Tag Archives: SAA

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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“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.

The SAA Code of Ethics

8 May

I alluded to this in an earlier post — it’s interesting to me that while I’ve heard snide comments about the SAA code of ethics and its inefficacy since I came here, and heard a bit more in the same vein at last weekend’s conference, I’ve noticed almost no enthusiasm for reforming the code or moving SAA in a new direction.

So, what exactly is wrong with the code?

Deirdre Stam from the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University spoke at the conference about what makes codes of ethics effective. A useful code usually includes four elements – justice, integrity, competence, and utility. Every code should contain these elements. By justice is usually meant treating others as we would be treated ourselves (I would add here my new favorite guiding mantra, Derrida’s maxim that the antonym of forgetting may not be remembering, but rather “justice”). Integrity means that we’re honest about our successes and our mistakes and are transparent. Competence demands that we do our work well, especially considering that when we’re working with the records of powerful bodies, we have the opportunity and responsibility to make these bodies accountable. Utility demands that these ideas are transformed into some kind of social good, beyond the archivist’s personal moral satisfaction.

How does the SAA code of ethics perform against this rubric? Let’s start with opportunities for justice:

IX. Law

Archivists must uphold all federal, state, and local laws.

So, there are a few things that are kind of funny here. I’m sure that the authors of the code meant that archivists must uphold all laws in the context of their work – but I love the idea that it’s somehow a breach of professional responsibility to jaywalk.

More pertinent to issues that might face an archivist, though, is what to do when laws contradict responsible archival practice. There are very few laws that protect whistle-blowers, and in most cases, leaking government records, even when doing so would be considered a public good by most, will land an archivist in jail. Don’t we as professionals have a responsibility for not just the contents of our archives but the societal contexts and consequences of them?

If this code is just guiding us to existing legal standards, why have a code in the first place? Journalists have ethical standards that make sure that they act in the public good even when doing so may be illegal — for instance, the laws of the United States don’t allow journalists to protect their sources but journalists do so anyway because they’ve decided as a profession that this will help keep a check on power. Sometimes journalists go to jail, and sometimes lawmakers write journalist-friendly laws; laws aren’t static, and professional organizations could be a powerful force to change them.

However, the SAA would have to have a deep, thoughtful conversation with itself about what exactly we do and how our work contributes to society before we could have anything approaching this kind of power. As it is now, this idea that we must obey laws without thinking about how we could affect them or challenge them is a huge mistake and does nothing to protect archivists.

Indeed, the SAA code of ethics doesn’t seem to recognize that archivists are people, guided by experiences and ethics and values and beliefs.

II. Judgment

Archivists should exercise professional judgment in acquiring, appraising, and processing historical materials. They should not allow personal beliefs or perspectives to affect their decisions.

This sentiment isn’t just silly, it’s also wrong-headed. Margaret Hedstrom made the spot-on comment that it doesn’t make any sense to encourage diversity within the profession if we’re then going to discourage differences in beliefs or perspectives. Archivists make choices; they interpret history and interact with communities. Whether we like it or not, we’re making judgments every day. We would be better off if we embraced our subjectivities and worked through how to approach our work ethically rather than continuing the fiction that we can approach it with dispassion and a gods’-eye view.

Here, I think the idea of integrity should come into play. If we inevitably bring our personal experiences and points of view into our work, isn’t it more honest and fair to be upfront about it, rather than burying our biases and promoting them as neutral and natural?

Finally, I think that the SAA code of ethics is the least useful in the realm of utility. While it does say that archivists may not alter or destroy evidence and that we must protect the privacy of our users, the ALA has done much, much more in an activist role to make sure that librarians actually have the power to fight back against the powers that might try to access this information. As we know, archivists are under-funded and don’t have much of a profile. What exactly is the SAA offering to the archivist caught between a rock and a hard place?

Welcome to the world, baby archivist.

5 May

It’s been a big few weeks in the patriarchive – my cohort graduated from our program and I volunteered at a conference this weekend that reminded me why I want to be an archivist.

This is my favorite photo from graduation. Many thanks to Mick McQuaid for the image.

Faculty and staff personalities shine through.

Later this week, nthlibrarian and I (and possibly a new contributor, Bill, who jokingly refers to his contribution as “views from the patriarchy”) will be writing a series of “want ads” about what we want from an institution. Job searching is a lot of things – hard and scary and often demoralizing, and I think that it’s important for us as young archivists to have just as high expectations of the institutions we want to join as they do of us. So stay tuned for that

About the conference – I have plenty to say about the themes and questions with which I was presented, but I’d like to give some of my initial thoughts on the program. Each presentation was exceptional in its own way — my three favorites were Fatma Müge Göçek, a sociologist who gave us an “archive story” of state-sponsored forgetting in Turkey; Verne Harris, a South African archivist who provided a framework for archivists who may feel normalized, bureaucratized and rudderless in issues of ethics and purpose; and Jack Tchen and Dylan Yeats, historians who explained the ethics of categorization and the importance of working locally in the context of “yellow peril.

What was most exciting (and, alternately, frustrating) was the discussion that came afterwards. It ran the gamut from “but, wait, aren’t archivists supposed to be objective, descriptive rather than prescriptive and activist?” [the answer, of course, is who are you trying to kid here?) to “um, what does this have to do with my backlog?” to archivists relationship to nostalgia and what exactly are the ethics of nostalgia.

Although there were the requisite pot-shots about SAA and the SAA code of ethics, it was interesting to me that discussions of “ethics from below” overshadowed a discussion of “ethics from above,” that is, how we might imagine SAA becoming an organization that represents our interests, protects archivists facing unfair consequences because of tough ethical decisions that they had to make, and provides a space for a continued conversation about these problems.

More on all of this later.