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.

One of the easiest ways I have discovered to get people at either church or in the archives profession to leave a room is to mention theories of someone from the business field with respect. Forgetting, ignoring, or denying that business requires the study of people, their desires and their needs, and successful business requires finding ways to fulfill those desires and needs, most of the people I know in the church and archives (we’ll leave allied professions out for the moment) feel themselves above anything having to do with business. Want to see them really go nuts? Make the business subject marketing! (This is not the same thing as sales, by the way.)

I find this situation a bit sad, as the goal of good business is to connect a person or persons with what they need or desire, while the goal of a church or someone who seeks to provide records for a researcher is…. Well, I guess you get the picture. Profit, of course, is the motivation for this activity in business while there are a number of motivations in the other areas, but the actual goal is the same. So if a business is successful and a religion or profession is beginning or continuing to loose relevance among people, would it not be sensible to at least look at the methods of the business? Alas, that has been one of my heresies. Yet, I repent not.

Peter Drucker is one of my favorites. He was thought a kook at one point, but eventually became a sort of guru of management, winning many awards. He is often called the father of modern management. A prolific author, and I an avid reader, there is a place where our interests naturally cross and I have read quite a bit of his material. Although my explanation of who he is sends many of my colleagues across the room at a rabbit’s pace, he actually spent many of his business years in non-profits and much of his theory is targeted at managing one’s life, not just one’s business. He has been quoted often in my small essays and will likely appear here more and more. So if the thought of business mixed with archival management (Hey! Drucker is a “management” guru and “management” is part of what we archivists do! Maybe I’m on to something here!) turns you off, but you haven’t yet stopped reading, you may wish to. Or, as always, the comment section is available for rebuttal.

The Heretic

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

The old tradition exists to the effect that, in olden days, when a monarch received bad news via messenger, he would have the bearer of the news executed. We have a saying today that one should not kill the messenger, meaning don’t criticize the bearer of bad news because one doesn’t care for that news, particularly if it is true. (In the public debate this often comes in the form of ad hominem attacks on the messenger so that others will not believe the unwanted or ill-timed news.)

People who know me or have read this blog know that a constant theme of conversation or debate in my world is that “technology” seems to have become an entity that is under attack by those with whom I associate. But it usually isn’t the technology itself that is under attack, but what it represents or what it is helping to bring about. Most people I know who don’t understand certain technologies ignore them, at least until they find the majority of the people around them using the technology and speaking its language, at which point they feel a bit lost, a bit old, a bit out of touch, and go about their business. The ones who attack it fear the loss of control or coming change. At best, (from an ethical point of view,) they feel that they will no longer have the desired control over their own world, at worst, they fear that they will no longer be able to control others. Either way, technology is just the messenger that brings the change, while freedom of information and the ability of others to control things they have not been able to in the past is the cause.

I recently was at a lecture session for librarians where the lecturer made clear her belief that the way libraries are structured and how they will be used in the future will be radically different than the way most in the room wished. She recommended that librarians just accept this fact, that because of advances in technology, “that train had left the station” and folks should make the most of it. She stopped short of suggesting that they embrace it, or look at the changes as having positive aspects, something I found odd as this was actually a stress management session and one would think that, although there are often things that are stressful that we can do little better than accept, many of the advances in technology are not among them. These advances bring about change, yes, but as I have argued elsewhere, the change often precedes rather than follows the advances. They are the messengers of change, in some cases, rather than the causes.

These were librarians, generally a more accepting lot when it comes to technology, (a pretty wide term that allows the user to cast many things in the mold of a demon since the criteria for inclusion in this category varies from person to person,) yet there was a lot of grumbling about how our world, meaning professional world, was at risk because of that technology. And besides, there was so much false information out there! We were the ones who must filter it!

