The problem with the scholar as “archivist,” or is there a problem?

I have a problem, dear readers. And I think the solution to my problem is that I need to get over my problem. But let’s get to the end of the post and see if you think that’s the right solution.

Regular readers will remember past discussion here about “the increasingly common use of “archive” as a verb,” the use of the phrase “citizen archivist,” and the evolving relationship between archivists and historians. I was reminded of some of these discussions as I started to delve more seriously into resources about the digital humanities to prepare to write a blog post and the role of the archivist in digital humanities. This is not that post. This post returns to the same old semantic ground as earlier posts. What should my reaction be when I hear scholars talk about the “archives” they have created, collected, or manage? Because right now my reaction is pretty much akin to my dog’s when the mailman approaches. A low threatening growl, possibly followed by sharp nasty barking if the situation escalates (well, I’ve never actually barked at a scholar, but you get the picture). When my dog does this, I try to calm her down and explain that the mailman is our friend. He brings us something we need. She is not swayed by these arguments. Neither does it matter that the mailman delivers mail almost every day and never enters the house. You’d think she’d get over her instinctual reaction to protect her turf, and yet every time she growls.  Continue reading “The problem with the scholar as “archivist,” or is there a problem?”

Articles Discussing Changes for Facebook

Unless you’ve been unplugged for the past few days, you’ve probably already heard about the big changes that are coming soon at Facebook. Way more than those pesky little changes in your newsfeed. Your personal profile will become your Timeline aka “a scrapbook of your life.” Mashable has an excellent summary of the changes here. I haven’t even started to wrap my brain around the implications of this for collecting repositories.

But the smart people at Mashable have started to wrap their brains around the implications of the changes for “marketers.” And like it or not, most archives are now forced to try to be marketers on Facebook. Here’s their “What Facebook’s Changes Mean for Marketers.” In a nutshell, the “like” button will still be available, but there will be other options. From the article, in language that might be a tad exaggerated in terms of archives and the cultural heritage community (but maybe not?):

The change will require new thinking from marketers who had merely tried to accumulate as many fans and “Likes” as possible. Jenna Lebel,managing director of strategy at Likeable Media, says the “Like” is “a little less relevant now,” and that marketers will have to work harder to earn their place in news feeds. “Your content is going to need to be absolutely amazing,” she says.

And last, but by no means least, this article from the New York Times, with a headline that should come as a surprise to no one: “Cory Doctorow: Tech Companies Exploit the Way We Undervalue Privacy.” Still, it’s fascinating reading and a little scary after reading about how much Facebook wants users to share about their lives.


The increasingly common use of “archive” as a verb



This issue comes up pretty regularly, and it’s on fire this morning on Twitter as a result of this post on ReadWriteWeb (which certainly has other issues too). As I said on Twitter, I hate the use of “archive” as a verb. It makes my flesh crawl. It has been my experience that people who talk about “archiving” frequently have no idea what constitutes actual preservation in an archives. I have seen it used often by IT people referring to creating a backup copy of digital information. I question whether this usage is ever uttered or written by someone who actually has training as an archivist.

I think there are two important points to consider in this discussion. First, the ship has sailed. People are using “archive” as a verb, and that’s all there is to it. They use it as a synonym for “keep” or “preserve.” Maybe they understand what it means to keep or preserve something in an archives, maybe they don’t. Most archivists hate this, and will never use “archive” as a verb, but the world doesn’t care about what archivists like. I imagine there are/were similar conversations among museum people about the word “curate” new being fashionable to describe a cornucopia of selection activities.

Second, and much more importantly, the common use of the word can be seen as an opportunity. An opportunity to question and if necessary educate. What do you mean when you say you are going to “archive” something? It’s an opportunity to talk about what’s really involved with preservation. And, as the wise Tom Scheinfeldt pointed out on Twitter: “I wouldn’t trust that people who use ‘preserve’ know any better than people who use ‘archive.'”

Isn’t this just coming back to one of our long-standing issues–that archivists need to do a better job making people aware of the work we are trained to do?

