July 19, 2012
Those of us who have come to know the power of the “dark side,” that is methodology that goes beyond the traditions of archival management, have found that our traditional skills are greatly needed in the bright new world that is coming our way. There will always be a need for someone to preserve the elements that make up the historic record, to make those elements available to researchers, and to help provide context that researcher may use, if they so desire, to better interpret these elements. The problem is not that these elements of the historical record are in different formats than those we are used to, or different media, or even exist in far greater numbers with potentially millions of identical “records.” These are challenges that many archivists have to face and which many will have to bow before. That’s okay. Transition takes time, in spite of the accelerated pace at which change seems to come in today’s world. There will still be plenty of traditional archival work available to do for a long time to come. These people will be needed and relevant regardless of the changes happening around us.
Before we go any farther, let me call attention to the fact that I used the term “archival management.” I use various terms to describe the profession as I strive to avoid being redundant as well as repeating things. I rarely, however, use the term “archival science,” and when I do it is just an attempt to vary the terminology to spice up the writing. (Changing management to science; if that doesn’t liven things up, nothing will.) I do not believe it is a science and actually like the term “archivy” that seems to imply something practiced as if it were a science but is not (as in “alchemy”.) I often find my colleagues view our practice as one in which the rules are carved in stone. I have read codes of ethics for archivists, museum folk, and other public historians that clearly deny reality. They make it clear, for example, that the professionals must avoid for-profit organizations, as if the non-profits do not wield any power to influence the profession as they provide resources, missions, and, of course, our salaries. Such ethical codes supposedly keep us free from undue influence. “Coca-Cola may shape the way we view the history of their product but you will never find a board of people with social or political views that are similar to one another influencing the practice of a museum or archival repository. Therefore, we are free from the nasty influence that for-profit institutions wield.” Uhh-huhh.
We have best practices that are established by leaders in the field. Well and good. But these best practices tend to be a one-size-fits-all type of thing. Of course, no one expects the small church archives with no budget to come anywhere near the level of best practices that the National Archives and Records Administraton does, but they should strive to get as close to it as possible. But why? Are the records of a small institution necessarily that related to the generic record groups of large institutions? Since they are by definition unique, and may have been created and used in very different ways, is it not possible that best practices for these should be different? And who gets to decide these things. The whole world does not accept the best practices voted on by the elite of the Society of American Archivists.
No, these are traditions, not scientific models, and they are not even sacred traditions at that. Many of the best practices of the archival world have come to be accepted (where they are accepted) during my lifetime. The way in which the profession treats our rules is much like the way a church I once belonged to treated music in worship. They didn’t want any of the new music that the younger folk wanted to use in worship. They wanted to use the music the church had always used. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The trouble was, when I started looking up a lot of the music our solid core of church leaders wanted to keep in the worship service, most of it had been written when they were very young. I found that the definition of status quo was the way things have been in “my” lifetime, regardless of the change that occurred to the previous system to make it what I am familiar with. As archivists worry about their relevancy or the oncoming changes being wrought by the digital world, we might do well to remember that people struggled to change an older system into what we have today. Neither Adam and Eve or Homo erectus worried about records being viewed without context or heard about the concept of provenance. (Okay. I don’t know that last part for certain, but I would be willing to bet on it, and I don’t even gamble.)
So what does this have to do with archivists surrendering their profession? A good bit. The deal is this. Technology does not only change the media of communication, it changes the thought process involved in communication. The younger generations in this country no longer create documents with a strong expectation of privacy. Their communication is not necessarily targeted at an individual or group, but rather the world at large. They stumble upon documents and chunks of information, or a third party leads these folk, both the creators of records and researchers, to a specific place in the chain of communication. We may never know what outside forces determined who someone communicated with and where the content of their communication came from. We have no context to apply to the record.
