What are the differences between archival culture in the U.S. and Canada?

I’ve been invited to give a short talk at an event in Canada and in thinking about what I want to say I am nervous that I may perhaps not have an accurate understanding of how things may differ for our archival colleagues to the north. I think I understand the differences in mechanics–about the words we use, the way we describe things, etc. What I’m not sure I have a good grasp on are the differences in what, for lack of a better term I’ve called “archival culture.” In other words, the ways in which archivists relate to each other, to historians, to patrons, to funders, etc. How are archival organizations in Canada viewed and valued by their society? In what key ways is this “archival culture” different from that of the U.S.? Or is it not so different?

I’d appreciate any thoughts or insights to help me from putting a foot wrong in my talk. And, of course, this may generate an interesting conversation that may help others and be of general interest to many. So, please, comment away and share your thoughts on the differences–or lack thereof–between archival culture in the U.S. and Canada.



Archives and innovation, or, how I’m spending my summer and (and early fall)

You may have noticed that things have been a bit quiet here (and on Twitter). So, here’s a update.

It can’t possibly have escaped your attention if you follow this blog that I’m editing a series of four books for Scarecrow press, each a compilation of case studies on an area of archival practice: outreach, reference and access, description, and management. Each book will contain ~12ish case studies, so what I am doing and have been doing is lining those up and reviewing drafts.

In addition to that, like the ambitious/crazy person that I am, I want to add something of value to each book that speaks to the meaning of “innovation” in archives and to the development of “innovation” in that area of practice. Will I actually be able to do that? Who knows. But it’s my goal. My tentative outline now for my introduction is:

  • What do we mean when we talk about innovation?
  • Is there a history of innovation in archives/spec coll in US?
  • What has the development of this area looked like? Have there been past periods of innovation? (Based on analysis of past 40 SAA annual meeting programs & literature review)
  • Overview of case studies and why they represent innovation.

As I said, this might not work out, and it certainly might not end up looking anything like that outline! But as you might imagine, if I really do try to explore the development of each of those four areas of practice in any depth, I’m going to have a pretty hectic summer ahead of me.  So if you see odd tweets about literature from the past or titles of sessions from SAA annual meetings of the ’70s, ’80’s, ’90’s, 00’s, and 10’s, that’s what that’s about.

Wish me luck! (Oh, and don’t forget to make your donation–applicants are flowing in but donations have slowed . . . )


What should archives or archivists stop doing? What should we drop?

That’s my appropriation of a question asked on Twitter by Andy Burkhardt, who asked it about libraries and librarians. His tweet was inspired by this article on Fast Company, “The 5 Questions Every Company Should Ask Itself.”

So, friends, what should archives or archivists stop doing? What should we drop? And feel free to elaborate on why, if you’re inspired and have the time. I expect to get a lot of valuable responses from archivists, but if you’re a historian, scholar, or user of archives, I’d like to hear your ideas too. We all know archives are being asked to do more with less and that’s just not possible. So what can we drop? The floor is yours.

What books about archives should historians read?

In thinking about book groups yesterday, I thought it would be interesting to have historians read books from our discipline to help them learn about archives. So I’ll pose here the question I posted on Twitter, what one book do you think would give historians (and other scholars) the best understanding of what archives are and how they function? And what archivists really do, too, I suppose. Here are some suggestions from Twitter:

I also think that Archives Power might be a good choice.  And although I had issues with some of its conclusions, Fran Blouin and William Rosenberg’s Processing the Past does do a good job of providing an overview of the field. I suppose the answer is that there is no one book, so perhaps putting together a reading list might be a more effective approach. Thoughts on the suggestions so far? More to add?

A different kind of “archival silence”: “we are in the middle of a selective recreation of inherited culture”

This has been making the rounds on Twitter this morning, and it deserves a wider audience. Tim Hitchcock, a professor of 18th century history in England, has posted “A Five Minute Rant for the Consortium of European Research Libraries.” He eloquently voices his concerns about issues of selectivity and bias in what materials from archives, special collections, and research libraries are digitized and made available online. Here’s a teaser, in case you need one, to encourage you to read the whole thing:

Without serious intent and political will – a determination to digitise the more difficult forms of the non-canonical, the non-Western, the non-elite and the quotidian – the materials that capture the lives and thoughts of the least powerful in society – we will have inadvertently turned a major area of scholarship, in to a fossilised irrelevance.

I believe Hitchcock’s concerns relate to the type of “archival silence” discussed by some digital humanities scholars, as well as in a previous blog post here (Two Meanings of “Archival Silences” and Their Implications). But Hitchcock goes further. As I interpret his remarks, he is critiquing the rush to digitize certain types of materials as well as those that most easily lend themselves to certain types of uses:

we have allowed our cultural inheritance to be sieved and posted in a narrowly canonical form; the siren voices of the information scientists: the Googlers, coders and Culturomics wranglers, have discovered in that body of digitised material, a new object of study.  All digital texts is now data, that date is now available for new forms of analysis, and that data is made up of the stuff we chose to digitise.   All of which embeds a subtle biases towards a particular subset of the human experience.

