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.

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10 Responses to “Why I also don’t post to Archives & Archivists”

  1. save4use July 29, 2010 at 9:13 am #

    I agree wholeheartedly with all of your observations about A&A. Regarding your comment, “But can we all agree that the A&A is kind of embarrassing, and all do a bit more to make it better?” I think that A&A is not only embarrassing, at its worst it’s damaging to the profession and to individual practice. However, after five years of subscription and several incarnations of the “how can we improve participation on the listserv” discussion, I honestly believe A&A is beyond rehabilitation. I see the potential of a professional list that operates the way you describe above, but too many people have too much invested emotionally or psychologically in the status quo on A&A for it to change.

    So let’s start a new list. I am serious about this. Let A&A continue to serve the function it serves for those who refuse to allow it to change, and let’s start a new list that will be, well, professional. A list where people can post questions and engage in discussions that are more generic to the field than those that happen on other useful lists like the EAD listserv or the AT Users’ Group listserv, but where OT stuff is just not touched.

    I was on a privately-run listserv for serious audiophiles a few years ago, and they had tackled the OT problem by having two lists, one that was the “real” listserv, and one for their equivalent of the virtual picnic and Friday Flowers. It worked well, and the list admin was not afraid to jump in and say, “Time for this discussion to move to the Backroom (their OT list)”.

    So let A&A be the OT list, and let’s reclaim the ability to have a valuable, engaging, professional archivists listserv by starting that list anew. Anyone else think this is a good idea?

    • Alison Miner July 29, 2010 at 10:40 am #

      i think this is a very good idea. it is obvious that the A&A list is a very important social space for the people who like the friday flowers. and it will not be easy or friendly to try to silence them. but starting another listserv, one that is without nixon updates and google searches, will serve our purpose.
      I’d imagine the SAA would include a link to another listserv once it had proved itself to be a professional resource after a few months…but maybe i’m ignoring political factors, here.
      can we get the tweets tagged ‘archives’ to autopost? or would that add more drek than we’d like?

      • hsdeakyne August 24, 2010 at 11:54 am #

        i’m not sure i’ve ever spent the time to figure out exactly what “friday flowers” is…

        anyway, would anyone like to share the other professional development resources that you do find useful? i would love to hear about some other sources. thanks.

    • Maureen Callahan July 29, 2010 at 10:55 am #

      I like it. As discussed on twitter, the question is less “should we do this and would it be helpful?” and more “who’s going to be responsible for the [admittedly low] overhead of maintaining a professional list or even MODERATING it?”

      I would propose two lists. The first would be for new professionals, who might want to ask “naive” questions without worrying that their bosses are reading. And the second would be for archivists who are interested in new practices. I think that for everything else, A&A actually does okay. I would definitely go there if I wanted to give something away, or post a job, or send a story from the New York Times. It’s these other areas, where audience is the issue, that I think would benefit from a new list.

      So yes, I think Alison’s right that the A&A has it’s place, and that there’s a need to supplement, rather than replace.

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