This is a talk I wrote and delivered at Canadian-American Archives Conference held at Western Washington University way back on March 2, 2018. It seems much longer ago than that! I’ve been meaning to post it for a while now, but since I’m about the make an announcement about a new project, it seemed appropriate to get this up first.
I think you’ll find it inspiring, or at least give you something to think about, I hope. I did not tell the audience at the time, and I should have, that the paintings were all done by my father, who recently passed away. I decided to include them, and all the images from the slides, so you can have the full visual experience. Also, I like the paintings. (If you do too, you can see more of them at HugosMagicalWorld on Facebook.
Enjoy. I hope it strikes a chord with some readers.
Lately, I am a pessimist. These days I sometimes find the state of the world so depressing I think I can’t take any more news about it. But then I also see news about people fighting back, and I have hope, or I try to have hope. It’s a struggle for me to stay positive, but, as they say, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. And in that spirit, I have changed the title of my talk from Archiving the Apocalypse to Archiving Against the Apocalypse.
I assume I was invited to speak today because I am known for writing about technology and social media in the context of archives. If so, I’m going to be a bit of a disappointment, because I’m not really going to talk about that in any specific way. Instead, I decided to take this opportunity to deliver a kind of personal manifesto about how I think we should all make a connection, or integration, between our own personal values and what we do as archives professionals.
So, I’m going to go a little Oprah on you, but I think you can handle it. And part of that will be talking a bit about my own experiences and my own story, which I realize might strike some people as being narcissistic or egotistical, but as I was writing this, and trying to incorporate examples of other people, I came to the conclusion that the only person’s story I’m really qualified to talk about is my own. If I’m going to talk making a connection between the personal and the professional, it seems appropriate to use the person I know best.
I dread hearing the question, usually from someone I don’t know or don’t know well, “So, what do you do?” This is harder for me than for many people, because I don’t have a one or two-word answer. I can’t say, “I’m an archivist” because I’m not any more. (Although I know that “I’m an archivist” isn’t necessarily an easy answer either, because it usually results in having to explain what an archivist is.) When I’m filling out a form and need to enter my profession, I now say “writer and editor.” But I’m not doing much editing these days—or even writing, in a formal sense. I think to answer the question “what do you do?” honestly, I’d say: “I’m a writer, a thinker, and a student of human nature, history, and wisdom. I generate opinions, and aggregate, synthesize and promote the work of others.” In a professional sense, that’s what I do.
Even if you have a proper job with a proper title, or you’re a student, I recommend everyone think, in a deeper sense, about what you do. Are you a keeper of memory? A provider of historical context? A teacher about the importance of the past? Do you connect people with ideas? And when you’re coming up with your own personal version of the response to the awkward question, you should spend a few minutes thinking about how that relates to your personal mission.
If you haven’t gone through the exercise of crafting your personal mission statement, I think it’s worth devoting at least ten minutes to it. You can spend a lot of time reading different life coaches’ definition of what a personal mission statement should be, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say it’s a pithy summary of what you would like to be, do, and have in your life. Here’s a career-based example I stole from a life coach’s site:
My vision is to be an honest, empathetic and impactful project leader and to be recognized internationally within my industry. I am committed to growing as a leader and delivering value-added projects to the end users. My mission is to create and lead a dream team where everyone is playing to their strengths.
I know. It’s got both “impactful” and “value-added” in there. A bit jargony. Ok, so, I’ll be transparent, and share part of my own statement:
My vision is to add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past. I will work on projects that are fun, make the world a better place, and force me to learn and grow constantly. I will write things that people can understand, learn from and enjoy. I will write books that sell
modestlyextremely well to a general audience.
It’s not perfect, and I’m leaving out the part about becoming the Oprah of archives, and adopting more rescue dogs, but you get the idea. (And as I was revising it, I decided to be less modest about the book sales. It’s a vision, not a prediction, after all.) Another essential element of this kind of self-inventory is to assess what you’re good at, what truly interests you, and what you enjoy doing. Not what you think should interest you, or what you should enjoy, but what the truth is. Remember, this is personal, so you don’t have to admit it to anyone else. But you should be honest with yourself.
