This is free flowing thought, and so may be updated or edited later. It should be noted that some of these issues are related generally to archival practice, and even other fields, but the context is of discussions between church historians and archivists, so there is some good old fashioned religion in it. Make of it what you will.

I have heard it said in more than one work of fiction by the bad guy/gal de jour that it isn’t about the money, it is about the power. That seems somewhat grandiose when applied to my profession, but essentially the same theme, on a smaller scale, intersects my world on a regular basis. It is about control. If control is different than power, or is not, so be it.

I was talking with a colleague the other day about the change in the way churches (we are both archivists in religious institutions) are changing the way they produce and maintain denominational/connectional records. Those records created by the larger bodies, the corporate entities if you will, as opposed to the local church congregations or smaller organizations, are totally in the hands of the creators and the IT departments. Techs maintain the records, not the administration of the church body, and the historians never see them, much less receive them for preservation. In many cases minutes of very important meetings are not shown to anyone outside the meetings, with at best summaries given out to the general laity. There is no mandate that the records of the activities of the church be retained for historical value or any methods in place to do so. This also means, of course, that the leadership of the church is less accountable to the general body.

I mentioned that I had found it particularly distressing when I was “leaked” the details of some motions made during a major meeting a year or more ago and found that they did not conform to the summaries I had been given to place in my collections. Was someone deliberately attempting to change “history?” Who knows? I do know that the summaries, which had been generally circulated, gave a very different picture of what was discussed than did the actual record.

We discussed differing ways that denominations/conferences/what-have-yous approached records. We found it interesting, for example, that while the Discipline of the United Methodist Church states that meetings and records, with a few exceptions, are open to the public, the very book that proclaims that fact is under copyright protection, preventing reproduction, and on-line versions can only be had for a price. While I understand recouping cost for printed materials, the idea that a member of an organization that is supported financially by its membership, must also pay for access to the primary record of that organization seems strange to me, particularly in light of that very document’s purported stance on openness of records.

On a smaller scale we discussed the changes in technology that are affecting access and records, as well as being tools for many types of organizations, and the lack of willingness for churches to use social networking, blogging, twitter, wikis, etc. (collectively Web 2.0 technology, although Web 2.0 more accurately reflects an attitude about use of the Net than the tech itself) to connect and communicate. I had already discussed with others this unwillingness to use new technology to cross borders, time, and generational boundaries, and the general consensus in my crowd is that if the existing church cannot control it, they are afraid of it. (Sort of like the Jewish establishment in Judea about 2000 years ago in regards to a certain outspoken Rabbi. Couldn’t control him. Eliminated him. At least they thought so. Not that we are him, but we strive to be influenced by him.) Each of us in the group has had preachers and church staff members tell us that we will use such technology when we are ready. That we can only use blogs if we can control what people say and the comments people make. That we just don’t have the people to do this stuff (meaning the proper people I guess; in each case we as individuals have volunteered to do the tasks and recruit others.) In short, we can’t do what we can’t control. Like the hierarchy that doesn’t want to let its actions to fall too closely under the scrutiny of the underlings, the lower levels of church establishment fear the unknown.

Fear the unknown. It’s a church. Anything wrong with this picture? (Let’s see. People suggesting they can make statements about faith, testify, bring people together across great distances, discuss, debate, pray, share, support, evaluate so they can do it all better and pass it on to other generations. Nope. That won’t work. Can’t have that. Must be controlled. What if someone feels led by the Spirit to say or do something that I didn’t feel led to do?)

This is not new to archivists of my stripe. The profession has been struggling for several decades to establish its role as a recognized profession, one able to set the standards of education and practice, of control. Yet at every turn someone comes along and points out things that do not fit into the box that the profession is trying to construct. Of course, the profession has the option of adjusting its mission whenever it so chooses. It has not yet so chosen, but may do so one day, or one day have no choice. Many of the records it so zealously desires to preserve are not created in a context that its members understand or in a format that they know how to preserve. They will either have to release their control over these records to another profession, concentrating only on the past as it is today, or change their methods and mission. This is the same dilemma the church faces; has always faced.

And as a historian I see it from the other side. I have done research in places that took it as granted that I needed their material badly enough that I would do what they said I must, that they were in control. There are doors that I will not likely ever darken again because of this, some of which open into institutions that I have noticed have lost budget resources, staff, and donations because they could not keep a research base large enough to justify their previous level of support.

I don’t know if I am right or wrong, or if the archives world or church will change. In the meantime, as I have usually tried to do, I will choose to follow a still small voice, even if it contradicts the greater wisdom of my church structure and my profession. What else can I do?

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.