What do you think? Is this a nitpicky archivist thing and we should just “get over it” and/or is this symptomatic of a larger trend? If “citizen archivists” and IT people can “archive” things, then what is the role of the professional archivist? Do you agree that this is “teachable moment,” or is the ship that has sailed named the Titanic, and there’s no hope for education?

Well, who are we, and why are we here?

I was thinking, over the weekend, that it was not very nice of me to have one of the few references I’ve made in this blog to Mark Greene’s work as SAA President be a link to another post that pointed out he’d made an error in his latest column. So, I went back and read his “President’s Message” in the May/June 2008 issue of Archival Outlook. (If you’re an SAA member you can access this online if you can’t find your print copy; for non-members, sorry, it looks like you’ll have to wait about six months until it becomes available to you.)

The article asks many questions about our professional identity–are we this or that or both? I’ve written about these issues here before in exploring the concept of creating an archival brand–for example in this long post from last May. In that post, I asked, “What is our core identity, or, can we all fit under one big tent?” In his article, Greene presents many different opinions from respected archivists about what we should be, concluding:

Where does this bring us? For the moment, I hope it brings us to another point of self-reflection and discussion about our identity and mission. Which are the one-or-the-other bifurcations we must decide between and which can we meld into a both-things-at-the-same-time conception? Which of our many archival theorists and practitioners (and several who are both) do we look to for the clearest guidance, and to what degree? These questions are fundamental to our present and our future, however much they may be informed by our past. It’s uncomfortable to keep asking these questions, to not come to one conclusion and just stick to it, but that questioning is what requires us to keep alive our intellectual curiosity about the meaning of our profession even after our graduate reading requirements are a thing of the past!

My reaction to the series of questions Greene raises is that I think he is looking for too much definition. Our profession is both too big and too small for the kind of identification I think he’s looking for.

Continue reading “Well, who are we, and why are we here?”

Two examples of how the future of archives is in connecting

There have been several exceptional posts out there in the blogosphere lately which provide food for thought for anyone concerned with the future of archives. Merrilee on Hanging Together summarized the arguments of Kevin Kelly on The Technium regarding what adds value in an age when copies are free. Merrilee writes:

Kelly then lays out eight “generatives”: immediacy , personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, and findability. As I read through this list, I could definitely see the library and other players filling some of these “value add” roles. I can also see cultural heritage institutions adding to unique (i.e. not “super abundant”) to the mix.

I think there may be another “generative” that doesn’t fit under one of Kelly’s existing eight–context. You can go find gazillions of copies of documents and images on the web, but most of the time you are given limited (and that might be generous) information about who created the document or image or in what context it existed. That, of course, is where archives and other cultural heritage institutions come in. For archives in particular, providing context–or connecting the document to its history–is what we do. And along with authenticity and reliability, this is part of the unique value we bring to the world of “super-abundant copies.”

One of the thoughtful archivists across the pond at the Archives Hub Blog summarized some remarks made by by Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library on the subject of “The Next Ten Years.” Ovenden’s points were many and interesting, but two sentences in the Archives Hub summary sent my thoughts off in a slightly different direction:

However, we are in an increasingly competitive environment, where our esteemed US colleagues (at least some of them) can often afford to purchase archive collections where we cannot. Maybe we need to counter this to some extent by being more collaborative across our special collections.”

The author continued to observe that “we will need to think about buying a digital archive in the same way as we may have to bid for more traditional archives,” but I thought about collaboration in a different context. One aspect of the traditional value of archives in “connecting people to history” is that we help connect people not only with the relevant documents in our own collections, but to related documents in other repositories. We know the context not only of our own documents, but how they fit into the larger universe of related archives. No archives, not even a fabulously well-endowed one, can acquire everything it would like to on a given subject. We cannot offer our users “one-stop shopping” by having everything, but we can make their “shopping” experience easier by assisting them in finding related documents more quickly and easily.

