The discussion continues . . .

This morning a “friend of the blog” and I were having a conversation about how to help get a conversation going on my blog. Someone else had suggested that I should not post too often–I need to give people time to mull things over and formulate comments. If there’s a new post up already, they may not feel like commenting on an old one. This morning, my friend suggested that instead of replying to people’s comments in another comment (as I usually do), I should reply in a post, to highlight the conversation for others. So, I’m giving that a try.

The intrepid Peter Van Garderen (of archivemati.ca) has written several comments lately. When I saw his name, I admit, dear readers, that I was worried. In a reply to a comment on this blog I had written:

And I do like archivematica’s blog–but he seems so smart that he kind of intimidates me.

It turns out, not only is he smart, he’s nice too. In responding to the “What do archivists want?” post, he concluded based on his experience:

. . . I can’t speak for more traditional archivists and what follows is a gross generalization but I would venture to guess that the majority, if they stop to think about it, feel some sort of ethical responsibility to the records themselves, as witnesses or voices from the past. They are motivated by some subconscious urge to impart order on the volume of information which they are preserving. They are driven by this idea that one day their collections will finally be properly organized, if only they could waste less time on the reference desk! Therefore, I think the motivation is more inward that outward. I taught as an adjunct at archives school for six years and I can say quite confidently that almost all people who end up at archives grad school, myself included, have some obsessive compulsive traits, we just need to use our powers for good :-)

What do you have to say about that, readers? I agree that most of the archivists I know love to organize the things in their lives–and that tendency could account of some of the stories one hears about obsessive rusty-paper-clip removals. And I know that most of the archivists I know do feel a kind of “ethical responsibility to the records themselves, as witnesses or voices from the past.” The question is–do most archivists feel it is their primary responsibility to preserve those voices or share them? Or both? (And, yes, it isn’t a simple black or white decision. They’re related, obviously. The question is, is there a tendency to favor one over the other? If given complete freedom, which activity would most archivists rather spend their time doing? And does that have an impact on how fast they’re willing to interact with users in a 2.0 fashion?)

Peter also commented on the last post about the discussion about change in libraries–I won’t try to summarize it–please read it and go to the link he posted. But, he concluded with:

However, after researching, presenting and discussing about this topic for the past year and a half with archivists in both North America and the Netherlands, my impression is that archives administration/bureaucracy will actually be less of a hurdle (to opening up archives systems to include Web 2.0 technologies) than the technical capacity to enhance existing systems, project funding and copyright will be. In fact, I think copyright is the largest elephant in the herd.

Leaving aside copyright (would that we all could!), I still see the issues of enhancing existing systems and funding as related to prioritization of resources. How do managers make their decisions about how to allocate resources? Should a staff member spend time trying to figure out how to do a podcast or processing a collection? If publishing that podcast is going to require more server space, is that more important than—something more traditional and tangible?

Yes, there are technical challenges, and certainly no one I know of has all the resources to do everything they’d like to do, but I’m interested in hearing if there are other reasons archives aren’t moving forward with 2.0 efforts. Maybe I’m wrong, and everyone out there is just champing at the bit to move forward, and technology and money are all that is standing in the way, but I really suspect that there is more to it.

Any thoughts on that, readers, or as Paco Fernández Cuesta wrote on archivista, “El debate está servido”!

Discussion about barriers to change in libraries–fasten your seatbelts!

I almost didn’t publish the post I wrote a few days ago about “What do archivists want?” but now I’m glad I did because of what I’ve been reading over in the biblioblogosphere. I think this post is going to be a bit long and full of links to other blogs, so fasten your seatbelts.

Jill Hurst-Wahl over on Digitization 101 has written some good things lately about using 2.0 technologies in cultural contexts. But after reading her posts, specifically Digital collections & Web 2.0, I was brought back to where I was when I asked the question about what archivists want. I think that most archivists and their managers are aware of the possibilities these new technological capabilities represent. Many probably take advantage of them in other contexts. I don’t think the primary barrier (in the archival world) is ignorance. And I don’t think that the technologies themselves (most of them) are so complex as to be impossible. I think the barriers lie elsewhere; I think they lie (inasmuch as you can generalize about this kind of thing) in the answers to those questions: What do archivists want? What do they fear? What motivates them? How do they measure success? And, to add another, what do their funding sources care about?

