Talk Dry But Drink Sweet: the Dilemma of the Unpaid, Yet Professional, Archivist

October 16, 2009

I am a professional historian. I am also a professional archivist. Certified in the field. Masters in History. Years of research experience. Over two years of electronic and computer engineering education, trained as a recording engineer and served as an electronic technician. I work in the history/archives/library field and have special experience and expertise in oral history, “customer” service, social networks, and evaluation and reporting. I use some of these skills that come from my gifts and training in both a small, non-profit network I have developed and as an unpaid archivist and historian for religious institutions. In this last capacity I have run up against what, Pete, God rest his soul (cancer took him last year,) referred to as “The Board.” (Emphasis included.)

Pete LaPaglia was a great guy. He not only ran a consulting and exhibit fabrication firm out of Murfreesboro, TN, he made it a point to hire students to give them practical experience in the field. He had told me to call him if I wanted to try using my experience in consulting, but I never did. I did, however, get to ask him what advice he would give me should I ever work as a consultant. He said he had 2 pieces of advice for me to apply as a pubic historian (aside from trying to do what I love,) and they were to read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People at least once a year, and be ready to deal with “The Board.”

The first, about the good read, Pete had told us when he visited our museum studies class a few years earlier. We always asked history professionals visiting our classes about the most important literature we should be reading. Depending on the class and the professional, they would reply with a professional journal, book, author or hot topic. Pete named Carnegie and said he always read it at least once a year. I am trying to follow suit.

The second part of Pete’s advice was about “The Board.” Let’s be clear; not the board. “The Board.” He spoke of it as if it were an entity of his own, a cross between an incompetent collection of individuals and of minions from Hell. Such a group could drive you over the edge mentally or out of the profession. He had stories, and I have since had similar experiences or observed them in others’ careers.

Not all institutional boards that control museums, archives, libraries, historical sites, etc. fit this category, of course; some may be composed of retired professionals or folks in related fields. But many controlling entities are composed of people who know nothing of the professional standards, theories, or resource requirements of the institutions they attempt to govern. This would be bad enough, even if the board members were aware of their ignorance, but frequently the board members are sure they know more about the profession than the professional. Of course, they could be right, but I submit that, more times than not, this is not true.

This brings us to my unpaid position. I hold more than one at different levels of the United Methodist Church. The controlling entities at the different level differ greatly in their understanding of my work. At the topmost, many of the board are not professional historians or archivists, but have had life-long interests in and studies of history. Some are indee professionals. On the next level there are a few history professionals, but the board is mostly controlled by well intentioned and unknowledgeable amateurs and professional church folk (clergy and laity) who have other agendas. On the local church level, no one has a clue about archives theory and practice, and many refuse to abide by or enforce their own regulations regarding such practice. Preachers come and go, each unaware of the rules that have been established by the board, and often with enough knowledge of the study of history, even professional experience in the field, to feel that they have a superior knowledge of how archivists should function. I acknowledge that it is possible that they are correct, but I really do not believe it.

The dilemma comes down to one in which the staff of the church, clergy and laity, as well as the governing board, insist that the non-staff laity of the church must lead the ministries of the body. The reality is that many of the laity do not follow through on the tasks they accept as their own, and the staff do not wish to give up their own control over things. This becomes a real problem when a lay member who is a professional in his field, such as a Certified Archivist, tries to do his job in a professional manner as requested and required by the board, but the staff, including clergy, and other leaders of the church, fail to relinquish authority along with responsibility. There is an old saying that wine drinkers talk dry and drink sweet. They say they prefer dry wine because that is what they feel they are expected to say, but in reality drink sweet wines. It is a polite way of saying they say one thing but do another. This has been my experience at my church recently. In short, I have not only had to deal with the Church Council, the board (of which I am a member,) but found it has morphed into “The Board.”

Some years ago the governing board of our church adopted a job description for the Church Historian that gave him custodial authority over the historic objects and documents of the church, including the archives. This was done because a study of the records of the church had revealed big gaps in the records, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church had emphasized the importance of records keeping to the church, and because members had attended workshops where attorneys had advised churches that proper records control was necessary to safeguard the church against litigation. Because of my professional training and experience, I was asked to fill the position and accepted.

After passing the description, however, “The Board,” as the Council quickly became, did not enforce it. The archives was not, and is not, in a secure place, historical objects were disposed of without discussing the actions with the me, records were taken from the archives, and, in spite of the adoption of a records management program, no records were given to me as archivist in five years. The staff refused to allow me to set up training, part of my job description, refused to let me inform the congregation of the state of the records through official communication, also part of the job description, did not refer reference questions me, part of my job description, and actually complained when the I began to process the records of the church in a professional manner.

The preacher, a former history professor, stated that there were no churches that applied such standards to their collections, and that it was unreasonable for me to expect such things. This is a fallacy based, I am sure, on his not having visited during the course of his job many churches that have applied such standards. We have established that I am, at best, an oddity to many, but this has not been my experience. That this is not the norm I accept, but I have visited a good number of professionally maintained Methodist archives, have personally been involved in changing the standards in four churches in just the past two years, and have been told of others. (My own, alas, is not among them.) The preacher and other staff have told me that I am being too legalistic in insisting on adherence to the job description and collection policy that was also adopted, but they resist allowing me to change it to free myself from any obligations to adhere to professional standards. In short, I have been made legally, ethically and professionally responsible for the collections of the church, but have been denied the authority to care for them. Yes, this is “The Board” that Pete warned me about.

As I prepare my motion to change the job description of the Historian, and my resignation letter should that not be adopted, I reflect on a final irony. As I have been blocked from doing my job by staff that would not relinquish control, I have also set at meeting after meeting listening to the staff and leadership of the church complaining that the membership was leaving too much work to the staff, and reminding us that we are supposed to be a laity led church. I am supposed to step up and do my job. Indeed. Talking dry and drinking sweet. “The Board” is firmly in charge.

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 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.


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