Those of us who have come to know the power of the “dark side,” that is methodology that goes beyond the traditions of archival management, have found that our traditional skills are greatly needed in the bright new world that is coming our way. There will always be a need for someone to preserve the elements that make up the historic record, to make those elements available to researchers, and to help provide context that researcher may use, if they so desire, to better interpret these elements. The problem is not that these elements of the historical record are in different formats than those we are used to, or different media, or even exist in far greater numbers with potentially millions of identical “records.” These are challenges that many archivists have to face and which many will have to bow before. That’s okay. Transition takes time, in spite of the accelerated pace at which change seems to come in today’s world. There will still be plenty of traditional archival work available to do for a long time to come. These people will be needed and relevant regardless of the changes happening around us.

Before we go any farther, let me call attention to the fact that I used the term “archival management.” I use various terms to describe the profession as I strive to avoid being redundant as well as repeating things. I rarely, however, use the term “archival science,” and when I do it is just an attempt to vary the terminology to spice up the writing. (Changing management to science; if that doesn’t liven things up, nothing will.) I do not believe it is a science and actually like the term “archivy” that seems to imply something practiced as if it were a science but is not (as in “alchemy”.) I often find my colleagues view our practice as one in which the rules are carved in stone. I have read codes of ethics for archivists, museum folk, and other public historians that clearly deny reality. They make it clear, for example, that the professionals must avoid for-profit organizations, as if the non-profits do not wield any power to influence the profession as they provide resources, missions, and, of course, our salaries. Such ethical codes supposedly keep us free from undue influence. “Coca-Cola may shape the way we view the history of their product but you will never find a board of people with social or political views that are similar to one another influencing the practice of a museum or archival repository. Therefore, we are free from the nasty influence that for-profit institutions wield.” Uhh-huhh.

We have best practices that are established by leaders in the field. Well and good. But these best practices tend to be a one-size-fits-all type of thing. Of course, no one expects the small church archives with no budget to come anywhere near the level of best practices that the National Archives and Records Administraton does, but they should strive to get as close to it as possible. But why? Are the records of a small institution necessarily that related to the generic record groups of large institutions? Since they are by definition unique, and may have been created and used in very different ways, is it not possible that best practices for these should be different? And who gets to decide these things. The whole world does not accept the best practices voted on by the elite of the Society of American Archivists.

No, these are traditions, not scientific models, and they are not even sacred traditions at that. Many of the best practices of the archival world have come to be accepted (where they are accepted) during my lifetime. The way in which the profession treats our rules is much like the way a church I once belonged to treated music in worship. They didn’t want any of the new music that the younger folk wanted to use in worship. They wanted to use the music the church had always used. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The trouble was, when I started looking up a lot of the music our solid core of church leaders wanted to keep in the worship service, most of it had been written when they were very young. I found that the definition of status quo was the way things have been in “my” lifetime, regardless of the change that occurred to the previous system to make it what I am familiar with. As archivists worry about their relevancy or the oncoming changes being wrought by the digital world, we might do well to remember that people struggled to change an older system into what we have today. Neither Adam and Eve or Homo erectus worried about records being viewed without context or heard about the concept of provenance. (Okay. I don’t know that last part for certain, but I would be willing to bet on it, and I don’t even gamble.)

So what does this have to do with archivists surrendering their profession? A good bit. The deal is this. Technology does not only change the media of communication, it changes the thought process involved in communication. The younger generations in this country no longer create documents with a strong expectation of privacy. Their communication is not necessarily targeted at an individual or group, but rather the world at large. They stumble upon documents and chunks of information, or a third party leads these folk, both the creators of records and researchers, to a specific place in the chain of communication. We may never know what outside forces determined who someone communicated with and where the content of their communication came from. We have no context to apply to the record.