Archivists must digitize materials that they think people will find interesting and use. And often they must make an argument or present a case to support their selection of materials. Hitchcock is correct that perhaps too often it is easier to defend a decision to digitize “nationally significant” materials. And I think he is correct that it is part of the responsibility of archivists to ensure diversity of the digitized record as well as the diversity of the materials we collect. And it is incumbent on scholars to recognize the limited nature of that which has been digitized compared to that which exists in the archival record, to go back to the “archival silences” discussion.



Honest tips for wannabe archivists out there

This post was inspired by an exchange on Twitter last week which followed up on a tweet regarding something said at #rbms12 (that’s this year’s meeting of ACRL’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Section).  A conference attendee summarized a speaker as saying:

If you love “the stuff,” you’re closer to getting a job in archives and special collections.

This kicked off a wave of responses about how it’s more important to love people and helping people than it is to love “the stuff.” And following on from that were observations about how some people still want to become archivists because they 1) don’t want to deal with people or 2) don’t like using technology. And for some reason they see archives (and special collections) as safe havens in which they can escape from pesky people and annoying computers. So I’m here to burst your bubble if you happen to be one of those people. Here’s  my advice for you (as shared first on Twitter):  Continue reading “Honest tips for wannabe archivists out there”

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s DHSI Plenary Lecture: “Digital Humanities Archive Fever”

I have been meaning to write a post about this lecture for some time but haven’t been able to find the time for it. But that shouldn’t stop you from watching it, if you haven’t already. Matt generously posted a list of his projects in the comments on the previous post, and I think his point of view in discussing the intersection of archives and digital humanities will interest readers of this blog. Enjoy, and I’m interested in your reactions too.

DHSI Plenary Lecture: “Digital Humanities Archive Fever” from MITH in MD on Vimeo.

New trend? Librarians, archivists & museum professionals ruling the world

I’m referring to this almost ebullient post by the Library of Congress’ Butch Lazorchak on the Signal blog, “#sxswLAM: Libraries, Archives and Museums in an Interactive World.” It’s a beautiful vision, and it’s great to hear that participating in the South By Southwest Interactive Conference has given him this kind of warm rosy optimistic glow.

Butch’s post bolsters my claim that “blurring of organizational roles” is a significant trend for archives. In an earlier draft of my trends post I had a list of trends I wanted to see, and although I didn’t phrase it in quite the same way, “librarians, archivists & museum professionals ruling the world” is pretty close. It’s my hope (and Butch’s vision) that LAM professionals can emerge as leaders in the evolving digital world. But this will only happen if more of them engage in wider discussions, as some LAM representatives are doing.

How optimistic are you about this trend? Do you have other examples to add to the many in Butch’s post? What else needs to be done?

My Version of Trendswatch 2012: The Archives Edition

I just quickly looked over the inaugural issue of Trendswatch, a new annual report from the American Association of Museums’s Center for the Future of Museums.

The inaugural issue of TrendsWatch—TrendsWatch 2012: Museums and the Pulse of the Future—highlights seven trends that CFM’s staff and advisors believe are highly significant to museums and their communities, based on scanning and analysis over the past year:

  • Crowdsourcing
  • Threats to Nonprofit Status
  • Mobile, distributive experiences
  • New forms of funding
  • Creative Aging
  • Augmented reality
  • Shifts in Education

For each trend, the report provides a summary, examples of how the trend is playing out in the world, comments on the trend’s significance to society and to museums, dozens of links to relevant news and research and suggestions for ways that museums might respond.

Download a copy of the report here

Needless to say the report is worth reading. But naturally my mind jumped immediately to what kind of list an equivalent group would makes for archives. I think the results would be somewhat different, don’t you? Since I don’t have the resources to assemble such a panel of experts, I just came up with a list of my own:   Continue reading “My Version of Trendswatch 2012: The Archives Edition”

The problem with the scholar as “archivist,” or is there a problem?

I have a problem, dear readers. And I think the solution to my problem is that I need to get over my problem. But let’s get to the end of the post and see if you think that’s the right solution.

Regular readers will remember past discussion here about “the increasingly common use of “archive” as a verb,” the use of the phrase “citizen archivist,” and the evolving relationship between archivists and historians. I was reminded of some of these discussions as I started to delve more seriously into resources about the digital humanities to prepare to write a blog post and the role of the archivist in digital humanities. This is not that post. This post returns to the same old semantic ground as earlier posts. What should my reaction be when I hear scholars talk about the “archives” they have created, collected, or manage? Because right now my reaction is pretty much akin to my dog’s when the mailman approaches. A low threatening growl, possibly followed by sharp nasty barking if the situation escalates (well, I’ve never actually barked at a scholar, but you get the picture). When my dog does this, I try to calm her down and explain that the mailman is our friend. He brings us something we need. She is not swayed by these arguments. Neither does it matter that the mailman delivers mail almost every day and never enters the house. You’d think she’d get over her instinctual reaction to protect her turf, and yet every time she growls.  Continue reading “The problem with the scholar as “archivist,” or is there a problem?”