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.


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

Personal experience?

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

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

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

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

The Heretic


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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

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

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

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

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

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

“intellectual control

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heretic

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

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

When I was in school, the popular focus among many historians was “history from the bottom up.” This included micro-history where a historian would focus on some small, fairly obscure subject that had a thicket of details that could be analyzed to produce a very clear picture of that moment and place in time. It also included focusing on the history of the common man (species reference here, not gender), culture, public-history-whatever-that-is (that is the way many of those of us in the public history field say it,) etc. To a non-historian, it sounds very inclusive and equalitarian. In reality, it is just a different way of choosing and interpreting one’s subject. The historian is still in charge. Most historians I know do not pretend that they are in any way sharing their authority, (another popular term that was thrown around but in reality implemented poorly at best, in my opinion) but there are some sad souls that seem to believe that by focusing their attention on what they have decided is important to the common man (see note last time I used that expression) they are somehow being gracious and inclusive.

The truth of the matter is that most historians, archivists, what have you, have worked too hard at establishing themselves as the authorities or professionals to let the amateurs have any say in things. They will not relinquish one iota of their perceived authority. There must always be a line between the professor and student, the professional and amateur.

Yet there are those of us that see history as something that is truly part of everyone’s life, something that all have a claim on. Truly, not just in theory. We are those who grew up with history as part of our lives, reading books, discussing the past in our families, learning the old stories, discussing whether they are true or not and what effect they might have on the present. We went to cemeteries and museums, did genealogy and studied historical subjects for the pleasure of it. Those of us who entered the professional/academic world knew that there was a difference between popular history and “serious” history, but the lines were blurred. I have read too many well researched, scholarly works written by amateurs who are reenactors or do living history, as well as papers written by people with PhDs whose footnotes do not support their statements, not to believe that the line should be blurred. Formal education, or its lack, does not ensure good research and logical reasoning, or its lack. (I find it curious that few history programs I have found in university catalogs include any courses in logic or debate. Hmmm.)

In today’s world, the common man (there’s that phrase again) may be coming into his own as pertains to history. No longer does the history professional have a monopolistic control of the “stuff” of history. The world of technology has put people and organizations that have always distained capitalistic market forces in direct competition for users; the users will have a say in whether institutions get the resources that they need to survive. The users are now in the position of deciding whether or not to share their authority. There are more opportunities for participation in history than ever before and they are growing. The world of the participant, not the consumer, has arrived. If a student, researcher, visitor, user, patron, (dare I say “customer”?) doesn’t feel like participating in what he is offered, he can go somewhere else. And make no mistake about it, he wants to participate, have a say in the decisions, not have them made for him.

As a church historian and archivist, I think the analogy of the modern congregation of a Christian church serves well. The church wants to attract more people and cannot meet it’s sole reason for existing without doing so. It needs to consult its target group and determine what its constituents need and want. At the same time, there are values, ideals, beliefs and dogmas that may not be compromised, or at least not to any great extent. There are aspects of the church that are inherent in its identity. These may not be let go. The church must decide where changing will accomplish its mission and where change is an abandonment of that mission. Of course, it must first decide what its mission is.

Historians and archivists are in that same boat. They must have a clear mission and be driven by it. They will have to live with the consequences of their choices.

The Heretic

Being a Mediator

April 8, 2009

I have heard it said that archivists are mediators between the collections and the users of the collections. I have also heard it said that their stock in trade is their understanding of their collections and the organizations that created them. I find it curious that someone could believe he is capable of being a successful mediator between two parties (in this case the source of information and the individual that desires it) without a good understanding of the qualities of each. Yet archivists seem to assume that they understand the research needs of their users with no, or at best the most perfunctory, of inquiries as to those needs.

I spent years doing research before becoming an archivist and it was a rare occasion when archival staff took the time to truly try and understand what I wanted or needed. I was usually more successful at my research when I was able to persuade the archivist to just give me what I wanted whether he or she thought it was useful or not. On many occasions I would be told that there were no such records, in spite of the fact that I had used them the previous day when they were supplied by a different staff member. It was not unusual for me to just abandon the topic for a time in hopes of finding another source that required fewer hoops to jump through for access. Nothing has persuaded me that the attitude that the archivist knows best is not still the most prevalent attitude in the profession.

Today things are a bit different than they used to be. There are many more sources of information with which the repository must compete. The archivist must truly become a mediator, not just claim to be one. That means finding ways to determine what the user actually needs (or, for that matter, wants) and examining whether there are reasonable ways to meet those needs. It means setting aside the hubris of believing that one’s knowledge of one’s collections and the organizations that created them in and of itself qualifies one to make decisions on behalf of the researcher. The modern archivist must base his or her practice on the knowledge of the collections, the knowledge of the creator, and the knowledge of the researcher’s needs. This last includes methods of access that are compatible with the researcher’s skills and with which he is familiar. It requires study and compromise. Indeed, user study and evaluation should be a separate domain of archival practice.

Somehow I don’t think studying the records, their structure and their function will adequately fit the bill. This, by the way, is one of the statements that I made at a professional meeting that resulted in my being called a heretic. Oh, well. If the shoe fits…

The Heretic

Professional Standards

April 7, 2009

The archives world has spent the past several decades struggling to establish and strengthen a distinct professional identity. They created the Academy of Certified Archivists and educational standards to help give credibility to their professional programs and have worked towards uniform standards in most all areas of theory and practice.

The problem with this is that archival repositories, like their collections themselves, are unique. The uniqueness of their records (using the term in the less technical meaning that includes manuscript collections, images, etc.) suggests that at least a portion of the users of a repository will also be unique in their research needs. There will be many aspects of the records that will be different from any others and defy standard description. The mission of each institution may also be different. Why should we expect to force these unique attributes into a uniform set of standards?

Perhaps the mission part of this is the key. If a repository has a mission only of preserving records that its staff finds important based on their own uniform standards, records that they will make available in ways governed only by their own theories and traditions, then a consolidated profession is the way to go. If, on the other hand, a repository has a mission that is determined by taking into account the views of other stakeholders, those who created the records, those who will use them, those who will provide resources or donate collections, etc., then the methods used by staff might need to be just as diverse as the collections; just as unique.

The archives profession should not be trying to consolidate and create uniform standards. It should, rather, be trying to remain fluid and adapt to changing situations. These situations include user needs, nature of collections, technologies that generate records as well as those used to access them, and changing values and missions as seen through the eyes of stakeholders. Archivists should be moving more towards a general concept of collection management, incorporating theories of records management, library and information sciences, museum studies, and other allied fields. The theories that are most appropriate to the mission of the unique institution and the nature of its unique collections should be used.

Of course, this would mean that archivists would have to relinquish a lot of control. Wonder how that’ll work?

The Heretic