If there is a record. While I still see sessions in conferences on dealing with archiving of email, more and more people are communicating with text messages. Who is archiving those? I know the data is probably on a server somewhere, but the chances of any of it ending up in the hands of archivists any time in the next several decades is slim to none. And while we either ignore the issue (Cleopatras), make a few steps towards dealing with the problem, albeit reluctantly (resistance members), or embrace a part of the change so we can get along with the others (collaborationists), we still haven’t “got it.” The farthest I have seen any reasonably significant number of archivists come to dealing with the world of the digital is the handful that are beginning to embrace “Web 2.0” as a means to do outreach and promote their collections. Some are even going so far as to put parts of their collections online so the researcher may access them without traveling several hundred miles to examine a piece of paper that may not have what they’re looking for on it anyway. Even then they lament the poor researcher missing out on so all the treasures they could have have if they had only come to the repository in person. And some folks are using digitization to produce backup copies of material, just in case, It’s all a step in the right direction, but still not radical enough.

As I said earlier, many of the records, particularly “correspondence” such as text, are not saved at all. Few archive Websites or social media. For that matter, privacy concerns, oddly enough existing in a world where many think nothing of sending a picture of themselves without any clothes out for the world to see, make users of social media resistant to archives of their records being kept by others. And that is the crux of the matter. Control. People who use text messages, Twitter, Facebook, who blog or use other social media, expect that the material they choose to make public will quickly move beyond their control and be available to the world. What they also expect is to be able to choose what content is put in a place where it can be made public. They do not want data mining, changed privacy settings or agreements, or people keeping copies of their information without their having initiated the process. Organizations are the same way.

In many organizations records are controlled by records managers. In the case of electronic records, they are usually in the hands of the Information Technology (IT) folk. IT is not interested in the historical record. IT needs to increase efficiency in response to ever increasing demands from management. IT needs to free up server space. IT needs to purge records. Not deaccession, purge. IT and records management barely speak a similar language. IT and archivists are from totally different worlds. From a professional standpoint, they use different sides of their brains, have different priorities, and have nothing in common other than the fact they work with records. Yet to the archivist, IT represents the force of rapid change into a digital world that is forcing archivy (like I said, I like this term) to change or become outcast. It is the powerful “Dark Side” of the records/communication force.

How do we fight the dark side? We cannot. Besides, it is not really the dark side at all. Digital technology has opened a myriad of ways in which records are produced or communication engaged in to add to the  historical record. The question is, who will answer the call to preserve it for future generations? Right now, it sure isn’t the archivist. We discussed in part 1 (okay, I pontificated in part 1) of these posts the responses of the profession to the change in records and communication. In our church, the committee that is responsible for maintaining those records is rarely if ever consulted about them. They are kept by the communications and administration divisions. As long as entities that generate records are responsible for their ultimate disposition and archivists cannot handle them, the likely place they will go is oblivion. The archivist will have surrendered their profession, laying down their part in the decision process. They will work with what they have until everything is processed (granted, that could be a long time.)

Of course one of the possible solutions would be for archivists to go where the records are. Become part of the records management team rather than sit at the end waiting for their next shipment. They could learn how the organization works, better understand the context in which records are created, advocate for means of retention of records of enduring value. It would mean adjusting to the individual sets of circumstances, and archivists would likely have less physical control over their collections than they do now. It is a if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em strategy, but beats unconditional surrender. It means the profession must evolve. Rapidly. That could hurt. But such is life.

In the world of the church, many of the younger people do not relate to the same things as do people of the generation before. Nothing new. But as I said earlier, new communication has allowed a change in the way these folk’s minds work. They do not define relationship the same way as their elders. Physical things often mean less to them than intangible concepts. To someone like this, attending a worship service from hundreds of miles away via computer can be a meaningful experience. It requires believing that the Holy Spirit can and does work without restrictions of time, space, or the will of mankind, but none the less is quite feasible. Such experiences may be very real for the people who participate in them. When the church in general fails to recognize this, fails to recognize that technology has become a part of the way new generations think rather than just be a tool to convey old messages, she surrenders. If she assigns the way people function and think to the dark side because they do not understand how much they are tied in with new forms of communication, they will lose relevancy. It may be that it is time for this, that the church needs to undergo a very radical change. I don’t know. I do know that once again, I observe in both my work with my church and my profession very similar situations. Worry about their future relevancy and an inability to make the changes necessary to assure that relevancy.

