Tag Archives: the good stuff

My Unsolicited Advice

I am writing in response to Kate Theimer’s great post over at ArchivesNext, Honest tips for wannabe archivists out there, where she discusses some advice given to people thinking about becoming archivists via Twitter and email. I encourage you to go over and read it along with the great comments. I started to write a comment and it grew and grew until no comment section could contain it.  The thing I want to focus on here, is something Kate mentions early on:

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

To be perfectly honest, when I first read this I thought that some folks were building a straw man here. I mean, who thinks archives are a place to hide from technology and people? How is this possible? Well, my initial query on Twitter got me some very eye-opening responses (like this on, and this one, and this one). Turns out, people are actually thinking that this is true. Not only that, some are even able to cling to this falsehood through grad school. I find this so appalling and shocking, that I have to say something on it (although no one asked me to, hence the “unsolicited” part).

The Balance Part of what people are saying on ArchivesNext has to do with the balance between loving the stuff in an archive and loving making that stuff accessible. To me, this is an interesting question and one I have thought on a bit (mostly while waiting for corn dogs to cook in my toaster oven). I fall on one extreme of the argument in that I think there is so much to know in the field of archives and libraries that having those skills far outweigh the advantage of “loving the stuff.” Yes, I initially entered the profession because of my love of history, especially after working at the Chicago History Museum and being around things like letters written by Lincoln. But very early into grad school I was introduced to the challenges and opportunities of digital material, the importance of public service, and the role archives play in accountability and social justice. I still personally love history. A colleague at my last position would show me awesome things like letters written by Washington and Franklin before he would scan them. Again, this is really cool to me on a personal level. But on a professional level, coolness is defined by providing access to those documents for someone who could not possibly travel to see it, or ensure that digital documents created today are just as accessible as that Washington letter hundreds of years from now.

Before I get someone telling me that you need to have deep subject knowledge for some archives positions, I completely agree. Just like the case with subject librarians, it would be hard to build archival collections in a certain subject field without any knowledge of that subject. There is one caveat to that though. I do not see many entry level positions that are geared toward building that kind of expertise. My previous positions were 18 and 24 month grant funded jobs that were focused on the technical expertise of preserving and making accessible digital collections. In positions like that, what am I going to be more focused on, building my technical skills or learning about the history of the automobile? Where is my motivation to build subject knowledge in this environment? What subjects do I even concentrate on? So, if you are one of those archivists contending that successful archivists have a lot of subject knowledge, I hope you are creating entry level permanent positions that allow for that kind knowledge development. And by the looks of the job postings over the last three years, not a lot of you are.

OK, sorry, that was a bit of a diversionary rant there. On to the whole “dealing with people” thing.

External People I used to work retail. It is hard to work retail and retain your love of the public. Believe me. I know. However, the idea that you can avoid interaction with people by being an archivist is laughable. In my previous position, I worked the reference desk until someone in upper management (non-archivist/librarian) pulled me off so I can have more time to work on a project. While I will admit there were times I was happy not having to stop working on something to do my reference shift, I have no doubt that the time on the desk made me a better archivist. This is mostly because it was my damn job to make material accessible to the public, and my time on the desk was part of that obligation. However, there are also specific areas where interacting with users really helped my work. At the 2010 SAA conference, I went to a session on MPLP and reference where Dennis Meissner said something to the effect that he requires all staff involved in creating description to work reference shifts so they can see the results of their work. I completely agree with this. Seeing users interacting with a finding aid has taught me more about description than any class, article, or standard. This is also true of virtual access to digital materials. How can you build a usable website or access system without having a deep understanding of how your users will search, use, and reuse the material? Avoiding the users of archival material would make you a pretty poor archivist, even if avoiding them were possible.

Internal People My favorite comment to Kate’s post is the one made by Mark Matienzo, where he states:

I have serious concerns about the “anti-people” attitude in the profession, because the interpersonal interactions are incredibly vital to what I do…

I could not agree with this more. The single most important factor determining the success or failure of my professional work to date is my ability to build partnerships and work with others. Yep, that sentence got italicized AND bolded. I cannot stress this enough. Unless you are the only archivist/librarian, IT person, conservator, CFO, and a bunch more, you will have to interact successfully with colleagues to get stuff done. I know us information professionals can be an awkward bunch, but we have to overcome some of our introverted ways to build partnerships, express concerns, and most importantly advocate for accessible and ethically constructed archival collections. If you don’t think you have good people skills, improve them. If you think you have people skills, improve them. The era of the lonely archivist is the dusty back room fiddling with papers that no one will see is dead. And I for one am happy to dance on that particular corpse (and just for the record, I am not one to advocate corpse dancing).