If there is a record. While I still see sessions in conferences on dealing with archiving of email, more and more people are communicating with text messages. Who is archiving those? I know the data is probably on a server somewhere, but the chances of any of it ending up in the hands of archivists any time in the next several decades is slim to none. And while we either ignore the issue (Cleopatras), make a few steps towards dealing with the problem, albeit reluctantly (resistance members), or embrace a part of the change so we can get along with the others (collaborationists), we still haven’t “got it.” The farthest I have seen any reasonably significant number of archivists come to dealing with the world of the digital is the handful that are beginning to embrace “Web 2.0″ as a means to do outreach and promote their collections. Some are even going so far as to put parts of their collections online so the researcher may access them without traveling several hundred miles to examine a piece of paper that may not have what they’re looking for on it anyway. Even then they lament the poor researcher missing out on so all the treasures they could have have if they had only come to the repository in person. And some folks are using digitization to produce backup copies of material, just in case, It’s all a step in the right direction, but still not radical enough.
As I said earlier, many of the records, particularly “correspondence” such as text, are not saved at all. Few archive Websites or social media. For that matter, privacy concerns, oddly enough existing in a world where many think nothing of sending a picture of themselves without any clothes out for the world to see, make users of social media resistant to archives of their records being kept by others. And that is the crux of the matter. Control. People who use text messages, Twitter, Facebook, who blog or use other social media, expect that the material they choose to make public will quickly move beyond their control and be available to the world. What they also expect is to be able to choose what content is put in a place where it can be made public. They do not want data mining, changed privacy settings or agreements, or people keeping copies of their information without their having initiated the process. Organizations are the same way.
In many organizations records are controlled by records managers. In the case of electronic records, they are usually in the hands of the Information Technology (IT) folk. IT is not interested in the historical record. IT needs to increase efficiency in response to ever increasing demands from management. IT needs to free up server space. IT needs to purge records. Not deaccession, purge. IT and records management barely speak a similar language. IT and archivists are from totally different worlds. From a professional standpoint, they use different sides of their brains, have different priorities, and have nothing in common other than the fact they work with records. Yet to the archivist, IT represents the force of rapid change into a digital world that is forcing archivy (like I said, I like this term) to change or become outcast. It is the powerful “Dark Side” of the records/communication force.
How do we fight the dark side? We cannot. Besides, it is not really the dark side at all. Digital technology has opened a myriad of ways in which records are produced or communication engaged in to add to the historical record. The question is, who will answer the call to preserve it for future generations? Right now, it sure isn’t the archivist. We discussed in part 1 (okay, I pontificated in part 1) of these posts the responses of the profession to the change in records and communication. In our church, the committee that is responsible for maintaining those records is rarely if ever consulted about them. They are kept by the communications and administration divisions. As long as entities that generate records are responsible for their ultimate disposition and archivists cannot handle them, the likely place they will go is oblivion. The archivist will have surrendered their profession, laying down their part in the decision process. They will work with what they have until everything is processed (granted, that could be a long time.)
Of course one of the possible solutions would be for archivists to go where the records are. Become part of the records management team rather than sit at the end waiting for their next shipment. They could learn how the organization works, better understand the context in which records are created, advocate for means of retention of records of enduring value. It would mean adjusting to the individual sets of circumstances, and archivists would likely have less physical control over their collections than they do now. It is a if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em strategy, but beats unconditional surrender. It means the profession must evolve. Rapidly. That could hurt. But such is life.
In the world of the church, many of the younger people do not relate to the same things as do people of the generation before. Nothing new. But as I said earlier, new communication has allowed a change in the way these folk’s minds work. They do not define relationship the same way as their elders. Physical things often mean less to them than intangible concepts. To someone like this, attending a worship service from hundreds of miles away via computer can be a meaningful experience. It requires believing that the Holy Spirit can and does work without restrictions of time, space, or the will of mankind, but none the less is quite feasible. Such experiences may be very real for the people who participate in them. When the church in general fails to recognize this, fails to recognize that technology has become a part of the way new generations think rather than just be a tool to convey old messages, she surrenders. If she assigns the way people function and think to the dark side because they do not understand how much they are tied in with new forms of communication, they will lose relevancy. It may be that it is time for this, that the church needs to undergo a very radical change. I don’t know. I do know that once again, I observe in both my work with my church and my profession very similar situations. Worry about their future relevancy and an inability to make the changes necessary to assure that relevancy.
