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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

“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.


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

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