Another way to look at it is to go through the exercise of projecting what you’d like people to say about you at your funeral. It’s the flip side of the coin. You can think about what you want to achieve, or what you want to have achieved. The funeral exercise is an interesting one, because you can also think about what qualities about yourself you want to be remembered for. “She was a good friend, she inspired people, she left behind a legacy of [fill in the blank], she was a devoted mother, she could mix a mean Manhattan, she always wore gorgeous shoes.” Whatever. People want different things. What’s your level of ambition? Do you want to be President of SAA? Do you want to win a MacArthur genius grant? Do you keep your sights set on raising good children, being a useful member of your local community, or your local church, your family? What do you want for yourself? I’ll assume that, since this is a room full of archivists and soon-to-be-archivists, that your personal mission relates in some way to archives, or the preservation and dissemination of evidence of human endeavors.
I’m also starting from the foundational assumptions that a) the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and b) there are a lot of amazing people out there refusing to just put up with a shitty world any more. So, I think we all want to be part of the B group, stopping A from happening. But, what can any of us do, as individuals, in the face of all this craziness?
Here’s where we need to make the connection between our personal missions, and the larger world. And, again, I think this is why it’s essential to spend some time thinking about what’s most important to you, what interests you most, what you’re passionate about. And be specific. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the scale of the problems, and then just go away and give up.
If you’re having trouble finding a focus, here’s another way to approach the question of where to start trying to make a difference via your professional life to make the world a less crappy place. Think about what’s changing in the world around us:
– What’s happening now that wasn’t happening before?
– What trends or practices are speeding up rapidly?
– What ways of life or customs are going away?
What could or should you, or your repository-if you have one-be documenting? Back when this talk was going to be called Archiving the Apocalypse, I had in mind something like, if you could go back in time and ask archivists to capture documentation about the rise of the Third Reich, what would you have wanted them to preserve?
[Aside: And, just in case there is anyone here whose political and social views are the complete opposite of mine, and you consider much of what’s happening in the United States today part of a glorious march towards a return to an ideal past state, this whole exercise can work for you too. Just imagine what you wish had been preserved from the early days of the young United States, or any other period you think was the beginning of a Golden Age.]
Here’s another gloomy example. In thinking about “what’s changing,” I’m reminded of The Weekly List of things “subtly changing around you” written by Amy Siskind.
As she describes it on her site
The “new normal” of American politics is not normal. The Weekly List reminds us of that. On a weekly basis, the List tracks specific news stories representing eroding norms under the current regime. Taken together, they reveal a nation pushed towards authoritarianism, the wielding of unchecked governmental authority by one person or group at the expense of the freedom of those who oppose them.
How is this possible? Weary from the 2016 election, many voters embraced uninformed obliviousness, unquestioning optimism, or an uncritically visceral reaction for or against the new administration. Instead, Amy Siskind sought facts. The Weekly List was born on November 20, 2016, chronicling Amy’s findings. Originally for her friends and social media followers, the List quickly went viral. The earliest weeks listed fewer than a dozen items. Now, nearly a year later, each week brings with it at least one-hundred new abnormalities.
Many archivists have also chosen to find ways to document the Resistance, or the emergence of new voices and cultural movements, such as the Women’s March on Washington Archives Project or Columbia University Library’s Archive-It collection of “websites documenting and embodying grass roots political resistance activities in the United States arising in the wake of the election and inauguration of Donald Trump.”
But I think there’s an important role for us, among others, in thinking about what ways of life are being or have been eroded that have, in part, gotten us to where we are today. Factories shutting down, housing patterns shifting, changes in population. How have things like that influenced the community you live in or the audiences your archives serves?
This kind of documentation program may or may not fit within your employer’s priorities and comfort zone. One way to combine your personal mission with your professional calling would be to find a way to do that as part of your day job, or at least as a side project that your day job tolerates. (As a side benefit, this may also influence your repository’s attitude toward such projects and nudging them along the path to greater inclusivity or risk-taking.)
