Some observations on the “archival divide,” or what I said at AHA about historians and archivists

Well, I’ve just returned from participating in the AHA panel I wrote about in the previous post and for which many of you were so helpful in preparing me. I should say at the outset that Messrs. Blouin and Rosenberg were charming and gracious throughout and took the criticism of their book in good humor. They stated that they intended their book to spark discussion, and so are pleased that it has done so. And they said they looked forward to reading your comments here as they have not had much feedback yet from archivists. I’m too tired to try to summarize the session (which was very well attended had a very engaged audience) but I will share that the observations of all three panelists (myself, Peter Wosh, and Antoinette Burton) shared several similar themes.

I actually prepared written comments (which those of you have seen me present know that I usually don’t do) just to make sure I covered everything I wanted in the time provided. They are presented, for your delight and critique below, although you should bear in mind that I, of course, had impromptu digressions and clarifications. I could do better with more time and space, and I’m looking forward to doing more thinking and writing on these themes. When my energy level returns I’ll post more, but for now here are my remarks and I’m off to get a cocktail!

When Rob Townsend invited me to be part of this panel I thought it would be an interesting topic, but I had no idea quite how interesting it would eventually be until I started preparing my remarks, which was, I’m sorry to say, earlier this week.

The book under discussion here is an important one in seeking to begin a dialogue between archivists and historians about our common and differing concerns. When I began to read it I knew that this was an interesting topic, but it was only when I began to discuss the issue with archivists (and a few historians) that I began to have an idea of the breadth of the issues involved. In early discussions, a colleague reminded me of two other recent works by archivists that I should consider, Terry Cook’s “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape” in the current issue of the American Archivist and Tom Nesmith’s  2004 Archivaria article “What’s History Got to Do With It? Reconsidering the Place of Historical Knowledge in Archival Work.” In framing my approach to my remarks, I found Cook’s analogy a helpful one. Referencing David Lowenthal’s “the past is a foreign country,” Cook observes:

The argument here is that the archive(s) is a foreign country to many historians. Of course, it is one that they visit frequently—but perhaps mainly as tourists passing through, focusing on their guidebooks, intent on capturing appealing views, but overlooking their surroundings, not talking to the local inhabitants about what they do, thus failing to understand the country’s real character and animating soul. [605]

This seems very much in keeping with the recommendations of Blouin and Rosenberg that historians need to educate or re-educate themselves about the work of archivists and the formation of archival collections.

However, my approach to Rob’s direction to make some brief remarks about Processing the Past was to focus on the concluding recommendations to archivists about how they should seek to bridge the “archival divide.” These recommendations appeared to me to presume that most or many archivists lack sufficient understanding of history and the needs of scholarly researchers, and so cannot effectively appraise, process or describe collections. This may be somewhat overstating the book’s position, but that is the general sense that I came away with after reading it.

Based on my experience and observations of my colleagues, I found those recommendations disturbing. So I did what comes naturally to me, I posted my thoughts on my blog and asked archivist colleagues for their thoughts. Perhaps not surprisingly, the response was spirited and unanimous.  Commentors were quick to point out that many archivists are trained in both archival science and a humanities discipline, often history. I won’t try to summarize their arguments here; if you are interested you can visit and read them for yourself.

What was more interesting to me than the general agreement of the responses was what they revealed about the relationship between archivist and historians, and this lead me to seek out the historian Michael Kramer here at AHA to help me better understand the issues. In talking with Michael, as well the public and private comments from archivists I received about the blog post, I identified two areas that I (respectfully) suggest are more important for archivists and historians than the ones identified in the conclusion to  Processing the Past.

First, that underlying these discussions are undercurrents of fear and lack of trust, as well as concerns about jobs, and lack of professional respect. This is perhaps not surprising in the current uncertain economy, but I think it’s important to acknowledge these factors and recognize them as possible motivating factors for an instinctual defensive or “turf protecting” response.

Second, that perhaps many of the areas which appear to be sources of contentiousness need to be addressed by a better understanding of professional vocabulary, or at least the what we mean when we use the same words, which is often not the same thing. And the only way to solve that is through frequent, open and informal as well as formal communication between practitioners. Which I think is one of the goals of the books we’re discussing today. Put simply, we need to talk more with each other about archives, not just the records in archives.