I was getting caught up on reading the library blogs when I came across a conversation about a similar subject. I think I saw it first at Librarian in Black:

David Lee King has written an excellent piece entitled “How Can We Change the Unchangeable, or David’s Rant” in which he discusses the elephant in the room with all this wonderful Library 2.0 stuff. (No, not the “inadequate staffing” elephant–that’s the other elephant there in the corner to your left). His elephant is the issue of administrators often blocking change, especially technology changes, and sometimes even those changes that they have requested or initiated.

(As usual, go and read the whole post and the comments to get the whole discussion.)

So, I went and read the original: How Can We Change the Unchangeable, or David’s Rant, and the comments (30 as of today). In short, he gave a talk on change management at the Computers in Libraries conference, and:

First, I asked if attendees had learned something innovative or new at the conference that they’d like to take back to their libraries. Almost everyone raised their hands. Then I followed up with this question: how many will take that cool, innovative idea back to their libraries, and hit a brick wall with administrators when they try to implement that idea. ALMOST EVERYONE RAISED THEIR HANDS.

King then opened a discussion about how this situation can be changed, specifically asking for ideas about:

  • Steps to take to convince administrators that the library world is different than it was in the 1970’s?
  • How to convince administrators that constant change and innovation is good, and that it’s also a necessity in our new millennial world?
  • How can we become change agents in a field that’s apparently not used to changing?

In addition to the comments on his blog, King’s “rant” generated discussion on:

(Caught up yet? I can’t summarize all this.) All this is a fascinating example of the kind of conversation that is possible via blogs, which is a good thing, but, more importantly, what can we take away from this for ourselves? Does all this apply in archives too, or do we have our own twist on the problems? I still think that we who want change must 1) show demonstrable benefits that are relevant to the people we are trying to influence, and 2) must be able to successfully overcome organizational cultures grounded in fear of change and fear of risk.

I know it’s a lot to wrap your brain around, but what do you think? Are we also facing “changing the unchangeable”?

What do archivists want?

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?

Welcome to the archivo-blogosphere, Ed!

About the time I started this blog, someone I know from graduate school posted what I thought was a pretty innocuous (and relevant) question on the archives listserv–six little words that got him into a lot of trouble. Now granted, he doesn’t try as hard as I do not to offend people. That’s not his style. But he was asking what I thought were valid questions and he wasn’t getting any relevant answers. The responses to his questions weren’t contributing anything to exploring a new area for discussion–I think. I have to admit that I wasn’t following that conversation as closely as I might have. I don’t think I am the only one who tunes out on some discussions when they start to take a familiar turn.

We all know there are problems with the listserv. I don’t think it’s the place for discussion of serious issues. That’s why I encouraged my friend, Ed, to take his attempts to start a discussion off the listserv and just start his own blog about archives and politics–or whatever it is he wants to write about. He might not get as many people reading what he writes, but those who do will all be interested in what he has to say.

How can we discuss change productively?

A short aside. I worked, once, in a place where it was almost impossible to implement any truly meaningful or innovative changes. Whenever an idea was brought forward the proposal would be criticized (usually at length) for its choice of words, style, and discussion of the current situation. Those affected would spend a great deal of energy defending their status -even if they knew it to be problematic – or nitpicking language in order to demonstrate some kind of expertise or value. Almost all proposals for change would be destroyed–either because the final product would be so watered down as to be meaningless or the discussion would drag on so long that it would eventually die out. Along the way, those proposing the change would be disheartened or effectively marginalized, further discouraging any future discussion of similar subjects. I have seen the same thing happen, occasionally, on the archives listserv. Anyone who starts to initiate a discussion that challenges the opinions of the dominant voices or tries to start a meaningful analysis of a problem is shouted down or ignored, and so the ideas eventually die out.

I hate to think that this is hallmark of the archival profession. One of our stereotypical characteristics is that we are resistant to change. Are we so resistant to change (and perhaps, defensive about vulnerabilities we know we possess) that we cannot support meaningful discussion about how to move forward? I hope not. I am sure that in the future I will use words that people won’t like. I know my tone may rub some readers the wrong way. My assessment of a current situation may not be completely correct. Believe it or not, I actually spend quite a bit of time trying to make sure what I write will offend as few people as possible. I hope that in this forum, at least, people can focus their discussion on the ideas and about what we can do to “move the ball down the field.”

What is the “archives” brand?

