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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[The following is a re-posting of a blog post I made on another blog some time ago. I have promised an update to answer questions sent to me by e-mail, but would rather see some comments that could give points of view of readers. As you will.]

 

When you’re low man on the totem pole in a large organization, you don’t have to worry about whether the decisions made several levels up make sense in light of your training and experience. You don’t have the choice. But when you are low man of only two full-time professionals, and the only one of the two who is specifically trained in the profession, you often have more difficulties. This is the situation I find myself in. But it is not just that my boss is not an archivist, it is that he (I am using general pronoun, not wishing to identify the gender as I am incognito here) is a historian. This means he is familiar with archives from a user’s perspective. In other words, he knows enough to be dangerous.

I have read many posts by people who are frustrated by having to work for bosses that have no experience with archives but refuse to accept the advice of their professional underlings. It gets worse if the person has experience in a related field, but not from the archives perspective, such as when the director is a librarian who insists on arranging everything by subject rather than original order. My experience is with a boss who has studied in archives and worked as a volunteer for years at a library and archives. He has been exposed to things he does not understand, but thinks he does. he readily admits that he is not an archivist, and does frequently ask my opinion as a certified archivist, but he will just as quickly override my decisions based upon his understanding of things.

An example was when he told a student processor to discard original material that was acidic and keep just copies because that has been done with newspaper clippings at the place he volunteered. In this case, the acidic material was original notes by the creator of the collection. He also insists on structuring finding aids based upon what he considers the easiest way to find the information, regardless of standard formats or language usage of the profession. (I give him leeway her as I am a user advocate, of course.) There are many examples of his frustration with the stupidity, as he sees it, of archival best practices.

This is not a gripe session. This is actually a consolidation/reposting of some comments I made in the past in response to cries of frustration from colleagues. I cannot advise, but can tell you whaat I do:

  • I pick my battles. Often the issue is one where there is no consensus in the archival community, although there may be an “official” stance or a majority opinion. Although not standard, there are many practices that might be acceptable just the same.
  • That being said, also go with “First, do no harm.”
  • I voice my opinion when asked, but remind myself that he is the boss. There are reasons from the institutions point of view as to why this is so. I have no moral, legal, or ethical authority to assume the role of advocate for the records beyond what I do.
  • I look for chances to subtly point out advantages to doing things “the archives way.”
  • I remember that my successor will likely disagree with many of the decisions I make as much as I disagree with the boss’s.
  • I try to explain why archivists do what they do, drawing on my background as a researcher (my degrees are also in history) to show that I can see both points of view. I respect the view of the researcher and think that we, as a profession, often fail to give enough credence to those views.
  • I look for chances to do things the way I would if the decision were mine and do them when I can. Often I find that, although he may not be happy with my methods, he will leave things as I have done them.
  • I always try to be respectful to his opinion. I explain to other staff members that work for me the way I would do it, but always try to present this as an alternative rather than a “better” way. I try not to undermine authority. I try not to let personality issues affect my decisions.
  • I am always ready to refuse to do something if I find it unethical and I can find no way out short of refusal. I understand that this may mean looking for employment.
  • I recognize that compromise, although not always desirable, accomplishes much. I have a line (see above) which I will not cross and it is firm. Fortunately, we have never approached it.

 

There are serious communication and personality issues involved in the way the repository runs, but this could easily be the case regardless of the professions involved. I am in a personnel management position as well as that of a collections manager, so I have to treat those issues as I would in any profession. Fortunately I have a fair amount of management experience apart from my work as an archivist. It is often difficult to separate the two, archives v. non-archives and general office issues. Yet doing so is part of my key to survival. I know that there are often ways to get done what needs to be done, even if there are communication roadblocks or inconsistent policies, with patience and time. I hope that I will have the opportunity to help break some of the roadblocks and inconsistencies. I suspect the dichotomy of professions will always be there, though. You see, it exists inside me as well as in the interactions of personnel at the repository. Such is life.

 

The Heretic

The old tradition exists to the effect that, in olden days, when a monarch received bad news via messenger, he would have the bearer of the news executed. We have a saying today that one should not kill the messenger, meaning don’t criticize the bearer of bad news because one doesn’t care for that news, particularly if it is true. (In the public debate this often comes in the form of ad hominem attacks on the messenger so that others will not believe the unwanted or ill-timed news.)

People who know me or have read this blog know that a constant theme of conversation or debate in my world is that “technology” seems to have become an entity that is under attack by those with whom I associate. But it usually isn’t the technology itself that is under attack, but what it represents or what it is helping to bring about. Most people I know who don’t understand certain technologies ignore them, at least until they find the majority of the people around them using the technology and speaking its language, at which point they feel a bit lost, a bit old, a bit out of touch, and go about their business. The ones who attack it fear the loss of control or coming change. At best, (from an ethical point of view,) they feel that they will no longer have the desired control over their own world, at worst, they fear that they will no longer be able to control others. Either way, technology is just the messenger that brings the change, while freedom of information and the ability of others to control things they have not been able to in the past is the cause.