By the way. I also believe that the change in technology and the way younger generations think is a two-way street. They are not slaves to technology. Much of the technological change has been driven by the desires of the end user. I have written of this before in one place or another. I will again.

The Heretic

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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

Peter Drucker said that “the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.” He uses a similar maxim, quoted by former pupil William A. Cohen, to the effect that good marketing makes sales unnecessary. In the first case, he is discussing knowing the customer well enough to know his need, and then apply innovation and find a way to meet that need. In the second he is speaking of knowing the customer well enough to understand whether or not one’s product or service meets his need, and if so, the product is displayed in a way that is attractive to the customer.

In neither case does Drucker advocate trying to persuade someone that they need something that they do not, or even something they may need but are unaware they need. To Drucker, the goal is simply two-way communication. The provider seeks what is needed by the customer and makes it available in a manner of which the customer is aware. It then is up to the customer to take advantage or not, and if the product is good enough and the communication about it good enough, no persuasion will be necessary.

Too many times I have gone to a repository where the archivist or reference person failed to discover my needs. Too many times they have tried to persuade me that I wanted something other than I really wanted. Too many times the staff never really attempted to meet my research needs because they didn’t explore what they really were. As professionals, they were in the position of authority and saw no need to “market” their product by determining what I needed and let me know what they had. And too many times I, being fairly intelligent, found other sources for my information and returned to the repositories either only as a last resort or never.

I cannot count on my two hands the number of these places that have had major staff reductions and lack the resources to do their jobs well. I know of several that have been transferred to the control of other institutions. They remind me of the folks I know at churches that stick to their guns as the ship sinks for lack of anyone who cares. They are not standing on great principles. They are obstinately refusing to even consider that they do not know best and ask others what might be best. They refuse communication because they are not interested in it. In the end, I expect they are afraid of loss of control. In the end, I suspect they will change or lose more than control.

One of the easiest ways I have discovered to get people at either church or in the archives profession to leave a room is to mention theories of someone from the business field with respect. Forgetting, ignoring, or denying that business requires the study of people, their desires and their needs, and successful business requires finding ways to fulfill those desires and needs, most of the people I know in the church and archives (we’ll leave allied professions out for the moment) feel themselves above anything having to do with business. Want to see them really go nuts? Make the business subject marketing! (This is not the same thing as sales, by the way.)

I find this situation a bit sad, as the goal of good business is to connect a person or persons with what they need or desire, while the goal of a church or someone who seeks to provide records for a researcher is…. Well, I guess you get the picture. Profit, of course, is the motivation for this activity in business while there are a number of motivations in the other areas, but the actual goal is the same. So if a business is successful and a religion or profession is beginning or continuing to loose relevance among people, would it not be sensible to at least look at the methods of the business? Alas, that has been one of my heresies. Yet, I repent not.

Peter Drucker is one of my favorites. He was thought a kook at one point, but eventually became a sort of guru of management, winning many awards. He is often called the father of modern management. A prolific author, and I an avid reader, there is a place where our interests naturally cross and I have read quite a bit of his material. Although my explanation of who he is sends many of my colleagues across the room at a rabbit’s pace, he actually spent many of his business years in non-profits and much of his theory is targeted at managing one’s life, not just one’s business. He has been quoted often in my small essays and will likely appear here more and more. So if the thought of business mixed with archival management (Hey! Drucker is a “management” guru and “management” is part of what we archivists do! Maybe I’m on to something here!) turns you off, but you haven’t yet stopped reading, you may wish to. Or, as always, the comment section is available for rebuttal.

