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

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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

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!

I was searching the other day for information I needed to get my name off the graduate students of history e-mail list. I still had the instructions I had been given when I subscribed some years ago. I had not tried to get off the list for some years while I fought battles with various forces, both within and outside the academy, to finalize my thesis. I had remained connected, even though my coursework and thesis research had long been completed, but after the thesis was done I tried to remove my name. I did so, however, to no avail. It seems the instructions I used to get on the list did not work to get off the list, as they sent me to the address of a server that has not existed at the school for some time.

I contacted one of the officers of the organization and all she knew about it (other than that she had no idea who I happen to be,) was that she got on the list by giving her name to someone, she didn’t recall who, when she went through orientation. This, she believed, was still the case for new additions and she did not know how students got off the list. (As an aside, I recognize enough comments from students who had been at the school since before I started that I am not really sure that anyone does get off the list.) She asked around and came up with the same set of instructions I had used with no effect. I had e-mailed the department head, the head of grad students for the department, the student list sponsor, my former thesis committee and the head of my concentration within my discipline, but I received no response. I figured I could contact the school IT department and get things taken care of, but decided instead to search the Web site for more information. I was astounded (well, mildly surprised. Okay, having been a student in the department for several years, “had my suspicions confirmed” might be the appropriate thing to say,) to find that following links to the various graduate student resources brought me not only the instructions for contacting the formerly-existing-now-nonexistent server as the way to get on and off the list, but that I could also find information that suggested that this group of students was involved with a professor who is now (God rest his Soul; I mean that) dead! There were officers that were listed as current even though they had not been officers, or to my knowledge students, for 4 and 5 years. There was nothing on the Web pages to suggest the date that they had been updated. I am left to assume that either there are few ways to verify the current validity of some of the data on the site, or that time travel has been both discovered and implemented at my Alma Mater. (This last would either revolutionize or destroy the history professions, depending on your point of view, but either way, it would be some trick!)

Now, I am poking a bit of fun at my fellow travelers in the history education boat, passengers, crew, or what-have-you, and this might cost me if I ever seek employment there or decide to work on another degree. The real issue I have here, though, is the importance of context. When someone gains access to information on the Internet, which is quite mutable, what is the context of its creation? Sure, those with access to enough of the codes and metadata could probably get an idea when the data was created, particularly if that metadata came from the machine on which it was created. When we cite something from the Net we cite the site (I love saying that, “cite the site,”) as well as when we obtained access, but we don’t always have the ability to determine if the data is original, (whatever that means today,) altered in some way, or contains errors. Context of data will become more vital and more elusive as technology frees it to be created, used, disseminated and stored by more and more people in more and more ways. Preserving that context will also get trickier.

Anyone who is familiar with Biblical textual criticism or just good old fashioned genealogy can attest to the difficulty in evaluating sources when one does not know for certain their age. Information from different sources gets mixed, so that some sources seem older than they are because they contain older information copied from older sources. The age of a document does not necessarily equate to the age of the information found in that document. A digital example might be that of following a link from a news aggregator site. One might read an interesting subject line and follow the link. The story is quite interesting and the URL of the site suggests that the site is that of a newspaper, but Franklin, or Johnsonville, or just the Daily News, tells one little about where that paper is located, and therefore little about where the story occurred. (“Just south of here” helps some, but in reality only technically eliminates the South Pole.) If the article says “yesterday” but does not give the date, one still has to guess since the articles in the edition of the “paper” and of the aggregator have no specific expiration date. In short, one has to guess about when and where the source is in the space-time continuum. (This really gets tricky when one wishes to by something online as well, as one can stumble on an item on sale from a company that has not existed for a few years.) If, as has happened, I find research presented by the same individual that varies, one source from the other, I cannot always determine which source is most up to date. Heck, I even found that I had the wrong time setting on one of my blogs the other day, so the graph of visits showed different shapes when I changed the date and some visits were recorded on different days than they had previously been recorded.

What does this have to do with archives? A lot. Nothing. Who knows? I think it bears keeping in mind when those of us in the archives/history/religious-version-of-either professions are involved with either the creation of records, interpretation of research, or as we struggle to devise new ways of preserving context of record creation. Remember, the format of the records will continue to change, as the methods and importance of different aspects of our profession will, yet we still will need to find out all we can about the records in our care, who created them, how they were created and used, and find a way to make this available to others for them to have historical value.

I do know that I am more conscious of making notes and annotations about when I change things in my own notes, publications, or other created data . I encourage those I advise to be meticulous about placing information about creation and change, or maybe other items that might otherwise be considered hidden metadata, where it may be read and cited by researchers. And I will try to point these things out to researchers using digital sources so they may be better able to interpret the validity of sources. It might be as effective a process as trying to explain to one of my grandmother’s cousins that Jesus did not likely speak 17th century English just because there are red letters in the King James version of the Bible, or explaining to the lady who comes in with a family Bible with 200 years of records all written in the same ink and handwriting (and with an edition date in the front that is 60 years old) that all the records of births and marriages were not necessarily written down at the time they occurred., Alas, such is the world of historical debate and archival reference services. Is it not?