By the way. I also believe that the change in technology and the way younger generations think is a two-way street. They are not slaves to technology. Much of the technological change has been driven by the desires of the end user. I have written of this before in one place or another. I will again.
July 14, 2012
I have sat through meetings and presentations, read a good size mound (perhaps I should say a sub-series worth) of literature, and participated in seminars, where the primary subject was the relevance of the archivist or some other topic examined in light of the relevance of the archivist. Feel free to substitute “archival management,” “archival repositories,” “archival collections,” or whatever related category seems to fit. We word the subject differently, but the general gist is that we are worried that the rest of the world will no longer value us, and (gasp) our collections, enough for the resources to remain for the equipping and maintaining the archival profession and the archival collection.
At this point I will say that, as with posts in the past (it has been awhile since my posting; sorry) I will a) draw comparisons between my experiences in archives in general and my experiences in the church or working with other professionals. And b) I will likely have another installment as more thought gels in my brain that is developing noticeable gaps in its gray matter. I truly would appreciate comments that may expedite that gelling process, by the way.
To me, the archives professional seems to fit, for the most part, into tree categories when it comes to the subject of relevance. There are the Cleopatras, who have failed to recognize that denial is not just a river in Egypt. There are the resistance cells that work continually to resist the coming changes that create an impact on the relevance of the archive and the need for adaptation to many changes, giving ground slowly and reluctantly. There are the collaborationists, who feel as if they are meeting the changes half-way and therefore will somehow preserve a semblance of the archives profession as we know it today and therefore give more ground than the resistance fighter. In addition to these three, there is a small group, size depending on who judges the individual in question, that may be described as going over to the Dark Side. I am the only one I know personally that has gone over completely, though I hasten to add that the term “Dark Side” has nothing to do with my morals or Christian beliefs but is rather a tongue-in-cheek reference to the way many people I deal with on a professional or volunteer basis view my ideas as being quite beyond the pale.
To elaborate a bit on these groups, I will start with the Cleopatras. These are the people who are convince that, because we will always have traditional documents and records, we will always need the repositories and “traditional” archivists. At the very least we will need them for their lifetimes, so there is no need to worry. The most active of these people, those who do worry that the rest of the world will not recognize the value and relevance of the archival repository, seem to believe that the real problem is that the populace in general, and those who make decisions regarding resource allocation (money, personnel, records disposition) in specific, are just not properly educated as to the value of the profession and the collections. They believe advocacy is the solution and once people realize that we are as valuable as wee think we are, things will be okay. Oddly enough, most of the people who I hear preaching this in discussions concerning “archival relevancy,” spend little time on advocacy. They have to process and deal with researchers who have managed to track them down somehow. These are, after all, core functions of archivists. (What are advocacy and outreach. chopped liver?) It is my opinion, well informed or not, that these folks are in for a very rude awakening very soon. Based only on my personal experience (personal conversations, reading, correspondence and conferences) they tend to be the ones that express the greatest bitterness and sense of defeat over the current state of affairs in the profession. Welcome to the Little Big Horn, Col. Custer.
The resistance are those who have gradually somewhat succumbed to the onslaught of change, but at an exceptionally slow rate. These are the folk that continue to refuse to consider accepting electronic records into their collections and have finally given way to the idea that some digital records may need to be available on the Internet, but only as a means of enticing researchers into their archives. They firmly believe that records and documents have so much value as a collection, that there is an obligation to do everything possible to only present them in the context of an arranged unit rather than allowing researchers to see just individual documents. These folks see themselves as gatekeepers, morally and ethically required to be sure that researchers see the records in the way that they are “supposed” to be viewed. Most, if not all, of these folks I know believe that the concepts of respect des fonds and original order are universally accepted and applied principles that have been part of archival best practices for centuries. They do not read or accept the attitude of many other archivists regarding these principals and avoid the history of the evolution of the archives and manuscript collection field in the United States. They have their story and are sticking to it. They accept digital records in the repository, albeit often reluctantly, but do their best to transfer them to paper media or to store them without trying to provide access. They recognize that they will eventually driven to further accept aspects of technology that affect their profession, but they view this as a loss to both the profession and the researcher. They give ground, but reluctantly, and only because others in the profession are retreating and leaving their flanks unprotected.
