Often, when I need to un-jumble to my all too often jumbled thoughts, when I need some guidance, I look to the wise philosophers from Spinal Tap.
Ahhhh, I knew they would give words to the confused feelings.
That is what this post is, really. I will be be talking about the perspective I have gained since I have essentially stopped writing this blog. Sometimes, it seems, that I do indeed have too much, too much fucking perspective. I will also be talking a lot about myself and my feelings and junk, something that I am not all that comfortable with and something that I am pretty sure not all that many people will be interested in reading. But that is OK. I feel as though NewArchivist needs some kind of wrap up, something more than just an abrupt ending. If I am to let it die from neglect, I at least want to write its obituary.
The Sound of Silence I have not written here in a really long time, and I have not written about employment issues in any meaningful way in even longer. There are a lot of reasons for that, including time and the fact that more and more of my interest is going in the direction of digital preservation. But there are other reasons too. When this blog started I wanted it to be a place where all sorts of folks could talk about how the field is changing, and how we new professionals are helping shape it. However, before long it started to focus on some specific employment issues facing new professionals. That is not a bad thing. In fact it is just the opposite. Even though I have moved this site to a cheaper hosting solution (the default banner and broken links are only a shadow of its once bloggy self) I remain very, very proud of the things that are written here by myself and a lot of other folks. I am proud of the discussions that took place here, and am especially proud of the small part I played to contribute to the atmosphere that helped create great new sources of dialogue like SAA’s SNAP Roundtable and the blog You Ought to be Ashamed.
I think I have pretty clearly laid out here what I believe are the problems that need to be addressed in the profession. My best articulations of these (at least as articulate as I get) is my post on archival employment and education and the summary of my ethical internship presentation from the 2011 SAA Annual Meeting. I still feel as strongly about these issues as when I wrote them. Maybe even stronger. But here is the thing: How many times can I say it? How many times can I stress the connection between the lack of diversity in our field, especially people from different economic backgrounds, and the amount of financial hurtles that bar people from the profession (expensive graduate programs, unpaid internships, low starting pay, etc.)? How many times can I say that low paying or unpaid internships and “volunteer” positions that do professional level work devalue all of our degrees and jobs? I know this may sound bitter. I do not mean it that way. Perhaps I am just not creative or energetic enough to find new ways to contribute to the discussion, but the fact is I grew tired of seemingly saying the same things in different ways over and over.
Choose Your Echo Chamber I found the discussions here and elsewhere about these issues to be super valuable. Mostly, it was so heartening for me to learn that others feel the same way, are going through similar things, have similar fears. However, as far as actually changing anything for the better, I doubt that much moved in that area. I just don’t think many people who shared different perspectives on employment issues read this blog. At the least they certainly did not comment much. This fits into a larger context, as it is very hard to find forums where people feel comfortable voicing their views, especially when it goes against the generally held view on these forums. I used to subscribe to the Archives & Archivists listserv. It did not take me long to come to the conclusion that any time something of substance was broached on the list, the following pattern would be followed:
Person #1: Here is what I think of this nuanced issue
Person #2: Not only are you wrong, but you must have something wrong with you, character-wise, to even hold that view
Person #2: What don’t more people have discussions on this list?
I am obviously NOT saying that everything was useless or everyone was mean, but I grew tired of hearing off the cuff, often mean spirited comments from a vocal few and happily unsubscribed. Recent activity has shown it has not improved in that area. I am active on Twitter, where I truly feel I have made some of my most important professional contacts. However, that has the same limitation as discussions on blogs. As a Twitter user I have the chance to curate the list of people I follow (I used that word just to see if you were still paying attention). I think it is human nature, or at least this human’s nature, to not follow a bunch of people that I totally disagree with. So, I think the same echo chamber happens there. People may disagree with each other on nuance or details but, at least in my small Twitter niche, when I say something about employment I am not really worried someone will tell me I am completely crazy. Mostly because those people do not follow me, nor I them. I still talk about this on Twitter and do not plan on stopping, but like this blog I doubt I am doing much beyond preaching to the choir. A very smart and engaged choir, but a choir nonetheless.
The Breakup When I first started writing and discussing these issues, I really had high hopes for the roles professional organizations could play, especially SAA. As previously mentioned, I presented on one of the topics I feel strongly about at an SAA annual meeting, and was very engaged in discussions with members and leaders. I was also involved in other areas of the organization including serving on a committee. Then, in the fall of 2012, the Great Volunteer Guide Meltdown happened. I do not want to rehash that thing here, at all. But if you are not familiar with it I will provide you with a super-biased summary. Here is the timeline: SAA posted a guide on internships written by NARA, some of us took issue with some language that we felt encouraged professional level work by non-professional staff, a discussion happened on Twitter that included folks from SAA elected leadership, most everyone lost their minds. It was like the fight in the first Anchorman, when all of a sudden Brick through a spear at that guy.