The Heretic

I am working on another degree. Computer Information Systems. Working full time as an archivist, part time as a volunteer archivist, and trying to live makes this interesting, but not undoable. The thing is, this is very much an archives related degree. It is the business side/user side of the technology as well as some of the design of systems. Quite enlightening.

I have been for some time advocating that archivists pay attention to the world of “Web 2.0,” social networking, cloud computing and the like. This is not because they offer us opportunities to serve our users and reach new patrons but because these things are part of the context in which the records are created. The “virtual original order,” if such exists, would be found here. Regardless, we can better place the records in the context of their use, part of our jobs as archivists.

What I am coming to discover is how much more there is in the context of the record creation than I had previously realized. While we have argued and discussed what to do about digital records, I find few of us discussing the importance of the digital records behind the paper record. In a recent school project, we created many versions of electronic records on a variety of software that was used to work out problems and create a set of “deliverables.” The final product, the deliverables, were issued at various steps of the project and on the surface look like the documentation of the project that will eventually be archived.

In fact, that is true. The problem is, each deliverable is a final product of a complex process that is not understood by the end user. Without knowledge of that esoteric process, the documents are misleading. They are the single answer to a user’s question with no context provided, no provenance or order. In short, no intellectual control. It will not be found by appraising the collection and following standard methods to arrange and describe because the other records of the “original order” do not exist anymore.

It is not just electronic records we should be struggling with, but paper records created in a digitized environment. Knowledge of the collection could once be gained from the records themselves, a core principle of appraisal. Now, much of the printed material is the end product of a long, detailed system. Without knowledge of that system, which may be documented in an entirely unfamiliar way or not at all, appraisal becomes very problematic.

For those of you who tell me that it is only a record if it is physical (I say baloney) you may wish to think about what you are going to do with the physical records that have no meaning. The digital systems that helped create the records are like the Rosetta Stone.

The Heretic

Interesting Read. At least in my arrogant opinion.

Reshaping Your Business with Web 2.0: Using the new Collaborative Technologies to Lead Business Transformation by Vince Casarez, Billy Cripe, Jean Sini and Phillipp Weckerle (McGraw-Hill, 2009.)

I like it for archives and church for three main reasons. The first is that it states right out front why the “Web 2.0” concept is important. The title isn’t “…Web 2.0: Exciting New Ways to Take Care of Some of That Outreach You’re Supposed to be Doing,” or “…Web 2.0: Tools That Some Folks May be Using and of Which One Should Be Vaguely Aware.”  No. The words are “reshaping,” “business,” “collaborative,” “leads,” and “transformation.” Even though “technologies” is a part of the title, it is not the subject. In fact, the adjective in front of it is more important that that noun, as “collaborative” speaks of action and motivation. It also uses the term in a way that suggests that these new technologies are already here and in use, something that should be vital to archivists and church folk alike.

The world of archives has begun to recognize the fact that Web 2.0 might be useful for some aspects of its work, so we have begun to talk about how we can use it for reference and outreach. Some folks are grudgingly acknowledging that cloud computing and social networking bring up things that might, maybe, be worth considering in the overall scheme of what we collect, appraise, and preserve. (Lord knows we haven’t gotten into how to arrange this stuff.) The church has also cautiously begun recognize these technologies as potentially useful, although for the most part I do not find that they are embraced. My own experience suggests echoes of the Guttenberg days as professionals seem to be afraid of the control of information and authority, theological and professional, slipping from their grasp. The fact of the matter is that the change is here and, at least to some extent, that control of information and authority has already slipped away. The question isn’t whether we like it or not, or even if we accept it or not, but rather what we will do in the face of such change.

