Peter Drucker said that “the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.” He uses a similar maxim, quoted by former pupil William A. Cohen, to the effect that good marketing makes sales unnecessary. In the first case, he is discussing knowing the customer well enough to know his need, and then apply innovation and find a way to meet that need. In the second he is speaking of knowing the customer well enough to understand whether or not one’s product or service meets his need, and if so, the product is displayed in a way that is attractive to the customer.

In neither case does Drucker advocate trying to persuade someone that they need something that they do not, or even something they may need but are unaware they need. To Drucker, the goal is simply two-way communication. The provider seeks what is needed by the customer and makes it available in a manner of which the customer is aware. It then is up to the customer to take advantage or not, and if the product is good enough and the communication about it good enough, no persuasion will be necessary.

Too many times I have gone to a repository where the archivist or reference person failed to discover my needs. Too many times they have tried to persuade me that I wanted something other than I really wanted. Too many times the staff never really attempted to meet my research needs because they didn’t explore what they really were. As professionals, they were in the position of authority and saw no need to “market” their product by determining what I needed and let me know what they had. And too many times I, being fairly intelligent, found other sources for my information and returned to the repositories either only as a last resort or never.

I cannot count on my two hands the number of these places that have had major staff reductions and lack the resources to do their jobs well. I know of several that have been transferred to the control of other institutions. They remind me of the folks I know at churches that stick to their guns as the ship sinks for lack of anyone who cares. They are not standing on great principles. They are obstinately refusing to even consider that they do not know best and ask others what might be best. They refuse communication because they are not interested in it. In the end, I expect they are afraid of loss of control. In the end, I suspect they will change or lose more than control.

[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

[I am putting the finishing touches on a paper I am writing for a seminar with a non-archives-related organization. As I started working on it, I realized that many parts of the work applied to the archives profession, at least applied to the point that they bear discussing. They also apply to the world of practicing professions or tasks in a religious environment, though the terminology might need to be changed. The subject is “Profession v. Professionalism.”  It is opinion based on experience and research. I will introduce parts of it here over time in hope of getting comments and discussion. I would prefer that folks comment online, even if you know my personal e-mail address or are attending the conference, but that is, of course, your option.]

I maintain that a person may be a member of a profession by meeting specific criteria. There may be differing opinions as to the criteria. For example, one might claim that a certain amount of education or a certification is required to be an archivist, while others might feel that any who fill the position of archivist and attempt to perform the tasks that come with that position in the best possible manner qualify as professionals. I have heard history professors make it very clear that academics are in a higher classification than a mere “profession,” (also claiming that a Ph.D. is required to be a historian and anyone who has done decades of scholarly work does not qualify as a historian without those letters at the end of his name, regardless of the quality of work,) while neurosurgeons readily refer to their “profession.” Regardless of the requirements or honor associated with the term, there are specific qualifications that a person must have or things one must have accomplished to be recognized as a professional by most people.

Professionalism, on the other hand, is an attitude, an approach. It may be equated with or include ethics, morals, etiquette, or a code of honor, or simply be expressed as attitude. It is a more intangible thing than a profession, and is judged by people by less objective qualifications. A professional code of ethics may add some objectivity to whether one is viewed as having professionalism, and violation of such a code usually can be said to qualify as unprofessional behavior, but one can still be unprofessional while technically remaining within the code. This is basically because such codes do not cover all possible areas of professional behavior, nor do they cover the motivation of the “professional.” If one does not believe that such an attitude is noticeable or that it affects a professional’s competency, one might as well forget about seeking professionalism and be satisfied with having a job.

I mentioned the attitude I have found among some academic historians. This is not the only profession where I have found this attitude, of course, nor is it universal among those of that profession, er, discipline. Two of my mentors, history professors both, encouraged me to become a public historian, one particularly emphasizing the field of archives management. He did so because I had spent many years doing research in institutions where I often encountered archivists who showed me no respect and exhibited egos that I felt far outweighed their abilities or common sense. That may have been arrogance on my part, but there were enough people out there among non-archivists that didn’t treat me like an idiot to make me feel that it was not. I just found that many of the people I met in the archives profession when I did research did not behave in what I felt to be a professional manner.