I made some mistakes in that discussion, for sure, but I also left it with the feeling that some of the elected leadership would not listen to valid points. I still think that, in fact. I had fallen head over heels for SAA, but when I saw it was holding hands with the class bully (that bully’s name: Devaluation of Professional Level Work) I got mad, told SAA I never wanted to see it again, and took my books out of its locker as I tearfully remembered when I stood outside its window and played “In Your Eyes” on my kick-ass boombox.
Now for the disclaimer, I do not think SAA is “bad” or anything like that. The professional staff does an amazing amount of work and its commitment to providing education to archivists is impressive and filling a much needed space. However, I do not feel it will lead us to the place we have to go in this area. Professional organizations are simply not well suited for that kind of thing in general. It is, at its core, a reflection of its membership, and I just do not see the membership on the same page in this area. That is not to say that it cannot provide leadership, in fact the new crop of leaders are approaching some of these problems in really constructive ways. But I think the change must ultimately come from the other direction with SAA responding to demands from a community that has already shifted to a widely held position, similar to its work to advocate on copyright (Community: “We all think current copyright laws suck!” SAA: “To the advocacy-mobile!”). Unfortunately, we are far from that right now in the area of employment.
What Are You Trying to Do Again? So, if there is anyone still actually reading this, I am sure you are thinking “OK, this guy sure has outlined all of the areas he has withdrawn from. What a old-movie-referencing jerk.” Right around the time my writing started to wane, I found myself in a position at my job where I was actually engaged in having to deal with some of these employment issues. I found it is not hard to say things like “unpaid professional level work in unethical,” but it is hard to argue that you need to let work sit, work that a volunteer could be found to complete, while you struggle to find funding for a position. Or, harder yet, funding cannot be found and that works does not get done. It is easy to say “all job postings should state the salary range,” it is hard to argue with the HR department of a large organization to make that happen. I am not saying that these issues are hard because the ethics behind them have somehow changed, what is hard is the fact that you are not arguing against some wanker on a list or Twitter, but are advocating for things to people that are affected by very real-world constraints and are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the organization. The organization that pays their bills and protects the history they love. That is hard.
Here is the thing though, by far the most valuable perspective I have gained in my short career is it is not me against the world. Every time I was part of an argument for or against something in the area of employment ethics, I was part of a team that believed this was an important thing to fight for. I was not the only one who would rather see work not get done than see it done by someone not qualified to do it, or create a position that requires too much and pays too little. The people joining me in these fights were not all newer professionals like me, not by a long shot. Many of them were people with decades of experience and who have done more to directly affect things like this than I could imagine doing. They are people who have been fighting this fight for years, quietly, and often directed at people who where their bosses. The belief that needs of people outweigh the needs of archives is not something that is limited by age, or position, or years in the field. The fight may be louder right now and involving more people, but it sure as hell ain’t new.
And that is what I have been trying to do these past few years. As my responsibilities grow I try to follow the example of my mentors to do what I can to better my little corner. I do not win every fight, but hopefully as my corner grows I will be able to affect more. While this is, by necessity, quiet work, I also want to regain my public voice on these issues as well. Not so much by saying what I think, but by sharing what I do. My wins and losses. We have seen some great examples recently of professionals sharing things like internship and student employment models and I would like to add to that discussion. Also, we really need to address the employment issues tied up with the current state of graduate education in the archives and LIS fields. Blog, tweet, or call your school and tell them that you are concerned about these issues and are watching their performance. One call or visit or blog post probably will not do much, but several calls from several people might. I have the naive view that most schools actually want to educate their students and are concerned about their employment, and I also have the cynical view that they understand that lost reputation can and will result in lost revenue. Our feedback is valued for one or both of those reasons.
So, I guess the point of all this is, engage when and where and with whom you feel comfortable. I want to stress I do not think discussion is useless. I would LOVE for me to be wrong and see SAA lead in this area. I would LOVE for productive discussions to happen on any forum. And I LOVE that so many new voices are emerging in this discussion. I particularly appreciate what Sam Winn has contributed, she even does, like research and stuff. Please keep up the discussions, and contribute in ways that you think have value. But know that the sometimes maddening quiet and the seeming lack of support in public does not mean that a large part of this community does not get it, does not understand, and is not doing anything. The lack of supporting views on lists or twitter does not mean that the vast majority of people are not appalled by the few rude ones, most are just choosing to show them the indifference they deserve.
If you feel strongly about this stuff, please keep fighting. And remember that sometimes the hottest fires do not produce smoke.