The collaborationist is the one who believes that he or she has embraced the new technology. These folk have belatedly accepted and become excited about Web 2.0. They see the wonderful abilities to use social networking and online communication as a means of not only promoting their collections but providing reference services and even online access to documents. They do not have a consolidated view of how far they should go in stepping outside the usual view that actual presence in the repository is necessary to do “serious” research, but believe that new technologies and communication trends offer advantages to archivists that are not being recognized by the profession. They tend to support, again to varying degrees, the concept of “More Product, Less Process (MPLP).” They accession databases in their collections, often have email collections in digital formats, and occasionally attempt to capture Websites or social media for archival retention. The problem is, they really know nothing about the technological processes involved, and have not thought about ways to provide access or preserve the collections. They are still grounded in the belief that traditional archival management practices are, and should be, the core of the field, and when all is said in done they still try to tie their views into the traditional practices. Most of what they do with this new technology is access related, with a nod to the fact that record format is changing. Their lack of knowledge of how these electronic records were produced and used makes it impossible for them to properly apply concepts of appraisal, arrangement and description, or many other steps in the process of preserving records and making them accessible to other. They come closer to stepping beyond the pale, and seem to have actually have done some to other archivists. In reality, however, they have not made the final step of yielding to “the dark side.”
In Episode V (really Part 2 but parodying a rather confusing format of a movie series that has no respect des fonds) We will discuss the power of the “dark side.” I will also explain why this is really the “Bright Side” and how this also applies to organizational structures through using the church as an illustration.
February 4, 2012
I work professionally in an institution where the head of our department is, by his own admission, not trained in archives. I also work as a volunteer in a religious archives that has no other archivists involved. Many readers are familiar with such situations, I am sure. For me, the biggest issue is where, ethically, must I draw the line between my responsibility to my professional training and the stakeholders in the archives (e.g. users or the records themselves) and the requirement that I follow orders. I have already learned that in both situations my superiors will make archival management decissions and force me to comply with them, regardless of my judgment, and if their decisions prove unwise, hold me accountable as the archivist. Of course, I never said life was fair.
As I watch my bosses spend money for things that have been shown to be unwise by professionals in the past, and have them ignoring my advice and that of other archivists to pursue other avenues. I try to be sure that I don’t take an “I told you so<” or a “just wait and see” attitude. I recall when I was a historian who did research on a regular basis, I still did not understand the policies and procedures of archives. Superiors in a similar situation are no less likely to be in the dark, but because they have more academic degrees, are not likely to recognize this. And those in a religious organization often fail to see the importance of saving documents in the first place, even when they regularly call upon me to produce some 40 year old record to clear up some legal or financial issue. Alas, the fact that they have authority over me or my work suggests that they know my job better. But then, what was i hired for? Why did they look for an archivist, specifically a professional one, based on the fact that there was no one in their organization who had such training or experience? Ah, it is a conundrum.
May 1, 2011
One of the easiest ways I have discovered to get people at either church or in the archives profession to leave a room is to mention theories of someone from the business field with respect. Forgetting, ignoring, or denying that business requires the study of people, their desires and their needs, and successful business requires finding ways to fulfill those desires and needs, most of the people I know in the church and archives (we’ll leave allied professions out for the moment) feel themselves above anything having to do with business. Want to see them really go nuts? Make the business subject marketing! (This is not the same thing as sales, by the way.)
I find this situation a bit sad, as the goal of good business is to connect a person or persons with what they need or desire, while the goal of a church or someone who seeks to provide records for a researcher is…. Well, I guess you get the picture. Profit, of course, is the motivation for this activity in business while there are a number of motivations in the other areas, but the actual goal is the same. So if a business is successful and a religion or profession is beginning or continuing to loose relevance among people, would it not be sensible to at least look at the methods of the business? Alas, that has been one of my heresies. Yet, I repent not.