In conclusion (now do you see why I did not leave this as a comment), I can’t help but wonder about the role of graduate programs in allowing this kind of thinking to continue. Some people on Twitter think a lot of it is due to the students’ ability to delude themselves, and I am sure that is true. It is, however, up to these graduate programs to give an honest assessment of the skills necessary to get a job in this already hyper-competitive market. This is especially true of technical skills. If you are a person looking at a grad school, ask them how they will prepare you for the highly technical environment of the field. If they do not hit that question out of the ballpark, may I suggest you keep looking. If you are currently in grad school and the faculty is not addressing the technical aspects of the profession (which apparently is actually happening!), ask for your tuition back and go somewhere where they have a clue.

And, if you are becoming an archivist because you have been told it is a place to hide from people or technology, you have received some pretty bad advice.

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Thankful Archivist: 2011

So here we are, once again ready to do what has become a holiday tradition here at NewArchivist, the celebration of that which makes the cockles of my archivist heart glow warm and fuzzy (confession: I just wanted to write “cockles”).

Archival Grassroots I have written more than once on what an awesome group of archivists are on web 2.0, but man, there are a lot of awesome archivists on web 2.0 right now. A case in point: Kate Theimer suggested that archivists should band together and provide Spontaneous Scholarships for folks who needed some assistance attending the 2011 SAA conference. Well, we banded together and provided money to help 26 archivists engage in the profession, many of the donations coming from people on Facebook or Twitter. Getting an early start on next year, Alison Smith and Rebecca Goldman put together Closed Stacks, Open Shutters: An Archivist Photobook with all of the proceeds going to the scholarship fund.

Besides illustrating that archivist are willing to show some skin for a good cause, this grassroots effort also illustrates how archivists engaging each other on social media are beginning to band together to not only point out concerns with the profession, but to provide some real solutions. This is an exciting time to be involved with such a great group.

Deviled Eggs Remain Freakin' Awesome

Deviled Eggs courtesy of Flickr member Andrew Scrivani / CC-BY-NC-ND

Digital Preservation Doers The world of digital preservation is developing by leaps and bounds. There are currently countless projects focusing on the further development of policy, software, and best practice solutions to providing long-term access to important digital assets. Many of these projects are funded by large grants and are hosted at universities and government agencies. For archivists grappling with preserving digital content for the first time, there are some great opportunities to learn about these solutions. Conferences now abound with sessions dealing with digital preservation. The Library of Congress’s digital preservation collaborative NDIPP provides a lot of great resources, including its very active blog The Signal. There is also the Digital Preservation Management Workshop, which I had the pleasure of working on as part of my first professional position.

While I am thankful for all of these wonderful projects and training opportunities, I am REALLY appreciative for are the folks who do this kind of thing as part of their normal work then share either the knowledge or tools with others. One example of this is the Data Accessioner tool from Duke University Archives. Designed by archivist Seth Shaw, the program packages together several other tools for doing things like checksum and file format validation, among others. The Data Accessioner is free for download, and the source code has also been made available. We implemented it in our own workflow and are very happy with the results, even developing some of our own tools for using the XML generated from the Accessioner to get information into our institutional CMS.

A great example of someone sharing knowledge is Chris Prom from the University of Illinois who, among other things, is co-director of the Archon project and is currently a member of the technical team for ArchiveSpace. His blog Practical E-Records shares his knowledge of digital records management and archives. Even though I think of myself as being well-versed in the area of digital preservation, I consult Practical E-Records often for tool evaluations and general advice on implementation. Most importantly, Chris applies his recommendations to small shops and folks without a ton of technical knowledge or resources. In my book, the ability to outline a “rudimentary” OAIS compliant system based on a simple Windows directory structure and open-source tools is a thing of beauty.

Thanks to Seth, Chris, and the many others who are committed to helping create and share solutions for the entire archival community.