Of interest in this regard is an observation made by Terry Cook, again from his most recent article:

In summary, despite the impressive external theorizing on the “archive” in recent historical writing, what is still missing is the voice of the archivist, who, after all, is the principal actor in defining, choosing, and constructing the archive that remains, and then in representing and presenting that surviving archival trace to researchers. Given the sensitivity of many of those same historians to the past marginalization from history of women, certain ethnic groups, the working classes, or First Nations peoples, it is all the more surprising that such historians studying the archive have marginalized the archivist. Can one imagine writing about the history of nursing or engineering without researching any of the literature produced by nurses or engineers? Yet in my reading of works by those few historians recently writing directly on the archive, I have almost never seen citations (with very rare and then very spotty exceptions) to any of the thousands of articles, books, and published studies, let alone internal reports, produced by archivists, in English alone, in the past three decades, including no few such writings by archivists that from the inside both theorize the archive, the archives, and their historical evolution. [614]

(Cook is happy to note some exceptions, including Blouin and Rosneberg’s own collected essays from the Sawyer Seminar.)

My third recommendation is therefore that archivists need to more aggressively infiltrate the historical discussions of “the archive.” It will be up to smarter people than me to determine how to do that and to successfully carry it out, but this seems an activity with clear benefits.

A fourth recommendation, which is drawn from both Cook and Nesmith’s articles, is that some archivists consider devoting more time to the formal historical consideration of the origins and formations of their collections, or as Cook refers to it, being “historians of the record.” (With, of course, the associated publication and dissemination of that research.) This would, I think assist in alleviating some of the problems with professional trust, respect and understanding identified above.

Additionally, I agree with what I think was at least part of the intention of Blouin and Rosenberg’s second concluding recommendation for archivists: that they more actively engage and collaborate with historians on the creation of tools and systems that open up access and promote greater understanding of archival materials. This could take many forms and is, I think, in some ways the most achievable of my set of recommendations. Achievable because many (and I would hope all) archivists are deeply committed to increasing user access, understanding and contributions and many of us are using new technologies to make this possible (as are many historians). Historians, as well as other scholars, hobbyists, enthusiasts, and users of all kinds are vital to make the archives less of a “foreign country.”

And I think as long as those efforts are pursued with respect and mutual understanding they will be of great success in helping with my final recommendation, which is that both professions recognize our mutual goal of increasing public appreciation for the study of history and the importance of archival collections. We have a great deal in common, although perhaps not as much, as Blouin and Rosenberg observe, as we once did.

I wasn’t in the session yesterday, but on Twitter John R. Dichtl of the National Council for Public History was quoted as saying “Historians need to realize we need allies. We should not be policing the boundaries of our discipline.” And although I’m addressing an audience of historians, these are words I will address to my archivist colleagues when considering our own approach to working with historians on archival issues. While, as Michael Kramer and I agreed, both professions (and the individuals in it) bring their own psychological and professional “baggage” to the discussion, with a little patient communication, that can often be quickly put aside and the real and exciting work of exploring the archives can begin.


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13 thoughts on “Some observations on the “archival divide,” or what I said at AHA about historians and archivists”

  1. Brilliant, Kate! I’ll just add (reiterate) that I think [academic] archivists too often focus on historians as researchers and forget about their critical role (for archives as well as for future historians and appreciators of history) as teachers. A fertile area of potential collaboration, it seems to me, is how we can do that in a more purposive, less serendipitous way. [I challenge Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner to write an article that implants the acronym MPLS in the archival lexicon in the same way they have MPLP! From a geographical perspective, that acronym would be so apt for the two of them.]

    From the archival side, I think, we need to focus much more on how we can fold “teaching use” into our collection development strategies. The sad fact of special collections & archives in academic settings is that many of them have collections that resonate with a small, small swath of faculty who might otherwise be active bringers of their classes to our repositories. Maybe “because we have an avid faculty member who would use this stuff in teaching” is a good enough appraisal criteria, especially if we document that so that our successors managing academic special collections can feel emboldened to reappraise/deaccession same if after 20 or so years it isn’t being used anymore? I don’t think academic archivists have really wrapped their brains and energies around the notion of “teaching collections” in the same way that perhaps our rare book colleagues have, but I think the time is at hand. And hopefully it is painfully obvious that developing teaching collections in the absence of a robust dialog with local teaching faculty would be patently insane!

