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

Publication Date17 Feb 2020
AuthorKathy Carbone
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
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 andgenealogy 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 things...it 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 b ehind that someone deems important to save in a
manner that stabilizes its structure and content so that the record remains relia ble, authentic,
and accessible over time and across space , whether that be for a nanosecond or millennia
(McKemmish, 2001, p. 336). Records bear witn ess to, serve as evidence and memory of, and
reflect in some fashion the original acti vity and contexts that gave rise to them . And
although archival processes and sys tems preserve or fixthe structure and co ntent of
records, by being put to new uses in new co ntexts and subject to different interpretations,
records are continually shiftingth ey are always in a process of becomingwrites
McKemmish (2001, p. 335), a notion Brothm an echoes, stating that over time, a record is an
object that occurs as something that is the s ame as and different from itself(2006,p.260,
italics in original). Both of these perspectiv es 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
Vol. 76 No. 3, 2020
pp. 753-767
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JD-06-2019-0111

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