[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

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An analogy that public historians understand is that of the historic house museum. Almost every small town seems to have or have had one. The beautiful old house that someone of importance lived in or where some big event in the town took place. The old lady or man that lived there died and the heirs donated it to the town or some heritasge group to use as a museum. No one wanted to see such a treasure lost. It was too valuable and had to be saved for future generations.

The problem was thus. Although everyone believed that the home was of value, some believing it to be of great value, some that it was vitally important, there was always a limit on available resources. The DFLA (Descendants of the Founders Ladies Association) that was to provide volunteer docents couldn’t quite meet the need. The town council could only appropriate a small amount of funds without eliminating the equipment for the volunteer fire department. Grants were few; it seemed as if every town in the state had a house museum. People traveling past on the highway didn’t stop, and the local folk had already visited as many times as they cared to. If the town was lucky, it had established an annual fish fry, BBQ, flea market, or theatrical production that drew folks with cash to the museum once a year, thus raising some funds. But the fact of the matter is that while everyone believed the place had value, few believed it had enough value. Not deep down inside. Not enough to make it a priority in the allocation of resources.

Many house museums fail. Not because they are not of value, but because of who makes the determination about what is most valuable. No one wants to say that a beautiful old house full of history isn’t valuable enough to keep. And the people who “know” about such things, ancestors, local historical societies, preservation groups, and professional historians, can always be relied upon to rally for preservation. They cannot, however, always be counted on to keep the place going and to effectively persuade others of its importance. As long as the people who allocate resources are unconvinced that the museum is the best place, as opposed to a good place, to use those resources, the museum goes without. It doesn’t matter a hill of beans what the professionals say. To make matters worse, if there are resources for one museum and they get split among three, all three go down. There are resources for one, but none survive.

Many in the museum sciences field recognized all this a decade or more ago, and began to focus on the things that they had in their control that met the needs (or at least perceived needs) of the people whom they, in turn, needed. They also worked hard to educate the people with resources about why the museums should be among the best places to allocate those resources. They did not “sell out” or compromise their integrity. On the contrary, by recognizing that they were not the sole, or even necessarily most important, of the stakeholders, they were acting with integrity. As such, they emphasized the aspects of their craft and institutions that were most valuable to their specific users. They acknowledged that they were not in the position to make all the decisions about what was valuable and what was not entirely on their own. Many took the step of recognizing that they couldn’t save everything, not all the artifacts, not all the homes, and not all the ways they had always done things, at least not if they expected to survive for any length of time. They also recognized that they were not really in competition with each other in the contest over users and visitors, but rather with less reliable sources of information.

So what about archivists? Surely there is no connection to us in this tale. See, archivists know that their collections, at least the true records and many of the manuscript collections, are unique. We are the only ones who have them and if others want them, they must come to us and do things our way. We know they have value. How? Well, because we are professionals and know such things!

Of course, the old house where the first town mayor lived is unique in that respect, as is the house that was built by some militia colonel on the site of some early battle his troops won. The people who made the decision to preserve it as a museum were professionals, or at least consulted professionals. They knew it had value. If only others could have been made to see the value to the extent necessary to make them visit and support the good works done there. But, fools that they were, people chose to find other things of greater “importance” to do with their time and money. When they did choose to spend their time and treasure with museums, they picked ones that showed that they respected the values of their visitors or the ones who persuaded their visitors to adopt the museum’s concepts of what was valuable.

But that can never happen to us. No one would ever fail to interpret our value as institutions, or that of our records, the way we do. There is no competition with new means of producing, recording, storing,using or communicating information that will ever threaten us. We are not house museums that need to adapt or persuade others of our value. That wasn’t a parable, it was a horror story. Right?

Right. Only a heretic would suggest otherwise.

The Heretic

If you are wondering:

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

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