The Archives Life

The Archives Life.  Joyous. Frustrating. Sobering. Enlightening.

There’s a place for slogans such as “archives change lives.”  But as agents of the future, it’s worth considering what President John F. Kennedy once said in calling for taking on technical and human challenges in much riskier endeavors than archives, library, or records management work. “Not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . . because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”

A decade ago, an anonymous university archivist posted online about an access firestorm.  A researcher used a partisan commentary platform to speculate about records tampering at a university library but conveyed little if any knowledge of archival practice to readers.  A radio commentator signal boosted the researcher’s version of events.

The researcher wrote about his quest using terms such as “improperly embargoed” and implying that records might be “damaged or removed.” The anonymous archivist expressed concern about potential unwarranted claims that the library “shredded key documents.”

The university special collections employee explained, “we didn’t shred anything.  We did however, redact bank account numbers on donation checks and social security numbers.” The archivist described supporters of the researcher contacting “the library with harassing phone calls.”

Another university archivist described the scene in a professional forum.  “Vitriol regarding the thousands of violent and threatening calls the Library (including the circulation desk and the reference department) received. . . .it was truly frightening.”  She explained what actually had happened with a donated collection to which the researcher had sought access. And linked to balanced, reasoned statements by university officials.

My view was that while researchers ideally should seek to understand archival practices, we need to take into account the world we live in.  Some records held in college and university archives (or other private or public sector entities) are more subject than others to heated commentary by researchers. But we benefit by striving for transparency and sharing information about our work.

The researcher told a talk radio host in 2010 that he tried to conceal his identity and purpose in later visits to other archives.  In a continued misunderstanding (at best) of the archival ethos, he suggested archivists might treat him badly because he had written about his access quest. He did not mention the threatening phone calls university library staff had received from his supporters.

The university archivist chose a different route.  She wrote a thoughtful, well-reasoned, learning oriented journal essay in 2011 about archival practices and ethics. Her case study centered on “how the department implemented new collections management policies and procedures and developed an attuned sensitivity to balancing donor obligations with researcher needs in the wake of a public relations crisis.”

The archivist described the researcher’s “insinuations” about a cover up and what she called the “days of rage” that followed as university archivists and other officials received angry, threatening phone calls.  A footnote said “staff members library-wide were subjected to anonymous and abusive telephone calls.”  She also discussed outreach lessons learned in handling records subject to “sparring between the left and right wings and the immediacy of reactions online.”

The university employee looked at the legal issues surrounding the donated collection, then turned to the research room.

Staff sought to maintain the neutral, user-centered standards of archival practice and to avoid defensive, bunker-mentality interactions with these researchers. Simply put, user-centered archivists define who their users are, ask their users what they want, and develop strategies to provide users what they want, within the context of professional responsibilities. . . . our users were media professionals unaccustomed to archival research, although imbued with a high level of confidence in their research skills. Our professional responsibilities included not only meeting the patrons’ needs, but also preserving the records, abiding by the terms defined in the donor correspondence, and acknowledging and protecting the privacy rights of individuals represented in the records.

The focus on lessons learned, analysis of what had worked well and not, and review of internal and external communications, was what I would expect from an archivist.  I’ve seen thoughtful posts about archives work more recently from other professionals, including in the governmental and corporate sector.  Outreach can help us find partners and allies among those willing to listen and learn about our work.

You see tweets from the general public at times about records or data such as “We’ll get it done fast, give us the items, we’ll scan them and post them online!”  A reminder that many people think of records in terms of the access point–the online portal or the physical research room.  And that some archives and records labor is invisible, not just to the general public, but occasionally also to knowledgeable researchers; our professional colleagues in other institutions; or even our own fellow employees.

Archival labor has professional, intellectual, and emotional components. In 2016, Stacie Williams looked at labor in the context of grant funded projects and the use of poorly paid grad students and unpaid interns and volunteers to process collections and digitize materials.  And asked why the archival community is so bad at advocating for itself.

She observed that some of the “labor is often times unequal, rooted historically in sexism, racism, ableism, and classism, and that will always present a challenge to the access we hope to provide.”  Contentious relations between universities and the communities can affect work in academic libraries and archives.  So, too, the hidden cost of working among the more privileged.

Stacie eloquently described the issue of “fit” at a workplace:  “If they know the right jokes or listen to the right music or watch the right kinds of shows or perform gender identity in a subjectively acceptable way. And we expect little to no criticism for it.”

Responsible managers must strive to understand and correct such issues.  That requires humility,  centering others and listening at deep levels.  For insights on emotional labor and the cost borne by the marginalized and minorities in the workplace, in conference settings, in online professional space, I recommend reading blog essays by Stacie Williams, Ashley Stevens, and April Hathcock.

So-called soft (but far from easy) skills required for building relationships and two-way trust affect almost every aspect of archival work.  Acquiring the records of a private individual requires negotiating with the person who has the right to convey the materials to the archival repository.  The process can involve emotional as well as professional labor, especially in outreach to potential donors who’ve suffered recent bereavement or terrible personal trauma.  Sometimes, the donor backs out or decides to sign a deed of gift with another repository.  A reminder that not all archives labor results in a “product.”

Soft skills also matter in records management, a process that can affect what comes into archives through statutory processes.  In the public sector, we depend on records managers in agencies/departments to handle the information people write, send, receive, and use on the job.   And to work with C Suite executives; with technologists; and with lawyers, among others, to safely convey the permanently valuable portions to archives.

