I was fascinated to listen as a colleague working with a reference collection decided which version of a story to include in a vertical file on a political (Tax-day Tea party) demonstration the other day. It seems that the state police’s official estimate of people attending, based on knowledge of the number of people who have been fit into the given area in the past, was about 10,000. The local newspapers estimated the crowds at 3,000 and 1,500. My colleague was trying to decide whether to use the article that had the 3K figure or the one with the 1.5 K figure. I was curious as to why she didn’t want to copy the bulletin from the official site that was being cited on the radio and then include all three. I also offered to provide her with pictures of the event, as I had decided it was worth documenting visually and had gone by with my little camera to do just that. She declined my offer of the images as they “might give the wrong idea,” (they showed overflow crowds in the area set aside for the event as well as people in adjoining blocks; contrary to the newspapers’ portrayal of attendance) and decided to include both the 1.5K and 3K estimate stories to be “fair.” Fortunately, anyone researching the events in future years will not be misled by official estimates or visual evidence of attendance and will have the (un-sourced, mind you) news stories on which to base their view of the past.

I attended a session at an oral history conference awhile back where several folks reported on their projects that sought to use oral history in documenting the battle for desegregation of schools in years past. There were three presenters representing three different projects. I work in an institution where we try to document the Civil Rights Movement through oral history and we have trouble getting the segregationists to tell their story (not surprisingly, I think.) I asked the question of the presenters, “Have you found any ways to persuade the segregationists to tell their story?” All three looked at me in shock. “Of course not! We haven’t tried!”, said one. “Why would we want to do that?’ asked another. “To show both sides of the issue so future generations can better understand what happened?” I replied. “The other side of the issue isn’t important!” said the first. (The third just stared and inched away from me. She made it a point of taking a long way around the room when she left in what appeared to be an attempt to avoid me. Maybe I read too much into her circuitous route, but I found it amusing and like to be amused.)

In many years of historical research I have often been convinced that one archivist or another was letting their personal views on a subject ,and on my right to research it, interfere in my research. In the somewhat fewer years that I have worked in the field along side such professionals, nothing has happened to change my opinion. I see decisions on access, retention, selection, and outreach, as expressed in conversation, training, publication and archival practice, regularly based on an individual’s belief on the validity of his or hers own moral authority and right to exercise that authority as the “gatekeeper” to the documents of historical value. I don’t expect it to stop, though I would be pleased to see the profession acknowledge the biases so researchers could take them into account when evaluating evidence.

My feelings on the role of archivist as gatekeeper or moderator will probably surface as a common theme in this blog. Comments are welcome, of course, though I trust they will be civil.

The Heretic

Being a Mediator

April 8, 2009

I have heard it said that archivists are mediators between the collections and the users of the collections. I have also heard it said that their stock in trade is their understanding of their collections and the organizations that created them. I find it curious that someone could believe he is capable of being a successful mediator between two parties (in this case the source of information and the individual that desires it) without a good understanding of the qualities of each. Yet archivists seem to assume that they understand the research needs of their users with no, or at best the most perfunctory, of inquiries as to those needs.

I spent years doing research before becoming an archivist and it was a rare occasion when archival staff took the time to truly try and understand what I wanted or needed. I was usually more successful at my research when I was able to persuade the archivist to just give me what I wanted whether he or she thought it was useful or not. On many occasions I would be told that there were no such records, in spite of the fact that I had used them the previous day when they were supplied by a different staff member. It was not unusual for me to just abandon the topic for a time in hopes of finding another source that required fewer hoops to jump through for access. Nothing has persuaded me that the attitude that the archivist knows best is not still the most prevalent attitude in the profession.

Today things are a bit different than they used to be. There are many more sources of information with which the repository must compete. The archivist must truly become a mediator, not just claim to be one. That means finding ways to determine what the user actually needs (or, for that matter, wants) and examining whether there are reasonable ways to meet those needs. It means setting aside the hubris of believing that one’s knowledge of one’s collections and the organizations that created them in and of itself qualifies one to make decisions on behalf of the researcher. The modern archivist must base his or her practice on the knowledge of the collections, the knowledge of the creator, and the knowledge of the researcher’s needs. This last includes methods of access that are compatible with the researcher’s skills and with which he is familiar. It requires study and compromise. Indeed, user study and evaluation should be a separate domain of archival practice.

