What do you mean by advocacy? And how do you want it achieved?

What do people mean they say our profession (or SAA) needs to do more advocacy? This came up pretty often, as I recall, in the discussion about SAA, but what do you mean by it? Advocating for the importance of archives in general (and so for better funding)? Advocating for the importance (and so more compensation for) “professional” archivists? Getting involved in specific current issues that are relevant to archivists (as ALA does on a regular basis)? I’d really like to hear what kind of advocacy you think is needed, and please be as specific as you want. What do you want to see done?

I’ve got my own bias about how I think advocacy for archives can be achieved. I think a key (not the only one) to raising the level of public awareness about archives (which then can contribute to increased funding and appreciation) is embracing the use of web technologies to get information about what we have out into the places where people will find it. And after they find some piece of information that interests them about something in your holdings–through a podcast or Flickr or a blog or a Google search or whatever–once they get back to your site, you need to make it easy for them to interact with you and find out more. I admit to being somewhat disappointed by the attitude I heard in some sessions in Chicago about our audiences (or users, or customers, or researchers). The attitude was that our audiences came to us with unrealistic expectations about the speed and ease with which they could expect to get access to information, and that it was our job to “educate” them about what their expectations should be. I think we should be trying to figure out how to meet their expectations, not change them.

Museums and libraries over the past 20 years or so have done this, more or less successfully. They’ve looked at what kinds of services and experiences people want to have and they’ve made adjustments. They’ve broadened their customer bases by giving the people what they want. Are archives doing that? If we don’t demonstrate that we are relevant to people on their terms (not ours), then why should we expect them to care about archives? I went to a session at ALA about using web technologies for outreach, and one of the messages was “it’s not about us, it’s about them.” In other words, the message shouldn’t be about how great librarians are or libraries are, it should be about how successful people can be by using the library. It’s about their stories of success. I’d like to see every archives do a short video for YouTube that doesn’t show a single document or archivist–just people talking about how using the archives helped them or enriched their life. (Actually, I think ALA had a contest like that last year.) How about that for advocacy?

But, again, what do you mean by advocacy in general, and what do you want done, specifically?

Be Sociable, Share!

8 thoughts on “What do you mean by advocacy? And how do you want it achieved?”

  1. It’s not our job to educate users. It’s our job to provide access to information while preserving original resources. So, yes, we should be figuring out way to may access quicker and easier and that involves embracing technology. Too many institutions think of archivists as luxuries instead of neccessties. If users could access our information more easily and use it on an everyday basis, that would make us neccessary.

    But when I think “advocate”, I think of someone who will help me get a job, help me keep up with current tech trends (SAA does a decent job of that already – EAD and DACS come to mind), and someone who will generally increase my standing in the workplace. So that means, to me, setting education standards and setting minimum pay. Maybe they could put out guidelines for hiring archivists?

  2. Oh, Elizabeth, I think of advocacy in a broader context than you set forth — perhaps because I’ve worked not only as a staff member in traditional repositories but as a professional researcher/user/consumer of archival collections and as a consulting archivist reliant on my clients’ perceptions that what I offer is of value.

    As to whether it is our job to educate users . . . well, that’s just something I must confess I’ve always enjoyed doing. After all, before I undertook my formal study of archives, there was much I had to learn about context, research potential, how to “interrogate the document” — and I’m still learning. To me it just makes sense to incorporate that learning into the systems through which we offer access.

  3. How broad, Shelia? What should archivists and groups that represent archivists be doing in addition to the issues Elizabeth outlined? Lobbying for funding? Protesting and raising red flags when the national or state governments are considering actions that are contradictory to our values? What are you thinking of?

  4. Archival Advocacy: Advocating for better funding at all levels of government (international, national, state, local) and private sources (foundation, institutions themselves, the public). Advocating for proper respect of the value of the historical record for society, which requires developing and promulgating good practices (including education) as well as resources. Advocating for equal access to the historical record of society (trying to minimize restrictions on records both private and public). I’m sure I’ve missed something, but I think all of these things are key advocational activities.

    Is outreach advocacy?

  5. I want several kinds of advocacy. The first is advocacy on records issues; SAA’s doing a good job on that front.

    Another relates to working conditions for archivists. Not just education and pay (strategies to address these have been mentioned previously), but also addressing the fact that our profession is built on a shaky structure of term appointments, where many archivists are only funded for a year or two at a time. It seems hypocritical to bemoan that NHPRC has no stable funding, yet accept that most institutions have very few permanent staff and rely heavily on temporary staff and volunteers. Temporary staff contribute to organizations in many ways, but there’s a limit to the impact people can have, both within their institution and in the larger profession, when they’re not sure if and where they’ll be working in a year’s time. The adoption of “More Product, Less Process” has potential for further decreasing this pool of jobs since many term appointments are related to processing – not an argument against MPLP per se, but rather an argument for examining closely how work gets done in our field. Whether that happens through a full-fledged research study or something more informal, I think SAA should be involved, and archivists should be pushing for this, as well as for permanent positions, fair pay, and appropriate qualifications for positions within their own institutions.

    Articulating the last kind of advocacy is more difficult, but it boils down to creating systems and structures that work for institutions of all sizes. I think one of the reasons our profession has difficulty progressing is because there’s such a sharp divide between daily work in large institutions like NARA and the major research universities and what goes on in small archives, like those in local historical societies and non-profits. It’s understandable that the bulk of the development in our profession happens in resource-rich institutions, but it’s short-sighted that so many of the tools developed only work on that scale. Let’s have advocacy not just for standards, but for tools and systems that enable everyone to adopt those standards. For example, instead of endlessly debating the nuances of EAD and EAC – tools with tremendous power for all types of archives – let’s put all that talent and financial backing to work on building large systems to which all institutions can contribute records and take advantage of the standards’ full potential. Large national and international systems will make our collections easier to find, and give us more opportunities to develop creative projects that will serve our users’ needs and expectations.

    All of this needs to come from the bottom up as well as the top down. Mark Greene’s point about integrating advocacy into our daily work is spot on. If I think I deserve a raise, or that it’s wrong that a permanent professional position in my organization has been eliminated, I need to say something, not hold my tongue or say “that’s just the way it is.” We should be our own strongest advocates. But I think our association can, and should, provide us with the framework and the tools to help us do so.

  6. Elspeth asked: I’m curious: Why would one say that it is not our job to educate users?

    I wasn’t very clear, was I? Sorry about that. Yes, it is our job to educate users about the nifty things in our collections and what archivists do, but I have also run into the attitude that ArchivesNext was writing about in the post above. There seems to be this idea that when people come to us for information we have to put up as many barricades to access as possible for preservation reasons, or that people who want their information quickly “just don’t understand how archives work”.

    I taught preservation classes under an NEH grant for a couple of years, so I want to make it clear that yes, I think preservation is very important. I also enjoy teaching. But all our efforts as archivists towards preservation don’t amount to very much if we make information so difficult to get to that users dread dealing with us.

    Access and preservation are a balance. We must quit the idea that the user has time for us to “educate” them about how their information is handled before the user can gain access. Most folks don’t know what a finding aid is – and they probably don’t have time to learn how to use one before asking to see a collection. The original post above addresses the solution to this in its second paragraph.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *