Those of us who have come to know the power of the “dark side,” that is methodology that goes beyond the traditions of archival management, have found that our traditional skills are greatly needed in the bright new world that is coming our way. There will always be a need for someone to preserve the elements that make up the historic record, to make those elements available to researchers, and to help provide context that researcher may use, if they so desire, to better interpret these elements. The problem is not that these elements of the historical record are in different formats than those we are used to, or different media, or even exist in far greater numbers with potentially millions of identical “records.” These are challenges that many archivists have to face and which many will have to bow before. That’s okay. Transition takes time, in spite of the accelerated pace at which change seems to come in today’s world. There will still be plenty of traditional archival work available to do for a long time to come. These people will be needed and relevant regardless of the changes happening around us.

Before we go any farther, let me call attention to the fact that I used the term “archival management.” I use various terms to describe the profession as I strive to avoid being redundant as well as repeating things. I rarely, however, use the term “archival science,” and when I do it is just an attempt to vary the terminology to spice up the writing. (Changing management to science; if that doesn’t liven things up, nothing will.) I do not believe it is a science and actually like the term “archivy” that seems to imply something practiced as if it were a science but is not (as in “alchemy”.) I often find my colleagues view our practice as one in which the rules are carved in stone. I have read codes of ethics for archivists, museum folk, and other public historians that clearly deny reality. They make it clear, for example, that the professionals must avoid for-profit organizations, as if the non-profits do not wield any power to influence the profession as they provide resources, missions, and, of course, our salaries. Such ethical codes supposedly keep us free from undue influence. “Coca-Cola may shape the way we view the history of their product but you will never find a board of people with social or political views that areĀ similar to one another influencing the practice of a museum or archival repository. Therefore, we are free from the nasty influence that for-profit institutions wield.” Uhh-huhh.

We have best practices that are established by leaders in the field. Well and good. But these best practices tend to be a one-size-fits-all type of thing. Of course, no one expects the small church archives with no budget to come anywhere near the level of best practices that the National Archives and Records Administraton does, but they should strive to get as close to it as possible. But why? Are the records of a small institution necessarily that related to the generic record groups of large institutions? Since they are by definition unique, and may have been created and used in very different ways, is it not possible that best practices for these should be different? And who gets to decide these things. The whole world does not accept the best practices voted on by the elite of the Society of American Archivists.

No, these are traditions, not scientific models, and they are not even sacred traditions at that. Many of the best practices of the archival world have come to be accepted (where they are accepted) during my lifetime. The way in which the profession treats our rules is much like the way a church I once belonged to treated music in worship. They didn’t want any of the new music that the younger folk wanted to use in worship. They wanted to use the music the church had always used. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The trouble was, when I started looking up a lot of the music our solid core of church leaders wanted to keep in the worship service, most of it had been written when they were very young. I found that the definition of status quo was the way things have been in “my” lifetime, regardless of the change that occurred to the previous system to make it what I am familiar with. As archivists worry about their relevancy or the oncoming changes being wrought by the digital world, we might do well to remember that people struggled to change an older system into what we have today. Neither Adam and Eve or Homo erectus worried about records being viewed without context or heard about the concept of provenance. (Okay. I don’t know that last part for certain, but I would be willing to bet on it, and I don’t even gamble.)

So what does this have to do with archivists surrendering their profession? A good bit. The deal is this. Technology does not only change the media of communication, it changes the thought process involved in communication. The younger generations in this country no longer create documents with a strong expectation of privacy. Their communication is not necessarily targeted at an individual or group, but rather the world at large. They stumble upon documents and chunks of information, or a third party leads these folk, both the creators of records and researchers, to a specific place in the chain of communication. We may never know what outside forces determined who someone communicated with and where the content of their communication came from. We have no context to apply to the record.