Somehow I don’t think studying the records, their structure and their function will adequately fit the bill. This, by the way, is one of the statements that I made at a professional meeting that resulted in my being called a heretic. Oh, well. If the shoe fits…

The Heretic

Professional Standards

April 7, 2009

The archives world has spent the past several decades struggling to establish and strengthen a distinct professional identity. They created the Academy of Certified Archivists and educational standards to help give credibility to their professional programs and have worked towards uniform standards in most all areas of theory and practice.

The problem with this is that archival repositories, like their collections themselves, are unique. The uniqueness of their records (using the term in the less technical meaning that includes manuscript collections, images, etc.) suggests that at least a portion of the users of a repository will also be unique in their research needs. There will be many aspects of the records that will be different from any others and defy standard description. The mission of each institution may also be different. Why should we expect to force these unique attributes into a uniform set of standards?

Perhaps the mission part of this is the key. If a repository has a mission only of preserving records that its staff finds important based on their own uniform standards, records that they will make available in ways governed only by their own theories and traditions, then a consolidated profession is the way to go. If, on the other hand, a repository has a mission that is determined by taking into account the views of other stakeholders, those who created the records, those who will use them, those who will provide resources or donate collections, etc., then the methods used by staff might need to be just as diverse as the collections; just as unique.

The archives profession should not be trying to consolidate and create uniform standards. It should, rather, be trying to remain fluid and adapt to changing situations. These situations include user needs, nature of collections, technologies that generate records as well as those used to access them, and changing values and missions as seen through the eyes of stakeholders. Archivists should be moving more towards a general concept of collection management, incorporating theories of records management, library and information sciences, museum studies, and other allied fields. The theories that are most appropriate to the mission of the unique institution and the nature of its unique collections should be used.

Of course, this would mean that archivists would have to relinquish a lot of control. Wonder how that’ll work?

The Heretic

I had a chance to talk with some historians today about the advent of Twitter and blogs. They were mildly interested, though even the archivists among them could not see what the problem would be with having communication, including government, business and other organizational communication, conducted through a medium that was not controlled by the organization. I pointed that part of the issue out to them then asked (more-or-less in these words) “How are we going to archive these records if we don’t have physical control of them? Not to mention maintain repect des fonds or context of records that are part of a complex collection of data in cyberspace? How are we going to manage these records?” The response I received from each and every one of them (okay, it was only 3, but what-the-hey) was something along the lines of “We need to be sure people don’t use this type of stuff for business!” Obviously a gut reaction; not thought out. But I was reminded of a few years ago when I attended at least 3 different workshop/sessions and read several e-mails, all with titles along the lines of “Just Say ‘No’ to Google!” A bit late for that. And it is a bit late for this. The Web 2.0 world is also Business/Organization 2.0 and will become more so rather than less so.

The creators of the records are not just doing what is technologically efficient for their organization, but what is humanly most efficient. They are using the technologies with which their employees and customers are most familiar. When those records come to us, we will either understand the technology and how it is used, as well as embrace it as a means of providing access, or we will be without the records. I suspect that being without these records will leave an archives with only a small hole, say the size of one that would have existed in an institution that had insisted years ago that it would only accept records that were handwritten or generated by a manual type writer.

Just thoughts.

The Heritic

Getting Started

April 2, 2009

I have come to realize that many of my ideas, including those related to my profession as a historian and an archivist, go against the general thought flow of others in my professional world.  I realized the degree to which this was true when the president of an archival professional society listened to me expound upon several of my ideas, then looked me in the eye and said “Heresy!” I thought, “Well, yeah. Okay. I’ll go with that.”

I am not alone in my views and every now and then I discover a kindred spirit in the profession or read an article or Web post that suggests there are still others who might share some of my views. This blog is for the expression of some of these heresies, as well as some more or less mainstream views. I will eventually provide links to and for others who share my views or wish to join the discussions. It might be fun.

I will state up front that many of my heretical views are not related specifically to my profession, though they sometimes overlap. I work in a public institution, but also serve as a religious historian and archivist. Comments made by coworkers tend to stir thoughts of a religious, philosophical or even political nature that may find their ways to these pages.  That is as it is.

My first act of heresy is to be a user advocate. I feel that the primary purpose of saving anything, including records and historical memorabilia, is so that it may be used. I  have discovered that there are those who feel records should be preserved for the sake of preserving them, (art for art’s sake?) or because they give their custodian’s power. I have discovered that in religious institutions they are often hidden, destroyed or not kept at all to help entities retain power. My advocacy for open records and ready access has been met in many cases with attitudes ranging from antipathy to aggressive opposition. Again, that is as it is.

I will expound further, but the primary purpose of this post is just to get the thing going. We will see where it eventually ends up.

The Heretic