Again, depending on your circumstances, you might be able to pursue this as a central or peripheral part of your paying work, or you can pursue it on your own, within the bounds of whatever rules your employer has that might govern your outside activities, which may give you more freedom, if not resources.
Either way, you will start to learn and build connections. Because if you’re doing it right, you won’t be doing it in a vacuum. You will find others either doing or interested in doing similar things—sometimes in your own community. Great minds tend to think alike, and often the impulse to collect or highlight certain materials strikes many people—inside and outside formal repositories. Asking around to see if anyone else if your area (however you define that) shares your interest is a way to generate awareness, benefit from expertise, and build and share connections. This is archival networking at its best.
And you will not be alone, as a professional, in wanting to think about what you can do. As Jim Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, wrote in this month’s Perspectives on History:
The AHA and its members need to ask ourselves what our role can and should be in this unusual situation, as a scholarly association and as individual historians. Historians know that neo-Nazis are not “fine people.” Nor are neo-Confederates. Historians know that for millions of Americans, family history includes migration (and yes, chain migration) from places with dysfunctional government, grinding poverty, and violence. Historians know that the long tradition of executive disdain for the press, including outright hostility, has never sunk to labeling the media “the enemy of the American people.” Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” now seems a mere trifle as an attack on the proverbial authors of the “first draft of history.” The role of history and historians in public life has never been more visible or less clear.
In contrast, I’d say the role of archivists is as visible (or invisible) as it always has been, but for us, I think our role is clear.
And many of you who are younger might not appreciate how much more power you now possess to carry out this role than previous generations of archivists had access to.
Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Technology and connectivity mean the scope of “what you can” has increased dramatically, and where you are hardly matters in some cases. You can observe and preserve what people are sharing on social media. You can use social media (or networking tools within your profession, like SAA’s roundtable lists) to look for partners, get advice, and share your work. Rand and Richard Peace-Moses and others will remember how challenging that used to be back in the olden days—particularly for networking with people outside the archival community, which is the foundation of what I’m talking about today.
Technology also makes it easier to leverage “what you have.” Many tools and programs are available for free, and for most the learning curve is relatively easy. The probable loss of net neutrality aside (fingers crossed that can be stopped), our hyperconnected world lays the groundwork for building new and improved connections between people.
[Aside, I wish I could have found an appropriate quote about the power of technology to illustrate this point, since as Proust says, quotes from other people always make things sound better.]
I also believe that we are entering a time when professional titles and distinctions are increasingly less important. [Aside: And if you want to think about the long long term, many professions themselves may be destined to decline. Personally, I thought the talk I gave at the Association of Canadian Archivists meeting in 2016
was fascinating. It’s posted on my blog. You should read it.) But I digress, back to the near term. And here in the near term, passion, skills, and interests are what drive the most creative and motivated people. If you find people who agree that what you want to do is important, I suspect they won’t care whether you have a PhD or not (and if they do care, you don’t want to work with them anyway). You will bring a skill set to the table, and a perspective that should prove valuable—both as an archivist and as a unique human being with your own unique set of experiences.
But, let’s return for a moment to the inventory of your own personal interests, passions, and mission. Some of you may be passionate about climate change, social justice, equality, and freedom. And these may be the kinds of issues you choose to pursue, and if so, I applaud you. By doing this, you can change the world. But, I want to encourage everyone to embrace what you’re really passionate about, and it may not be on that scale. (It’s possible I’m mentioning this because this is more or less the way I feel myself. I’ve done my personal inventory, and I’m afraid my own contributions to social justice will be done indirectly and through small financial contributions.)
As demonstrated by my personal mission statement, I’m not ambitious enough to want to take on changing the world (although I support those who do). But through my writing, I want to change how others see the world. That’s the balance I have found between my values and the scope of my interests and ambitions.
