Sorry to be Gone- Be Back Soon

September 24, 2010

In the past few months there have been several major developments in my life that have delayed my posting. Deaths of a family member and 3 major mentors in my life, a job change, the introduction of regular activities with 2 people who at best are irrational in general (and one or both of whom may be literally mentally ill to the point of being unable to function properly in their positions in life,) have cut significantly into blog time.

In addition, I have been working on several papers for possible publication. Parts of them will appear on this blog in hopes of generating comments. I lean towards self publication with the Internet as my medium of choice. If I am to have peer review through this method, it will require comments. Hope to be back soon with something worth reading, and hope to hear some comments.

The Heretic

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Interesting Read. At least in my arrogant opinion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy, I wish I had said it that way.

Amen brothers.

The Heretic

I have received a couple of messages from people who wanted to know when my next post will be and one from someone who wanted to know if I am “alright.” (Boy, that’s a loaded question.)

The answer to the first is, soon. In fact, there will likely be a flurry coming soon. I have been working on 4 articles, one on history, one on my ideas regarding archival theory, one on my ideas regarding the dilemmas faced by professionals including archivists, and one that is centered on both archives theory and practice and religious theory and practice.

In all cases, though to a lesser extent with the historical article, those professionals to whom I have shown the drafts feel they qualify as “outside the box,” “unusual,” extolling a “different point of view,” “something we need to be discussing but no one wants to,” expressing points of view that “no one will listen to, even though they should,” “crazy,” “unreasoned,” “very well reasoned,” or “trash.” They produce a “Wow! I never thought of that,” a “You should be shot” reaction, or simply blank stares or witless grins.

Because these are the reactions I get to most of my posts on this site, at least from the folks who really know me, the material seems to be appropriate for posting. Therefore, I expect to put portions of the papers here as blog posts. I have been asked to submit one to a new on-line journal, but will otherwise likely follow my past pattern of posting them online in pdf for any to read, cite, or print and toss into a fire, as long as their actions are in compliance with copyright laws and local fire codes. The difference between these and previous self-published work will be that some of the reasons I had for publishing anonymously have gone away, so I will likely be forced to step up to the plate and take my hits like a man since my name will be on these. (It will also soon replace pseudonyms on most other works, unless doing so might bring injury to others.) In the meantime, if you stumble upon this post, feel free to communicate with a comment and know  that I am diligently practicing my heresy to perfect its presentation.

The other question, as to whether I am “alright” or not, also has bearing on my reduced presence on the blogosphere (I do blog elsewhere so I have not been totally AWOL.) If it refers to my mental state, I do not know. Obviously if the answer is yes, the answer is yes. By the same token, if the answer should be no, I might believe it to be yes, so my answer would be wrong. For that matter, if I answer no, that might imply that I am “with it” enough to at least know something is wrong, so the answer might really be a qualified yes. Who knows.

All Princess Bride-type speeches aside:

I live in Nashville and the question was actually referring to the recent floods. I’m fine. Some friends and family suffered loss of homes and businesses, and some of the collections at one of the institutions where I work were damaged, not badly but enough to require attention. They will be okay (friends, family and collections) and I got to practice some collection disaster response skills in real life. As the sole archivist for a section of a large denomination, I have also been assisting and advising others who suffered damage at institutional and individual levels. This has taken time away from my blogging, but as my grandfather loves to say, “This, too, shall pass.”

Thanks for the concern.

The Heretic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. Only a heretic would suggest otherwise.

The Heretic

If you are wondering:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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

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

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

What I wrote then was:

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

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

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

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

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

 The Heretic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Was Year Zero?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.