Several years ago, Scott Cline wrote an interesting piece for the American Archivist about what inspires archivists and how best to avoid the frustration and disappointment that can result from unrealized ideals.  He set the stage with a quote from a 1859 speech by immigrant journalist and politician Carl Schurz:

“’. . . ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands.  But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny’” (445).

Cline used as his definition for ideal the entry from the Collins English Dictionary: “a conception of something that is perfect, especially that which one seeks to attain; a person or thing considered to represent perfection; something existing only as an idea” (446).  He recognized some of the great archival minds who’ve written about ideals, including:

  • Hilary Jenkinson, who emphasized “truth, objectivity, neutrality, and servitude in defense of the archival record”
  • SAA president Elizabeth Adkins, who focused on diversity
  • SAA president Morris Radoff, who spoke of unity in the face of a schism between archivists and records managers
  • SAA president Rand Jimerson, who challenged Jenkinson’s assumption archivists should never interpret records

For his part, Cline explored “how we can contend with our limitations and our inability to achieve our ideals, while still providing value through our work, and how we can respond when our ideals bump up against real-world obstacles” (447).  Recognizing that ideals are not always attainable, he reflected on the existential notion of the “anguish of freedom,” or the knowledge that each decision eliminates other possibilities.  Cline identified this as a challenge especially for appraisal archivists who are “in a perpetual state of choosing and rechoosing and thus experiencing the anguish of freedom” (448).  Cline turned to a professor in Leadership and Policy Studies for guidance in overcoming disappointment — Deborah Kerdeman explained:

“’Trying to live up to ideals, even as we live through disappointment, requires what I call a moderate disposition. . . .  Cultivating a moderate disposition . . . is an ongoing exercise in self-examination’” (448).

Where Kerdeman didn’t provide a roadmap to this moderate disposition, Cline suggested three concepts to lead archivists toward this goal:

  1. Enlarged Thought.  Cline looked to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who defined enlarged thought as attempting to “seek common human understanding” by overcoming the subjectivity of our own opinions and engaging “the universal standpoints of others” (450).  Cline suggested archivists are well suited to enlarged thought because of the abilities necessary for analyzing records, developing collection policies, and providing access to diverse groups of users.
  2. Gratitude.  Cline asserted that the appropriate response to the existential “anguish before the here and now” is to live a life of gratitude.  He cited Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote:

    “’What is the truth of being human?  The lack of pretension, the acknowledgement of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy.  But truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal [and here he means the ideal] is both within and beyond us.  The truth of being human is gratitude. . .’” (451).

    Cline suggested archivists should be grateful for “the ability to employ imagination, to conceive a perfectibility that may never come, and to be guided by it” (452).

  3. Reverence. Cline asserted that embracing enlarged thought and feeling gratitude lead to reverence.  Simply stated, “Reverence, thus, is an antidote to anguish” (454).

One thing I love about reading Scott Cline’s work is his demonstrable grasp of so many ideas and influences both within and without the archival realm, and this article is no exception.  In the end, he concluded the importance of a moderate disposition for archivists lies in allowing us “to view ideals as a process rather than an outcome” (454).  Taking on the challenging ideals while acknowledging our limitations can be accomplished through a moderate disposition because it “requires us to probe the meaning of our work and interrogate our convictions and actions” (454).  But doing so is only possible with self-examination.