I’ve been doing some reading about the “library” brand and branding in general. I found the 2005 OCLC report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources very interesting and suggest you take look at it–even if you just look at the conclusions. I think it’s time to do some thinking about our “brand” and whether we want to try to do something about it.

This post will be some speculation about how the general public might characterize the “archives” brand. In the OCLC survey:

We asked the open-ended question: “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” verbatim comments from 3,163 respondents were grouped by main theme. Roughly 70 percent of the respondents, across all geographic regions and U.S. age groups, associate library first and foremost with books. There was no runner up. [p.3-31]

If we had a survey asking that question, I think the response would be an overwhelming “old stuff” (or perhaps the real first thing they might think would actually be “nothing”they might draw a total blank). What are the words we hear associated with archives (and archivists)? Musty, dusty, old, crumbling yellowed? In his post What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like? Richard Cox wrote of the way archives (as places) are portrayed in fiction:

Archives, that is the place where the records are stored, are often similarly depicted. They are situated in basements or attics. They are associated with dust and old, useless stuff. They are seen as forgotten places, or as places to put stuff that should, or will, be forgotten.

Just as librarians have to fight their stereotype as a bunch of bun-wearing shushers, I think archivists have a reputation as being more actively engaged with the past than with the present. Here Cox summarizes the characteristics of fictional archivists:

They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people.

I also think that if asked, most people probably wouldn’t think of most archives as places that collected “new” in other words almost-current, stuff. For example, I don’t think most people would associate archives with electronic records. I think that possibly a lot of people would say that archives (as institutions) are a lot like the things they think we hold–antiquated and sequestered, unapproachable with our rules and white gloves. They are probably glad that we’re here glad that someone is saving “that stuff.” But archives are places they probably have never been to and probably will never go to. You don’t take out of town guests to an archives, as you do to a museum. You don’t go there on a Saturday morning with the kids to check out picture books for them and The Da Vinci Code for you. We’re not a part of the fabric of people’s lives. (Except possibly for genealogists, and even that, I think has declined.)

Am I painting it too bleakly? It’s not all bleak; I think people are glad that we exist. And once you explain to someone at a cocktail party what it is you do (after you get the initial blank stare), they might say something like “that sounds cool.”

Another interesting aspect of the OCLC survey was that the words used by librarians to describe libraries and library services were not those used by the survey respondents. The librarians used “trust,” “privacy,” “authoritative information,” “quality information,” “education,” “learning,” “community,” and “access.” In the survey:

We reviewed the over 3,500 verbatim responses from 3,163 respondents to the question “What is the first thing you think of when you think of a library?” to see how many times “trust,””quality,” “authoritative,” “education,” and “privacy” and other often used library attributes were mentioned as the top-of-mind library image.

The words trust, authoritative, and privacy were never mentioned. Community was mentioned in one response. Quality was mentioned twice. Education was mentioned four times; learning was mentioned nine times. Free was mentioned 70 times. Books were mentioned 2,152 times. [3-33]

You can imagine the same kind of thing might happen in a survey of archivists; he public isn’t going to mention authenticity, provenance, arrangement, accountability, finding aids, description, or processing. I think we might have some overlap on “history” and “preservation.” What do you think our brand attributes are?

The last words of the conclusion of the OCLC report are: “It is time to rejuvenate the ‘Library’ brand.” In future posts I’ll talk about rejuvenating the “Archives” brand.

Another post on SAA in the works

There have been quite a few email messages flying around about my last post on SAA 2.0 — many related to Richard Cox’s comment. So far, I should say, pretty much everyone is agreeing with him. The only question is what to do about it. And, reminder people, I know it takes time but you’ve got to post your thoughts as comments. Talking amongst ourselves is great, but part of what we’re trying to do here is make this a public conversation.

I’ve got a follow-up post written, but I’ve sent it out to some people to take a look at. Just to make sure I’m not too far out of line. I hope to get it up here soon. I hope you can see the connection between my next post on branding and the call for leadership Richard made in his comment. I can see myself getting a little evangelical on this subject, but stick with me and I think I just may be able to get some converts.

Do we need SAA 2.0?

