Librarian heroes. This is a trope I would like to see developed.

14 Oct

There are a lot of things I like about this video. Watch it, share it, promote it:

Give the people what they want – EAC and whether we should care

10 Aug

‘Tis the season. The Society of American Archivists’ conference has come to DC, and yesterday dozens (dozens!) of us descended onto the National Archives and Records Administration for a pre-conference meeting about EAC-CPF. By the way, I left my gold and red metal water bottle in the auditorium — I would love a heads-up if anyone found it.

Unsurprisingly, the proceedings provided the basis for a lot of twitter chatter, and one of my favorite digital historians chimed in to ask for context:

Asking why this all matters is really, really smart. And, with respect to the TOTALLY RAD presenters at the workshop on Monday, I think that this step of standing back and explaining why this is important in the first place is the part that might have been missing. So, I’ll do my best to explain why this might be important to different audiences/practitioners, how implementations may change researchers’ experiences, and how I think this fits into the varieties of archival practice that the profession encounters. BTW, this post is a much better run-down of what was discussed than I’ll be providing.

Standard disclaimers apply.

  1. I am a Johnny-come-lately to EAC. I’ve poked around, read the announcement, and briefly entertained the idea of coding some records. I came to the workshop to listen and talk and think about why this is important and how it might be used.
  2. I am a pragmatist about this sort of thing, and I believe in using the proper tool for the job, but I also think that we’re all going to want compelling reasons if the adoption of a new standard requires extra time, labor, or thought. I think that those of us who want to change archival practice and want wide-spread participation in these practices owe the profession a really good elevator speech, a killer manual and friendly answers when asked “naive” questions.
  3. I am not a data nerd. Strong opinions aside, I may not be explaining this with the elegance and precision that others may offer.

Wait, Mo. Wait. What exactly are we talking about here? Um, here’s some official language, written in nerd:

Encoded Archival Context – Corporate bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) primarily addresses the description of individuals, families and corporate bodies that create, preserve, use and are responsible for and/or associated with records in a variety of ways… [C]urrently [EAC's] primary purpose is to standardize the encoding of descriptions about agents to enable the sharing, discovery and display of this information in an electronic environment. It supports the linking of information about one agent to other agents to show/discover the relationships amongst record-creating entities, and the linking to descriptions of records and other contextual entities.

Let’s see if I can provide a gloss. When archivists describe records in our collections, we write about the records, but we also understand that the records don’t speak for themselves. We also have to contextualize how they came to us, who might be found in the records, and what the historical circumstances were around the records’ creation. So, bundled together in a finding aid, we have description (marked-up in EAD) with a bit of context in the middle there. Strictly speaking, I’ve heard the argument that description is description (what a researcher can find in the archives) and context is context (this is information that isn’t necessarily discovered within the records, but is about the records’ circumstances), and that we shouldn’t be mixing context and description. I’ll come back to this point (preview: I find it weak).

There’s a pretty good tradition among our cousins in libraries and museums for giving special attention to people. The Library of Congress maintains the NACO authority file, which is a big, fat list of people who have created published works (or something – the “why” bit on the NACO website makes me want to stab). Basically, it’s a way for us to all know if we’re going to talk about Samuel Clemens, or if we’re going to talk about Mark Twain. We certainly don’t want to do half and half, and have a researcher only encounter half of the available works when she wants to find everything written by that person. So it makes good sense to keep a list, to decide which form is preferred and also to get a sense of what other names we might encounter, and to know that someone has done a bit of research about when this person was born and when he died. There’s something similar for museums that the Getty maintains — ULAN, which is the union list of artists’ names. This is the same idea, and requires a lot of research, because those artist mofos can be cagey.

And a lot of us use NACO (and/or ULAN), but NACO doesn’t have everyone and it’s frankly not worth our time to contribute to the authority file, and we might want to say more about the person than their name and dates.

So, EAC-CPF is a way for us to take information about people in our records, tell machines that these are indeed people that we’re talking about (as opposed to places or folder titles or whatever else is in a collections guide), and when we have a bunch of these records, get a sense of the larger universe of which people are out there in the archives. Using search technologies, we have the data we need to ask better questions and get better results.

