I am an other-side-of-the-desker. By that I mean that I have practiced history from both sides of the desk, whether metaphorical or actual desk, and try to support those who are not the history professionals in their efforts. I have done research for years in archives, libraries, museums, historic sites, public records offices, etc. I have attended several universities, taking classes in history (as well philosophy, mathematics, physics, electronic engineering, etc.) at both undergraduate and graduate degree level. As a historian I practice my profession working in and with archives, libraries, schools, historic sites, historical societies, governing bodies, doing my own research and presenting the results, and consulting or contracting to help others. I see things from both sides, and with my experience in areas unrelated to history, sometimes from a totally different direction. Such is life.

My “problem” is that I also spent many years in jobs where I was in customer service, much of it in management and some as a business owner. I learned that if I wished to accomplish my mission, be it running a successful business or helping the business I worked for make a profit, I had to have customers who were not only satisfied when our transactions were complete, but satisfied enough to both return to do more business themselves and to tell others about their experience. What one wanted to avoid was folks being dissatisfied or downright insulted, for I assure you that they were going to tell far more people about their bad experiences than the good ones.

The mission there was profit, self satisfaction of a job well done, a feeling of doing good service for others, or whatever. The attitude adopted by people who were successful in my world wasn’t necessarily to make big bucks, but accomplish the mission. (Frequently the big bucks were a major part of that mission, but not always.) They considered that mission centered on satisfying the customer or consumer.

What does this have to do with archives, history, etc.? Well, I still do research. I still watch the people on the “professional” side of the desk from the other side. I still react the way anyone who is requesting a service from someone who is being paid to perform that service reacts, as a customer or consumer. I still watch people who work in public and academic libraries behave as if I am lucky to be allowed to come through the door. I have teachers who have never done anything but go to school, either as student or teacher, tell me I don’t understand the “real” world that they find through reading books and discussing issues with others who are in the same situation, but have never lived themselves. I read books from authors who either footnote very poorly or not at all, but fail to accept that the reader now has a variety of sources they may use to verify or debunk the authors’ points of view. I have archivists inform me that they are the gatekeepers of the documents in their care and that they have the authority to decide whether I have access to them or not, frequently in utter disregard to policy or statute.

Above all, I have observed from the receiving end and by watching colleagues, a complete disregard for a desire to satisfy the customer, for that is what the researcher/visitor/whatever is. The average person I see in my profession behaves as if his or her job, usually supported by public or donated funds, makes him somehow superior to the person on the other side of the desk. These people are snippy, turn their backs on people, tell them “well, those are the rules, that’s what you have to do” in a dismissive manner, and contradict customers on matters about which the customer may have more knowledge than they are sharing. I have even had an individual pull out a copy of a paper that I wrote (they did not know I was the author) and attempt to use it to refute statements I mad, explaining to me that “the author” had meant something other than what I wrote and therefore claimed she had refuted my arguments by use of an authoritative source. [Aside-I couldn’t resist the fun of telling the archivist that I had read the author and thought he was a jerk, to which she replied that he had sent the paper to their collection at the request of an authority in the field and that I obviously did not know of which I spoke. I never revealed that I was the author, since I had filled out a research form that included my name exactly as it was on the paper, and made my judgment about arguing with someone of that level of competency based upon that fact.]

In school I learned that we do not use marketing/economic/business terminology in history related fields. I have had that idea reinforced in professional meetings and seminars. I recently read several articles in various archives and library professional journals restating that marketing models are inappropriate. I have, however, read many more that lament the inability of institutions to fund their work, staff their institutions, develop their collections. For some reason the general public doesn’t realize how important we are! People who have unpleasant experiences and complain to their councilmen or legislature, refuse to donate to institutions that make them feel unwelcome, and tell all their friends about their experiences, are not only failing to give us much needed support and the respect we deserve, they are going elsewhere for their research needs! Not realizing how important we are, they are behaving as if we are supported by them rather than as if they are just darned lucky we let them in the doors! How dare they?

Maybe it is time for us to worry a little less about our collections, exhibits, or our other particular specific projects and think a bit about “customer service” and the “consumer.” I know these words are taboo, but my personal experience suggests that we may wish to rethink that attitude. Basic customer service should be a part of all training for all the professions that deal so much with the public, even a more or less captured audience. This includes history. (And formal logical reasoning should also be there, but that is another argument for another day.) If you have a problem with the capitalist overtones, think of it as special mission training. Virtually all mission statements should include something that requires customer service for the mission to be accomplished. Even preservation-only statements require the goodwill of donors.