I recently was at a lecture session for librarians where the lecturer made clear her belief that the way libraries are structured and how they will be used in the future will be radically different than the way most in the room wished. She recommended that librarians just accept this fact, that because of advances in technology, “that train had left the station” and folks should make the most of it. She stopped short of suggesting that they embrace it, or look at the changes as having positive aspects, something I found odd as this was actually a stress management session and one would think that, although there are often things that are stressful that we can do little better than accept, many of the advances in technology are not among them. These advances bring about change, yes, but as I have argued elsewhere, the change often precedes rather than follows the advances. They are the messengers of change, in some cases, rather than the causes.

These were librarians, generally a more accepting lot when it comes to technology, (a pretty wide term that allows the user to cast many things in the mold of a demon since the criteria for inclusion in this category varies from person to person,) yet there was a lot of grumbling about how our world, meaning professional world, was at risk because of that technology. And besides, there was so much false information out there! We were the ones who must filter it!

Of course, this was nothing like the attitude of the archivists I know. We archivists are not even that open to the change. We have finally begun to recognize, in some formal settings anyway, that the world of “Web 2.0,” including collaborative and social communication through electronic media, provides opportunities for outreach, and in some cases we acknowledge that there is a change in the way we will have to do “business” (if I may be excused for using such a commercial term,) but rarely do I find archives folks who recognize the changes for what they are, not to mention embrace them. They fear the evil “technology” and I have actually heard a member of the profession wish out loud that we could find a way to “drive a stake through its heart!” Technology is bringing about change, change that threatens us, or at least as profession as we practice it. In reality it isn’t the technology itself, but the way people behave because of it. Still, technology is the messenger. Kill it!

The problem here is that we misunderstand the relationship between human beings and technology. Technology, whether it is simple machines from ancient times, such as a wedge or lever, or modern microcircuits, is designed by humans to meet human needs. While it is true that modern technology is very complex and designed by people with specialized skills, they still do so to meet what they perceive as the needs of individuals or society. The fact that the technology, once it is accepted by a large enough or powerful enough cadre, then tends to become the only practical way to accomplish a task and therefore draws more people to it, makes it appear that the technology is ruling the human beings. In the archives world, where we work a lot with very low tech (by today’s standards) items such as handwritten records in old bound volumes, the encroaching desire for the use of more advanced technology is something that is being thrust upon us and technology is often viewed as the enemy.

In reality, particularly in the “2.0” world that so rapidly came upon us, much of the technology is being designed specifically in response to the real (not just perceived) needs and desires of, or even by, the end users, in response to demand made amply apparent in a variety of ways. They, rather than just a small group of inventive folk, are the ones in charge. More than ever in the digital age, a tech savvy user base is calling the shots. Technology is evolving to meet their needs. Technology is the messenger of the change in the way people think and the the priorities they choose. The process begins with them.

There have been many examples in history of change in communication styles and technologies being criticized as dangerous to things near and dear to the hearts of mankind. The telegraph was thought by many to be a detriment to the world as the landscape was strewn with poles and wires for a dubious purpose. There was a strong belief that the telephone would destroy the practice of writing letters, though it did not. (Of course, e-mail has all but done that, if you do not call e-mail letters.) Yet the new uses of the Internet seem to more closely resemble the advent of the vernacular Bible, the printing press, and the broadside. These media and content were attacked because they were seen as threats. The reality is that they were not the threats, but the ideas they conveyed were the threats. The Bible in one’s own language allowed the individual reader to read and discuss, unfiltered through the priests, the scriptures. The reader was then free to think, to question and express his opinions. The printing press and the broadside made it possible to rapidly disseminate opinions and thoughts. These media were roundly condemned by the powers of the day, religious and secular. What these powers feared was the loss of control that came when men had decided they wanted their own control of information, a desire that led to the technology in the first place. (If the inventors had not seen a need, they would not have invented. In those days there were not the resources for such work just for the fun of it.) What the powers blamed was the technology itself. They attacked the messenger.

In today’s world various media, politicians, practitioners of arts, and those who are used to controlling and disseminating information, (teachers, librarians, historians, writers, musicians, journalists, political commentators, archivists, etc.) rail against the excessive access to information through new technologies. There is too much “wrong” information. Any one can put anything they want out there! No one controls the context. Think of all we will loose if we change the way we do things!

Of course, as the lady said the other day, that train has left the station. The fact is, people have already demanded and received more access to unfiltered information than they had before, and likewise have demanded and received the ability to express their own opinions as they see fit. We can argue all we want about whether they have good information, use it in a beneficial (to whom?) manner, or whether we will loose something because things have changed. The truth, I believe, is that the change first occurred in the thoughts and hearts of the people. Although facilitated by technology, it was not caused by technology. Much of the technology was inspired by the change, and its subsequent use inspired further change. Technology is the vehicle, the messenger. It is useless to rail against the messenger, just as, in the bygone days, killing the messenger didn’t change the bad news.