The second thing I like about this nice little book is the way it presents the issues at hand in a simple, not too technical but not too general, manner in which the cross-boundary nature of the new information use has redefined, and been redefined by, the way folks think. It isn’t all about technology. Technology is not the driving force in all cases but rather driven by the users of technology in many cases. Business has transformed. The way people think has been transformed. The definition of relationship has been transformed. An archivist who is unwilling to look at how information is used by business (i.e. records producers) and what the relationship exists between creators and the information for which the archivist becomes responsible, isn’t much of an archivist by any legitimate definition I know. A church that is unwilling to deal with how God’s children exist in relationship with God and one another? Well, figure it out.

The third thing I like about the book is how it says what it says. I’ve read a couple of dozen books that say similar things. Those who know me know that I have also stated the things I have just mentioned that I like about the book. (Of course, that’s part of why I like them.) But there are several places that the authors emphasize things I have said or believe in a way that is different enough from what I have done or come across in the past that I think they bear recommending to others. Key among these is the “application” of Newton’s first law (Inertia) to businesses that one finds in the first chapter “Participation Culture: Opportunities and Pitfalls,” by Cripe and Weckerle. They apply the law to business, but it equally applies to organizations of all types (e.g. churches,) and to professions (e.g. archives management.) From page 6:

“Organizations not doing anything in a particular area tend to keep not doing things in that area, and if, by chance, they are doing something, they tend to do the same thing in the same way for as long as they can. This means that it is rare for them to lead anyone anywhere. When they do, they had better hope they are headed in the right direction, because it is hard for them to stop.” [Emphasis added.]

Boy, I wish I had said it that way.

Amen brothers.

The Heretic

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

An analogy that public historians understand is that of the historic house museum. Almost every small town seems to have or have had one. The beautiful old house that someone of importance lived in or where some big event in the town took place. The old lady or man that lived there died and the heirs donated it to the town or some heritasge group to use as a museum. No one wanted to see such a treasure lost. It was too valuable and had to be saved for future generations.

The problem was thus. Although everyone believed that the home was of value, some believing it to be of great value, some that it was vitally important, there was always a limit on available resources. The DFLA (Descendants of the Founders Ladies Association) that was to provide volunteer docents couldn’t quite meet the need. The town council could only appropriate a small amount of funds without eliminating the equipment for the volunteer fire department. Grants were few; it seemed as if every town in the state had a house museum. People traveling past on the highway didn’t stop, and the local folk had already visited as many times as they cared to. If the town was lucky, it had established an annual fish fry, BBQ, flea market, or theatrical production that drew folks with cash to the museum once a year, thus raising some funds. But the fact of the matter is that while everyone believed the place had value, few believed it had enough value. Not deep down inside. Not enough to make it a priority in the allocation of resources.

Many house museums fail. Not because they are not of value, but because of who makes the determination about what is most valuable. No one wants to say that a beautiful old house full of history isn’t valuable enough to keep. And the people who “know” about such things, ancestors, local historical societies, preservation groups, and professional historians, can always be relied upon to rally for preservation. They cannot, however, always be counted on to keep the place going and to effectively persuade others of its importance. As long as the people who allocate resources are unconvinced that the museum is the best place, as opposed to a good place, to use those resources, the museum goes without. It doesn’t matter a hill of beans what the professionals say. To make matters worse, if there are resources for one museum and they get split among three, all three go down. There are resources for one, but none survive.

Many in the museum sciences field recognized all this a decade or more ago, and began to focus on the things that they had in their control that met the needs (or at least perceived needs) of the people whom they, in turn, needed. They also worked hard to educate the people with resources about why the museums should be among the best places to allocate those resources. They did not “sell out” or compromise their integrity. On the contrary, by recognizing that they were not the sole, or even necessarily most important, of the stakeholders, they were acting with integrity. As such, they emphasized the aspects of their craft and institutions that were most valuable to their specific users. They acknowledged that they were not in the position to make all the decisions about what was valuable and what was not entirely on their own. Many took the step of recognizing that they couldn’t save everything, not all the artifacts, not all the homes, and not all the ways they had always done things, at least not if they expected to survive for any length of time. They also recognized that they were not really in competition with each other in the contest over users and visitors, but rather with less reliable sources of information.

