Traditional Paradox (and a note on my Nom de Plume)

June 6, 2009

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.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Traditional Paradox (and a note on my Nom de Plume)”

  1. Judy Turner said

    Here’s Yogi’s comments on the quote (from wikipedia):

    “It’s like déjà vu all over again”. Berra explained that this quote originated when he witnessed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back to back home runs in the Yankees’ seasons in the early 1960s.

    The wikipedia article on Yogi Berra includes a number of Yogiisms as these remarks are known.

    P.S. I’m still a Yankee’s fan even though it’s been years since I lived near Yankee Stadium, in the Bronx neighborhood of Highbridge.

    • hereticalarchivy said

      Thank you Ms. Turner. I have always heard it attributed to the great man, but am also aware that many comments attributed to him were, in fact, either falsely so or at least undocumented. (“I really didn’t say everything I said.” Thus the uncertainty in my post. I appreciate your clarifying the issue.
      The Heritic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: