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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Heretic

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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

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