You see, one of the requirements of professionalism is respect. A professional, if he has any sense at all, acknowledges that if he is exceptional in his field, others may be exceptional in theirs as well. Unless he believes that there is a universal hierarchy where history professors outrank archivists who outrank mere researchers (including those who write the papers the professors use to teach and collect the papers the archivists eventually manage,) he must accept that his profession does not make him better than others. Yet I have had many a person who had no idea what I was researching decide how I should best pursue my work, or had a presentation criticized under the assumption I had not read the same material as the critic, and even had people who had never met me address me by my first name while requiring me to address them by some title.

My favorite instance of this was when a Certified Archivist was advising a patron and insisted on being addressed as “Ms.” while calling the patron John, as she had heard me do. She then proceeded to lecture him on the best book he needed to do his research, never once realizing that he held two PhDs and was the author of the work she was praising. She did not believe me when I told her. He just smiled, thanked her, and proceeded to do his work like the professional he was. If I had been as professional as he, I never would have told her of here faux pas. I yielded to temptation, however, and told her. I did mean it to give her the opportunity to discover that one can’t always make assumptions, particularly when those assumptions start with ones about one’s own importance, but her response was aggressive to say the least.

Respect in a profession can illustrated by the way a seaman treats an officer. When I was in the service a few generations ago, I was walking with a Chief Petty Officer one morning. A Lieutenant Junior Grade approached and the Chief and I snapped off salutes. The JG gave us a nod. A few minutes later, a Lieutenant Commander came by and as we saluted, I noticed the Chief was a bit snappier and he smartly said, “Good morning, Mr. Evans!” Commander Evans slowed, exchanged pleasantries, and asked to be introduced to me, a lowly seaman. Then we all went on our ways. I asked the Chief about it and he explained. “Lt. Barker is by the grace of God and Congress an officer and a gentleman. It is his job. You have to respect the job and the rank. Maybe one day he will do something as a man to earn my respect. Mr. Evans? He is a natural officer and a seaman. I don’t just mean he is skilled at seamanship. I mean he has the attitude of a seaman. Respect. Barker has a nice job. Evans is a professional.” [Note: obviously after many years this is not and exact quote, but the gist is there.]

Part of my conclusion: One can expect or even demand respectful actions when one is a member of a profession. A professional offers and earns respect by behavior and attitude. No respect? No professionalism. This, by the way, extends to employers, employees, colleagues and patrons.

[There is an absence of some context in this opinion piece. It might help the reader know that this is near the beginning of the second section of the paper and precedes a section on the importance of people in professional behavior.]

More to Come.

The Heretic

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

I am a professional historian. I am also a professional archivist. Certified in the field. Masters in History. Years of research experience. Over two years of electronic and computer engineering education, trained as a recording engineer and served as an electronic technician. I work in the history/archives/library field and have special experience and expertise in oral history, “customer” service, social networks, and evaluation and reporting. I use some of these skills that come from my gifts and training in both a small, non-profit network I have developed and as an unpaid archivist and historian for religious institutions. In this last capacity I have run up against what, Pete, God rest his soul (cancer took him last year,) referred to as “The Board.” (Emphasis included.)

Pete LaPaglia was a great guy. He not only ran a consulting and exhibit fabrication firm out of Murfreesboro, TN, he made it a point to hire students to give them practical experience in the field. He had told me to call him if I wanted to try using my experience in consulting, but I never did. I did, however, get to ask him what advice he would give me should I ever work as a consultant. He said he had 2 pieces of advice for me to apply as a pubic historian (aside from trying to do what I love,) and they were to read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People at least once a year, and be ready to deal with “The Board.”

The first, about the good read, Pete had told us when he visited our museum studies class a few years earlier. We always asked history professionals visiting our classes about the most important literature we should be reading. Depending on the class and the professional, they would reply with a professional journal, book, author or hot topic. Pete named Carnegie and said he always read it at least once a year. I am trying to follow suit.

The second part of Pete’s advice was about “The Board.” Let’s be clear; not the board. “The Board.” He spoke of it as if it were an entity of his own, a cross between an incompetent collection of individuals and of minions from Hell. Such a group could drive you over the edge mentally or out of the profession. He had stories, and I have since had similar experiences or observed them in others’ careers.