Of course, this was nothing like the attitude of the archivists I know. We archivists are not even that open to the change. We have finally begun to recognize, in some formal settings anyway, that the world of “Web 2.0,” including collaborative and social communication through electronic media, provides opportunities for outreach, and in some cases we acknowledge that there is a change in the way we will have to do “business” (if I may be excused for using such a commercial term,) but rarely do I find archives folks who recognize the changes for what they are, not to mention embrace them. They fear the evil “technology” and I have actually heard a member of the profession wish out loud that we could find a way to “drive a stake through its heart!” Technology is bringing about change, change that threatens us, or at least as profession as we practice it. In reality it isn’t the technology itself, but the way people behave because of it. Still, technology is the messenger. Kill it!

The problem here is that we misunderstand the relationship between human beings and technology. Technology, whether it is simple machines from ancient times, such as a wedge or lever, or modern microcircuits, is designed by humans to meet human needs. While it is true that modern technology is very complex and designed by people with specialized skills, they still do so to meet what they perceive as the needs of individuals or society. The fact that the technology, once it is accepted by a large enough or powerful enough cadre, then tends to become the only practical way to accomplish a task and therefore draws more people to it, makes it appear that the technology is ruling the human beings. In the archives world, where we work a lot with very low tech (by today’s standards) items such as handwritten records in old bound volumes, the encroaching desire for the use of more advanced technology is something that is being thrust upon us and technology is often viewed as the enemy.

In reality, particularly in the “2.0” world that so rapidly came upon us, much of the technology is being designed specifically in response to the real (not just perceived) needs and desires of, or even by, the end users, in response to demand made amply apparent in a variety of ways. They, rather than just a small group of inventive folk, are the ones in charge. More than ever in the digital age, a tech savvy user base is calling the shots. Technology is evolving to meet their needs. Technology is the messenger of the change in the way people think and the the priorities they choose. The process begins with them.

There have been many examples in history of change in communication styles and technologies being criticized as dangerous to things near and dear to the hearts of mankind. The telegraph was thought by many to be a detriment to the world as the landscape was strewn with poles and wires for a dubious purpose. There was a strong belief that the telephone would destroy the practice of writing letters, though it did not. (Of course, e-mail has all but done that, if you do not call e-mail letters.) Yet the new uses of the Internet seem to more closely resemble the advent of the vernacular Bible, the printing press, and the broadside. These media and content were attacked because they were seen as threats. The reality is that they were not the threats, but the ideas they conveyed were the threats. The Bible in one’s own language allowed the individual reader to read and discuss, unfiltered through the priests, the scriptures. The reader was then free to think, to question and express his opinions. The printing press and the broadside made it possible to rapidly disseminate opinions and thoughts. These media were roundly condemned by the powers of the day, religious and secular. What these powers feared was the loss of control that came when men had decided they wanted their own control of information, a desire that led to the technology in the first place. (If the inventors had not seen a need, they would not have invented. In those days there were not the resources for such work just for the fun of it.) What the powers blamed was the technology itself. They attacked the messenger.

In today’s world various media, politicians, practitioners of arts, and those who are used to controlling and disseminating information, (teachers, librarians, historians, writers, musicians, journalists, political commentators, archivists, etc.) rail against the excessive access to information through new technologies. There is too much “wrong” information. Any one can put anything they want out there! No one controls the context. Think of all we will loose if we change the way we do things!

Of course, as the lady said the other day, that train has left the station. The fact is, people have already demanded and received more access to unfiltered information than they had before, and likewise have demanded and received the ability to express their own opinions as they see fit. We can argue all we want about whether they have good information, use it in a beneficial (to whom?) manner, or whether we will loose something because things have changed. The truth, I believe, is that the change first occurred in the thoughts and hearts of the people. Although facilitated by technology, it was not caused by technology. Much of the technology was inspired by the change, and its subsequent use inspired further change. Technology is the vehicle, the messenger. It is useless to rail against the messenger, just as, in the bygone days, killing the messenger didn’t change the bad news.

“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.