The Parable of the House Museum- Misunderstood Value: Further Adventures of Unpopular Concepts Archivists Must Address (Part 2)

May 14, 2010

I recently had the opportunity to judge a history contest where students in different of age groups presented their research in a variety of formats. Some of the middle school and high school presentations were superior to some of the college work I graded in my days as a teaching assistant. These students were particularly adept at using images and audio to make documentaries. They very much understood the value of sight and sound in conveying historical research and conclusions. They had more trouble with the written work. They did not understand the need for using primary source material in the basic research as well as they did for using it in the presentations themselves. And they certainly did not understand why they should bother going to an actual repository if they could get copies of what they needed off the Internet.

Although I was saddened by the lack of writing and research skills among the contestants, in some cases, to the apparent shock of my colleagues, I agreed with the students. The points that they wished to convey often required no additional primary research. Why travel all over the state visiting collections when you know the information you need is available a few clicks away? And, for that matter, even when there was a need for such research, why not take advantage of the available access to multiple collections without leaving home? My archival colleagues among the judges felt that missed the point and that any historical project should require on-site, original document research. That’s why archives exist, after all, not to punctuate secondary research or make things easy for young students. Didn’t I know how important that was to both research and to supporting archives?

Yes, I know about context, finding things through serendipity, etc. I also know about reconstructing context by reassembling information from a single creator, but that has been sent to the four winds for one reason or another. I know about the things that can often be discovered through the rapid, efficient search techniques available online, including through the social/professional on-line networks that students develop, or can tap into, that were not available a few short years ago. Serendipity exists in the virtual world, and people who are used to searching there are more likely to stumble upon what they need there than they are in a physical archives that they know not. They certainly will know better how to understand context in the world in which they operate on a regular basis than in one with which they are unfamiliar. And it is just as well, because the way we operate in our world often makes it near impossible to find the materials a researcher needs.

Case in point. Archivists understand the concept of deaccessioning. Many have trouble with it in practice, (“What do you mean we can’t keep everything!”) but we understand it just the same. Yet we tend to accept, no, we tend to actively pursue items that we have little or no chance of making available for research, or that would better serve researchers at some other repository. In my role as archivist of a religious collection, I have had to travel to another state and argue with a somewhat under-informed archive technician about my right to review records clearly stamped as belonging to our organization. According to accounts in other papers, the records were kept at a university until such time as a permanent archive could be built. According to the archivist of that institution, when the university decided years later to divest itself of its religious holdings, the current holder requested the records. There was no entity that had the legal authority to transfer those records to their current resting place, but that is where they are. I use the term “resting place” deliberately, because, although the records were sent there 70 years or more ago, the collection has yet to be fully processed. After the intervention of a better informed archivist, I was allowed to view the records.

My question is, “why do they have them in the first place?” Don’t get me wrong, I am glad the records exist and because of an absence of a good repository in our neck of the woods they probably would not be there today without the assistance of our sister organization some several hundred miles from here. But why did they want them? They have not fully processed them. They kept them because the records had, or might one day have, value, but value to whom? They were transferred to the organization at a time when the repository in question was trying to build a reputation as a great research institution, but few people have ever seen those records. The people who are most likely to value them are in a different state than are the records! Or, to put it another way, all the people who are most likely to use them are in a different state than are the records. There is most certainly a connection between use and their value as perceived by researchers, if not as perceived by archivists.

Like the historical societies and towns who work to save one too many house museum than there are resources to support, the archives in question was interested in having control over a component of history that the staff felt important for its own purposes. The desire to utilize the available resources in a way that would help the researcher was simply not there. The fact that these components, in this case records, would not be available for use of researchers was not an issue. This was about the collectors, as I feel justified in calling the archives, not the users.