I sit on a board with several people from an institution that has had its funds cut and which has seen its user count drop quite a bit in recent years. They blame the recession, which may be a big part of it. But what I know, and they apparently do not, is there are people at several other institutions that I frequent and organizations to which I belong that tell me they will go far out of their way to avoid dealing with “those people.” Oddly, none of the people on the board have commented on the fact that I personally have not set foot in their place for about 2 years. Guess why?

I also have found that there are over a dozen history professionals in the immediate area where I work and live who either graduated or came close to graduating from the same public history graduate program as did I. They all had very unpleasant experiences and after talking awhile, they asked me to serve as their spokesperson to a new department chair to explain our difficulties. The chair listened and promised to open the door to communication. This has been many months ago. Some of us met the other day to talk and we all agreed that none of us could get responses to attempted contact with the department, only requests for money for the school. We do, however, frequently get asked about our experiences at the school, by prospective students and potential employers of graduates. None of us could remember anyone we talked to going on to enroll in the program (which is struggling) and we all knew of at least one employer apiece who was wary of graduates from the school. “Customer” and “Consumer” are still the “C-words” there. These are people to be ignored. Well, at least the professors have their integrity. Such as it is.

The Heretic

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As part of my work, I present programs to people of all ages and backgrounds on our collections, including those that are partially displayed in exhibits. At my paying job we have a permanent exhibit that includes a variety of scenes taken during the Civil Rights movement. I answer questions from the people in attendance, and as one might expect I get an entirely different focus from the older crowd who remember the events, and the younger ones who cannot comprehend segregation. In fact, this last group tends to meet me with wide eyes and audible gasps when I tell them that these events happened before the existence of McDonalds. Their world view is different indeed. Of course, as they grow older, their concept of time and space will change, for better or worse.

What I have found interesting, and something that I think is important for historians of many stripes to notice, is a way of viewing the vehicles of history, i.e. the images, documents, etc. that we use to preserve and communicate information over time, that seems to be changing. Many of us have noticed that people of all ages have begun to expect all the documents in an archive to not only be available in digital form but searchable by topic or keyword. Although fewer of us seem to have acknowledged it, the printed paper and book are becoming rarer than they once were. Many libraries use digital subscriptions to journals and magazines, provide eBooks and down loads for videos. I know a man who refuses to read blogs or use Facebook, but loves his Kindle. Many newspapers are going to online editions only and many private and government documents are created and stored in only digital formats. This is not a surprise to most of us, although I know quite a few who will not accept it.

What I have found conveyed to me during the past few months by way of the questions asked of me by children is a little different than all that. There seems to be a lack of connection between what the youngest generation understand as “evidence of human activity” and what the rest of us understand. I find it a bit startling. I can connect it to other thought processes I have seen and dealt with in the past, and, in fact, last night I found a small paper I had written in which I wrote a few years ago suggesting this phenomenon. I had just forgotten it.

What I wrote then was:

“[Therefore] the process will continue. Younger generations will continue to develop new ways to process and use information and this will be reflected in their chosen forms of communication, their language, so to speak. If we do not “speak” these languages, that is, not only use and understand these forms of communication but “think” them, we will fail in our communication to the same extent we fail to utilize this thought process…We will also discover that, as in the case of our not being able to understand the thoughts that seem to only be possible to express through digital communication, those who learn to think “digitally” will one day have difficulty understanding our thought processes. It is not something to be unexpected, as their experiences will be so radically different than ours and throughout history one generation has been unable to understand the experiences that they do not share with other generations.

“The difference is that the speed in which this gap in understanding and experience is happening seems to be increasing logarithmically. While we do not understand the experience of the horse-and-buggy days, we have some common experience with our parents who drove automobiles, and thus some common understanding on which to base communication. Yet I attended college with people who never listened to a vinyl record, well certainly not a 45 r.p.m., and know many who are not much younger than I who never touched a typewriter. The compact disk is already being replaced by the DVD, which will likely be replaced by some type of solid-state device, and digital print versions of books will likely become more popular than hard copies. I can foresee the day when digital photography will be on the way out and the idea of a photograph that one can hold in one’s hand will seem as odd as the Daguerreotype seems to folks today. The difference is that this will come about in just a few years, rather than over 150.”  [Emphasis added. The quote is from “We’re Not Done Yet, But We Could Be! Additional Comments on ‘The World Turned Right-Side Up Again: A Response to Terry Cook’ and the Role of Technology in the World of Archives.” 2006. Not formally published, though distributed through various means.]