When Was Year Zero?

I do not remember when I learned the difference between “counting numbers” and “whole numbers” but it was pretty early in elementary school. I learned that the numeral “0” was a place holder. I was young enough to have trouble with understanding that it didn’t really represent “nothing,” as I was to learn later when I found why division and multiplication by 0 is not an identity function. (If you multiply 1 no times, it is still 1, but if you multiply it by 0 it is 0. You cannot even divide it by 0 at all and have a defined meaning.) I did understand, however, that if you had something, some books, some apples, some amount of time, you used the counting numbers. I later learned that you could always divide a quantity of something by a number and still have a quantity of something. 1 year divided by 2 is 6 months or 0.5 years, not “no” years just because it is less than a year in length.

What does this have to do with anything? Simply this:

As the year 2010 began, I listened to television station after television station comment on the end of the first decade of the new century/millennium. I then started receiving requests from members of an organization that I serve as archivist for material to use to commemorate the switch from the first to the second decade. Although I was happy to comply, I caused some dismay when I pointed out that the event in question was yet to come.

You see, even if some monk or other source miscalculated the date of Christ’s birth, and even if there was some error when adjusting calendars later, the years we use for either C.E. or A.D. dates are based on the years of the life of Jesus (A.D. = Anno Domini = “year of the Lord,” more or less) from the point of time that was or is believed to be his date of birth. That word, “point” is important. There is, in theory, a point on a number line that may be labeled “0,” but there is no meaning to a stretch of that line as the “0th” segment. Anything to the right of that point until the point “1” is reached is the “1st” segment; or segment “1.” There is no segment “0.” The 10th segment comes between “9” and “10” and is not complete until “10” is passed and the 11th segment begins.

In terms of years, it works like this. If I was born, (and I was,) there is no point in time when I am “0” years old. When I was 6 months old, I was in year “1” of my life and was 0.5 years old. When I had my 49th birthday, I had completed 49 years and was in my 50th year, or “50”. It is not until I complete 50 years, and enter “51” that I have completed 5 decades.

In the same way, when we entered the year 2010, we entered the 2,010th year from the point, accurate or not, that we defined as the birth of Jesus. The “point,” not the “year.” (The idea that someone mistakenly left year “0” off the calendar is ridiculous. Year “0” would be the year that Jesus existed but did not exist. Philosophical and theological questions aside, for our purposes this does not enter the discussion.) It will not be until “2010” is completed that we will have completed 201 decades, or the 1st of the new century. We are still in that one. By the same token, the 21st century began in 2001, not 2000. (As an aside, the need to do calculations in standard numerals without the A.D., B.C., CE, BCE abbreviations has created an astronomical numbering system that uses a year “0” and negative numbers, but that is only for calculation purposes.)

So plan your celebrations, exhibits, and projects. I would be thrilled to help with the work from our archives, regardless of the year. But please, understand, the numeral “0” is not a number, and January 1, 2011 will start a new decade. Then let’s whoop it up!

One of the things that I have heard a lot recently is how important it is that we get “new blood” into the archives profession. I hear it more among archivists of religious institutions than those of their more secular counterparts, but that could be coincidence. Still, as I have mentioned before on this blog and elsewhere, I see many parallels between the views of archivists in the societies and committees to which I belong, and the views of the membership of various committees and boards to which I belong in the church. Both at least claim to want new members, but both often really appear to mean that they want more people who will think as they do and will do the work that they have tired of doing or cannot accomplish on their own. The idea that bringing in new blood may bring about change, perhaps radical change, is rejected out of hand.

In the church we say we want young people to come into our fellowship, but often insist that they must sing the music of the older generations, use the worship style and wording of a generation that does not understand the young while requiring the young to understand them, and impose multiple traditions that have no meaning to younger people without allowing them to develop their own traditions or finding a way to help them understand and adopt for themselves the older traditions. I have always found it fascinating, by the way, that many who are in their late 30s or 40s fight for the right to have “contemporary” worship with “contemporary” music, and when they finally get that right, the worship service resembles what they experienced when they were teens. In other words, 20+ year-old worship styles and music is the best way to attract 15 year old people. Okay. I guess. I like it anyway. I’m nearly 50. Why would I want to sit through a sermon spoken in “text” (Jesus and John were BFFs) or have a hip-hop choir? A church service should be conducted for those of us who have paid our dues, correct? [Note: Yes, that is satire.]

So I sit at meetings of historians and archivists, almost without exception retired or working at a job that allows them to at the very least come to the meetings on company time and in many cases actually on the company dime as well, and listen to people ask what we need to do to attract younger people and students. Proposals are ignored or treated with distain that would shift meetings to weekends to encourage attendance by people who are in school or work at jobs that do not allow them to come to meetings. Those who have paid their dues don’t want to give up their free weekends. Suggestions that we select topics that might be of interest to new people in the profession, who will be dealing with new types of records and historical sources, are shot down because such things are not traditionally what we do or have done in the past. Society and professional meetings are for those who have paid their dues! Yes, we need new blood, but only new blood that is just like ours. [Note: Yes, that is satire.]