Collector, another “C-word,” sends shivers down our spines as we think of people who acquire and sell records and manuscripts for personal profit, but we do not think it applies to us if we acquire and control the dissemination of documents and information for our own purposes. There really is no difference, though. In each case the entity is taking charge of the component of history and using it to make the entity’s own situation better. It matters not a bit that the entity believes its purpose to be noble, such as increasing its own control over history for the benefit of others. The purpose is still for the benefit of the entity, not potential users of the historical items. If it were, all reasonable attempts possible would be made to increase access to potential users. In fact, just as museum folk have learned to to promote use of their sites and collections by examining and supplying the needs of their visitors, archivists would actively advocate to help find ways that the items could be used. In the case of the collection I mentioned above, if these components not being available for use of researchers was not an issue, the fact that they were unavailable for presenters was not even on the radar.

This brings us back to the students that used primary sources more in the actual presentation than research portion of their projects. Yes, we want students to learn the importance of primary source research and evaluating sources. But this is not the only use for our materials. If a person has developed a view of history based on secondary sources that he then wishes to communicate top others, why should the use of primary materials, such as images or audio clips, or even images of documents, be used to illustrate this view? Not only does this provide a use for the items, it exposes others to them. Like many a historian backtracking footnotes to original documents, people who see the presentations may backtrack the materials to their origial sources. We should encourage the use of our materials in any legitimate way, (meaning legal and ethical, not ways we personally judge to be legitimate,) and not give a priority to “real research.”

If archives are going to survive as institutions and as a profession, I truly believe we must learn to think of “use” as a, if not the, primary component for the determination of value of documents and items in our care. I think that we must determine what our researchers need, determine if and how we can meet those needs, and then proceed to do so. We must make it about them, not us and our collections. I assure you that they do not lie awake at night trying to think of ways to keep us around. If we do not collaborate with users and each other, we will go the way of the old, abandoned, house museum that many thought was important, but not important enough to give the support it needed. That means we do not dictate the use, but supply the need.

The Heretic

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2 Responses to “The Parable of the House Museum- Misunderstood Value: Further Adventures of Unpopular Concepts Archivists Must Address (Part 2)”

  1. Leslie said

    As a former news librarian and unlikely to find a job in the field again, I’m trying to explore what areas of librarianship I would best be suited for. I have thought of archives but I’m not sure it’s for me. I can’t even get an internship because they require being a current student and having “demonstrated experience” in the field. When I was in college eons ago, internships were the way to GET experience.
    That said, I really find your ideas about archiving concepts to be thought-provoking. And also how you weave Christian concepts into your work. The trendy concept these days is all about “access” because the control of information is disappearing. (And as someone whose main gift is research, that is difficult to see.)
    I think the reality that most people cannot travel to archives means that access to original documents will be almost totally digital. But there is so much material not digitized that original research will always be necessary. Original research often provides different interpretations that secondary resources about the original cannot/won’t reveal. While “original intent” has its place, the interpretation of original documents through the eyes of contemporary theories can reveal ideas that further scholarship.

    • The Heretic said

      I agree wholeheartedly with your statements concerning research with original documents. The trick is to remember that the needs of the researcher do not always require that level of knowledge or interpretation. There will always be a place for more sources with less depth of research for each individual source just as there is a place for the benefits of consulting the original in fact.

      The thing about digital isn’t just access. It is culture. We are living in a culture where people interact with documents in a digital manner. Sometimes they will do that or not use them at all. In either case the result is the same as far as the original document is concerned. It is not used.

      Something worth remembering is that the paper documents we receive in our collections nowadays are often created in a digital environment. That means that if we are to add context, to help the researcher understand the document’s hidden information, we must understand the environment in which it is produced. I am taking another Masters in Computer Information Systems. I suspect that will be a way for me to retain, if not improve, my value as an archivist. there are, of course, other fields that will help. The main thing is I am looking at things that will be part of my world but not normally thought of as complementary to my field, as LIS is, for instance.

      I do weave church in quite a bit because I see similarities in the way mine functions and the archives groups/profession functions, because I am a Christian, and because I am a volunteer archivist for a church organization. That may be a place to get some experience. Volunteer. I know it doesn’t pay, but if you find yourself a “lone arranger,” you can get help from other archivists and learn to do just about anything you need. You will have control, and if you join associations for archivists and records managers, you will have a network that will know you can do the work. that is how I got my start.

      The Heretic

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