I had a couple of conversations with people yesterday about our professional organization (that’s the Society of American Archivists, for any non-archivist readers). That made me go back and read something that I’d tucked away–yet another post from a library blogger. This one is from Information Wants to Be Free (got to love that name) and was called “What about Library Association 2.0?” As usual, I suggest you read the whole thing (and the comments), but her point (to grossly over-summarize) is that the way in which some professional organizations rely primarily on committees to carry out their work is not conducive to capitalizing on the creativity or energy of individual members who may, for whatever reason, want to work outside the committee structure. (See also her remarks about how ALA started using wikis, in the context of our discussion about a wiki for SAA.)

In a related post, the Librarian in Black (damn! I should have been the Archivist in Black!) wrote:

State associations are really outliving their usefulness. I wonder, though, if our national associations are not doing the same thing. It used to be that the only way to network was through the associations. But that is no longer really true. So much happens online through listservs, blogs, webinars, etc. I personally don’t feel the necessity to belong to any association in order to “network.” So, what do I get for being a part of an association?

Let’s call a spade a spade. These associations lobby on our libraries’ behalf. So, I pay quite a bit of money for membership to a state or national association that returns nearly no substantial benefits to me (a small discount on conference registration and a quarterly [state] or monthly [national] print publication). So what does all that money I give them go to? To lobby on behalf of my employer.

I’m not suggesting that SAA has outlived its usefulness, and I think I’m pretty comfortable with where my dues go, but I do think some discussion of the way SAA conducts some of its/our business would be useful. I have serious concerns about the way the whole business of the listserv archives was handled (leaving aside the actual appraisal decision). In my longest post to date (March 29, I’m sure you read every word), I wrote about the ways in which I think the society must embrace new technologies in order to achieve its goals. I’m afraid that I do sometimes feel, as Richard Cox so eloquently put it in a listserv message requesting the release of the appraisal report:

SAA needs to be an open organization, and my fear is that the damage done to its public image in this recent discussion is severe, supporting what many have criticized as its elitism and disconnection from the archival community.

I guess what I see as common threads in these discussions are contrasting visions of a closed, conservative organization that works via committees to perpetuate the values and methods of the status quo, or of an open, nimble organization that is more welcoming to the contributions of members outside formal committee structures. I’m not suggesting SAA is the former, or can ever be the latter (I don’t think any organization of its kind ever could). But, does anyone else think it’s too close to the former and not close enough to the latter?

Might look off topic, but isn’t: $1.25 million for a story about a cat!

A post on booktruck.org led me to a story in the New York Times:

“In a hotly contested deal, the life story of Dewey, a rescued cat who lived for 19 years in a library in a small town in Iowa, has sold for about $1.25 million to Grand Central Publishing. “

One of the co-authors will be Vicki Myron, the head librarian in Spencer, Iowa. The hope is that this will be the Marley & Me for cat-lovers. I admit, it’s a great story:

“Dewey,” which was sold on the basis of a 45-page proposal with about 10 photos of the fluffy orange cat, will tell the story of how the kitten was found in the late-night book drop of the public library in Spencer, a town in the northwest part of the state, and adopted by Ms. Myron and the other librarians. Slowly, over the course of his 19-year life, Dewey became a town mascot who lifted the spirits of residents hit hard by the 1980s farming crisis. In the process he attracted the attention of tourists, cat-calendar makers and filmmakers. He appeared in “Puss in Books: Adventures of the Library Cat,” a 1997 documentary, and another film made by Japanese documentarians. When he died last November, his obituary ran in more than 250 publications, including USA Today and The Washington Post.”

[Apologies to my friend at the Order from Chaos blog–my first thought was to send this link to you to write about–but hey, I couldn’t resist.]

On my list of things to do (it’s a long list), is to write a book about archives that will be as big as Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. You’ll probably recognize her because she was the model for the popular (in some circles) librarian action figure. I think I can do it–the book will be a spinoff from my podcast series (I haven’t forgotten about that project, friends).

And, in case you missed it, librarians also recently got a shout out (of a kind) from one of my heroes, Stephen Colbert. In an interview with John Perry Barlow about copyright, Stephen “trademarked” the phrase “librarians are hiding something” because “no one has ever said that before.” You can see the video here, courtesy of the Shifted Librarian.

What does all this have in common and why did I say it’s not off topic? It’s about public visibility for a profession–about being part of the popular culture. And I don’t think we’re there yet, even with National Treasure. What do we have to do to get million dollar book deals, New York Times bestsellers, action figures, and a moment of glory from Stephen (and a mention in Wired, per earlier post)? Or do some of you think we shouldn’t be doing those things?