Once More Unto the Breach

I am sorry that I have not posted in so long. I promise that I will get on a more regular schedule now that I am settled into my new job and college football is almost over (a guy can have his guilty pleasures, right?) ~ed.

There has been a lot of talk lately about some of the challenges of our profession, this blog included. But it also got me wondering if the pendulum has now swung too far to the negative. I mean, why do we do it? Why do we go against the advice and become archivists? Why do most of the profession’s critics (me included) remain in the profession? The answer, for me, lies in two completely unrelated things that I came across over the past few weeks.

Badass Archivists: It was recently announced that NARA is investigating the destruction of the so-called CIA torture tapes. This announcement comes on the heels of the Justice Department concluding its own investigation and deciding it will not be taking any further action. The action by NARA prompted a Gawker blogger to declare “the Justice Department may fold like a cheap hooker, but NARA doesn’t fool around. You’ve fucked with the wrong archivists, CIA!”

I usually avoid discussing politics, and I know there certainly are politics at play here. But I am going to give the benefit of the doubt and say that there is also something more going on. Much like the embarrassing Sandy Berger incident, NARA tends to use investigations as a way to call out people or agencies out who are somehow abusing them or the archival record. I do not agree with NARA all the time, and I know it has its issues, but I love in this case they are fighting the good fight.

If I Don’t Do It, Who Will? I recently had a interesting conversation with a corporate archivist. First, a little context. I know the economy is difficult for everyone these days. But we here in Michigan have had it very bad, and the badness started a few years before the rest of the country. My relatively short commute each weekday brings me by shuttered factories, office parks, and homes. It is profoundly sad for a very proud Michigander like myself. The archivist was relating how challenging it is to work in such an environment. This company has fired (I hate the work laid-off) entire departments. Often, the archivist has to go to these departments to save records before they are all destroyed by people who do not see the value, people who view records and archives as just another needless cost that should be cut.

So why does the archivist continue to work here, to work in this environment of too many records and demands, and not nearly enough funding or staff? The answer: “If I don’t do it, who will? Who will save this history?” That statement actually gave me chills when I heard it. This archivist is fighting the good fight.

The Fight: The fight can take many forms. It might be a very public fight for justice and accountability. Or, it might be a private fight to follow one’s own professional standards. Either way that fight is based in principle and the passion for one’s work. It is based in the belief that often “the right thing,” whatever the hell that is, is worth the battle.

I think this passion and principle is at the heart of why we work in this profession and why we try to better it. I want to make things accessible, and this career feeds that passion. That is why I am an archivist rather than something that makes more money or earns more public respect. I think the profession as a whole is grounded, for the most part, in this same principled approach to our work. That is why I bothered to write my manifesto, why Rebbecca proposed her Howl-Up, and why the Justice League writes about crappy jobs, because deep down we believe a profession grounded in ethics and principle can change for the better. It is also why people, no matter how many times they are told not to become archivists, that library school is too crowded, and that they will not find a job, will continue to want to work in this field. It is why most people who complain about the archives profession have no intention of being anything other than archivists.

It is why people keep finding the motivation to fight the good fight. So Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our Archivist dead.

OK, maybe not that last dead-wall part…

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