I’ve been playing competitive tennis for a number of years, and I also enjoy watching tennis championships on TV.  It occurred to me as I’ve been watching the U.S. Open over the past two weeks that there are a number of parallels between the tennis and archival worlds — as well as ways archivists could learn from the model of tennis professionals.

  • Knowing history. I’ll start with this one since I’ve been writing for many weeks about archives and history.  Great tennis players have an encyclopedic knowledge of their prior matches and can spout off scores and analyze the tendencies of their opponents.  Although archivists don’t have opponents per se, I would argue that we are better when we know the history of our institutions, our collections, and our profession.
  • Anticipation and preparation.  Listen to any tennis match and you’ll hear commentators talking a lot about anticipation and preparation.  Anticipation means that instead of merely responding to the ball hit by the opponent, great players will anticipate the shot coming towards them by paying attention to the positioning of their opponent, the angle of the racquet, and even the sound of the ball hitting the strings.  Taking all of this into consideration, the player must prepare to hit the next shot, moving into position on the court and taking the racquet back to allow for a good swing.  Archivists could learn a lesson about the benefits of not always being reactive.  For example, we should attempt to anticipate how electronic records and social media will impact the materials available to be accessioned to an archive, and we should aim to have the workflows in place so we can adequately preserve and provide access to these materials that we accession.
  • Cross-training.  Great tennis players incorporate a lot of training that doesn’t involve a ball and racquet — both sprints and endurance running, yoga, weightlifting, boxing (to work on footwork), throwing a football (to work on the motion needed to serve), etc.  While I don’t think there should be a prescribed path that everyone needs to follow, I personally feel that having had real-life professional experience in realms outside of archives has enabled me to bring useful knowledge and perspective to my archival work.
  • Specialization.  Some tennis players are singles specialists, other are doubles specialists, and some play both singles and doubles.  Although singles players get most of the attention, accolades, and paydays, there are skills that are honed primarily in doubles play (such as volleying) that can be extremely useful to singles players.  Institutions that have a lone arranger are usually considered to be doing the best they can with limited resources, but I would argue there’s great benefit that comes from a broad knowledge of archival work.  While there can be efficiency as a product of specialization, having archivists work in silos can also lead to uninformed decisions.
  • Execution.  No matter how much preparation and training has occurred, the tennis player still must execute the strategy for the match.  In the same way, archivists must gain the necessary academic training and need to have collection policies in place but then must apply this theory and insure collection mandates are being followed.
  • Adaptability.  Conditions outside the control of the player can affect play — everything from wind to rain to crowd noise to unexpected strategies by your opponent.  Great players find a way to adapt their game to these conditions.  Similarly, archivists need to adapt when there are changes involving donors, media formats, access, restrictions, etc.
  • Mental fortitude. Tennis commentators frequently contend that mental fortitude — or lack thereof — can determine whether players who are athletically gifted and well prepared can actually win the big matches.  Archivists also need the ability to handle adversity with aplomb, which I think can come from keeping ourselves apprised of the professional literature and finding colleagues who’ll regularly join us on a continuing journey of intellectual improvement.
  • Redemption.  Tennis tracks a stat called unforced errors — bad shots by a player that aren’t the result of a great shot by the opponent.  Save for the last point in the match, tennis offers a multitude of opportunities for redemption — but compensating for a bad point requires a bit of short-term memory loss so that instead of dwelling on the mistake in the past, focus is given to bringing one’s best effort in the moment.  I think archivists are prone to identify the sins of the fathers but use things such as huge backlogs as an excuse rather than focusing on how we can redeem our institutions from these previous missteps.
  • Accountability.  When playing doubles, partners must be accountable to each other — neither missing shots that are on their side nor hitting bad shots that will leave their partner in a losing position.  Similarly, archivists need to be aware of the ways in which our work impacts that of our colleagues and be accountable so that our failings do not impact or impede their work.
  • Communication.  Also when playing doubles, good communication is key to success.  Partners need to know what to expect from their partner’s serve and quickly need to identify who is responsible for hitting a ball.  Archivists shouldn’t assume that our colleagues understand our intentions and priorities but instead should constantly work to keep open lines of communication.
  • Challenges.  Since 2006, the Hawk-Eye system has been in place that allows players to challenge line calls with which they disagree.  Although archivists don’t have a system of computers and cameras that can serve as arbiters, I think it’s valuable for us to question.  I’m the first to admit that I don’t see the value of reinventing the wheel, but I’m also not prone to keep doing something a certain way merely because that’s how it’s always been done.  As a former boss described, I’m willing to scrape the barnacles off the bottom of the boat that everyone else has gotten accustomed to seeing.
  • Press conferences.  After each match, tennis players are required to attend press conferences where they are peppered with questions about their play, court conditions, the quality of their opponent, etc.  In many ways, archivists tend to operate in the shadows, so I wonder what it would be like we had to answer questions publicly about our appraisal, arrangement, and access decisions.
  • Code of conduct.  As with many professional organizations, the Association of Tennis Professionals has a Code of Conduct for players.  There are many requirements about everything from attire to sponsors, but my favorite element is this:

A player shall use his best efforts during the match when competing in a tournament.  Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $10,000 for each violation.

I realize that “best efforts” is necessarily subjective — in the case of tennis players, the evaluation is made by the tournament supervisor or chair umpire — but I wonder how it would affect the quality of archival work if we were all required to give our best effort at all times.

The other fascinating thing I learned during this year’s U.S. Open is that former player Magnus Norman operates a tennis academy called the Good to Great Academy.  The name in and of itself is compelling — both challenging good players to become great and offering the training and expertise to help them accomplish this transition.  Could this model work in the archival world?  While I don’t think this mindset is unique to archivists, I think it’s too easy to become satisfied with the status quo and not keep struggling to be better and do better.  I’ve heard great things about the Archives Leadership Institute, but both because of its small cohort size and its grant-funded status, I don’t know that alone it could ever suffice to challenge archivists to be the best we can be.  But maybe we can figure out some other ways to hold each other accountable for our best efforts, thereby progressing from good to great.