I sat in a meeting of people from the historical society of a Methodist Church Annual Conference the other day. These are wonderful, history-minded people and I have a great deal of respect for them all. They have given many more years of service than have I, even if mine were to be multiplied by a factor of 3. We do, however, disagree on a few things. Do note that I am a trained historian and archivist and have a passion for old things, seeking hidden information about the past, and a great respect for tradition. I even recognize that in some cases, tradition for tradition’s sake is a valid position, at least to some extent. That said, I could not help but be reminded that sometimes we develop inertia and cannot see when we have mutually exclusive positions on subjects.

It was déjà vu all over again (I don’t know if that is a true Yogi Berra-ism or not.) The discussion had an eerie similarity to conversations I had been part of in local churches regarding worship and programs, meetings I have had with staff of a public library special collections division, board meetings for archivists’ professional groups, and my professors when I was a student. It essentially had two components.

The first was my explaining my belief that technology is changing the very nature of how we communicate, manage and access information, and how we interact with each other.  At the meeting in question, I suggested that many younger folk are growing up in a world where they are used to doing things in both the “real” world and a “virtual” one. They expect to use fast, free, and easy tools to interact and to access information. My suggestion that we might publish our journal (it is 6-7 years behind schedule, in part because of issues with printing and binding) in pdf format so we could reach more people, save money, and by-pass the printing problems, was not well received. The rest of this component of the conversation consisted of the other members of the group explaining that most of the members were older, didn’t use such technology, and then dismissing it.

We then moved on to the next component of the conversation, just as we have done in the other situations to which I referred. What were we going to do about the absence of younger folk, of “new blood,” in our organization? No one could think of a way to reach out to the next generation and persuade them to come into the fold. I have gone through this too many times to argue. I just find it paradoxical that so many folk want to veto the use of the tools that a whole generation, (actually portions of several generations,) routinely use as among their primary methods of communication and research, and then wonder why no one will storm our doors and beg us to let them in.
This is not new, of course. What we really want is for a new group of people to come along who will agree to see and do things our way and carry on our work in the way we wish it. We tend to see our ways as the traditional ways. This seems to be based on our place in time, however, not in history. The way we do things tends to be viewed as the way it was always done, or at least as the final stage of an evolutionary process that need no longer progress. Don’t mess with it.

When I was in another church than I attend today, a woman who was adamantly opposed to “new” music in the church gave us a list of 5 songs that were examples of the type of music she thought we should have in the services, the music that was traditional even when she was a girl. I checked the songs and 3 were written when the woman was a girl or a teen. The other 2 were less than a decade old when she was born. The music our young folk wanted to sing included some written over 20 years before they were born. The definition of traditional was (is?) that with which the person defining the word is familiar.

Some years ago archivist Terry Cook wrote a short history of the evolution of archival science*. He noted that many of the best practices in America today, including the ways we treat original order, fonds, context, etc., evolved over time. Articles published in various texts on the history of the Society of American Archivists and National Council on Public History show that many of these practices have only become standard in the lifetimes of current practitioners. I wince when I hear that adaptations to various methods should be viewed as violating centuries of accepted practice. Yet I have heard those words from professionals. I still recall sitting in New Orleans for SAA a few years back and after listening to a couple of presenters explain how exhibits and outreach were part of their institutions’ missions, the next presenter said that if that was the case they needed to change their missions. In his view, the purpose of archives was, and had always been, to preserve the records. Period. All the rest was extra stuff you did if you had the resources, but should never be part an archives’ primary mission. (I wish I could recall the name of the presenter. I wrote a little paper on how important use was to preservation of records and wanted his opinion, but I came in late and never caught the names of the presenters.)

Of course, all this is part of the on-going discussion of the purpose of archives, the role of the archivist, and definition of the profession. A discussion where I find I tend to hold the minority opinion much of the time and the one where I received the title of heretic.**

The Heretic

* Cook, Terry. “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.” Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997): 17-63.

** I have often been told things about myself ranging from I was outside the mainstream of thought to I was opposing the standards of my profession. A couple of years ago, a member of a religious archives roundtable branded an idea of a colleague, with which I agreed, heresy. When I mentioned it to a former professor, he agreed, but said that I had always been a bit of a heretic. Less than a year ago, at a regional archivist conference, I expressed some ideas about the importance of use in archives and a fellow member of the organization looked me in the eye and said “My God! You’re a heretic!” In a discussion with some religious archivists later, the same woman who had used the term “heresy” a year or so later said the same thing. My friends kept it up, half jokingly, I think. I have also been told that I am tilting at windmills when I point out that many of the rules in the Discipline of my church are routinely ignored. Some of the leadership, clergy and lay, have informed me that the rules are inappropriate and should be ignored. They maintain, perhaps with some accuracy, that their view is orthodox. At any rate, I have accepted the title of heretic. Few have told me that I am being too hard on myself.