Extinction or Evolution? A slowed down version of my Smithsonian Ignite presentation

Right, so on Monday I gave an Ignite talk at a lovely event–IgniteSmithsonian–held at the National Museum of the American Indian and sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. I was, I think, the only archivist on the lineup and I was honored to be selected to represent a somewhat different perspective than the other presenters. There is a link to the full video on the event’s site (and soon I hope they will have edited it down so you can view the talks one by one), but I’d like to present a slightly different version of the talk here. It’s the same in the sense that you will see the same 20 images that audience saw. It’s different in that I’ll type what I would have said if I had been reading from prepared notes, instead of trying to remember what I wanted to say and say it in less than 15 seconds. Also, I’ll add some commentary for the archivist audience.

If you have the time, it’s worth it to watch the whole two hours or so of the event, but as I said, I hope that soon I can link to and highlight some specific talks that I think are particularly valuable for archivists. Or were particularly funny. Or poignant. Which really pretty much describes all the content. But for now, here are my slides along with a sort of director’s commentary–it’s a bit of a long post, so get yourself a beverage, some snacks, and strap in:

If you’re not familiar with the Ignite format, every speaker has 5 minutes. You get 20 slides, which advance automatically every 15 seconds. So for each slide you have very little time to communicate an idea. And the goal is to be engaging, amusing, and to give the audience something new to think about.


Remarks: I’m going to talk about some challenges facing the archival profession today, and about two possible futures facing us: evolution and extinction. I’m being deliberately provocative and a bit alarmist, but I’m trying to give you something new and hopefully thought-provoking.

Comments: This is an audience of smarty-pants museum people, many of whom had just come from the ultra cool Museums & the Web conference just days earlier. There is nothing I could say to them about archives and social media or archives and participatory culture that would be news to them. So, what could I talk about that they had never heard before?  What could I bring that’s new? This is what I came up with.


Remarks: Dinosaurs–a classic example of extinction. They were masters of all they surveyed. They ruled the planet. But they were wiped out by a catastrophic event that changed their environment forever. They had no warning. No chance to adapt.

Commentary: Who doesn’t like dinosaurs?


Remarks: This is perhaps some people’s vision of an old-school stereotypical archivist. In her day, she too was master of her reading room and ruled the world she controlled. But times have changed, and most archivists are evolving to deal with those changes.

Commentary: Right, I know, it’s a little much. But to be honest, I was going for laughs here. (Which worked.) And besides, I think it gets across a quick impression of what needed to evolve.

Remarks: You all know what an archives is, but when archivists use the word, we are talking about individual collections or whole repositories where the materials were deliberately selected for permanent preservation and are being managed according to establish archival principles.

Commentary: The point here wasn’t to give the textbook definition, but to emphasize appraisal and the use of archival principles. In contrast to . . . .

Remarks: As you know, today on the web the word “archives” is used to mean basically old content that is still available for search. That’s not something archivists are particularly happy about, but that’s the way the world wants to use the word. Words evolve, and we’ve got to adapt to it.

Commentary: Again, the point here isn’t to delve into the usages and weigh their appropriateness, it’s to make the point that the way words evolve is outside the control of the audiences who once “defined” them. And to use an example that most in the audience would immediately recognize.

Remarks: Similarly, for many archivists (including me) hearing “archive” as a verb, or “archiving” is like nails on a chalkboard. We hate it. But again, this is the way the world wants to use the word. We hear it all the time, and we have to adjust to it.

Commentary: Yes, we’ve had this discussion on the blog before. Some of you don’t have that negative gut-reaction to it, and I don’t know whether it’s a generational thing or a cultural thing or what, but the point is that even for those of us who hate it, we have to let it go. The horse has left the barn. Also, this was another slide that was intended to get a laugh, and I think it did.

Remarks: So if you think of an old-school archivist as a dinosaur, today’s archivists are more like geckos. We’re smaller and cuter. We’ve evolved to be more flexible and user friendly. Just like our words, we’ve adapted to our changed environment.

Commentary: Right, so I know we’re not all smaller and cuter. And the evolution metaphor doesn’t completely work through the whole thing, but having cute animals in your presentation never hurts, and it also lets me do this . . .

Remarks: Even better, we’re a gecko on Facebook. Archivists are on Twitter, on Wikipedia, on Flickr, we have blogs . . . so, we get it, right? We’ve evolved.

Commentary: Again, it’s cute. But the point is that just having a social media presence isn’t enough.

Remarks: But let’s go back to those dinosaurs. What wiped them out? A combination of environment changing events–more than one–that hit at the same time. And I believe the archival profession has been hit with three such environment changing events. For us, the meteor has already hit.