So what about archivists? Surely there is no connection to us in this tale. See, archivists know that their collections, at least the true records and many of the manuscript collections, are unique. We are the only ones who have them and if others want them, they must come to us and do things our way. We know they have value. How? Well, because we are professionals and know such things!

Of course, the old house where the first town mayor lived is unique in that respect, as is the house that was built by some militia colonel on the site of some early battle his troops won. The people who made the decision to preserve it as a museum were professionals, or at least consulted professionals. They knew it had value. If only others could have been made to see the value to the extent necessary to make them visit and support the good works done there. But, fools that they were, people chose to find other things of greater “importance” to do with their time and money. When they did choose to spend their time and treasure with museums, they picked ones that showed that they respected the values of their visitors or the ones who persuaded their visitors to adopt the museum’s concepts of what was valuable.

But that can never happen to us. No one would ever fail to interpret our value as institutions, or that of our records, the way we do. There is no competition with new means of producing, recording, storing,using or communicating information that will ever threaten us. We are not house museums that need to adapt or persuade others of our value. That wasn’t a parable, it was a horror story. Right?

Right. Only a heretic would suggest otherwise.

The Heretic

If you are wondering:

The Heretic is the nom du plume (or should that be nom du blog?) of a historian and archivist who works with both public and religious institutions and settings. He has been accused by others in his professional world of “heresy” (not formally, of course, at least not yet; there is time, as he was recently informed,) in his work and opinions as a historian, archivist and Christian.  He does not zealously guard his identity, but on occasion voices opinions that he feels might embarrass others, who in turn might be recognized through him. 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 am an other-side-of-the-desker. By that I mean that I have practiced history from both sides of the desk, whether metaphorical or actual desk, and try to support those who are not the history professionals in their efforts. I have done research for years in archives, libraries, museums, historic sites, public records offices, etc. I have attended several universities, taking classes in history (as well philosophy, mathematics, physics, electronic engineering, etc.) at both undergraduate and graduate degree level. As a historian I practice my profession working in and with archives, libraries, schools, historic sites, historical societies, governing bodies, doing my own research and presenting the results, and consulting or contracting to help others. I see things from both sides, and with my experience in areas unrelated to history, sometimes from a totally different direction. Such is life.

My “problem” is that I also spent many years in jobs where I was in customer service, much of it in management and some as a business owner. I learned that if I wished to accomplish my mission, be it running a successful business or helping the business I worked for make a profit, I had to have customers who were not only satisfied when our transactions were complete, but satisfied enough to both return to do more business themselves and to tell others about their experience. What one wanted to avoid was folks being dissatisfied or downright insulted, for I assure you that they were going to tell far more people about their bad experiences than the good ones.

The mission there was profit, self satisfaction of a job well done, a feeling of doing good service for others, or whatever. The attitude adopted by people who were successful in my world wasn’t necessarily to make big bucks, but accomplish the mission. (Frequently the big bucks were a major part of that mission, but not always.) They considered that mission centered on satisfying the customer or consumer.

What does this have to do with archives, history, etc.? Well, I still do research. I still watch the people on the “professional” side of the desk from the other side. I still react the way anyone who is requesting a service from someone who is being paid to perform that service reacts, as a customer or consumer. I still watch people who work in public and academic libraries behave as if I am lucky to be allowed to come through the door. I have teachers who have never done anything but go to school, either as student or teacher, tell me I don’t understand the “real” world that they find through reading books and discussing issues with others who are in the same situation, but have never lived themselves. I read books from authors who either footnote very poorly or not at all, but fail to accept that the reader now has a variety of sources they may use to verify or debunk the authors’ points of view. I have archivists inform me that they are the gatekeepers of the documents in their care and that they have the authority to decide whether I have access to them or not, frequently in utter disregard to policy or statute.