Of course, if this is a logical approach, we will have newbies flocking to join us. The universities will find archival management and history among the fastest growing of disciplines. If for some reason we examine the enrollment stats for those majors and find that they are not growing but shrinking, it would be logical to question whether we, as professionals, might be failing in our mission to help sustain the health of the profession. That assumes, of course, that we see that as part of our mission.

Two of the organizations to which I belong have lamented the lack of “new blood,” and their members have agreed, in principle, that we need to do things differently to support a new generation of archivists and historians. In the past few years, each organization has agreed to multiple plans of action that the members thought might increase participation by younger professionals and students. With one exception, none of those plans have been executed because none of those who agreed to the plans fulfilled their commitments. The one exception was a first effort, and it remains to be seen if it will bear fruit.

So the question is:

Do we have a responsibility as professionals to do something to nurture the skills, gifts and talent of future generations, as well as teach them what we have learned through our own experience, or do we only expect to promote business as usual and teach people to follow in our own footsteps, paying the dues we extract? As archivists, we view things in the context of their creation, so let us also examine this question in the context of the world in which records are created today and in which the next generation will work. We might also keep in mind the context of the history of our profession. After all, archival science as we know it today has evolved over the years and is still evolving. To consider our current theories and practices as necessarily the best ones is much like a man who is almost 50 considering the music of his teens to be modern and contemporary. It may be comforting on a personal level, but may not be realistic. Just a thought.

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.

“Other-side-of-the-desk-er” is a term I use when referring to people who try to promote the viewpoint of those who happen to be on the other side of the desk, literally or figuratively, from the history professional. I am one. Proudly.  In museum studies these folks are known as “visitor advocates.” I have found no sign of a serious movement in this direction in other fields where the people on the other side of the desk are known as patrons, researchers, users, students, on rare occasions clients, viewers, and (in a few papers I have written,) history consumers. Even should there be more “researcher advocates” or “user advocates” lurking out there, my view is less centered on the specific institutional term for the “customer” (I actually like that one, regardless of some of its implications) and more on the customer himself. My personal experience is that professionals tend to be very profession-centric, and expect their customers (ooh, that word again) to accept it. Good luck.

Personal experience?

When I was taking museum studies courses, as well as in the jobs I have had in or with museums, we learned about a concept called “visitor advocacy.” This concept was part of the evaluation/mission centered concept that was theoretically (and often actually) accepted as part of modern museum practice. In theory, the “advocate” tries to see the point of view of the visitor and incorporate it in professional decisions, and maybe even serves as an actual surrogate in advocating that point of view in professional discussions. I searched in vain for a similar concept in the archive literature and found that the archivists accepted no such concept as “user advocacy.” There were many things in the literature that suggested a “user adversary” was an acceptable concept, but little that suggested seeing the users’ points of view was important. (I apologize to Elsie Freeman Finch, in any version of her name under which she published. There were a handful of others out there that advocated the importance of use and users. She was the one consistent voice I found. I hope she won’t be offended to know that she encouraged my heresy.) This was no surprise for it all fit with my personal experience as a researcher.

When one of my mentors, a history professor and former state librarian and archivist, suggested that I do my graduate work in public history, maybe even in archives, I was astounded. He had heard my stories of how difficult it was to pry information from archivists, museum staff, librarians, historians and archivists (yes, I wrote “archivists” twice. They were the biggest thorn in my flesh, though, to be fair I had to actually go through them to get to my material more often than those others, so they would have been the largest segment of my informal research population.) He knew my research had spanned a couple of decades, been both professional and non-professional, and covered multiple areas of interest, multiple types of institution, and multiple geographic locations. He knew how little I appreciated the way these professionals often managed to waste my time, while making it clear that their time was of value and mine was not. He knew that I was very frustrated when one assumed superior knowledge that he or she did not, in fact, possess, or made it clear that I was fortunate that they happened to be there and allow me to use “their” collections, and how I felt that customer service should be the first course any of them took in their course load. He knew my opinion on archivists trying to restrict access to public material, improperly applying what they believed to be arcane laws and regulations (“Sorry. You will have to check but I think there may be a copyright restriction on that, so I am not sure I can let you have it. In archives, we abide by copyright law.” “Ma’am, it was written in 1842! Are you kidding me!”- True exchange in a major repository.) He further knew from his years of teaching, working on major projects and working with historical associations for professionals and students that, although he had not seen a study to the effect, my experience was common with other researchers, particularly students and “amateurs.”

