in a linear and non-linear fashion. The article argues that the concept of record formation better articulates the life-and-death documentary phenomena archivists encounter and influence in their work than do such notions as "record," "record-keeping" and "recordness".
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to invite further consideration of how people experience documents. By offering a model from Reader Response theory – Louise Rosenblatt's Transactional Theory of Reading – as well as examples from research on numinous experiences with museum objects, the author hopes to open further avenues of information behavior studies about people and documents. The goal is to incorporate more aspects of lived experience and the aesthetic into practice with and research of documents. Design/methodology/approach – Theoretical scope includes Louise Rosenblatt's Transactional Theory of Reading, John Dewey's concepts of transaction and experience and lived experience concepts/methods derived from phenomenology. Findings – Rosenblatt's Transactional Theory explicates the continuum of reader response, from the efferent to the aesthetic, stating that the act of “reading” (experience) involves a transaction between the reader (person) and the text (document). Each transaction is a unique experience in which the reader and text continuously act and are acted upon by each other. This theory of reading translates well into the realm of investigating the lived experience of documents and in that context, a concrete example and suggested strategies for future study are provided. Originality/value – This paper provides a holistic approach to understanding lived experience with documents and introduces the concept of person-document transaction. It inserts the wider notion of document into a more specific theory of reading, expanding its use beyond the borders of text, print and literature. By providing an example of real document experiences and applying Rosenblatt's continuum, the value of this paper is in opening new avenues for information behavior inquiries.