Why It Matters, or Comments on the A*CENSUS Call to Action

The point of having a community of archival people talking to each and sharing information via blogs is not just to keep up with the librarians or to give people like me something to do. It can be a way to move forward our profession and the goals we support.

As a demonstration, I will respond to some of the specific points in the “Call to Action” published in the latest American Archivist (Victoria Irons Walch, “*CENSUS: A Call to Action,” American Archivist. Fall/Winter 2006: vol. 69, no. 2, 310-326.). As I was reading it, I was struck by how many of the action items related to (or should relate to) an increased use of technology and specifically new web technologies to increase communication and share information. I am by no means saying that these are the only ways to address the action items, I am just saying that I think many of the actions items cannot be adequately addressed without the use of technology.

I think it is not an uncommon opinion that many (or most) archivists are not comfortable with using technology; I cannot say whether that is true or not, although I think it is certainly part of the stereotype. I can say that I think identifying archivists who are knowledgeable and willing to share their expertise with others in the profession would be a good thing. I think that having archivists who can conceive of creative ways to use technology to achieve our goals would be a good thing. If we can get them to contribute their time and knowledge toward building the tools we need, that would be a great thing. But on to action items . . .

This particular section of the report begins with a discussion about the” generational turnover” in the profession. As Baby Boomer-era archivists retire, Generation X-era archivists (born between 1965 and 1976) will need to replace them in senior management and other roles. However, there may not be enough Generation X-era archivists to replace all the retiring Boomers. This may force archives to place even less experienced Generation Y archivists (born between 1977 and 1989) into positions with more responsibility than they might normally get so early in their careers. The article lists seven broad headings with action items for each. I’ll address each section below.

Recruiting to Replace Retiring Archivists

Three of these action items relate to promoting the profession as a career option through public awareness and education campaigns to various groups. Use of web resources is an ideal complement to the personal involvement of archivists in National History Day and history camps. Web tools about the profession can serve as a follow-up resource for teachers or a substitute when personal involvement isn’t possible. (See the American Library Association’s www.librarycareers.org.) In addition, providing high-quality web resources that are products of archival work (for use in school and home settings) can reinforce for students what archivists do and show how satisfying that work can be.

Another action item calls for seeking out ways in which to make room in the archival profession now for new workers so that we do not lose a large cohort of potential archivists to other fields. These “new workers” are part of the generation that uses technology instinctively. They are ideal candidates to combine their love of archival work with technology to produce tools and capitalize on progress being made in related fields.

Recruiting to Broaden Diversity

Two of these action items again relate to outreach activities, public awareness and education campaigns so the same rationale stated above applies here. Another action item calls for creating new institutes that” focus on advancing archival education and training within other racial and ethnic communities.” While there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions, technology can again supplement or follow-up on these institutes. It can also be used to share the products and as much as possible the experience with those who cannot attend. Web 2.0 technology such as blogs, wikis, and social networks are the ideal means to address the action item relating to facilitating “ongoing networking opportunities among graduates of these institutes and establish similar networks for others.” Having archivists who have used these tools themselves and can help set up these networks and keep them active would be crucial to their success.

Recruiting to Broaden Skills

This area of recommendations applies largely to broadening skills in the area of technology, and recognizes that in this area all archivists will have to continuously be broadening their skill set as technologies continue to evolve. While the action items refer to formal graduate education and continuing education programs, I suggest these can be supplemented with more informal peer-to-peer learning experiences as well. For example, in another context I’m developing a series of podcasts. After I’ve got that project up and running, I would be happy to serve as a resource–either formally or informally–to archivists wanting to learn how to podcast. I’m comfortable getting on the web and figuring out how to do something. Some people aren’t. Those who have skills should be connected with people looking for a helping hand. Local or regional associations would seem to be ideally positioned to set up these kinds of networks. I’m sure many of our student organizations have members comfortable with technology who would be willing to trade their knowledge for hands-on experience with archival projects (as many I’m sure already are).

