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?

More on archivists using wikis

Thanks for all the great feedback on the suggestion of the wiki for the Chicago meeting–it’s looking like it’s probably going to happen. I’ll keep everyone posted in this space, and again, if you’re willing to help, let me know. We’re trying to get a list together.

I read another post by a librarian about using wikis, and again, it’s something I think lots of archivists could/should be doing. It’s a great post from, and I suggest you read the whole thing, but the gist of it is that she takes it upon herself to add or edit Wikipedia entries for communities in her native state (Vermont) and to create links from the entries to trusted information sources (such as official city websites or public libraries). She also keeps on eye on these entries to make sure other people don’t vandalize them or add spurious information.

See what I mean? I have a friend who is an archivist at a small (but highly prestigious) college. His collection has materials related to quite a few historical figures, and they’ve done a good job of putting material about these people on the archives website. I checked Wikipedia and none of the entries for these people refer to his collection. And one of the people nearest and dearest to his heart doesn’t even have an entry. We all know that people–including a lot of students–use Wikipedia. Let’s make sure it’s accurate, as complete as possible, and gets the word out about our collections.

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

A post on 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?

How about a wiki for the Chicago meeting?

So, as I wrote in an earlier post, it looked like there were a bunch of archivist bloggers active around the last SAA Annual Meeting in DC. On the Shifted Librarian blog (which I love, love, love, by the way) I found a lovely looking link that said “I’ll be blogging ALA Annual.” When you click on it, it takes you to the official wiki of the 2007 ALA Annual Conference. Take a look at it. I don’t know how much of this duplicates their program, but I can see ways in which we could do something interesting like this for our next annual meeting in Chicago. What do you all think? At the very least, I think it would be something that the Chicago Host Committee might have some fun with. Having been on the DC Host Committee, I think if we’d had something like this we probably would have used it to give people info about DC.

What do you think, fellow DC Host Committee alums? Are the SAA members ready for a wiki?

Why can’t we be cool like librarians?

[Up comes the rotten tomato shield again.]

I think this is a great thing:
Public Library Geeks Take Web 2.0 to the Stacks

1) Helene Blowers from a public library in North Carolina has come up with a pretty simple way to get her employees to try out new web technologies.

“Listed below are 23 Things (or small exercises) that you can do on the web to explore and expand your knowledge of the Internet and Web 2.0.”

And it worked. (Well, yes she did bribe them with nifty gifts. Not very many archivsts can do that, I grant you.)

2) It made Wired magazine. And according to that article, other places are doing it too.

So, if I posted a link to this on the Archives & Archivists listserv and asked people who were interested in doing this to contact me so we could get a group together to do it, how many responses do you think I would get? If I got enought people to do it, should I propose reporting the results at the SAA Research Forum in Chicago? (That’s sort of a joke, but, hey, why not?)

Any thoughts?

And the award goes to . . .

Yeah, I know, that post was too long. So this one will be short.

To try to help raise the visibility of archives actually doing good work with web technology, I’m going to do two things next week.

1) I’m going to contact the editors at American Archivist and volunteer to do regular reviews of archival resources on the web. (Note that this doesn’t appear to be within their current editorial policy: “The Reviews department evaluates books and other archival literature as well as the tools and products of archival activity such as finding aids, microfilm editions, audiovisual materials, exhibits, and computer software.” Nothing about web resources. Wish me luck!)

2) I’m going to contact the chairs of the SAA Awards Committee and propose a new award to recognize excellence and innovation in delivering information about archival materials or programs on the web. (Similar to the “Best of the Web” awards that get given out at the Museums & the Web conference.) I’m not too optimistic about this one, but I’m going to give it a shot. I’ll volunteer to do any work they need done to get it going. If anyone has any words of advice on this, let me know.

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 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.