Commentary: It’s harder to find a good image of an impact crater than you might think.

Remarks: Electronic records. I believe that the archival profession has failed to adequately deal with the challenge of electronic records. That meteor hit us some time ago and we haven’t recovered yet.

Commentary: First, yes, the graph on this slide is lame. I just ran out of time and didn’t get creative. And yes, we could spend a lot of time debating this point. I’m not saying that there aren’t individual archivists or archives out there who can deal with them, but I think across the board, if you pick an archivist out of a hat, the chances are pretty slim that they know what to do about their electronic records. If you want to go a different route and argue that no one profession can solve this problem, and that any solution will have to be a partnership, I can support that argument, but is there such a solution and are archivists part of it? Have we as a profession succeeded here? I think we haven’t.

Remarks: The second environment changing event is the web, and specifically digitization. And even more specifically, commercial companies that digitize archival holdings. Our users want materials available online. And if there are important, valuable groups of records out there, there are companies who want to digitize them and make them available–via their own company’s web sites.

Commentary: I only had 5 minutes, remember. The web and digitization have changed the way our users view us. I think that’s a pretty safe statement.

Remarks: The third event–the budget crisis. There is now more competition for funding than there ever was in the past, and I believe that archives are particularly vulnerable. We are in competition with libraries and museums. More people know what libraries and museums do. They have broader constituencies, and therefore I think are better positioned to fight for funds than archives are.

Commentary: Anyone want to argue with me about this one? Anyone think we’re not the most vulnerable to getting cut? Most libraries and museums can prove they serve kids and communities, and I think that’s a much harder argument to make for most archives.

Remarks: That’s why I think that there’s a very real chance that archives are facing extinction. Our world has changed drastically, and we haven’t necessarily evolved to keep up. At best, as I said, we’re geckos. And if you look around, geckos aren’t ruling this planet. So we have to keep evolving into . . .

Commentary: On the other hand, it is easy to find a picture of a dinosaur skeleton.


Remarks: What animal rules the earth now? Humans. Clever, flexible, adaptable, social, community-oriented. Archivists need to evolve beyond just being geckos, and become more like humans.

Commentary: Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that saying archivists needed to be more like humans was funny, but apparently it is. This got a huge laugh, and of course, in retrospect I can see why. I didn’t really mean it quite like that, but on the other hand, I guess that is what I mean. Anyway, that was the quote that got tweeted the most after the talk so it’s what people were taking away from it. For better or worse.

Remarks: But humans are vulnerable. And if we archivists are going to make it, we’re going to have to deal with three threats. The first of these is IT people. The people who say they will “archive” your stuff for you. If archivists haven’t solved the electronic records problem, IT people are more than willing to jump in and say that they can save everything. People don’t want a complex response–if the IT people say they can do it, it doesn’t matter if an archivist says that it’s not really preservation. The IT people will win.

Commentary: Yes, right, you say that this isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity, and that we can partner with them, etc, etc, etc. But how many IT people (outside of research situations) do you know who are really interested in true partnership with archivists? How many care when we bring up archival concerns? And how many managers care, or do they just turn to the IT people to solve problems with “IT” stuff.

Remarks: The second threat are companies like Ancestry and Footnote. And just like the IT people, they’re nice people and don’t mean to be a threat, but they are. Why? Because they get the stuff people want online when most of the time, we can’t. They provide a big portal with a wonderful user interface that gives users access to a huge body of digitized records. And if it’s true that for most users if it’s not online, it doesn’t exist, then the organizations who put things online will be the ones that matter.

Commentary: Go ahead and argue that real researchers will always know that not everything is digitized, and they will always come to the archives to see the records. For people who don’t have a serious research need–and that’s most people–if they can get access to something interesting, or at least pretty good, online, they don’t want to go any further. I’m not saying that we have to worry about everything getting digitized. That will never happen. I’m saying that we have to worry that at some point enough will get digitized so people won’t care about what’s not digitized. If 10% gets digitized and that’s good enough for 90% of users, are those 10% of people enough of a “long tail” for the remaining 90% of our materials?

Remarks: And the last threat–museums. Again, lovely people, but think about it. If IT people take electronic records, and people think everything useful is online, then what do archives become? Just a bunch of old stuff. And who already takes care of old stuff? Museums. So when money gets tight, why not just get rid of a separate archives and put everything in the museum. And hire another curator to deal with it. Goodbye to the archives.