I have another suggestion in this area which will probably be controversial to some people, but I think it has some validity. One of the action items is to “Reach beyond library schools and history departments to recruit individuals who can bring advanced technological skills to the profession.” I couldn’t agree more, in fact, I think this item should be expanded to include bringing people with advanced skills not only into the profession but into our archival community, in a larger sense. What I have in mind is being more aggressive about partnering at every level with those groups or individuals with the technology skills we need. As Ken Thibodeau of NARA’s ERA program has often said about his interactions with computer scientists, we bring them interesting problems, and they love interesting problems. We also bring them interesting stuff to work with. We may not be able to woo a computer programmer away from his high-paying job, but we may be able to convince him to donate some of his time to help his local historical society put a database on line. In order to do this, archivists have to be knowledgeable enough about technology to know what to ask for and make sure we get it, and we have to be comfortable enough to interact with people in these communities. We have to be excited about what we can accomplish by working with them, and I am not sure that is always the case with some of our colleagues. Again, this is where I think peer-to-peer mentoring can help.

Transferring Critical Knowledge to the Next Generation

Since this section’s recommendations focus on tacit knowledge rather than explicit knowledge they are naturally a bit fuzzier. This kind of knowledge transfer could be facilitated through web 2.0 tools, but only if the more experienced archivist was comfortable with using them (and the younger one too, but I think we can assume that more easily). But, I have some questions about this issue, which again may be controversial. I agree with the assumption that it is important that the “core values” of the archival profession need to be transferred to new archivists. But, (and I’m bracing for the rotten tomatoes) how much of the “way we do things” that the older generation of archivists has mastered does need to be transferred to the next generation? I think it’s a question worth asking. Again, the core values–the “what” of what we do, yes, definitely, but how much of the “how” of how we do it? The actual action items refer to providing “leadership retreats,” training and knowledge-transfer activities within institutions, and greater leadership opportunities for younger professionals in professional associations. To me, these seem like good opportunities for transferring knowledge about leadership and management (and core values), as well as explicit knowledge within repositories.

 An interesting flipside to this set of recommendations would be to increase the transfer of critical knowledge about technology from younger archivists to older ones. Even if it’s only from Generation Y to Generation X archivists. But it could also be to Boomer-era archivists who want to stay active after retirement through volunteering or mentorship (or who don’t want to retire quite yet).

Greater Access to Continuing Education Opportunities Through Collaboration

These action items are mostly concrete and organizationally related, although the references to distance learning and online courses of course touch upon the use of web-based technologies. Again, I think these action items could be complemented by more informal modes of learning, but of course formal continuing education sources should be expanded. The last action item, however, does seem like one that could be supported directly by direct participation of SAA members (and all archivists) using technology: “Monitor technological innovations as they affect the records themselves as well as archival practices, and develop new continuing education offerings in response.” I would expand that to explicitly include technological innovations that affect how we provide access to our records and information about our holdings and programs. In this area, I can see active archivist blogs carrying out the “monitoring” and discussing how they affect our work and what kinds of education resources might already be available.

Nothing particularly leapt out at me from the last two sections (Shortage of Qualified Faculty to Provide Graduate Archival Education and A Coordinated Archival Statistics Program).

 It is heartening that one of the three suggested follow-up items was “Explore the place of technology of archives.” Since that is part of the stated purpose of this blog (and part of my personal mission, if you will), then you should expect to see more on that subject in this space.

 As I said at the outset, this discussion was just focused on the action items in those seventeen pages, not the entirety of the final report, or even the other articles, and was done as an example. I think it begins to show what we, as a network or community of archivists interested in technology, could do if we chose to. I don’t think necessarily that the action items called out here are the most crucial for those of us in the blogosphere to address. The top five issues identified by archivists in the survey as among the three most important that archival organizations should address in the next five years (Table 3.8.1) were:

1. Electronic records
2. Access, arrangement & description
3. Advocacy
4. Funding
5. Preservation

 Although the breakdowns of the data by age group and region aren’t yet on the web, an article states: “Technological issues, in general, were mentioned as being of greater concern among younger archivists.” (p. 340)

This is good food for thought, to be sure. I look forward to hearing what reactions others have to the report and exploring more ideas on the top five issues, and of course others.

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