The cool thing about structured data is that it lets us compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges, and see right away when we have ended up with an orange apple. Basically, in the case of EAC, you might see a situation where I have the Walt Whitman papers, you have the Walt Whitman papers, and some podunk archives that no one ever heard of ALSO has a long-lost Walt Whitman letter. Podunk archive didn’t know this was a big deal, in fact, it was in a collection that didn’t have much to do with Whitman at all, the other archives didn’t know that Walt Whitman was in this collection or this archives, and it’s really only a researcher who would have thought to make a big deal of this.

The situation I just described happens when all of these EAC records sit in one place, and can be searched or browsed in the context of one another — but (and I think that this is a huge reason why EAD wasn’t adopted as widely as it might have been), the situation is trickier if you don’t have one home where all of these records sit, so that you can compare them to each other and sort through them. There’s a lot of inside baseball in the archival world about who should be hosting such a home (may I point out that the Europeans and Australians don’t seem to have a problem figuring this out?), and that’s where the imperative to be able to have these records work with each other in a de-centralized way comes in.

So a lot of the discussion at the workshop was of really cool projects where EAC records were brought together (btw, EAC records are being made en masse from NACO files and bits and bobs of EADs) to do exactly this — to make it possible to look at the Walt Whitman EAC entry, see all of the institutions that have Walt Whitman records, and compare how they’ve written his biographical notes.

Small side note here — no one at the workshop mentioned issues of intellectual property. I predict that amalgamation may reveal a few notable instances of processing archivists “borrowing” copyrighted material. It’s also been suggested that EAC records may be useful for re-purposing — for “dropping” someone else’s EAC record into a new finding aid. I wonder if the community will be willing to give away their intellectual labor.

In any case, we end up with a lot of duplicate legacy data (and situations in the future where it may be perfectly appropriate to add overlapping new data). And here I’d like to go back to the problem of description/context. Let’s remember how history is actually made — we go to our records, learn about people who lived, sift through variously reliable and unreliable accounts, and synthesize this data into history. I know that the biog/hist (contextual) notes that I write when I write my finding aids are influenced by the records that I just processed — they have to be, because if these records didn’t give insight into the people I’m describing, they wouldn’t be worth having. And even if my contextual notes are entirely divorced from these records, they’re based on some other historical trace that was synthesized by someone else, written in a secondary source, or popularly known. In this way, everything is description, and I don’t think that it makes sense to pretend that description and context are pure and separate.

So, back to Shane’s question of why this would matter to a historian. Well, it’s possible that EAC may give us the structure to present history to you differently. After all, for the most part, historians don’t write about records, they write about people. I can imagine that as a historian, I would much rather discover archival sources from a main entry about a person than from a record group. And I would also say that historians can help contribute to this conversation about how we can most transparently represent the people in our collections and the traces they’ve left behind.

the ducks

29 Jul

Back in library school, Maureen and I talked about the patriarchy, the archives, and programming languages all the time. “Start writing again” has been on my to-do list since forever, and today Maureen implored me to write about my famed ducks, and that was precisely the jump-start I needed. She graciously let me cross-post my snarky writings on her blog.

Last September, I came into possession of some ceramic ducks. This was generally received as a good thing, because who doesn’t like ceramic ducks? They’re arguably less grotesque than lawn gnomes, plus: ducks! I even tweeted about it, like, “Ceramic ducks are guarding the house. I feel safer already.” I have to say that I have changed my mind about that: I am uneasy that these ducks are in front of my house.

So here they are.

You know, at first glance, they look harmless. That duck on the right almost looks like it’s giving you the hey-yeah-we’re-cool eyebrow raise. You know, when you also tilt your head back and lift your chin, like you’re channeling the Fonz or something. Almost.

Okay, imagine you’re me, happily going about your life, with the ducks guarding the house, and one day, your neighbor comes up and says, “Hey, I guess that duck,” (for the record, your neighbor was talking to the duck you thought was kind of channeling the Fonz) “is the girl duck.” And then you’re like, “Oh. my. god. You’re right.” See, formerly-Fonz has eyelashes painted on, while the other duck does not. And the thing is, I sort of implicitly know that this type of embellishment signals “female” while no embellishment “defaults” to male [1][2].