Commentary: Alright, yes, that’s a bit of a stretch, and you can argue that this would never happen with government archives or with other types of archives. But I don’t think it’s impossible in this economic climate to think that mergers are a possibility. It could be mergers with libraries too, but I had a museum audience, so it made more sense to make them the bad guys. And at a certain point if new electronic records are no longer controlled by archivists and all that we have to deal with are legacy paper and other materials, why not make these the responsibilities of manuscript curators? My goal here was to provide a deliberately provocative vision, so I felt justified in doing a bit of a reach here. Also, yes, someone pointed out that I should have made this a bear so it would have been lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!

Remarks: So how can we avoid getting gobbled up by this trio? I don’t have to explain this slide to you. You know all about this. Archivists have to build relationships with the people in their communities, helping people to connect with the deeper meanings and stories in their own lives through archival collections. It needs to be about partnership and collaboration, and letting people bring their own meaning to the things in the archives.


If any one broad theme emerged out of the whole morning’s worth of talks, it was basically the stuff in this slide. If “empower” wasn’t such a cliche, it would be there too. Also probably “trust.” And “share,” that should probably have been here too.

Remarks: But you will not find any of those words in the formal definition of “archivist” here. And this worries me. There is nothing here about people or meaning or story. And this worries me. Because if we want to survive the fate of the dinosaurs we need to keep evolving.

Commentary: I don’t mean to bust on the SAA definition, which is a fine formal definition, but I hope you see my point. At at time when archives are under threat, we need to become more about people and less about things.

Remarks: So to survive and thrive, archivists need to go from being the old lady in the second slide to one of the people at this scene. Part of the group, part of the community, bringing meaning and life to the party. That’s the kind of evolution we need.

Commentary: It’s also harder than you might think to find a good image of a crowd of happy people.

So, that’s it. Congratulations if you made it to the end of the post. As I said, the point of this was to find something new and compelling to say in 5 minutes in this format to this audience. The juxtaposition of evolution vs. extinction is somewhat of a false opposition in this case. I don’t truly think that all archivists will ever become extinct. However, I can imagine a scenario in which there are many fewer professionals who we would recognize as archivists because the responsibilities of many of today’s archivists have been assumed by people in other fields. On the other hand, I can also imagine a scenario in which the archival profession thrives because it successfully manages working with others who assist in our current responsibilities, and as I said in the presentation, because we succeed in making the transition to being about people and not about things. But I think that the point at which our evolution is being decided is now. Either we’re going to evolve into being something bigger and stronger or something smaller and weaker.  Or perhaps we will evolve into something that looks so different we wouldn’t recognize it as an archivist today. Time will tell.

UPDATE: Thanks for all the great support people have been giving this little presentation on Twitter, Facebook and via email. You can now view the video of this talk, and all the others, from the Program section of the Ignite Smithsonian site.

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10 thoughts on “Extinction or Evolution? A slowed down version of my Smithsonian Ignite presentation”

  1. Thanks, Kate. And, yes, we can all bicker about the details, but it seems to me that the theme underlying what you have said here–namely, that we need to embrace and move with the changes happening *to* our own profession from the outside instead of insisting that the change won’t happen until we are happy with it–is sound.

    When it comes right down to it, it seems to me that the amount of time it takes to do research in an archives–to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of the average archival collection–is one of our profession’s greatest disadvantages in this day and age.

    The Web seems to be training us *all* to need more things more quickly, and most archival research does not work this way at the moment. There are thousands of words to be read, thousands of images to be analyzed, thousands of contextual clues to be interpreted. Who has the time for that anymore? The “serious” users? I’m with you. There just may not be enough of them to justify maintaining our bulky physical collections for such a small community.

    …unless it becomes clear somehow to the greater community that progress doesn’t always feel like a quick fix (how is that going to work??) OR we figure out a way to make archival research lightning-fast. Which of these outcomes would we prefer? Sigh.

  2. This is a very beautiful presentation, and I have to say that I agree with many of your worries.

    But I’m not sure how useful or accurate this self-flagellation is. I’ve worked as a museum archivist, and across museums, and frankly, I would say that collections managers and registrars have a lot to learn from archivists about sustainable descriptive practices, data standards, and meaningful access to collections for research. Their disciplinary training, such as it is, barely addresses the important questions of evidential value that our central to our work. So God help us if they take over.

    Also, it’s easy to feel like everyone’s “with it” at a place like Museums and the Web, but it’s basically the equivalent of going to an archives conference where only the Minnesota Historical Society, the Bentley, the Mudd, the American Heritage Center, the Southern Historical Collection and the Ransom Center are presenting their work. And if you were at that conference, you would have a lot more optimism about archivists’ work with electronic records and web presence.