Dr. Smith smiled (he had a subtle smile, was slow to speak, but his statements were always worth listening to) and said that this had been his experience as well, even when he was in the field, though there were many good archivists that did not behave that way. He suggested, among other things, that perhaps the profession needed more people who could speak from the researchers’ points of view and someone who was interested in finding out what they needed and being their advocate. I chose to work at being a public historian, and now, to a large degree, practice that field in the world of archives. But not just archives, so I am not just a “user advocate,” but an “other-side-of-the-desk” advocate, or as it has become, an “other-side-of-the-desk-er.”

I once complained at a grocery store that was part of the dominant chain in our area about a service issue. The manager told me that if I didn’t like it I “could go somewhere else. Oh, wait, there isn’t anywhere else!” There are now several chains in major competition with that one, which is losing the battle. When you drive by a major grocery store for several days before Thanksgiving and there are few cars in the lot while two of its competitors have folk cruising around looking for parking, it says something. Archivists, always secure in the knowledge that their collections were unique and they have until recently been “the only game in town,” should take note and read about the budget cuts, lack of financial support, and professional worries about low gate counts that have become pervasive topics in the professional news today. We are not the only choice for the “customer.” We cannot afford the attitude of one of my employees from my days in the restaurant business, who remarked that there were too many people coming in and he thought it would be a great job if we just didn’t have any customers. If we build that attitude, they may not come.

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.

One question that was a topic of conversation in my archives management courses at school was whether we were training to be archivists or historians. The courses were not part of a library science curriculum, but rather a history degree program with a concentration in public history. My fellow students, along with my instructor, felt certain we were archivists first and historians second, largely basing this on our supposed ability to avoid adding our bias to our professional activities in a way that historians could not. I, on the other hand, saw (and still see) myself as a historian who chooses to practice my profession in a variety of fields, mainly related to archives and special collections. I was torn between emphasizing museum studies or archival management, and opted for taking all the courses in both areas and including the use of museum studies techniques applied to archives management as part of my thesis. I resisted (and still do) any attempt to require my allegiance be placed in one area or the other based on another’s criteria. To do so would be to deny the complex nature of both the current state of the professions and their history.

Such discussions are not, of course, confined to school. They originate in the literature, conventions, meetings, list serves, blogs, social networks, and day-to-day conversations of the professions. I find it fascinating the heat that sometimes accompanies them. Although I saw no such heat displayed by Russell in his post “Why Not ‘Records Science’?” at Records Junkie, I was still reminded of the discussions of the past. Like Russell, I hearken back to grad school.

The archives profession in the United States has its origins in a tradition of collecting historical manuscripts, not just in the retention of records that are the byproduct of human activity. This is also true to varying degrees in other nations and cultures. Of course the history of some civilizations is still retained only through oral traditions and some cultures are only known through documents that are not, strictly speaking, “records.” As the means of communication changed, society both shaped and was shaped by the various communication and recording media. To separate history from records, records from other documents, other documents from objects and artifacts, has meaning on one level but is meaningless on another.

Like the Venn diagrams we used as children to learn about sets in math class, (or am I betraying my age?) the lines that define the professions that deal with these subjects often overlap or are blurred. This should not be a surprise when one considers that the subject of all of them is ultimately human activity, something far too complex to as yet be explained by scientific method. It is the reason that archivists denote a single record as being unique. The activity that created the record occurred only once. There might be similar activities, but there will be differences. Setting aside for the moment the fact that the definition of an original record has been greatly affected by digital technology and the ability replicate records in such a manner that uniqueness of a document has far less meaning than it did in the past, the activity is still complex and unique, particularly when viewed in different contexts. It is thus appropriate that the subjects that I took were in the field of archival management not archival science, museum studies not museum sciences, and my degree was a Master of Arts. Without meaning to be insulting, although I am sure I am managing such a feat anyway, I have always found it a bit humorous that the library field chooses to call itself library and/or information sciences.

Not that the terms we apply are all that accurate either. I would prefer “Archival Theory and Practice,” a term that I used almost exclusively in my thesis, and a Master of Philosophy degree. As I argued in a paper in a historical methods class, history is not a science, although historians use the tools of science in attempting to measure, quantify, reproduce and prove their theories. The fact is that scientific method requires being able to test ones theory and then reproduce it for it to be considered proven. History cannot do this because we are dealing with intangibles that cannot be fully measured and certainly not reproduced. In short, historical theory can never move beyond theory, where science requires at least the possibility that some of the theories can become laws. Even though historians change their theories (sometimes) in response to newly discovered “evidence,” they still build their cases on reason rather than observable and measurable phenomena. No, while historians use logic, a tool of reason used in science and mathematics, it is one that is in reality rooted in philosophy. (I will note here that I discovered long before grad school that many of the historians whose works I read made astounding logical errors in their reasoning that convinced me they had never studied the subject. I know that, years ago, I would have failed tests in logic class with half the number of such errors as I found in many texts. I have since discovered that few, if any, of my fellow students from school or my colleagues of today with whom I have discussed the subject, have ever taken even a semester of logic.)

