Our Bread-and-Butter: Secular and Religious Institutions

September 23, 2009

Once again the question of mission and “serious” researchers versus, say, genealogists/family researchers, came up in conversation several times in the same day. Speaking as a religious archivist (meaning archivist of a religious institution, though I think other interpretations would also apply) I find that “mission” tends to be more of an up front type of thing this work than it is in my other job working in a secular instirution. Still, since that said secular job is in the public sector, mission is, or should be vital, regardless of how obvious it is to staff or patrons.

The impetus of the conversations just mentioned was the discussion among various parties of a program in which I am slated to participate. It was along the lines of the old and ongoing discussion of how archivists feel about the working with genealogists or how genealogists interact with archives staff.  I was asked to be part of a workshop/presentation on doing genealogical research in religious institutions. I was most pleased to do so because I had originally included, as part of my Master’s thesis (it was removed at the direction of my advisor,) a look at how under-utilized such institutions were by genealogists, and I realize that genealogists are the bread and butter of many small repositories and historical societies. I was also pleased because I feel that our collection has much to offer a variety of researchers and our mission is to help people connect to the information they need, regardless of their purpose.

You see, our parent organization requires (at least in theory) that units of the church organization justify their existence by demonstrating how they support the mission of the church. Providing people information about our church, our faith, and those who were involved in it, serves an evangelical purpose as well as other purposes that it might fill. The Discipline (a primary governing document) of our church specifies openness in records as being in keeping with the spirit and practice of our faith. It is easy for me to accept that advocating use of our material is the fulfillment of the mission of our repository. All the other activities, including preservation, arrangement and description, etc., in fact exist to support that use.

The same is true in the public sector institution where I work. There is a mission to provide information to our users. All our other activities really work in support of that mission. To that end, I send researchers to other repositories that might help them if we do not have what they need, I try to discern what skills they have or need to successfully conduct and complete their research, and I try to be open to the idea that there are all types of researchers who have all types of motives for researching. It is not for me to determine who is “serious” and who is not. In our world, genealogy and some specialty research areas are our bread and butter, providing a large percentage of the gate count and comments that persuade those with the authority to give us the resources we need to do our jobs. Yet many of my comrades in arms wish we could just spend our time with serious researchers. I find myself wondering what, separate and apart from the fact that no patrons (read “customers”) means no resources and no jobs, they think our purpose would be in preserving and arranging documents and images if our gate count dropped by 75%-plus? There still seems to be the attitude I experienced at a restaurant I managed in another lifetime; one where an employee actually said “this would be a great job if we didn’t have all those customers.”

By the same token, in a religious archives, at least one with evangelism, apology (traditional sense of the word,) or explanation are a part of the mission, should we not take every opportunity to reach out to any type of researcher? Should we in either case, religious or secular, put ourselves in the position of deciding who is worthy of our safeguarded treasures? Is that our job, our trust? If so, to what end? I have trouble thinking of an ethical one. But comments are, as always, welcome.

The Heretic

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 of heresy as a historian, archivist and Christian. 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.

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2 Responses to “Our Bread-and-Butter: Secular and Religious Institutions”

  1. JD said

    Ever notice how some researchers come in and spend their time sighing loudly while you are working with the person ahead of them. They make it clear that their time is valuable. More valuable than the person in front of them. In my experience these people tend to be people who are “professional” genealogists or working on a project for a small organization and consider themselves important authors. I was once told by a woman working on a “novel” (she didn’t mean fiction, just a book) that was going to consist of photographs of newspaper articles that she felt we needed more staff to take care of people with important projects like her’s. She was an author. She resented waiting in line behind a man who I was helping verify a few citations. She was not fazed when I mentioned that he was a highly acclaimed author working on about his 20th work, over a dozen of which we had in our collections. She considered herself the “serious” scholar.

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