Once acquired by an archives, records become part of a processing backlog.  Newspaper accounts don’t reflect all the realities (White gloves?  Really?)  Work from acquisition to public access depends on resources and level of complexity in processing (conservation, description, disclosure review).  Areas in which the electronic records age brings new challenges.

You’re going to face pressure from a wide array of stakeholders who prioritize the various components of your mission differently.  This particularly is the case for larger institutions with archives, records, curatorial, and education functions.  I saw that a decade ago in Listserv debates over research room hours and the electronic records archive at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the institution with which I’m most familiar.

A National Archives official referred at an open meeting in 2010 to a public comment from me about priorities for the National Declassification Center she then headed:

. . . .the comment I took most to heart was this one about the use of ‘public input’: ‘For better or worse, not all “public input” is equal, according to the author. Speaking to us at NDC, the writer continued,

“When you use the term ‘high interest,’ are you referring solely to high number (volume) of queries? Or does that also involve the much trickier issue of strongly applied external pressure? Pressure potentially can come from researchers who demand that maximum resources be assigned to process records that they want released. In an ideal world, complaints and threats to use one’s powerful outside ‘connections’ would have no [effect] on such matters. The quiet, uncomplaining researcher should receive the same treatment as the complainer. Although it isn’t always easy for employees of archival institutions to push back, I hope NARA and other repositories are able to keep such pressure in perspective in deciding how to assess stakeholders’ needs and how best to assign resources.”

Disclosure review can require balancing multiple elements in areas where there is some policy guidance latitude with unclassified records but carefully following the rules in others.  This works best if you are decisive and willing to live with your decisions.  Archivists respect the legal donor or governmental structure and recognize agreed on donor restrictions or security classification markings even if they don’t agree with them.

That’s an essential part of stewardship and maintaining public trust in your institution.  The best employees at all ranks (and this is essential at the upper levels) think strategically in long arcs.  You recognize the need to hand your successor a sustainable framework. And accept that people outside your workplace may not see or recognize what that entails, just as you don’t know everything about their workplaces.

I saw that on newspaper message boards over a decade ago.  Even in forums where most posters were anonymous, I could pick out who worked within a legal framework.  They pointed to laws and regulations rather than “wish lists.”  When I once explained the lack of administrative options in a records law, an anonymous poster dismissed me as being “a corrupt enabler.” Recognizing I might have undermined his unattainable goal for the matter at hand, I didn’t reply.

Archivists and librarians in the public or private sector can advocate for policy changes in their workplaces or hope for statutory amendments or a broader collections scope or more authority to negotiate with donors in taking in materials under deed of gift.  But they can’t (or shouldn’t) go rogue in ways that hurts their institutions. Why?  Because some court cases have been decided with judicial recognition of the integrity of the archivists, as a class, who will do the work.  You owe it to your successors to preserve such through lines.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of American Archivists represents efforts at balancing the ideal and the practical.  But occasionally things go awry.  Archivists who’ve worked in some private sector settings with tightly donor controlled access provisions sometimes share offline frustration at watching researchers use highly sanitized records.

Tight control may result from donor fear.  The more idiosyncratic and personal the donor’s attitude, the less researchers can understand the complexities of the collection subject’s life.  In the best cases, repository staff can negotiate reasonable restrictions, as SAA suggests.

The corporate world has its own challenges. Responding to an archival educator’s criticism of business archives, as Paul Lasewicz once explained:

You see, a corporate archives mission can run the gamut from serving as a purely historical, publicly [available] resource to a closed, internally-driven, intellectual property repository … there’s no one ‘right’ model.

Fact is, when survival is your number one priority, a corporate archivist does what the company says to do. Sure, you raise awareness within the company of potential issues that may potentially arise – ethical, legal, moral, etc. And you hope you’re persuasive enough to carry the day. That’s what being an ethical archivist in the real world means.

I learned from his courageous comment, one he shared on a Listserv in 2005.  Listservs and newspaper comment boards were more central to discussions a decade ago than in the present Social Media age. Without going into details, the university author of the special collections case study on lessons learned in 2008 referred to “heated discussion of the events and their professional impact” in a public forum. Some were reflexively ideological and political,  Others reflected lack of familiarity with the role of lawyers in private and public sector repositories.

We can learn from each others’ efforts in the private and public sector. Demonstrate our values, by embracing listening, learning and transparency.  And by preparing in the classroom for the impact of technology, in back room work and a wide range of  public interactions.

In 2015, AOTUS David S. Ferriero, whom I know and support, spoke about graduate school programs at an Institute of Museum and Library Services Focus session.   He described the cost of not reaching out to employers to learn what the rapidly changing workplace requires.  He observed that library, archives, and museum work too often are treated as separate “villages.”

And that grad schools turn out librarians, archivists, museum professionals, with little co-mingling or sharing of best practices.  Or engagement between educators and employers. He described pockets of excellence but pointed to the need for better communications.

Let’s make that happen. Let’s reach out across professions, classrooms, employers.

For me, inspiration comes not from slogans but in acknowledging challenges.  Recognizing the depth, at multiple levels and ranks, in different workplaces, of professional, intellectual, emotional labor.  Choosing to act as agents of the future in preserving the past and present. Not because it is easy (often it’s not).  But because we must.

This entry was posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, People issues. Bookmark the permalink.

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