I wrote earlier that “connectedness” was one of key issues facing the archival profession today. When taken advantage of, it’s also one of our biggest strengths. My candidate for the “archives brand” statement is “connecting people with history.” If we learn how to capitalize on this, I think the future for archives in the digital world could be very bright indeed.

The ghosts of ArchivesNext Past, Present and Future

Unlike Charles Dickens, I’ll start with a vision of a bright future. Here are some of the things you can look forward to on ArchivesNext in the new year:

  • What’s January without top ten lists? I’ll be asking you to send in your list of the most critical issues facing archives–and be specific! (Post it now, if you want to.)
  • And who needs the Oscars? I’ll also be asking you to submit candidates for the first annual ArchivesNext awards for archives websites–sorry, no red carpet, gold statues, or fabulous after-parties. Maybe next year.
  • If the 2008 SAA Program Committee selects my session proposal on branding for archives, you can look forward to some posts considering what constitutes the essence or soul of being an archives. (Well, maybe even if they don’t . . .)
  • You’ll see more about advocacy–in all of its many meanings. I think we’ve got some opportunities to combine advocacy efforts with the May Day theme . . .
  • Sooner than you think it will be time to start working on the wiki for the 2008 SAA meeting in San Francisco and planning for any off-the-schedule 2.0 get-togethers.
  • And, of course, there will always be discussion of the application of technology in archives, what our friends over in Libraryland are up to, the Daily Puppy, and much, much more!

In the present, the blog and I are going on Holiday Hiatus until after the new year. I expect I will take in National Treasure: Book of Secrets (opening tomorrow in selected cities) over the break, like any good archivist.

Unlike Scrooge, the visions of the past are all pretty encouraging for the ArchivesNext blog. Since the launch on March 21, there have been 70 posts (well, 71 including this one), and 185 comments. There have been some productive conversations about how to improve SAA and what we would want out of an Archivist’s 2.0 manifesto. We had a blogger get-together and an informal Archives and 2.0 meeting during the SAA meeting in Chicago. A “friend of the blog” and I are doing an introduction to 2.0 tools workshop at the next MARAC meeting. I started the section on the blog site that lists 2.0-esque implementations in archives, and I look forward to expanding that next year.

My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has encouraged this fledgling effort–all the people who’ve shared with me (and their friends!) that they like what I’m doing, the regular commentors and the irregular ones, the other bloggers who’ve linked to my site, and the special “friends of the blog” who sometimes read over draft posts and give me the benefit of their wisdom.

Feel free to pour yourself a glass of eggnog, or champagne, or whatever you drink, and wander back through this year’s posts. If there’s an idea you like, write a comment on it and maybe I’ll put it on the “to-do” list for next year.

Happy holidays, and see you in 2008!

What is our core identity, or, can we all fit under one big tent?

I have a couple of threads of ideas that I think are related, and in the post I’ll try to weave them together into something that makes sense. I hope at the end you’ll think they’re related too.

 As I said in an earlier post, I’m very interested in the subject of “branding” for archives. I think this discussion gives an opportunity to examine how we perceive ourselves and how we want the public to perceive us. I also think that technology gives us an opportunity to expand or widen the focus of our brand or to think about starting a new brand, as the library profession is currently discussing. To learn more about this subject, I just finished reading Scott Bedbury’s A New Brand World. Bedbury discusses eight principles of establishing and building a brand. The first of these is the need to clearly identify and define what you (your company, your product, your group) is about–what is its essence, its “DNA” (as Bedbury calls it), its “mojo” (as someone he quotes in the book calls it)? These are the examples he gives in the book for several prominent companies:

  • Nike–Authentic Athletic Performance
  • Disney — Fun Family Entertainment
  • Starbucks — Rewarding Everyday Moments

You can see there is nothing about shoes, movies or coffee; it’s about a philosophy or, as Bedury said, an essence. When I think about what form this might take for libraries, I think about words like “free,” “open,” and “information” (not just books!). What comes to mind for archives?

Continue reading “What is our core identity, or, can we all fit under one big tent?”

What is the “archives” brand?