    Aside: A couple months ago I had a really stimulating discussion about teaching collections with Naomi Nelson after a brown bag discussion (on the draft SAA Guidelines for Reappraisal and Deaccessioning) hosted by UNC’s SAA student group that I moderated and at which she spoke. Naomi has some great ideas about the role and potential ephemeral (deaccessionable) nature of teaching collections in academic special collections. I’d love to see an SAA session on this topic, and perhaps one that included a faculty member or two to give their perspective on the notion of bringing in collections for their use in teaching with the clear intention that they may not warrant permanent inclusion in the “pantheon” of permanent retention of archives in a particular special collection. And maybe also that we archivists could get away with “less product” in speedily prepping these “teaching collections” for use by faculty and their students.

  2. Thanks again for your participation, Kate. I thought the session was very interesting, and I was very glad to be able to attend such a discussion touching on where professional practice and theory meet for both professions at the AHA. I hope a new precedent has been set. That said, there were some unanswered questions for me. One area concerning academic archives, or the special collections departments of academics libraries left untouched through the investigation of the “great divide” between historians and archivists, is the need for archives to support the research of all disciplines for which their collections are relevant.

    And to echo Bill’s comment, archivists in academic settings (or research and outreach librarians as I am titled), have a primary responsibility for providing instruction on general archival practice and research approaches to students from the entire campus and patrons from a variety of backgrounds. I am fortunate and grateful that that responsibility is foregrounded at my institution. Better recognition and development of that role–archivist as instructor–is one way I think to alleviate the perception, however false, of the archivist as essentially a highly skilled research assistant for scholars of history.

  3. Great blog – what you are rightly highlighting is a need for archivists to engage more fully with historians. Archivists need to focus more on engaging with all the people who use archives and encourage new users. There are some great examples of how this is being done – Birmingham Archives and Heritage (UK) have an excellent Digitisation and Outreach team. They provide free archives training for people in a range of organisations, work and volunteers in addition to a range of projects promoting archives within a range of different settings and communities across Birmingham. Latest innovative project with young people see:

    If historians struggle to understand archives, this is a really poor indicator of a much larger ‘archival divide’ – we need to work together to demonstrate the relevance and importance of archives to everyone. PS – I’m an art worker who has seen the light 🙂

  4. Well done, Kate! You concisely covered a number of important points in a little amount of time. I am glad to hear B&R were receptive to you comments and I am sure that you made the historians in the audience think a little more deeply about archives and archivists.

    You hit the nail right on the head – the key issue is mutual respect. We need to willingly engage with each other, being open to the areas of expertise of the other, and talk about issues of mutual concern. If the professions respect each other we can effectively collaborate and cooperate to the benefit of all.

  5. Kudos, Kate! Sounds as if you did a great job laying out some important issues that haven’t gotten enough attention. I’m especially please to see you mention the emotional component in records issues and also in discussion of them. I’ve long considered that to be an overlooked component, one which I’ve touched on from time to time in my blog. I especially would like to see experts in records management join the conversation, given President Obama’s recent presidential memorandum on electronic record keeping.

    Anne Weissman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington spoke last month at a access conference on the Obama initiative. (AOTUS David Ferriero and I both attended. I wore a hockey tie and told David, “You have to skate where the puck will be, not where it has been! He laughed. Handling electronic records requires a lot of forward thinking, something NARA has lagged on in the past but is tackling during Ferrerio’s tenure.)

    Weissman says that she believes that it is important to capture email messages sent among government executives as that is where the most important candid exchanges occur. However I remember reading an article by a history professor, Michael Ebner, in 2006 on “The Romance of E-mail.” Dr. Ebner then suggested that email only be used routinely in a university setting and that important, sensitive matters be discussed orally, instead. The professor’s advice, if applied to government, would take such convos off line and leave no record of the type Weissman believes exists and must be captured.

    There are many competing dynamics in electronic record keeping. As a federal historian, I would enjoy hearing Weissman debate email issues (including the psychology of record keeping) with Professor Ebner. If retired federal records managers or historians joined the conversation, so much the better. I say retired because as my readers have seen, being a former archivist gave me more freedom to address difficult archival issues between 1990 and 2009 than I had when I still worked at the National Archives. As I noted in the last post at my own blog, various constraints, including work with national security classified records, make it impossible to discuss all aspects of some of the issues with which we deal in government, of course.

    Again, well done! I hope this triggers some lively conversations.

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