(Note the “girly” eyelashes.)

So now I’m suddenly fascinated by the relationship between these ducks. Look at the “boy” duck. He’s standing tall, with his chest out, facing directly forward.

And the “girl” duck has this wickedly slouched posture, it doesn’t look “cool” anymore. It sort of looks painful. Like, ow.

Also, look at the height difference between these two, and they’re about the same size, so this height difference is nearly completely accounted for by their respective postures. The “boy” duck looks in control, assertive. The “girl” duck doesn’t look cool anymore; she looks meek, shy, demure. I showed the ducks to my mom, and she noticed that the “boy” duck has his mouth (beak?) open while the “girl” duck doesn’t: “It’s like, the boy duck has a voice, while the girl duck has to stay quiet.” It’s a big deal, too. I mean, we’ve internalized gender norms so much that they’re even playing out in ceramic duck figurines. And it was subtle: it stayed under my radar until my neighbor commented on it, but now it’s all I see when I look at those ducks. Gender norms! In my own front yard! Performed by cute ceramic ducks! Is nowhere safe?

Okay, now for the fun part. I figure, if I am going to have gender norm ducks in front of my house, I might as well make fun of them. These ducks will now have signage. Snarky signage. I enthusiastically welcome ideas for captions. Here are some of my thoughts (with thanks to Maureen):


Please do not feed the heteronormative ducks.
Ducks are queerer than they appear.
Dr. and Mr. Quackles.

My neighbors will love this, right!

[1] Marked Women, Unmarked Men
[2] Stick Figures And Stick Figures Who Parent

Why I also don’t post to Archives & Archivists

28 Jul

In honor of Ben Bromley’s post, I thought that I would keep the ball rolling about why I don’t find A&A useful, and also talk about professional development resources that I do find useful and how I think the A&A could be improved.

I will make a caveat that I’m something of a crankypants about fluffiness entering my worklife. This is partly because I’m extremely busy — I’m near the beginning of my career, trying to learn a lot, and responsible for a large project — and partly because I think it’s important to separate my work life and my personal life. If I’m going to read jokes on the internet, I’m going to do that after hours. Same for looking at images of flowers. Same for thinking about picnic menus. I’m friendly, I’m cordial, and I’m personable at work, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to send my colleagues those kinds of emails. And frankly, I think that we would all be better off if we thought of members of the list as future colleagues or supervisors. It’s unprofessional to interrupt my inbox with dumb crap in a professional forum.

I also like to separate my work and personal life because I consider it in my best interest as a woman. There are two very good books about this that I would recommend,* and they both come to the same point that women are expected to do more “care” work in the workplace — they have to be feminine, nurturing, and sweet-voiced, they’re expected to un-ruffle feathers and tend to do more bullshit administrative work, but are held to a higher standard of competence.** So I don’t really talk about my personal life, I don’t send dumb jokes, I’m not on the party-planning committee and I don’t bring baked goods to work. I don’t offer to take minutes at meetings, unless we’ve already set up a system and it’s my turn. I don’t take work home. I do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and then I leave.

Anyway, here’s why I don’t post to the A&A:

  1. I’ve never gotten a helpful response. Okay, that’s not true. At my previous job I offered to give away some sound recordings, and someone accepted them. That was cool. But usually the discussion isn’t terribly practical, and high-volume posters are more likely to pontificate or willfully misinterpret a position than offer advice based on experience or technical know-how. Do not get me started on the fact that offering a Google search is not a helpful contribution. I’m not going to argue that every archivist needs a graduate degree, but I will argue that every archivist needs to be able to perform a skilled search.
  2. Many archivists who might be able to offer advice don’t hang out there, or are dissuaded from offering responses because they don’t want to deal with others on the list. This is an extension of my previous point, but I don’t think that I will go to the list for help anymore, because I don’t think that the majority of highly-innovative archivists hang out there. For instance, my project is using the MIX standard for technical metadata for digital images. LC has samples of MIX 1.0 files, but not MIX 2.0, and I wanted to work from an example. So, I asked the list if anyone could send me a sample of a MIX 2.0 document. Crickets. Is this because archivists aren’t using MIX 2.0? No. Is it because archivists don’t like to share? Certainly not. It’s probably because archivists who could help me just don’t hang out there.
    I don’t learn about exciting new archival projects from the A&A — I just don’t. It isn’t my source, and it wouldn’t be a very good source. The people who are conducting them don’t post there. Plus, there’s a weird strain of professional conservatism that feels the need to challenge innovations in practice in histrionic tones. Look, dudes, there’s enough un-processed, un-researched, possibly not very important crap out there that we should encourage each other to figure out new ways of getting through it. I would almost say that there’s a strain of “BUT WHO WILL THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” [replace children with precious, precious old crap] to some of these discussions. There’s a class (dare I say generation?) of archivists who understand protecting the longevity of individual objects, but don’t do much for the sustainability and accessibility of repositories.
  3. Some of the content makes me cringe. The spam email took up the bulk of discussion for like… three days.

Let me just say, though, that there should be a place for good-hearted, thoughtful musing (for the record, I get a kick of of Maarja’s posts and I like how much she’s thought through her responses). But damn it, I also want a listserv that’s helpful, interesting, professionally relevant and not quite so pedestrian. Does it bother anyone else that with American institutions’ wealth and brainpower, the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders are (on the whole) kicking our butts when it comes to innovations in archival practice?

So, how could the listserv be improved? Here’s my modest proposal for a list of rules and attitudes we could all adopt:

  1. If you wouldn’t send it to the director of your institution, don’t send it to this list.
  2. If your argument doesn’t offer new facts, isn’t immediately helpful, or is plain cantankerous, don’t send it to the list.
  3. Check the list archives before posting a question. It may have been already answered.
  4. If you have past or immediate experience with a problem someone is posing, help a sister out. Do send it to the list, and if you can, tell us about your process. What other solutions did you consider? Why did you go with this one? How easy was it to implement? What would you do differently if you were to try again? The list at its best could be a repository of  tried-and-true practices.
  5. Don’t be too cool for the list. If you’re doing something interesting, tell the list about it. Tell us why you’re doing it, how you’re getting around budget restrictions, and how you think it might be applicable to other institutions.
  6. Try to remember that you’re a professional. The profession has some pretty serious problems to face (dwindling funds, new formats, a society that’s only producing more records, forces that try to restrict sensitive records). The listserv too often doesn’t represent this seriousness of purpose.

I don’t think that anything is going to change, other than hoping that the profession becomes  more… professional… over time. And I do have out outlets for what I’m looking for from the professional listserv — blogs, twitter, conferences, geeking out with archivist friends (okay, this is an area where I permit my professional life to enter my personal life). But can we all agree that the A&A is kind of embarrassing, and all do a bit more to make it better?


*  Wajcman, Judy. Managing like a man : women and men in corporate management. University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998 and McDowell, Linda. Capital culture : gender at work in the city. Oxford UK ;;Malden Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1997. These are both very good sociological resources that combine data and theory to make a compelling point that life in the workplace is different for women, and that they tend to be at a disadvantage.

** I’m not interested in talking about this in comments with anyone who doesn’t have a grounding in feminist theory. It’s my house. That’s all.

NARA snooze and EXTREME EPISTEMOLOGY

7 Jul

The National Archives is redesigning its website. Like most government website redesigns, anything will be better than what they have now. Anything.

If you don’t think I’m serious about how bad their site is, just look at this flow chart about ARC, their catalog, published one click into their site:

This is what a useless flow chart looks like.

I could go into detail about why it’s useless, but let’s just say that if you’re not an archivist this means NOTHING to you and if you are an archivist, you wonder what’s so complicated about the idea of file hierarchies that a flow chart is required. This is a pretty good representation of the rest of the site — a lot of useless information at the wrong level of granularity, confusing, busy, all getting in the way of the core tasks that visitors to the site might want to perform.

So, they’re dong a website redesign. But they can’t seem to shake their acute case of the BORINGS.

Yaaaaawwwnnn.

If you click through, you’ll see that they desperately need a copy editor. “Veteran’s service records” vs “Teachers’ resources”? Spot the mistakes in “9 billion permanently valuable records.” Ugh.

English-language problems aside, the site makes me think that doing research at NARA is going to be a bloodless, anesthetized affair, where I’ll be hassled to fill out six zillion forms all duplicating the same information and then sit in a freezing reading room where I look through almost-useless catalogs and finding aids, on one hand hoping that they have what I need and on the other hand secretly delighted that if nothing turns up, I can leave this god-forsaken place.

As my colleague Jordon Steele reminded me this morning, none of us got involved in archives because we wanted to be bored… right?

About a year ago, a friend asked me to speak at career day at the high school where she was teaching in Fishtown (that’s a neighborhood in Philadelphia). It was a good time in my career as an archivist — I wasn’t yet at my “all of my efforts are for naught because the institution doesn’t actually care about research or researchers, they just want to complain and do their work poorly” phase. Indeed, I was still in my “with enough smiles and patient explaining, surely we can at least put some shit up on the internet!” phase. Anyway, it was a nice time in my Philadelphia career. It was a time that reminded me why I wanted to be an archivist.

Basically, I wanted to be an archivist because I love the philosophy of history. This comes from my natural disposition toward being a big, staring-over-my-glasses, brutally honest, hater. I have no use for nostalgia, living history museums make me ill, and as far as I’m concerned, big books about founding fathers are most useful for throwing through the windows of living history museums. I love some good queer history, some subaltern studies, class analysis… and I love it because I don’t think of history as an avocation.

History, to me, is a mode of analysis so that we can understand and perhaps gain leverage on our situation. History helps us understand that there’s nothing natural about the way societies and economies and (DARE I SAY?) families operate, that these systems are the products of centuries of habits and traditions, and that there were times in the past where great ruptures occurred. I find this tremendously liberating because it means that it doesn’t always have to be like this, it won’t always be like this, and my situation isn’t what it is because of my inherent worth or any other form of fundamental justice other than that which we enforce.

And who, I asked myself, would find this more compelling than under-served urban teenagers? After all, when we’re teenagers, so many of us assume that the world HAS to be this way (and our parents are responsible for making it so!). High schoolers often have no conception of the scope of the world, either geographically or chronologically, and I wanted to give them the same sort of brain melt that I first encountered (if they haven’t already had it) when I started asking questions about the veracity of historical sources and other questions of authority.

Really, I had three messages I wanted to convey:

  1. There world has more to offer you than you know exists in it.
  2. How do you know what you know? Who’s your authority, and does this source deserve your trust?
  3. The people who make judgments about what happened in the past are people, just like you, and hopefully they took the time to make careful considerations. You could do this too.

So, I brought some effin’ cool images from the archives about archaeologists, anthropologists, ancient civilizations and living peoples from around the world.

This is one of my favorite images, because it shows the lengths that museums go to in order to move objects from their indigenous context to elsewhere. Sometimes we all forget that monuments weren't born in museums. Workers moving Altar 1, Piedras Negras, Guatemala, 1931. Photograph by Linton Satterthwaite. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum, image #15658.

These images, I hoped, would speak to goal 1 — exposing us all to the breath and depth of opportunities in the world, and showing us all something new. Broadening horizons, I guess.

Then I talked about how as an archivist, I keep track of these images and their associated records so that we can all read them carefully and understand more about the past. I talked about how in archaeology, once we dig up a site, all that’s left is the record of that site — we couldn’t visit it again if we wanted to. This is why we need records so that we can read or imagine the past. I talked about how things change, and while we leave traces of these changes, the past can never be wholly reconstructed.

The question then becomes a question of interpretation. Why are we trying to figure out the past in the first place? Is this to make some claim on the past? To right wrongs previously committed? And how are we consuming the past?

I asked the students how they learn history — from their teacher, they say.

Okay, how does the teacher know? From the textbook.

And, well, how does the textbook know? Was the author around in 1944 to know for sure that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? Or in 1066 to see the Battle of Hastings?

No.

Well, then how does he know?

He knows, we discussed, because of primary sources like letters and newspapers and diaries and also from oral tradition (sort of like how you know because your teacher told you).

But, I asked, can’t newspapers and letters and dairies lie?

Whoa. These kids, who were honestly not giving me much indication that they were interested up until this point, had their minds blown at this moment. One of them kind of freaked out.

“But if they can lie, how do we know ANYTHING?”

“Well, let’s say something happens at school and you weren’t there. How do you find out what happened? You talk to some people. If you have someone who you always, always trust, you might just ask that person. But maybe the first person you ask is the kind of person who likes to start rumors, or who isn’t always honest. You might start by asking that person, but you would probably talk to more people too. Historians do the same thing. They evaluate their sources — they try to figure out if the person writing down the story has any reason to be dishonest, and when they can, they check the story against other peoples’ stories, people who might have been there.”

So there were goals 2 and 3 — understanding that history is a human, not natural process, that human beings have to interpret this information, and that these students, with some deliberation, have every bit as much of a right to interpret sources as anyone else.

And what does this all have to do with NARA and their boring, boring, BORING existence?

Well, let’s just say this. I’m really tired of whiny archives and archivists complaining about fighting to stay relevant. History IS relevant. It just is. It’s the production, dissemination and access to history that we’ve clouded in mystery and technology and worked hard to make “specialized” or “professional” or otherwise IRRELEVANT to the people who might draw power from it. So, NARA, if you really want to redesign your website, make it clear how much your holdings are going to blow my mind. Tell me how you’re going to give me the story behind the story, how NOT BORING history inherently is (particularly the history of the actions of the US government, hoo-boy), and stop building barriers with flowcharts and jargon and archival bullshit.

K, THNX.

You’re worth it, baby

8 Mar

Happy International Women’s Day!

Thanks a million to Dee Dee for her awesome new comic about sexism in our feminized profession:

Thanks to Dee Dee for being awesome... and for letting me re-post this.

Holy moley, there’s so much happening here that I love. I especially love the bit about how library school tells us that it’s perfectly fine to give away our specialized labor for free. I went to an “i-School” for information science, and you can bet your boots that our career counselors were telling the human-computer interaction people to hold out for a paying internship with Microsoft (or Amazon.com, or whatever) while we library-and-archives students were encouraged to not be too pushy, and to embrace our 20-hour per week unpaid internship at the Podunk Historical Society without asking for a stipend, or travel expenses, or at least setting expectations for mentoring. It’s no wonder that archival administrators have notoriously been unsuccessful convincing their parent institutions that we need more staff, more supplies, and professional development funds.

So, in Dee’s spirit of real-life sexism in the profession, here’s one of my many stories of sexism at my workplace.

I work in an archives that’s part of a larger unit at an EXTREMELY WEALTHY East Coast university. (You will often see ivy on the walls. HINT. Oh, and their tagline should be “architects of the current financial crisis.” HINT HINT.) In any case, my partner also works here. He started six months after I did, when the university was REALLY tightening its belt. While I was expected to negotiate salary with my supervisor (I was told that there was absolutely no room for salary negotiation, nor for relocation expenses, formalized professional development budget, etc.), the chief of staff of this institution called my partner and asked if he would like to negotiate. My partner was flown out for an interview, mine was over the phone because there were no funds. My partner had a search committee, I had a rambling supervisor conducting a very short interview  who gossiped about the current and previous administrators of the institution and never asked any questions about my knowledge or skills.

My partner is a database administrator, I am an archivist. I have specialized knowledge and a master’s degree from an excellent archives program; he was fresh out of college. I went to a prestigious undergraduate college and graduated with honors — he went to a mid-tier state school and scraped through. He did not major in his professional field. He’s very bright and very good at his job, but isn’t terribly impressive on paper. I have interned at the Library of Congress; I have grantwriting experience; I’ve worked with some of the leading archivists in the field…

Punchline: My partner makes more money than I do.