Archival theory and practice, records management (theory and practice?) and library “science” (theory and practice?) are in the same boat. The practitioners of these fields use their intelligence, experience and education to define theories that are logical, argue them to be the best solution to a problem or means to an end, and attempt to execute them in a consistent framework of rules and best practices. They are quite systematic in their approach, creating the illusion to some that their fields are, in fact, science. An examination of the history of all these fields should show that their best practices did not change based on a better understanding of demonstrable facts and natural phenomena, but rather based on changing views and beliefs of the human element. Neither do they do their craft for its own sake; despite some statements I have heard made to the contrary. While one can accept an artist creating a work to express some inner muse, art for art’s sake, it is hard to justify the preservation of a record just because it is there. It has value because it may be used, otherwise it would be locked away where no one would ever see it to be preserved for its own sake. In other words, philosophy, not art or science.

Full disclosure here: I started my college career years ago double-majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science, and have been an electronics technician and attended technical engineering school. After leaving school for some years, I returned to become a historian. I have a tendency to shift from right to left brain and back. I sometimes see an issue from both sides, sometimes no side at all. (The way you take that last statement might say something about which side of your brain is dominant. Perhaps.) I also spent a couple of decades doing research in archives, libraries, museums, etc. and see things from that side of the desk as well.

As such an individual, I do not put any more value in declaring something a “science” than an art, or philosophy, or practice, or in using the word management. I see the changing lines that define the various fields of endeavor as making these distinctions of less importance anyway. Ultimately all of these professions focus on retaining sources of information and attempts to convey thoughts, and finding ways to facilitate the transfer of such information and thoughts to others. Many of their techniques are quite similar, many less so. The motivation of the practitioners varies as much as that of their end users. Let us at least acknowledge that science is not an accurate term, but take pride in the work we do regardless.

Oh. One last thing. My academic friends include those that say I can’t be a historian either, as somewhere along the line they have found a rule that says one must have a PhD to be a historian. (Ah-ha! Revenge for the librarians!) Alas. Unfortunately for them, I have read too much work by PhDs who did not know how to avoid simple logical fallacies to accept their statements without some fairly strong evidence. In 5 or 6 years of this debate, no one has supplied such evidence.

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.


Once again the question of mission and “serious” researchers versus, say, genealogists/family researchers, came up in conversation several times in the same day. Speaking as a religious archivist (meaning archivist of a religious institution, though I think other interpretations would also apply) I find that “mission” tends to be more of an up front type of thing this work than it is in my other job working in a secular instirution. Still, since that said secular job is in the public sector, mission is, or should be vital, regardless of how obvious it is to staff or patrons.

The impetus of the conversations just mentioned was the discussion among various parties of a program in which I am slated to participate. It was along the lines of the old and ongoing discussion of how archivists feel about the working with genealogists or how genealogists interact with archives staff.  I was asked to be part of a workshop/presentation on doing genealogical research in religious institutions. I was most pleased to do so because I had originally included, as part of my Master’s thesis (it was removed at the direction of my advisor,) a look at how under-utilized such institutions were by genealogists, and I realize that genealogists are the bread and butter of many small repositories and historical societies. I was also pleased because I feel that our collection has much to offer a variety of researchers and our mission is to help people connect to the information they need, regardless of their purpose.

You see, our parent organization requires (at least in theory) that units of the church organization justify their existence by demonstrating how they support the mission of the church. Providing people information about our church, our faith, and those who were involved in it, serves an evangelical purpose as well as other purposes that it might fill. The Discipline (a primary governing document) of our church specifies openness in records as being in keeping with the spirit and practice of our faith. It is easy for me to accept that advocating use of our material is the fulfillment of the mission of our repository. All the other activities, including preservation, arrangement and description, etc., in fact exist to support that use.

The same is true in the public sector institution where I work. There is a mission to provide information to our users. All our other activities really work in support of that mission. To that end, I send researchers to other repositories that might help them if we do not have what they need, I try to discern what skills they have or need to successfully conduct and complete their research, and I try to be open to the idea that there are all types of researchers who have all types of motives for researching. It is not for me to determine who is “serious” and who is not. In our world, genealogy and some specialty research areas are our bread and butter, providing a large percentage of the gate count and comments that persuade those with the authority to give us the resources we need to do our jobs. Yet many of my comrades in arms wish we could just spend our time with serious researchers. I find myself wondering what, separate and apart from the fact that no patrons (read “customers”) means no resources and no jobs, they think our purpose would be in preserving and arranging documents and images if our gate count dropped by 75%-plus? There still seems to be the attitude I experienced at a restaurant I managed in another lifetime; one where an employee actually said “this would be a great job if we didn’t have all those customers.”

By the same token, in a religious archives, at least one with evangelism, apology (traditional sense of the word,) or explanation are a part of the mission, should we not take every opportunity to reach out to any type of researcher? Should we in either case, religious or secular, put ourselves in the position of deciding who is worthy of our safeguarded treasures? Is that our job, our trust? If so, to what end? I have trouble thinking of an ethical one. But comments are, as always, welcome.