Above all, I have observed from the receiving end and by watching colleagues, a complete disregard for a desire to satisfy the customer, for that is what the researcher/visitor/whatever is. The average person I see in my profession behaves as if his or her job, usually supported by public or donated funds, makes him somehow superior to the person on the other side of the desk. These people are snippy, turn their backs on people, tell them “well, those are the rules, that’s what you have to do” in a dismissive manner, and contradict customers on matters about which the customer may have more knowledge than they are sharing. I have even had an individual pull out a copy of a paper that I wrote (they did not know I was the author) and attempt to use it to refute statements I mad, explaining to me that “the author” had meant something other than what I wrote and therefore claimed she had refuted my arguments by use of an authoritative source. [Aside-I couldn’t resist the fun of telling the archivist that I had read the author and thought he was a jerk, to which she replied that he had sent the paper to their collection at the request of an authority in the field and that I obviously did not know of which I spoke. I never revealed that I was the author, since I had filled out a research form that included my name exactly as it was on the paper, and made my judgment about arguing with someone of that level of competency based upon that fact.]

In school I learned that we do not use marketing/economic/business terminology in history related fields. I have had that idea reinforced in professional meetings and seminars. I recently read several articles in various archives and library professional journals restating that marketing models are inappropriate. I have, however, read many more that lament the inability of institutions to fund their work, staff their institutions, develop their collections. For some reason the general public doesn’t realize how important we are! People who have unpleasant experiences and complain to their councilmen or legislature, refuse to donate to institutions that make them feel unwelcome, and tell all their friends about their experiences, are not only failing to give us much needed support and the respect we deserve, they are going elsewhere for their research needs! Not realizing how important we are, they are behaving as if we are supported by them rather than as if they are just darned lucky we let them in the doors! How dare they?

Maybe it is time for us to worry a little less about our collections, exhibits, or our other particular specific projects and think a bit about “customer service” and the “consumer.” I know these words are taboo, but my personal experience suggests that we may wish to rethink that attitude. Basic customer service should be a part of all training for all the professions that deal so much with the public, even a more or less captured audience. This includes history. (And formal logical reasoning should also be there, but that is another argument for another day.) If you have a problem with the capitalist overtones, think of it as special mission training. Virtually all mission statements should include something that requires customer service for the mission to be accomplished. Even preservation-only statements require the goodwill of donors.

I sit on a board with several people from an institution that has had its funds cut and which has seen its user count drop quite a bit in recent years. They blame the recession, which may be a big part of it. But what I know, and they apparently do not, is there are people at several other institutions that I frequent and organizations to which I belong that tell me they will go far out of their way to avoid dealing with “those people.” Oddly, none of the people on the board have commented on the fact that I personally have not set foot in their place for about 2 years. Guess why?

I also have found that there are over a dozen history professionals in the immediate area where I work and live who either graduated or came close to graduating from the same public history graduate program as did I. They all had very unpleasant experiences and after talking awhile, they asked me to serve as their spokesperson to a new department chair to explain our difficulties. The chair listened and promised to open the door to communication. This has been many months ago. Some of us met the other day to talk and we all agreed that none of us could get responses to attempted contact with the department, only requests for money for the school. We do, however, frequently get asked about our experiences at the school, by prospective students and potential employers of graduates. None of us could remember anyone we talked to going on to enroll in the program (which is struggling) and we all knew of at least one employer apiece who was wary of graduates from the school. “Customer” and “Consumer” are still the “C-words” there. These are people to be ignored. Well, at least the professors have their integrity. Such as it is.

The Heretic

As part of my work, I present programs to people of all ages and backgrounds on our collections, including those that are partially displayed in exhibits. At my paying job we have a permanent exhibit that includes a variety of scenes taken during the Civil Rights movement. I answer questions from the people in attendance, and as one might expect I get an entirely different focus from the older crowd who remember the events, and the younger ones who cannot comprehend segregation. In fact, this last group tends to meet me with wide eyes and audible gasps when I tell them that these events happened before the existence of McDonalds. Their world view is different indeed. Of course, as they grow older, their concept of time and space will change, for better or worse.