  3. Great post, Kate. I really liked how you inserted your commentary into the slides and preemptively addressed some of what the archivist responses would be. Like you said, some of comparisons/dichotomies may have been a bit of a stretch, but I think they help the conversation. I’ll have to check out the longer presentation.

  4. Thanks, Beth. This basically is the presentation. If you watch the video I probably don’t say exactly the same things, but it’s more or less the same. But you will get to see which slides got laughs!

  5. Well, my depression in the face of Museums & the Web is another story. Look at it this way–they HAVE a forum for getting the best and brightest people from around the world together to share incredibly inspiring work specifically in this area. It’s possible if we were able to have a Archives & the Web conference that we would also be able to gather many inspiring people from around the world too, but our profession just isn’t big enough to support such an effort. What I really want to see (anybody watching this?) is a History & the Web conference which could draw upon archives & related fields to bring together both the supply side (archives, etc.) an the demand side (scholars, educators, etc.) to talk about what we’re supplying, what they are using, what they’re creating on their own, what else could be done, etc. That is the conference I’d really like to see. Maybe I can get CHNM to sponsor that. Hmm…what’s Dan Cohen’s email?

  6. Well, if everything is digitized (and correctly OCRed), then yes, you can do complicated research on large groups of textual materials relatively quickly, but that’s not going to happen any time soon for most records. I think you’re definitely on to something, although I’m sure a lot of genealogy people, amateur historians, and “buffs” still do have the stamina and the interest to dig. It’s not inconceivable to think of marketing “digging” in the archives as a desirable alternative to the quick fix. But that marketing angle that has yet to be developed, I think.

  7. Great presentation. I think sometimes you need to go to the extreme to get the impact of the point across.

  8. A lot of this is really struck a chord with me. The worry about ‘extinction’ is, I think, not all that much of a stretch. I’m less worried about archives being subsumed into museums exactly than your point about manuscript curators – Archives evolving (or devolving) into traditional, paper-based, highly-specialized, tightly controlled repositories of ‘Special Collections.’ I don’t see archival repositories disappearing, especially in academic environments, as much as turning into the homes of The Keepers of the Old Papers.

    I do think archivists have something to contribute, especially in terms of appraisal strategies, but also just a basic framework to think about preserving, describing, and providing access to large aggregations of information. But if we can’t develop more people with the skills to deal with electronic records, or just data in general, it’s hard to see the profession existing in a very recognizable form in say 50 years. Any newly created information will be managed by IT people, Digital Library people, maybe record managers, or others who actually have the appropriate skills to do so.

    On your point about digitization, I’m not sure how we get to the point when enough is digitized that people won’t care what about what is not digitized. Since we put up finding aids for everything we have at my place of work, one of the things that’s been reinforced for me is that the long tail of archives is really, really long. And if you’re the one person who really wants to look at that one box that has lots of information about your Dad, or your idiosyncratic dissertation topic, or your crazy conspiracy theory, are you going to be happy that the most popular stuff has been digitized, or upset that the stuff you want has not?
    So I think a compelling model would be a combination of a large-scale digitization approach to that top 10% of collections (though I would think that many places could do more), combined with a strategy of developing infrastructure and describing the other 90% in a way allows people to:

    1) Know that it exists
    2) Understand what it is
    3) Request that it be digitized for them within a reasonable timeframe.

    You might even add a fourth point about making it easy for people to easily repurpose content in ways that resonate within their own communities. There are models out there (I seem to end up mentioning the City Archives of Amsterdam whenever I post anything on ArchivesNext)) but I’m somewhat surprised there are not more places seriously thinking about on-demand digitization programs. I sometimes wonder if it’s rooted in an aversion to responding directly to specific user requests, and the need to develop robust policies and workflow. And maybe, still, a little bit of fear of giving up ‘control’ over our stuff.

  9. Thanks for posting your talk, Kate — really nice and hope to watch all of the Ignite program eventually. I liked your suggestion in the comments after:

    “What I really want to see (anybody watching this?) is a History & the Web conference which could draw upon archives & related fields to bring together both the supply side (archives, etc.) & the demand side (scholars, educators, etc.) to talk about what we’re supplying, what they are using, what they’re creating on their own, what else could be done, etc.”

    Perhaps it could be a live one-day conference focused on the MARAC region (utilizing one of the MARAC conference days?) and streamed live online. (Similar day-long conferences with suppliers and users have happened around women’s archives/history and African American archives/history etc. over the years so they could serve as examples.) Anyway, good idea.

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