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 of heresy as a historian, archivist and Christian. 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.

I attended a workshop last week,with a variety of people in the history field. There were a couple of academics, but most were in what I like to think of as public history or related fields. There were archivists, librarians, oral historians, film curators, etc. Some had undergrad education, some graduate. Some worked for large organizations such as the National Archives and Records Administration, a couple were the only paid (indeed in one case I think the only— period) staff in their institutions. All told, a pretty eclectic group of people. Yet I wasn’t surprised when the topic of putting records, images, audio, and video online produced an almost universal concern about protecting “intellectual control.” I say almost because, while some folks expressed fear of only some degree of “intellectual control” loss and others thought it their ethical, if not moral duty, to protect that ideal but were uncertain how realistic that was, I was the only one present that said that putting collections online did not, in any way, threaten intellectual control. I was the “almost.”

You see, I have heard this discussion at most places I have worked in archives or special collections. It shows up in workshops, seminars, publications, board meetings, conferences and general conversation. (Yes, one might wonder what type of people with whom I must associate if such a topic comes up in general conversation. It won’t be the first time someone has wondered about me or my friends.) There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the difference between “intellectual control” and “intellectual property rights.”

I worked at a museum once that was not a non-profit (regardless of some ethics codes and definitions of a museum used by some associations, such things do exist; perhaps a topic for a future entry.) They had an extensive and commercially valuable image collection that they did not make available for the asking because they owned “intellectual property rights” to the images. Copyright had been transferred. This was understandable to me. Where I have a problem with such things is when the property rights are transferred to public institutions, particularly when this is done with the public access to the items as part of donor intent, and the institution then tries to limit access to all but people who will pay a price above recovery of necessary costs. I even have difficulties with the latter, if those costs are already paid by the taxation of the users, and then those very same users who own the rights and have paid for the upkeep of the items are denied access unless they pay high fees. I see there is a gray area here where the public funding could be quickly used up by those who abuse the system, thus also denying access to others, but just the same, in such cases the fees are at best a hidden tax and at worse extortion from people for access to their on property.

Okay. The argument can be made for and against limiting access in the case when the public owns “intellectual property rights.” But what about “intellectual control?” Isn’t that the real question? As archivists, are we not professionally required to maintain “intellectual control” over our collections and doesn’t placing them on the Internet limit or eliminate this control? Well, it potentially limits or eliminates “control,” but not “intellectual control.” You see, in spite of what I hear at staff meetings, professional seminars and organizational meetings, we are not required to determine how our collections are used or by whom, except when there are copyright (intellectual property) issues or when such limitations were a condition of the donation and comply with the law. In fact, I would argue that we are ethically bound to avoid such determinations and in some cases trying to make such decisions actually damages our “intellectual control.”

The definition of intellectual control found in the glossary on the Society of American Archivists Website is:

“intellectual control

n. ~ The creation of tools such as catalogs, finding aids, or other guides that enable researchers to locate relevant materials relevant to their interests. [sic]

Notes:

Intellectual control includes exploiting access tools developed by the creator of the materials and, typically, received with the collection. However, these tools must be integrated into the repository’s other tools.”

http://www.archivists.org/glossary/term_details.asp?DefinitionKey=818 [accessed 07/28/2009].

Nope. Nothing about deciding who gets to use it in what way. Nothing about setting up various hoops through which one must jump if you want to use the items. Nothing about protecting the collection from too much access and use.

So how does putting images online, where admittedly they might be downloaded and used for purposes unapproved by the archivist, violate this definition? Does not such an action actually enhance the ability of the researcher to “locate relevant materials relevant to their interests” [sic]? Even if one wishes to view all this as just an access, as opposed to control, issue, the intellectual control is not damaged.

[Aside: I am always fascinated at how hard many archivists try to make it for researchers trying to access their collections. Although I have often heard the term “gatekeeper” claimed by those in the profession, it seems self defeating for a person whose job, if not existence of employing institution, relies upon the goodwill of others and the persuading of people to the effect that the collections are used and valuable to researchers to take such a stance. When I was doing research I was run off by people who worked in places that are now closed or vastly understaffed. There is a connection.]

Neither, as has been argued elsewhere, is context sacrificed. The fact that a researcher may choose to view individual items rather than entire collections is a choice of the researcher, one he can make whether the documents are online or not. Sure, it is true that such a researcher might miss something without viewing the rest of the collection, but on the other hand he might be able to view the documents in the context of an even larger context of documents created in a similar manner by similar (or even the same) creators, but kept in separate collections at separate locations. I have experienced this when doing research on the Methodist Bishop, Joshua Soule. Letters and documents referred to in other letters and documents were in different locations. If I had been unable to view content remotely, I would never have connected documents that could only be understood in connection with each other. I know others have had this experience.