What I have found interesting, and something that I think is important for historians of many stripes to notice, is a way of viewing the vehicles of history, i.e. the images, documents, etc. that we use to preserve and communicate information over time, that seems to be changing. Many of us have noticed that people of all ages have begun to expect all the documents in an archive to not only be available in digital form but searchable by topic or keyword. Although fewer of us seem to have acknowledged it, the printed paper and book are becoming rarer than they once were. Many libraries use digital subscriptions to journals and magazines, provide eBooks and down loads for videos. I know a man who refuses to read blogs or use Facebook, but loves his Kindle. Many newspapers are going to online editions only and many private and government documents are created and stored in only digital formats. This is not a surprise to most of us, although I know quite a few who will not accept it.

What I have found conveyed to me during the past few months by way of the questions asked of me by children is a little different than all that. There seems to be a lack of connection between what the youngest generation understand as “evidence of human activity” and what the rest of us understand. I find it a bit startling. I can connect it to other thought processes I have seen and dealt with in the past, and, in fact, last night I found a small paper I had written in which I wrote a few years ago suggesting this phenomenon. I had just forgotten it.

What I wrote then was:

“[Therefore] the process will continue. Younger generations will continue to develop new ways to process and use information and this will be reflected in their chosen forms of communication, their language, so to speak. If we do not “speak” these languages, that is, not only use and understand these forms of communication but “think” them, we will fail in our communication to the same extent we fail to utilize this thought process…We will also discover that, as in the case of our not being able to understand the thoughts that seem to only be possible to express through digital communication, those who learn to think “digitally” will one day have difficulty understanding our thought processes. It is not something to be unexpected, as their experiences will be so radically different than ours and throughout history one generation has been unable to understand the experiences that they do not share with other generations.

“The difference is that the speed in which this gap in understanding and experience is happening seems to be increasing logarithmically. While we do not understand the experience of the horse-and-buggy days, we have some common experience with our parents who drove automobiles, and thus some common understanding on which to base communication. Yet I attended college with people who never listened to a vinyl record, well certainly not a 45 r.p.m., and know many who are not much younger than I who never touched a typewriter. The compact disk is already being replaced by the DVD, which will likely be replaced by some type of solid-state device, and digital print versions of books will likely become more popular than hard copies. I can foresee the day when digital photography will be on the way out and the idea of a photograph that one can hold in one’s hand will seem as odd as the Daguerreotype seems to folks today. The difference is that this will come about in just a few years, rather than over 150.”  [Emphasis added. The quote is from “We’re Not Done Yet, But We Could Be! Additional Comments on ‘The World Turned Right-Side Up Again: A Response to Terry Cook’ and the Role of Technology in the World of Archives.” 2006. Not formally published, though distributed through various means.]

Yes, that has happened. I have been questioned by children in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade about the validity of photographic images. The questions yesterday came from 3rd graders who wanted to know if the pictures on the wall of an exhibit room were of real things and wanted to know if the person who took them was actually there when the events happened. They wanted to know how the pictures were taken. I have been asked why pictures were not on a screen, what type of computer they were made on, and even had children express shock that there were cameras “back then.” (This one isn’t so surprising as the images are 50 years old. That is forever to a child.)

The real issue here, though, is how we are to communicate the validity of our collections to a generation that puts no stock in such things. If you grew up feeling that any image could be created on a computer screen and that there was no connection between images or documents and reality, save what authority you personally chose to give them, would you view our collections as having great significance or value? I think most of us would find such things as important to our research as we do the 8-track tape player to entertainment. [Note: For those of you who are more than 10 years younger than I, either Google it or visit a museum.]

We are not going to undo what has been done. The change in thought has already occurred, although the process is not complete. Evolution rarely is. But what do we want to do about it?

 The Heretic