And I’m not alone. Capturing and telling any community’s story tells us something about the human condition. I follow someone known as The Pet Historian who describes herself as “a historian of the relationships between animals and people.” There are people who are passionate about the history of cookbooks, food, and cocktails. The history of Chinese restaurants in America reveals a great deal about assimilation in Chinese-American culture. What about knitting? The history of brewing in Oregon? Scrabble? Your own family’s story. Your community’s story. A particular kind of music. A form of cultural expression—tattoos, romance novels, hiphop, square dancing, drag culture, whatever.
So, here’s what I’m doing. I’m helping with a project near and dear to my heart, the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. [Which—in case you didn’t know, I now live in Carlisle, and this project is the brainchild, my husband, Jim Gerencser, the archivist at Dickinson College in Carlisle.) The foundation of the site are digitized copies of all the student files still in existence, which the team scanned at the National Archives. Researchers, and most importantly, descendants of the students are using the site every day to find information about individual people. Jim gets messages all the time from people saying things like it’s the first time they’ve ever seem their grandmother’s handwriting, or seen a photo of their ancestor as a young person. It’s pretty amazing.
Essentially, I’m doing data clean up and photo identification, as a volunteer for the project and one of its partners, the small local historical society. I am doing what I can, with what I have, where I am. As an outgrowth of this, I also have on my slate to write a non-scholarly but accurate and thoughtful book about the history of the school.
I bring this up as an example of finding an overlap between someone’s personal mission (and mine was “My vision is to add value to people’s lives by increasing their understanding and appreciation of the past. I will work on projects that are fun, make the world a better place, and force me to learn and grow constantly. I will write things that people can understand, learn from and enjoy. I will write books that sell modestly well to a general audience.”) and the opportunities available to me. In the course of doing this work, I’m building new connections and deepening existing ones. And, although I’m a complete newcomer to the field of Native American scholarship, I think I can do something.
Whether your area of focus is big or small, global or local–be genuine, be authentic, be humble, but be unafraid. Your passion is worthy of attention. It might not seem like studying the history and culture of romance novels—or the Carlisle Indian School—could save us from the apocalypse, but I say it will.
Because however you follow it, your mission will connect you with others outside your immediate circle. And it is these new connections that I think will save us from the apocalypse. We see this happening in social movements like #timesup, #metoo, #neveragain, and #blacklivesmatter. People are building new and deeper networks with others based on their experiences and values. Archives and the study of history have always been about preserving a way for people to connect with the past. As we know, in many cases, that has been the preservation of a privileged past, accessible to a privileged few, but the momentum of change is continually moving us away from that model.
If you follow your personal mission adventurously, you will break down stereotypes about archives and archivists among the people you connect with, and in return you may also break down your own stereotypes about others. You will generate new knowledge, or raise the profile of existing stories, and that too can help to challenge people’s assumptions. As you learn and develop new skills, you will become a more effective advocate for your cause, and it’s likely you will move on to other causes and aspects of your mission and be more effective as you progress.
Countless studies have shown that connecting to a higher purpose is essential to our happiness. As is connecting to other people. Connecting people across divisions is essential to the survival of our species and to the survival of what I think is a culture with aspects worth preserving. Therefore, as archivists—or however you want to identify your own missions—what we should be doing is connecting with those who share our own higher purposes and preserving and sharing what we value. In doing so, we connect to the past, present, and future, and to the larger world around us.
I thought this would be a good place to deploy the famous quote attributed to Gandhi—”Be the change you want to see in the world,” which I’ve used in presentations and blog posts before. I used it in discussing the evolution of my personal mission, my shift from focusing narrowly on archives and archivists, to the larger scope you see now. But when I was checking the quotation, I found something interesting. Gandhi never said that. What he said was this:
[The text on that slide is way too small to read. Here’s what it says:
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do. – Mahatma Gandhi
Which boils down, in some respect to the short catchy quote that will fit on a mug. But as Joseph Ranseth points out (he’s the person from whom I stole this image), this is a much more complex piece of advice. However, if we focus on the sentence “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change,” I think we can gain even greater inspiration, in a way. If we as archivists, and keepers of archives, and the whole archival profession, can change ourselves in ways that we think are important, the world will also change.
And that is how we can archive against the apocalypse.