In the meantime, I must contact IT and see if the correct server handling the e-mail list is still HAL 9000.

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.

I sat in a meeting of people from the historical society of a Methodist Church Annual Conference the other day. These are wonderful, history-minded people and I have a great deal of respect for them all. They have given many more years of service than have I, even if mine were to be multiplied by a factor of 3. We do, however, disagree on a few things. Do note that I am a trained historian and archivist and have a passion for old things, seeking hidden information about the past, and a great respect for tradition. I even recognize that in some cases, tradition for tradition’s sake is a valid position, at least to some extent. That said, I could not help but be reminded that sometimes we develop inertia and cannot see when we have mutually exclusive positions on subjects.

It was déjà vu all over again (I don’t know if that is a true Yogi Berra-ism or not.) The discussion had an eerie similarity to conversations I had been part of in local churches regarding worship and programs, meetings I have had with staff of a public library special collections division, board meetings for archivists’ professional groups, and my professors when I was a student. It essentially had two components.

The first was my explaining my belief that technology is changing the very nature of how we communicate, manage and access information, and how we interact with each other.  At the meeting in question, I suggested that many younger folk are growing up in a world where they are used to doing things in both the “real” world and a “virtual” one. They expect to use fast, free, and easy tools to interact and to access information. My suggestion that we might publish our journal (it is 6-7 years behind schedule, in part because of issues with printing and binding) in pdf format so we could reach more people, save money, and by-pass the printing problems, was not well received. The rest of this component of the conversation consisted of the other members of the group explaining that most of the members were older, didn’t use such technology, and then dismissing it.

We then moved on to the next component of the conversation, just as we have done in the other situations to which I referred. What were we going to do about the absence of younger folk, of “new blood,” in our organization? No one could think of a way to reach out to the next generation and persuade them to come into the fold. I have gone through this too many times to argue. I just find it paradoxical that so many folk want to veto the use of the tools that a whole generation, (actually portions of several generations,) routinely use as among their primary methods of communication and research, and then wonder why no one will storm our doors and beg us to let them in.
This is not new, of course. What we really want is for a new group of people to come along who will agree to see and do things our way and carry on our work in the way we wish it. We tend to see our ways as the traditional ways. This seems to be based on our place in time, however, not in history. The way we do things tends to be viewed as the way it was always done, or at least as the final stage of an evolutionary process that need no longer progress. Don’t mess with it.

When I was in another church than I attend today, a woman who was adamantly opposed to “new” music in the church gave us a list of 5 songs that were examples of the type of music she thought we should have in the services, the music that was traditional even when she was a girl. I checked the songs and 3 were written when the woman was a girl or a teen. The other 2 were less than a decade old when she was born. The music our young folk wanted to sing included some written over 20 years before they were born. The definition of traditional was (is?) that with which the person defining the word is familiar.

Some years ago archivist Terry Cook wrote a short history of the evolution of archival science*. He noted that many of the best practices in America today, including the ways we treat original order, fonds, context, etc., evolved over time. Articles published in various texts on the history of the Society of American Archivists and National Council on Public History show that many of these practices have only become standard in the lifetimes of current practitioners. I wince when I hear that adaptations to various methods should be viewed as violating centuries of accepted practice. Yet I have heard those words from professionals. I still recall sitting in New Orleans for SAA a few years back and after listening to a couple of presenters explain how exhibits and outreach were part of their institutions’ missions, the next presenter said that if that was the case they needed to change their missions. In his view, the purpose of archives was, and had always been, to preserve the records. Period. All the rest was extra stuff you did if you had the resources, but should never be part an archives’ primary mission. (I wish I could recall the name of the presenter. I wrote a little paper on how important use was to preservation of records and wanted his opinion, but I came in late and never caught the names of the presenters.)

Of course, all this is part of the on-going discussion of the purpose of archives, the role of the archivist, and definition of the profession. A discussion where I find I tend to hold the minority opinion much of the time and the one where I received the title of heretic.**

The Heretic

* Cook, Terry. “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.” Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997): 17-63.

** I have often been told things about myself ranging from I was outside the mainstream of thought to I was opposing the standards of my profession. A couple of years ago, a member of a religious archives roundtable branded an idea of a colleague, with which I agreed, heresy. When I mentioned it to a former professor, he agreed, but said that I had always been a bit of a heretic. Less than a year ago, at a regional archivist conference, I expressed some ideas about the importance of use in archives and a fellow member of the organization looked me in the eye and said “My God! You’re a heretic!” In a discussion with some religious archivists later, the same woman who had used the term “heresy” a year or so later said the same thing. My friends kept it up, half jokingly, I think. I have also been told that I am tilting at windmills when I point out that many of the rules in the Discipline of my church are routinely ignored. Some of the leadership, clergy and lay, have informed me that the rules are inappropriate and should be ignored. They maintain, perhaps with some accuracy, that their view is orthodox. At any rate, I have accepted the title of heretic. Few have told me that I am being too hard on myself.