Yes, that has happened. I have been questioned by children in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade about the validity of photographic images. The questions yesterday came from 3rd graders who wanted to know if the pictures on the wall of an exhibit room were of real things and wanted to know if the person who took them was actually there when the events happened. They wanted to know how the pictures were taken. I have been asked why pictures were not on a screen, what type of computer they were made on, and even had children express shock that there were cameras “back then.” (This one isn’t so surprising as the images are 50 years old. That is forever to a child.)

The real issue here, though, is how we are to communicate the validity of our collections to a generation that puts no stock in such things. If you grew up feeling that any image could be created on a computer screen and that there was no connection between images or documents and reality, save what authority you personally chose to give them, would you view our collections as having great significance or value? I think most of us would find such things as important to our research as we do the 8-track tape player to entertainment. [Note: For those of you who are more than 10 years younger than I, either Google it or visit a museum.]

We are not going to undo what has been done. The change in thought has already occurred, although the process is not complete. Evolution rarely is. But what do we want to do about it?

 The Heretic

When Was Year Zero?

I do not remember when I learned the difference between “counting numbers” and “whole numbers” but it was pretty early in elementary school. I learned that the numeral “0” was a place holder. I was young enough to have trouble with understanding that it didn’t really represent “nothing,” as I was to learn later when I found why division and multiplication by 0 is not an identity function. (If you multiply 1 no times, it is still 1, but if you multiply it by 0 it is 0. You cannot even divide it by 0 at all and have a defined meaning.) I did understand, however, that if you had something, some books, some apples, some amount of time, you used the counting numbers. I later learned that you could always divide a quantity of something by a number and still have a quantity of something. 1 year divided by 2 is 6 months or 0.5 years, not “no” years just because it is less than a year in length.

What does this have to do with anything? Simply this:

As the year 2010 began, I listened to television station after television station comment on the end of the first decade of the new century/millennium. I then started receiving requests from members of an organization that I serve as archivist for material to use to commemorate the switch from the first to the second decade. Although I was happy to comply, I caused some dismay when I pointed out that the event in question was yet to come.

You see, even if some monk or other source miscalculated the date of Christ’s birth, and even if there was some error when adjusting calendars later, the years we use for either C.E. or A.D. dates are based on the years of the life of Jesus (A.D. = Anno Domini = “year of the Lord,” more or less) from the point of time that was or is believed to be his date of birth. That word, “point” is important. There is, in theory, a point on a number line that may be labeled “0,” but there is no meaning to a stretch of that line as the “0th” segment. Anything to the right of that point until the point “1” is reached is the “1st” segment; or segment “1.” There is no segment “0.” The 10th segment comes between “9” and “10” and is not complete until “10” is passed and the 11th segment begins.

In terms of years, it works like this. If I was born, (and I was,) there is no point in time when I am “0” years old. When I was 6 months old, I was in year “1” of my life and was 0.5 years old. When I had my 49th birthday, I had completed 49 years and was in my 50th year, or “50”. It is not until I complete 50 years, and enter “51” that I have completed 5 decades.

In the same way, when we entered the year 2010, we entered the 2,010th year from the point, accurate or not, that we defined as the birth of Jesus. The “point,” not the “year.” (The idea that someone mistakenly left year “0” off the calendar is ridiculous. Year “0” would be the year that Jesus existed but did not exist. Philosophical and theological questions aside, for our purposes this does not enter the discussion.) It will not be until “2010” is completed that we will have completed 201 decades, or the 1st of the new century. We are still in that one. By the same token, the 21st century began in 2001, not 2000. (As an aside, the need to do calculations in standard numerals without the A.D., B.C., CE, BCE abbreviations has created an astronomical numbering system that uses a year “0” and negative numbers, but that is only for calculation purposes.)

So plan your celebrations, exhibits, and projects. I would be thrilled to help with the work from our archives, regardless of the year. But please, understand, the numeral “0” is not a number, and January 1, 2011 will start a new decade. Then let’s whoop it up!

“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.