I’ve been working on a more technical post comparing two vehicles for accessing archival materials online, but this question keeps getting in my way. It keeps coming up as I try to understand why individual archivists, archival organizations, or our profession in general isn’t doing . . . whatever it is I think they should be doing. I keep having to remind myself that I am not a typical archivist, but that begs the question what is a typical archivist?
Caveat: Yes, of course, you can’t generalize about all archivists or a typical archivist any more than you can generalize about women or Catholics or people with hazel-colored eyes. People end up in this profession for lots of different reasons. A lot of us don’t even characterize ourselves as being “an archivist” in our A*CENSUS results, just under half (47.4%) characterized their current position as being something other than “an archivist.”
But still, there must be common characteristics that run through our profession. A cynical archivist friend and I were talking about this, and this person’s answer to the question didn’t paint a very encouraging picture of our profession. And I admit, I can see a lot of evidence out there to support that opinion. So, to stave off this cynical view, I decided to open it up to the floor. I believe this may be the first post to be syndicated by ArchivesBlogs, so it will be interesting to see if any new people chime in to respond.
So, let’s break that question down a bit (and, yes, these questions are slanted, but that might actually get people to respond):
- Who do archivists most want recognition from? Each other? Their employer? The larger cultural heritage community? Society at large?
- What gives archivists the most personal satisfaction? Helping people find material that is meaningful? Working personally with the material? Sharing their enthusiasm about archival materials with others? Moving up within their organizations?
- How do archivists measure success? By meeting internal organizational metrics? By processing collections? By serving people? By not taking risks or getting into trouble? Is avoiding a risk more important than achieving success?
- What are we afraid of? Are we so risk-averse that we will always be two steps behind the rest of the world? As a profession, and as individuals, do we think that this is acceptable (or even desirable)? Is what we want most to be “safe”?
A real world example: I was somewhere recently where an archivist was asking for suggestions for how to publicize a collection of material relating to a somewhat obscure but historically influential 19th-century figure. Someone suggested she add a link to this person’s Wikipedia entry for her collection (a suggestion I brought up in a previous post on this blogs). She wasn’t inclined to do so; Wikipedia made her “nervous because people can change things.” So, the benefit that someone who is looking for information on this figure would derive from finding a link to her collection is outweighed by the (in my opinion) very slight risk that someone would bother to edit the entry for an obscure 19th-century figure? (If that is indeed a possibility.)
So what is more important: what we want, or what we fear? And, I ask again, what do we want?