Peter Drucker is one of my favorites. He was thought a kook at one point, but eventually became a sort of guru of management, winning many awards. He is often called the father of modern management. A prolific author, and I an avid reader, there is a place where our interests naturally cross and I have read quite a bit of his material. Although my explanation of who he is sends many of my colleagues across the room at a rabbit’s pace, he actually spent many of his business years in non-profits and much of his theory is targeted at managing one’s life, not just one’s business. He has been quoted often in my small essays and will likely appear here more and more. So if the thought of business mixed with archival management (Hey! Drucker is a “management” guru and “management” is part of what we archivists do! Maybe I’m on to something here!) turns you off, but you haven’t yet stopped reading, you may wish to. Or, as always, the comment section is available for rebuttal.
April 28, 2011
I am working on another degree. Computer Information Systems. Working full time as an archivist, part time as a volunteer archivist, and trying to live makes this interesting, but not undoable. The thing is, this is very much an archives related degree. It is the business side/user side of the technology as well as some of the design of systems. Quite enlightening.
I have been for some time advocating that archivists pay attention to the world of “Web 2.0,” social networking, cloud computing and the like. This is not because they offer us opportunities to serve our users and reach new patrons but because these things are part of the context in which the records are created. The “virtual original order,” if such exists, would be found here. Regardless, we can better place the records in the context of their use, part of our jobs as archivists.
What I am coming to discover is how much more there is in the context of the record creation than I had previously realized. While we have argued and discussed what to do about digital records, I find few of us discussing the importance of the digital records behind the paper record. In a recent school project, we created many versions of electronic records on a variety of software that was used to work out problems and create a set of “deliverables.” The final product, the deliverables, were issued at various steps of the project and on the surface look like the documentation of the project that will eventually be archived.
In fact, that is true. The problem is, each deliverable is a final product of a complex process that is not understood by the end user. Without knowledge of that esoteric process, the documents are misleading. They are the single answer to a user’s question with no context provided, no provenance or order. In short, no intellectual control. It will not be found by appraising the collection and following standard methods to arrange and describe because the other records of the “original order” do not exist anymore.
It is not just electronic records we should be struggling with, but paper records created in a digitized environment. Knowledge of the collection could once be gained from the records themselves, a core principle of appraisal. Now, much of the printed material is the end product of a long, detailed system. Without knowledge of that system, which may be documented in an entirely unfamiliar way or not at all, appraisal becomes very problematic.
For those of you who tell me that it is only a record if it is physical (I say baloney) you may wish to think about what you are going to do with the physical records that have no meaning. The digital systems that helped create the records are like the Rosetta Stone.
November 25, 2010
I have been bombarded with “Call to Action!” e-mail messages from various associations to which I belong. They all use exactly, and I mean exactly, the language of 1 of 2 versions of the same basic message, and there isn’t much difference between the 2 versions.
The amendment proposed by Sen Coburn to bill S.510 will cut off funding to an approved program, History Day. One version makes it clear that the earmarks that the amendment seeks to end are the ONLY source of the $500,000 in question. The message has gone viral, with the exception of the fact that the verbatim messages have come to me written in the first person from more officials than I can count on my fingers and toes. I find it very unlikely that more than 27 people (so far) in official government, nonprofit, and “professional” organizations (quote makes used because of the comparisons drawn in this blog between professions and professionals) should at different times hear of the same amendment, and have the same reaction, using exactly the same words.
Because none of these people ever include the wording of the bill or the amendment, and the link that is provided in one version does not link to the bill but to its place on the calendar, others just encourage that you contact every senator you can and link to the Senate’s page. I have seen no evidence that the amendment has even been read. I do read the comments on the blogs that post these same words and surmise that many of the comments are by people who either have not read it, are ignoring it, or do not understand it. Huffington post, for example, claims the amendment would “kill all congressionally directed spending for three years.”