What it boils down to is this. Archivists do not have the ethical, moral, or in many cases legal, right to limit access to their collections based on their own concept of intellectual control. Where intellectual rights are at stake, there may be not only a right but a duty to do this, but it is not a matter of the archivist’s personal desire nor should it be a policy of the institution.

The Heretic

This is free flowing thought, and so may be updated or edited later. It should be noted that some of these issues are related generally to archival practice, and even other fields, but the context is of discussions between church historians and archivists, so there is some good old fashioned religion in it. Make of it what you will.

I have heard it said in more than one work of fiction by the bad guy/gal de jour that it isn’t about the money, it is about the power. That seems somewhat grandiose when applied to my profession, but essentially the same theme, on a smaller scale, intersects my world on a regular basis. It is about control. If control is different than power, or is not, so be it.

I was talking with a colleague the other day about the change in the way churches (we are both archivists in religious institutions) are changing the way they produce and maintain denominational/connectional records. Those records created by the larger bodies, the corporate entities if you will, as opposed to the local church congregations or smaller organizations, are totally in the hands of the creators and the IT departments. Techs maintain the records, not the administration of the church body, and the historians never see them, much less receive them for preservation. In many cases minutes of very important meetings are not shown to anyone outside the meetings, with at best summaries given out to the general laity. There is no mandate that the records of the activities of the church be retained for historical value or any methods in place to do so. This also means, of course, that the leadership of the church is less accountable to the general body.

I mentioned that I had found it particularly distressing when I was “leaked” the details of some motions made during a major meeting a year or more ago and found that they did not conform to the summaries I had been given to place in my collections. Was someone deliberately attempting to change “history?” Who knows? I do know that the summaries, which had been generally circulated, gave a very different picture of what was discussed than did the actual record.

We discussed differing ways that denominations/conferences/what-have-yous approached records. We found it interesting, for example, that while the Discipline of the United Methodist Church states that meetings and records, with a few exceptions, are open to the public, the very book that proclaims that fact is under copyright protection, preventing reproduction, and on-line versions can only be had for a price. While I understand recouping cost for printed materials, the idea that a member of an organization that is supported financially by its membership, must also pay for access to the primary record of that organization seems strange to me, particularly in light of that very document’s purported stance on openness of records.

On a smaller scale we discussed the changes in technology that are affecting access and records, as well as being tools for many types of organizations, and the lack of willingness for churches to use social networking, blogging, twitter, wikis, etc. (collectively Web 2.0 technology, although Web 2.0 more accurately reflects an attitude about use of the Net than the tech itself) to connect and communicate. I had already discussed with others this unwillingness to use new technology to cross borders, time, and generational boundaries, and the general consensus in my crowd is that if the existing church cannot control it, they are afraid of it. (Sort of like the Jewish establishment in Judea about 2000 years ago in regards to a certain outspoken Rabbi. Couldn’t control him. Eliminated him. At least they thought so. Not that we are him, but we strive to be influenced by him.) Each of us in the group has had preachers and church staff members tell us that we will use such technology when we are ready. That we can only use blogs if we can control what people say and the comments people make. That we just don’t have the people to do this stuff (meaning the proper people I guess; in each case we as individuals have volunteered to do the tasks and recruit others.) In short, we can’t do what we can’t control. Like the hierarchy that doesn’t want to let its actions to fall too closely under the scrutiny of the underlings, the lower levels of church establishment fear the unknown.

Fear the unknown. It’s a church. Anything wrong with this picture? (Let’s see. People suggesting they can make statements about faith, testify, bring people together across great distances, discuss, debate, pray, share, support, evaluate so they can do it all better and pass it on to other generations. Nope. That won’t work. Can’t have that. Must be controlled. What if someone feels led by the Spirit to say or do something that I didn’t feel led to do?)

This is not new to archivists of my stripe. The profession has been struggling for several decades to establish its role as a recognized profession, one able to set the standards of education and practice, of control. Yet at every turn someone comes along and points out things that do not fit into the box that the profession is trying to construct. Of course, the profession has the option of adjusting its mission whenever it so chooses. It has not yet so chosen, but may do so one day, or one day have no choice. Many of the records it so zealously desires to preserve are not created in a context that its members understand or in a format that they know how to preserve. They will either have to release their control over these records to another profession, concentrating only on the past as it is today, or change their methods and mission. This is the same dilemma the church faces; has always faced.

And as a historian I see it from the other side. I have done research in places that took it as granted that I needed their material badly enough that I would do what they said I must, that they were in control. There are doors that I will not likely ever darken again because of this, some of which open into institutions that I have noticed have lost budget resources, staff, and donations because they could not keep a research base large enough to justify their previous level of support.

I don’t know if I am right or wrong, or if the archives world or church will change. In the meantime, as I have usually tried to do, I will choose to follow a still small voice, even if it contradicts the greater wisdom of my church structure and my profession. What else can I do?

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 of heresy as a historian, archivist and Christian. 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.