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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Heretic

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

So the question is:

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

The Heretic


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

I am a professional historian. I am also a professional archivist. Certified in the field. Masters in History. Years of research experience. Over two years of electronic and computer engineering education, trained as a recording engineer and served as an electronic technician. I work in the history/archives/library field and have special experience and expertise in oral history, “customer” service, social networks, and evaluation and reporting. I use some of these skills that come from my gifts and training in both a small, non-profit network I have developed and as an unpaid archivist and historian for religious institutions. In this last capacity I have run up against what, Pete, God rest his soul (cancer took him last year,) referred to as “The Board.” (Emphasis included.)

Pete LaPaglia was a great guy. He not only ran a consulting and exhibit fabrication firm out of Murfreesboro, TN, he made it a point to hire students to give them practical experience in the field. He had told me to call him if I wanted to try using my experience in consulting, but I never did. I did, however, get to ask him what advice he would give me should I ever work as a consultant. He said he had 2 pieces of advice for me to apply as a pubic historian (aside from trying to do what I love,) and they were to read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People at least once a year, and be ready to deal with “The Board.”

The first, about the good read, Pete had told us when he visited our museum studies class a few years earlier. We always asked history professionals visiting our classes about the most important literature we should be reading. Depending on the class and the professional, they would reply with a professional journal, book, author or hot topic. Pete named Carnegie and said he always read it at least once a year. I am trying to follow suit.

The second part of Pete’s advice was about “The Board.” Let’s be clear; not the board. “The Board.” He spoke of it as if it were an entity of his own, a cross between an incompetent collection of individuals and of minions from Hell. Such a group could drive you over the edge mentally or out of the profession. He had stories, and I have since had similar experiences or observed them in others’ careers.

Not all institutional boards that control museums, archives, libraries, historical sites, etc. fit this category, of course; some may be composed of retired professionals or folks in related fields. But many controlling entities are composed of people who know nothing of the professional standards, theories, or resource requirements of the institutions they attempt to govern. This would be bad enough, even if the board members were aware of their ignorance, but frequently the board members are sure they know more about the profession than the professional. Of course, they could be right, but I submit that, more times than not, this is not true.

This brings us to my unpaid position. I hold more than one at different levels of the United Methodist Church. The controlling entities at the different level differ greatly in their understanding of my work. At the topmost, many of the board are not professional historians or archivists, but have had life-long interests in and studies of history. Some are indee professionals. On the next level there are a few history professionals, but the board is mostly controlled by well intentioned and unknowledgeable amateurs and professional church folk (clergy and laity) who have other agendas. On the local church level, no one has a clue about archives theory and practice, and many refuse to abide by or enforce their own regulations regarding such practice. Preachers come and go, each unaware of the rules that have been established by the board, and often with enough knowledge of the study of history, even professional experience in the field, to feel that they have a superior knowledge of how archivists should function. I acknowledge that it is possible that they are correct, but I really do not believe it.

The dilemma comes down to one in which the staff of the church, clergy and laity, as well as the governing board, insist that the non-staff laity of the church must lead the ministries of the body. The reality is that many of the laity do not follow through on the tasks they accept as their own, and the staff do not wish to give up their own control over things. This becomes a real problem when a lay member who is a professional in his field, such as a Certified Archivist, tries to do his job in a professional manner as requested and required by the board, but the staff, including clergy, and other leaders of the church, fail to relinquish authority along with responsibility. There is an old saying that wine drinkers talk dry and drink sweet. They say they prefer dry wine because that is what they feel they are expected to say, but in reality drink sweet wines. It is a polite way of saying they say one thing but do another. This has been my experience at my church recently. In short, I have not only had to deal with the Church Council, the board (of which I am a member,) but found it has morphed into “The Board.”

Some years ago the governing board of our church adopted a job description for the Church Historian that gave him custodial authority over the historic objects and documents of the church, including the archives. This was done because a study of the records of the church had revealed big gaps in the records, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church had emphasized the importance of records keeping to the church, and because members had attended workshops where attorneys had advised churches that proper records control was necessary to safeguard the church against litigation. Because of my professional training and experience, I was asked to fill the position and accepted.

After passing the description, however, “The Board,” as the Council quickly became, did not enforce it. The archives was not, and is not, in a secure place, historical objects were disposed of without discussing the actions with the me, records were taken from the archives, and, in spite of the adoption of a records management program, no records were given to me as archivist in five years. The staff refused to allow me to set up training, part of my job description, refused to let me inform the congregation of the state of the records through official communication, also part of the job description, did not refer reference questions me, part of my job description, and actually complained when the I began to process the records of the church in a professional manner.

The preacher, a former history professor, stated that there were no churches that applied such standards to their collections, and that it was unreasonable for me to expect such things. This is a fallacy based, I am sure, on his not having visited during the course of his job many churches that have applied such standards. We have established that I am, at best, an oddity to many, but this has not been my experience. That this is not the norm I accept, but I have visited a good number of professionally maintained Methodist archives, have personally been involved in changing the standards in four churches in just the past two years, and have been told of others. (My own, alas, is not among them.) The preacher and other staff have told me that I am being too legalistic in insisting on adherence to the job description and collection policy that was also adopted, but they resist allowing me to change it to free myself from any obligations to adhere to professional standards. In short, I have been made legally, ethically and professionally responsible for the collections of the church, but have been denied the authority to care for them. Yes, this is “The Board” that Pete warned me about.

As I prepare my motion to change the job description of the Historian, and my resignation letter should that not be adopted, I reflect on a final irony. As I have been blocked from doing my job by staff that would not relinquish control, I have also set at meeting after meeting listening to the staff and leadership of the church complaining that the membership was leaving too much work to the staff, and reminding us that we are supposed to be a laity led church. I am supposed to step up and do my job. Indeed. Talking dry and drinking sweet. “The Board” is firmly in charge.

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.