Not all institutional boards that control museums, archives, libraries, historical sites, etc. fit this category, of course; some may be composed of retired professionals or folks in related fields. But many controlling entities are composed of people who know nothing of the professional standards, theories, or resource requirements of the institutions they attempt to govern. This would be bad enough, even if the board members were aware of their ignorance, but frequently the board members are sure they know more about the profession than the professional. Of course, they could be right, but I submit that, more times than not, this is not true.

This brings us to my unpaid position. I hold more than one at different levels of the United Methodist Church. The controlling entities at the different level differ greatly in their understanding of my work. At the topmost, many of the board are not professional historians or archivists, but have had life-long interests in and studies of history. Some are indee professionals. On the next level there are a few history professionals, but the board is mostly controlled by well intentioned and unknowledgeable amateurs and professional church folk (clergy and laity) who have other agendas. On the local church level, no one has a clue about archives theory and practice, and many refuse to abide by or enforce their own regulations regarding such practice. Preachers come and go, each unaware of the rules that have been established by the board, and often with enough knowledge of the study of history, even professional experience in the field, to feel that they have a superior knowledge of how archivists should function. I acknowledge that it is possible that they are correct, but I really do not believe it.

The dilemma comes down to one in which the staff of the church, clergy and laity, as well as the governing board, insist that the non-staff laity of the church must lead the ministries of the body. The reality is that many of the laity do not follow through on the tasks they accept as their own, and the staff do not wish to give up their own control over things. This becomes a real problem when a lay member who is a professional in his field, such as a Certified Archivist, tries to do his job in a professional manner as requested and required by the board, but the staff, including clergy, and other leaders of the church, fail to relinquish authority along with responsibility. There is an old saying that wine drinkers talk dry and drink sweet. They say they prefer dry wine because that is what they feel they are expected to say, but in reality drink sweet wines. It is a polite way of saying they say one thing but do another. This has been my experience at my church recently. In short, I have not only had to deal with the Church Council, the board (of which I am a member,) but found it has morphed into “The Board.”

Some years ago the governing board of our church adopted a job description for the Church Historian that gave him custodial authority over the historic objects and documents of the church, including the archives. This was done because a study of the records of the church had revealed big gaps in the records, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church had emphasized the importance of records keeping to the church, and because members had attended workshops where attorneys had advised churches that proper records control was necessary to safeguard the church against litigation. Because of my professional training and experience, I was asked to fill the position and accepted.

After passing the description, however, “The Board,” as the Council quickly became, did not enforce it. The archives was not, and is not, in a secure place, historical objects were disposed of without discussing the actions with the me, records were taken from the archives, and, in spite of the adoption of a records management program, no records were given to me as archivist in five years. The staff refused to allow me to set up training, part of my job description, refused to let me inform the congregation of the state of the records through official communication, also part of the job description, did not refer reference questions me, part of my job description, and actually complained when the I began to process the records of the church in a professional manner.

The preacher, a former history professor, stated that there were no churches that applied such standards to their collections, and that it was unreasonable for me to expect such things. This is a fallacy based, I am sure, on his not having visited during the course of his job many churches that have applied such standards. We have established that I am, at best, an oddity to many, but this has not been my experience. That this is not the norm I accept, but I have visited a good number of professionally maintained Methodist archives, have personally been involved in changing the standards in four churches in just the past two years, and have been told of others. (My own, alas, is not among them.) The preacher and other staff have told me that I am being too legalistic in insisting on adherence to the job description and collection policy that was also adopted, but they resist allowing me to change it to free myself from any obligations to adhere to professional standards. In short, I have been made legally, ethically and professionally responsible for the collections of the church, but have been denied the authority to care for them. Yes, this is “The Board” that Pete warned me about.

As I prepare my motion to change the job description of the Historian, and my resignation letter should that not be adopted, I reflect on a final irony. As I have been blocked from doing my job by staff that would not relinquish control, I have also set at meeting after meeting listening to the staff and leadership of the church complaining that the membership was leaving too much work to the staff, and reminding us that we are supposed to be a laity led church. I am supposed to step up and do my job. Indeed. Talking dry and drinking sweet. “The Board” is firmly in charge.

The Heretic

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


“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.

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.

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