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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. Only a heretic would suggest otherwise.

The Heretic

If you are wondering:

The Heretic is the nom du plume (or should that be nom du blog?) of a historian and archivist who works with both public and religious institutions and settings. He has been accused by others in his professional world of “heresy” (not formally, of course, at least not yet; there is time, as he was recently informed,) in his work and opinions as a historian, archivist and Christian.  He does not zealously guard his identity, but on occasion voices opinions that he feels might embarrass others, who in turn might be recognized through him. It is out of respect for those persons that he uses the pseudonym. When he is convinced that it no longer serves a purpose, he will discard it. It is really just in fun, anyway. Most people who know him recognize the source of his words, or so he believes.

I am an other-side-of-the-desker. By that I mean that I have practiced history from both sides of the desk, whether metaphorical or actual desk, and try to support those who are not the history professionals in their efforts. I have done research for years in archives, libraries, museums, historic sites, public records offices, etc. I have attended several universities, taking classes in history (as well philosophy, mathematics, physics, electronic engineering, etc.) at both undergraduate and graduate degree level. As a historian I practice my profession working in and with archives, libraries, schools, historic sites, historical societies, governing bodies, doing my own research and presenting the results, and consulting or contracting to help others. I see things from both sides, and with my experience in areas unrelated to history, sometimes from a totally different direction. Such is life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic