Archive | May, 2009

“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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