I’ve been doing some reading about the “library” brand and branding in general. I found the 2005 OCLC report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources very interesting and suggest you take look at it–even if you just look at the conclusions. I think it’s time to do some thinking about our “brand” and whether we want to try to do something about it.

This post will be some speculation about how the general public might characterize the “archives” brand. In the OCLC survey:

We asked the open-ended question: “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” verbatim comments from 3,163 respondents were grouped by main theme. Roughly 70 percent of the respondents, across all geographic regions and U.S. age groups, associate library first and foremost with books. There was no runner up. [p.3-31]

If we had a survey asking that question, I think the response would be an overwhelming “old stuff” (or perhaps the real first thing they might think would actually be “nothing”they might draw a total blank). What are the words we hear associated with archives (and archivists)? Musty, dusty, old, crumbling yellowed? In his post What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like? Richard Cox wrote of the way archives (as places) are portrayed in fiction:

Archives, that is the place where the records are stored, are often similarly depicted. They are situated in basements or attics. They are associated with dust and old, useless stuff. They are seen as forgotten places, or as places to put stuff that should, or will, be forgotten.

Just as librarians have to fight their stereotype as a bunch of bun-wearing shushers, I think archivists have a reputation as being more actively engaged with the past than with the present. Here Cox summarizes the characteristics of fictional archivists:

They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people.

I also think that if asked, most people probably wouldn’t think of most archives as places that collected “new” in other words almost-current, stuff. For example, I don’t think most people would associate archives with electronic records. I think that possibly a lot of people would say that archives (as institutions) are a lot like the things they think we hold–antiquated and sequestered, unapproachable with our rules and white gloves. They are probably glad that we’re here glad that someone is saving “that stuff.” But archives are places they probably have never been to and probably will never go to. You don’t take out of town guests to an archives, as you do to a museum. You don’t go there on a Saturday morning with the kids to check out picture books for them and The Da Vinci Code for you. We’re not a part of the fabric of people’s lives. (Except possibly for genealogists, and even that, I think has declined.)

Am I painting it too bleakly? It’s not all bleak; I think people are glad that we exist. And once you explain to someone at a cocktail party what it is you do (after you get the initial blank stare), they might say something like “that sounds cool.”

Another interesting aspect of the OCLC survey was that the words used by librarians to describe libraries and library services were not those used by the survey respondents. The librarians used “trust,” “privacy,” “authoritative information,” “quality information,” “education,” “learning,” “community,” and “access.” In the survey:

We reviewed the over 3,500 verbatim responses from 3,163 respondents to the question “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” to see how many times “trust,””quality,” “authoritative,” “education,” and “privacy” and other often used library attributes were mentioned as the top-of-mind library image.

The words trust, authoritative, and privacy were never mentioned. Community was mentioned in one response. Quality was mentioned twice. Education was mentioned four times; learning was mentioned nine times. Free was mentioned 70 times. Books were mentioned 2,152 times. [3-33]

You can imagine the same kind of thing might happen in a survey of archivists; he public isn’t going to mention authenticity, provenance, arrangement, accountability, finding aids, description, or processing. I think we might have some overlap on “history” and “preservation.” What do you think our brand attributes are?

The last words of the conclusion of the OCLC report are: “It is time to rejuvenate the ‘Library’ brand.” In future posts I’ll talk about rejuvenating the “Archives” brand.

Another post on SAA in the works

There have been quite a few email messages flying around about my last post on SAA 2.0 — many related to Richard Cox’s comment. So far, I should say, pretty much everyone is agreeing with him. The only question is what to do about it. And, reminder people, I know it takes time but you’ve got to post your thoughts as comments. Talking amongst ourselves is great, but part of what we’re trying to do here is make this a public conversation.

I’ve got a follow-up post written, but I’ve sent it out to some people to take a look at. Just to make sure I’m not too far out of line. I hope to get it up here soon. I hope you can see the connection between my next post on branding and the call for leadership Richard made in his comment. I can see myself getting a little evangelical on this subject, but stick with me and I think I just may be able to get some converts.