Are “Archivists” Surrendering Their Profession? Part 1

July 14, 2012

I have sat through meetings and presentations, read a good size mound (perhaps I should say a sub-series worth) of literature, and participated in seminars, where the primary subject was the relevance of the archivist or some other topic examined in light of the relevance of the archivist. Feel free to substitute “archival management,” “archival repositories,” “archival collections,” or whatever related category seems to fit. We word the subject differently, but the general gist is that we are worried that the rest of the world will no longer value us, and (gasp) our collections, enough for the resources to remain for the equipping and maintaining the archival profession and the archival collection.

At this point I will say that, as with posts in the past (it has been awhile since my posting; sorry) I will a) draw comparisons between my experiences in archives in general and my experiences in the church or working with other professionals. And b) I will likely have another installment as more thought gels in my brain that is developing noticeable gaps in its gray matter. I truly would appreciate comments that may expedite that gelling process, by the way.

To me, the archives professional seems to fit, for the most part, into tree categories when it comes to the subject of relevance. There are the Cleopatras, who have failed to recognize that denial is not just a river in Egypt. There are the resistance cells that work continually to resist the coming changes that create an impact on the relevance of the archive and the need for adaptation to many changes, giving ground slowly and reluctantly. There are the collaborationists, who feel as if they are meeting the changes half-way and therefore will somehow preserve a semblance of the archives profession as we know it today and therefore give more ground than the resistance fighter. In addition to these three, there is a small group, size depending on who judges the individual in question, that may be described as going over to the Dark Side. I am the only one I know personally that has gone over completely, though I hasten to add that the term “Dark Side” has nothing to do with my morals or Christian beliefs but is rather a tongue-in-cheek reference to the way many people I deal with on a professional or volunteer basis view my ideas as being quite beyond the pale.

To elaborate a bit on these groups, I will start with the Cleopatras. These are the people who are convince that, because we will always have traditional documents and records, we will always need the repositories and “traditional” archivists. At the very least we will need them for their lifetimes, so there is no need to worry. The most active of these people, those who do worry that the rest of the world will not recognize the value and relevance of the archival repository, seem to believe that the real problem is that the populace in general, and those who make decisions regarding resource allocation (money, personnel, records disposition) in specific, are just not properly educated as to the value of the profession and the collections. They believe advocacy is the solution and once people realize that we are as valuable as wee think we are, things will be okay. Oddly enough, most of the people who I hear preaching this in discussions concerning “archival relevancy,” spend little time on advocacy. They have to process and deal with researchers who have managed to track them down somehow. These are, after all, core functions of archivists. (What are advocacy and outreach. chopped liver?) It is my opinion, well informed or not, that these folks are in for a very rude awakening very soon. Based only on my personal experience (personal conversations, reading, correspondence and conferences) they tend to be the ones that express the greatest bitterness and sense of defeat over the current state of affairs in the profession. Welcome to the Little Big Horn, Col. Custer.

The resistance are those who have gradually somewhat succumbed to the onslaught of change, but at an exceptionally slow rate. These are the folk that continue to refuse to consider accepting electronic records into their collections and have finally given way to the idea that some digital records may need to be available on the Internet, but only as a means of enticing researchers into their archives. They firmly believe that records and documents have so much value as a collection, that there is an obligation to do everything possible to only present them in the context of an arranged unit rather than allowing researchers to see just individual documents. These folks see themselves as gatekeepers, morally and ethically required to be sure that researchers see the records in the way that they are “supposed” to be viewed. Most, if not all, of these folks I know believe that the concepts of respect des fonds and original order are universally accepted and applied principles that have been part of archival best practices for centuries. They do not read or accept the attitude of many other archivists regarding these principals and avoid the history of the evolution of the archives and manuscript collection field in the United States. They have their story and are sticking to it. They accept digital records in the repository, albeit often reluctantly, but do their best to transfer them to paper media or to store them without trying to provide access. They recognize that they will eventually driven to further accept aspects of technology that affect their profession, but they view this as a loss to both the profession and the researcher. They give ground, but reluctantly, and only because others in the profession are retreating and leaving their flanks unprotected.

The collaborationist is the one who believes that he or she has embraced the new technology. These folk have belatedly accepted and become excited about Web 2.0. They see the wonderful abilities to use social networking and online communication as a means of not only promoting their collections but providing reference services and even online access to documents. They do not have a consolidated view of how far they should go in stepping outside the usual view that actual presence in the repository is necessary to do “serious” research, but believe that new technologies and communication trends offer advantages to archivists that are not being recognized by the profession. They tend to support, again to varying degrees, the concept of “More Product, Less Process (MPLP).” They accession databases in their collections, often have email collections in digital formats, and occasionally attempt to capture Websites or social media for archival retention. The problem is, they really know nothing about the technological processes involved, and have not thought about ways to provide access or preserve the collections. They are still grounded in the belief that traditional archival management practices are, and should be, the core of the field, and when all is said in done they still try to tie their views into the traditional practices. Most of what they do with this new technology is access related, with a nod to the fact that record format is changing. Their lack of knowledge of how these electronic records were produced and used makes it impossible for them to properly apply concepts of appraisal, arrangement and description, or many other steps in the process of preserving records and making them accessible to other. They come closer to stepping beyond the pale, and seem to have actually have done some to other archivists. In reality, however, they have not made the final step of yielding to “the dark side.”

In Episode V (really Part 2 but parodying a rather confusing format of a movie series that has no respect des fonds) We will discuss the power of the “dark side.” I will also explain why this is really the “Bright Side” and how this also applies to organizational structures through using the church as an illustration.

The Heretic

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