If there is a record. While I still see sessions in conferences on dealing with archiving of email, more and more people are communicating with text messages. Who is archiving those? I know the data is probably on a server somewhere, but the chances of any of it ending up in the hands of archivists any time in the next several decades is slim to none. And while we either ignore the issue (Cleopatras), make a few steps towards dealing with the problem, albeit reluctantly (resistance members), or embrace a part of the change so we can get along with the others (collaborationists), we still haven’t “got it.” The farthest I have seen any reasonably significant number of archivists come to dealing with the world of the digital is the handful that are beginning to embrace “Web 2.0” as a means to do outreach and promote their collections. Some are even going so far as to put parts of their collections online so the researcher may access them without traveling several hundred miles to examine a piece of paper that may not have what they’re looking for on it anyway. Even then they lament the poor researcher missing out on so all the treasures they could have have if they had only come to the repository in person. And some folks are using digitization to produce backup copies of material, just in case, It’s all a step in the right direction, but still not radical enough.

As I said earlier, many of the records, particularly “correspondence” such as text, are not saved at all. Few archive Websites or social media. For that matter, privacy concerns, oddly enough existing in a world where many think nothing of sending a picture of themselves without any clothes out for the world to see, make users of social media resistant to archives of their records being kept by others. And that is the crux of the matter. Control. People who use text messages, Twitter, Facebook, who blog or use other social media, expect that the material they choose to make public will quickly move beyond their control and be available to the world. What they also expect is to be able to choose what content is put in a place where it can be made public. They do not want data mining, changed privacy settings or agreements, or people keeping copies of their information without their having initiated the process. Organizations are the same way.

In many organizations records are controlled by records managers. In the case of electronic records, they are usually in the hands of the Information Technology (IT) folk. IT is not interested in the historical record. IT needs to increase efficiency in response to ever increasing demands from management. IT needs to free up server space. IT needs to purge records. Not deaccession, purge. IT and records management barely speak a similar language. IT and archivists are from totally different worlds. From a professional standpoint, they use different sides of their brains, have different priorities, and have nothing in common other than the fact they work with records. Yet to the archivist, IT represents the force of rapid change into a digital world that is forcing archivy (like I said, I like this term) to change or become outcast. It is the powerful “Dark Side” of the records/communication force.

How do we fight the dark side? We cannot. Besides, it is not really the dark side at all. Digital technology has opened a myriad of ways in which records are produced or communication engaged in to add to theĀ  historical record. The question is, who will answer the call to preserve it for future generations? Right now, it sure isn’t the archivist. We discussed in part 1 (okay, I pontificated in part 1) of these posts the responses of the profession to the change in records and communication. In our church, the committee that is responsible for maintaining those records is rarely if ever consulted about them. They are kept by the communications and administration divisions. As long as entities that generate records are responsible for their ultimate disposition and archivists cannot handle them, the likely place they will go is oblivion. The archivist will have surrendered their profession, laying down their part in the decision process. They will work with what they have until everything is processed (granted, that could be a long time.)

Of course one of the possible solutions would be for archivists to go where the records are. Become part of the records management team rather than sit at the end waiting for their next shipment. They could learn how the organization works, better understand the context in which records are created, advocate for means of retention of records of enduring value. It would mean adjusting to the individual sets of circumstances, and archivists would likely have less physical control over their collections than they do now. It is a if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em strategy, but beats unconditional surrender. It means the profession must evolve. Rapidly. That could hurt. But such is life.

In the world of the church, many of the younger people do not relate to the same things as do people of the generation before. Nothing new. But as I said earlier, new communication has allowed a change in the way these folk’s minds work. They do not define relationship the same way as their elders. Physical things often mean less to them than intangible concepts. To someone like this, attending a worship service from hundreds of miles away via computer can be a meaningful experience. It requires believing that the Holy Spirit can and does work without restrictions of time, space, or the will of mankind, but none the less is quite feasible. Such experiences may be very real for the people who participate in them. When the church in general fails to recognize this, fails to recognize that technology has become a part of the way new generations think rather than just be a tool to convey old messages, she surrenders. If she assigns the way people function and think to the dark side because they do not understand how much they are tied in with new forms of communication, they will lose relevancy. It may be that it is time for this, that the church needs to undergo a very radical change. I don’t know. I do know that once again, I observe in both my work with my church and my profession very similar situations. Worry about their future relevancy and an inability to make the changes necessary to assure that relevancy.

By the way. I also believe that the change in technology and the way younger generations think is a two-way street. They are not slaves to technology. Much of the technological change has been driven by the desires of the end user. I have written of this before in one place or another. I will again.

The Heretic

Advertisements