Grandma So, those of you who usually read my blog will know that I don’t usually talk about personal stuff. But this time I am going to indulge myself a bit, as I just can’t write about what I am thankful for in my life and not mention my grandma, Helen Fowler. Grandma passed away over Thanksgiving weekend at the age of 93. I learned a lot from her, including how those of us in a position to lend a helping hand should do so, whether that hand extends to family, friends, neighbors, or strangers. She also taught me the valuable lesson that a day that does not start with a nice cup of coffee, will not be much of a day.

Grandma’s love was unconditional and her support was unwavering. In thinking about her this past week, I could not help also thinking about how important the support of my family has been in my life and my profession. Grandma, my parents, brother, nephews, and especially my wife’s support was so vital in giving me the confidence and ability to go back to school and become an archivist. You and I are in a field where fame and fortune are hard to come by. I have had times (about the time student loans are payed, coincidentally) when I wonder why the hell I did not become some type of business-dude or programer, where the jobs pay better and are more stable. But, I have people to tell me that I am an archivist because I am following my passion, because I get to do something I love every day. I bet many of us have those kind of people in our lives, and I know you are as thankful for them as I am, even if some of them are no longer with us.

 

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Thankful Archivist: 2010

Last year I wrote a post on the things that made my archivist heart thankful. I thought I would recycle that old idea revisit that favorite holiday tradition and update it for 2010. As an archivist, I am thankful for:

Archives that Share One of the projects we are tackling at work is the creation of EAD compliant finding aids. To help facilitate that, we have been working on drafting a finding aid manual to guide our archivists and volunteers. Luckily, there are some great examples out there, like the Finding Aid Style Guide [PDF] from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University; the Processing Guide [DOC] and Tag Set from the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, and the University of Maryland Libraries’ Processing Manual [PDF]. I know that it is easier for larger institutions like these to create such guides as they often have more staff and resources than smaller archives, but the fact that they share the results of their work helps the entire community. If we had to create a manual from scratch, well, I don’t think we would, as we have larger and more pressing projects to deal with. I hope more places follow suit and share things like manuals, policies, and implementations with the community.

Deferment of Student Loans I plan on deferring these suckers until I have time to sit down and hatch an elaborate plan where I fake my own disappearance. I will then live the remainder of my years riding the rails, with only my freedom and whatever fits into my hobo bindle to weigh me down.

Archive Standards Yeah yeah, I know these are uber-boring. In grad school the acronyms all ran together: AACR2, EAD, DACS, OAIS, etc., etc., etc. But now I realize the inherent awesomeness of these things. This is specifically directed to all you students out there. When they start talking about DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard) in your class listen up because it completely kicks ass! I refer to it almost every day as we get our finding aid project off the ground (my only complaint is that it is not online, getting it out there will only increase its value, SAA!). And OAIS (Open Archival Information System)? This thing allows for the conceptualization of everything from what metadata you store and deliver to your freaking technological infrastructure. I dare you to come up with a digital preservation program without it, I dare you! I have no idea who works on these things. I am assuming they toil away in a dark room somewhere, and when they do get a break they speak in some kind of xml tagged language or draw a model explaining what they want for dinner. I for one thank them, as we are all better for their work.

A Job My first job out of school was grant-funded and expired at the end of this past summer. My wife and I wanted to stay in Michigan, and then she got a job in Ann Arbor (because she is awesome), meaning I needed to find something in the area too. This was daunting (hard to find employment to begin with, really hard in Michigan). However, I was able to land a job as a digital project archivist in the archive of The Henry Ford. Followers of this blog know I do not usually talk about work specifically, but I will say that this job feels like a perfect fit for me. It is just what I want to be doing.

I have been working on a post with more detail on my job hunt. I have been working on this post now for almost three months. I am obviously having a very difficult time with it. I think the big reason for my troubles is that the job hunt can be so humiliating sometimes. Even though it worked out better than I could have hoped for and I have a job I really like, I just do not like to reflect all that much on the disappointments of the search. Personal disappointments because of positions I did not receive but more than that, disappointments in how some in the profession treat applicants. But this is a positive post, so I will leave this for another time..

I am now off to gorge myself on more deviled eggs, and wonder what I did to have so much to be thankful for…

Deviled Eggs

Deviled Eggs are Still Freakin' Awesome

Deviled Eggs image courtesy of Flickr member csharrisonphoto / CC-BY-SA

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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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