Please note that I have problems with the bill. With the whole bill, not just the amendment. Yes, the amendment bans earmarks. It also defines just what it means by earmarks, which doesn’t coincide with what some of these messages and posts claim.
“The term ‘earmark’ means a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Senator or Member of the House of Representatives providing, authorizing, or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula-driven or competitive award process.”
Note: nowhere does it say that funds cannot be given to projects such as History Day. It just says they must be given through a normal budgetary process and not just because a specific Senator or House Member puts them there. Agreed, it would be unpleasant to go through a grant-writing type process for the funds, or have an individual bill passed that funded History Day on a regular basis without the earmark process (that would really be a bummer, having the money in statute where it couldn’t be easily touched,) or even, heaven forbid, find a private donor as do many universities, arts institutions, museums, etc. If History Day had an endowment, where would be the tragedy? No relying on the whims of Congress. These are a few ideas that pop into my head in the wee hours of the morning.
Support or don’t support the amendment or the whole bill as you wish, but do whatever you do with integrity, please. The problem I have with all this isn’t the amendment. It is the method and the propaganda used in the name of “professional advocacy.” The reason that I refer to this post in the title as a preview of a later installment, is that part of my paper on professionalism v. profession deals with integrity.
- The initial and most frequent version of the e-mails I read and the posts I saw stated that earmarks were the only method that there was of obtaining the money for History Day. This is just not the case. No alternatives were suggested or asked for. What was asked for was that thousands of thinking people jump into instant action of a political nature without any attempt to view the problem and try to think of a way to solve it. Only support for a specific political position would do. So get to it!
- The politicization of this issue can be in posts and comments. The evil, politicians, Republicans-or-Democrats, moonbats, whatever, must be stopped because they are harming our children. No evidence, such as the language of the amendment and no discussion of possible results or alternatives, just quotes from the calls to action that may have been well meaning, but have now turned History Day and the students who participate into weapons to be used against “the enemy.”
- Members of the archives, history and related professions passed on the messages in such a way that suggests that many, if not all had failed, to take the time to read they amendment (and bill) in question. In many cases they took the previous sender’s name off and added their own. When I was in school plagiarism was cause for dismissal, but I suspect this is not considered the case in the “real” world any more. I am particularly sad that 3 people that I sent links to the bill, which is, as one expects, long and boring, (the amendment is short, though,) e-mailed me back saying words to the effect that they did not have time or need to read the bill. I have always thought of these people as men and woman of integrity, but they were sending me the messages under the umbrella of “advocacy.”
Integrity is part of professionalism. (This is part of the paper I have begun to post here in part, so there will be more on this to come.) Advocacy is such a strong word in the professions that many have departments, committees, sections or round tables to promote it. Advocate for advocacy; I like that. But a professional advocates with integrity. He promotes his causes with truth, seeks to persuade, and if unsuccessful, tries to find another way. A member of a profession may maneuver, lie, tell half-truths, justify, etc. to advocate for what he believes; the ends justify the means. But this is not integrity, nor is it the mark of a true professional.
Anyway, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
The Heretic is the nom du plume of a historian and archivist who works with the public and in religious institutions. He has been accused by others in his professional world of “heresy” as a historian, archivist and Christian (not formally, of course.) He does not zealously guard his identity, but on occasion voices opinions that he feels might embarrass others. It is out of respect for those persons that he uses the pseudonym. When he is convinced that it no longer serves a purpose, he will discard it. It is really just in fun, anyway. Most people who know him recognize the source of his words, or so he believes.
September 24, 2010
In the past few months there have been several major developments in my life that have delayed my posting. Deaths of a family member and 3 major mentors in my life, a job change, the introduction of regular activities with 2 people who at best are irrational in general (and one or both of whom may be literally mentally ill to the point of being unable to function properly in their positions in life,) have cut significantly into blog time.
In addition, I have been working on several papers for possible publication. Parts of them will appear on this blog in hopes of generating comments. I lean towards self publication with the Internet as my medium of choice. If I am to have peer review through this method, it will require comments. Hope to be back soon with something worth reading, and hope to hear some comments.