My very nice red-haired Eagle Scout partner (WHOM I LOVE. My problem is not with him) makes more money than I do with less education, much less experience, and far less specialized skill. Our work is very, very similar. We both work with data standards, we process huge quantities of information, we help set policy at our institution. I have more supervisory responsibilities than he does, much less support than he does, and work with materials that are (sorry, man) much more important and irreplaceable than his are. At the risk of being tedious, I have to state again that I have the terminal degree in my profession. I am competent, professional, and I work very hard to bring our practices into the twenty-first century.

I can’t think of anything to explain this imbalance other than the feminization of the profession and the “women don’t ask” phenomenon of institutions not anticipating that women would expect that same professional structures that men do. Let’s just say that this attitude has reared its ugly head during my tenure here time and again.

So, young archivists and librarians, I know that it’s a tough labor market, but take it from me, if they don’t treat you as a specialized professional during your interview, they certainly won’t improve upon acquaintance.

“We are the They” – training beyond the credential

26 May

Another example of how annoying the SAA listserv is…

So, someone writes in asking, more or less, how to be an archivist — she asks in terms of where she should go to school. And since everyone on this list has, assumedly, gone through some sort of process to become an archivist, everyone declares himself entitled to an opinion.

And then the career gripes start. I have a degree! I can’t get a job! I have no degree! I can’t get a job! The prevailing question in this thread seems to be “what sort of credential do I need in order to convince someone to hire me?” rather than “what’s the best way for me to prepare myself to be an archivist?”

I don’t know, man, but I’ve never been into the idea of a degree as a credential. Like, what’s the point? It should be, and has to be, so much more. You’re immersed in a community of faculty and researchers that have proven themselves to be among the best thinkers in the field! Make something of that! A really cool thing about going to a graduate school that has PhD students in archives is that I was exposed to so much research and new thinking — there are people there who are solely devoted to imagining how the profession can be better and different. If it were up to the practitioners, this could never happen. We’re all too broke — all research and innovation would be left to government agencies and big corporations — fine, but do we really want to be at their mercy? Wouldn’t it be better if we were all trained to anticipate challenges rather than to simply perfect current practices?

This leads me to my current koan — “we are the they.” Instead of complaining that “they” haven’t developed good digital infrastructure for archivists, let’s remember that we’re just as smart and capable of thinking about digital stewardship as anyone else. Let’s try to think of a better solution. Let’s join a consortium. Let’s at least review the current archival literature before we assume that nothing has been done. My favorite thing about the PACSCL conference last fall was an unspoken but strong admonition to quit whining already and come up with creative solutions.  For my money, the best way to learn to do this is in a creative, risk-free, sandbox environment — graduate school.

Being an archivist is just getting harder. We’re dealing with new preservation challenges, new formats, and possibly new ways of approaching the records that we already have. Graduate school is more than a place to learn how to be an archivist -– it’s also a place to think about archives differently, in a setting where no one yet cares about how many linear feet you’re getting through. It’s a place to talk about critical appraisal theory (the central site, I believe, of enduring issues of archival ethics) -– few entry-level archivists get to do any appraisal work at all. I also liked that I got to hang out with librarians and people doing human-computer interaction and people working on information policy, etc. I’m not saying that you can’t develop these ways of thinking without graduate school, but it’s a pretty efficient avenue.

On the other hand, there are MANY weaknesses in the current model of graduate-level archival education. One could have finished the program I was in without ever having read or written a finding aid. Faculty mentoring isn’t the same thing as an internship/apprenticeship model, and the flipside of having a bunch of computing kids in the program (I went to an i-school) is that there are plenty of non-archives faculty who just don’t get archival practice. The push toward interdisciplinarity doesn’t extend to historical practice – colleagues of mine from graduate school have mused that they don’t really understand the nuts and bolts of the kinds of questions that historians are trying to answer.

If one learns best by the apprenticeship model, maybe it makes more sense to devote the resources (debt, time) of graduate school to some unpaid internships. What I appreciate about the SAA reports, and what I would love to see more of, is a list of things that archivists need to know and the best ways of learning them.

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