“Archivists, You Are What People Think You Keep”

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Almost 30 years ago (a few years after his stint as president of the Society of American Archivists), David Gracy wrote a piece about the definition of the term archives and what it means to how people perceive the work of archivists.  Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t call me with a request to “archive” some of their records.  They are usually calling about personnel files or medical records, not records with enduring value, and I find myself bristling at the misuse of archival terminology.  Part of me wants to blame Microsoft and other tech companies for appropriating the term archive to mean offline storage of data.  But in reading Gracy’s article, I think archivists also need to shoulder some blame for the misunderstandings.  It was published in the Winter 1989 issue of the American Archivist.

Gracy began with several examples of how the public views archives, which he summed up:

“archives were publicly branded as depositories for the results of cleaning up and hauling trash, and archivists as, at best, keepers of trash and, at worst, revelers in the ultimate refuse” (73).

He pointed to the contemporary definition of archives (as defined by Frank Evans, Donald Harrison, and Edwin Thompson and adopted by the SAA Council):

“‘the noncurrent records of an organization or institution preserved because of their continuing value'” (74).

Gracy proceeded to lay out the problems with this definition.

  • The currency of records lies with the user, not the creator — “each user has a current interest to pursue or need to satisfy in coming to an archival repository, and those archives–records–at which they look are very timely in the life and work of the user” (75).  In addition, numerous records are created with an eye to the future (e.g., memoirs, diaries, minutes), so they are always current records.
  • It focuses on the records of organizations and institutions, leaving out individuals and families.  However, the Greek term from which we take the word archives applied to “documents of private individuals brought into a public repository and registered for public notice” (75).

Gracy worked with seminar students at the University of Texas at Austin to develop a new definition of archives (I’ve omitted the bracketed explanations):

“Archives are the records, organically related, of an entity, systematically maintained, because they contain information of continuing value” (76).

Gracy then listed six values that can be reflected and thereby improve the perception of archives:

  1. Economic value
  2. Usefulness
  3. Moment (i.e., “utility in the present” (77).  Gracy pointed to a PR report about SAA that suggested the public needs succinct answers to the questions, “‘Who are archivists?’, ‘What are archives?’, and ‘Why archivists?'” (77).
  4. Personal connections
  5. Documentary organ of mankind.  Gracy quoted from the former chief of the national archives of Peru, who said, “Without a before, now did not exist and even less tomorrow.  The archives, whose groups document the various aspects of the passing of humanity, give meaning to this inescapable continuity.  Consequently, their preservation, organization, and use is a thing of transcendent importance, or said in other words, something of life or death'” (78).
  6. Packaging (i.e., the way the message of archives is presented matters)

There are two succinct, vital takeaways from Gracy:

  • “Information, however, has worth only so long as it is accessible.  Information unknown is ignorance” (75).
  • “There is no refuge in complacency, because, archivists, you are what people think you keep” (78).

The latest SAA glossary definition of the term archives does incorporate some of the critique leveled by Gracy:

“Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records.”




“Bare Necessities”

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Dennis Meissner delivered his presidential address at the 2016 meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Atlanta, Georgia.  He has spent his career at the Minnesota Historical Society — including as Manuscripts Processing Supervisor, Archival Processing Manager, Head of Collections Management, and finally Deputy Director for Programs (2014-2017).  His speech was published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of the American Archivist.

Meissner began his speech with the simple premise that “before you go out and do something, you need to be something” (6).  He defined three goals for the archival profession:

1. Becoming a More Inclusive Profession.  Meissner reflected on Elizabeth Adkins’ 2007 presidential address, which looked at the long-term efforts of the profession to encourage diversity, but ultimately decided the focus should be on inclusivity.  He explained the first step is to develop our cultural competence, which progresses along a continuum:

  • denial of difference
  • defense against difference
  • minimizing difference
  • acceptance of difference
  • adaptation to difference
  • integration of difference

Meissner suggested progressing along this continuum can occur by developing a business case/strategy for inclusion, assessing the distribution of SAA members along the continuum, developing learning opportunities, and establishing performance targets for inclusion efforts.

2. Becoming a Profession of Advocates.  Just as Mark Greene asserted in his inaugural address, Meissner said advocacy must be an integral part of our daily being.  He also looked back to Greene’s presidential address and suggested embracing the archival values outlined by Greene is the first step in advocacy.  He went on to define the key components of advocacy as “conviction, evidence, communication, and persuasion” (12).  He referenced Kathleen Roe‘s presidential address for her point that archivists are less good at explaining the whys than we are the whats and the hows of the work we do.  In order to become more effective advocates, Meissner said we need more compelling stories, along with the qualitative and quantitative evidence to support them, and the requisite tools and resources to enable their usage.  This evidence includes both user-centric data as well as analysis of the economic impact of archives.

3. Becoming a Profession of Givers.  Meissner acknowledged that his suggestions will take money, so he challenged SAA members to become givers rather than merely consumers who pay only for the things we use.


To follow up on this address: in November 2016, Meissner submitted to the SAA Council a Proposal for a Committee on Research and Evaluation.  The Task Force on Research/Data and Evaluation, which has a mandate running from May 2017 – November 2018, is looking into whether SAA should create a standing body to conduct, facilitate, and/or evaluate research that is practical, useful, and meaningful for SAA and the archival community.


Technology and conversation

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A little research indicates the term “phubbing” has been around for about 5 years.  Although I have certainly fallen victim to the phenomenon of people constantly checking their devices while in social situations, I only this week realized there’s a term for it.  Learning of this word prompted me to dig out an essay I wrote in college about conversation.  While I am by no means a Luddite, I have certainly always been willing to consider both the positive and negative impacts of technological improvements.  (You will soon see this essay was written before email became ubiquitous and long before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram dominated the landscape.)

In case it’s not immediately obvious, I do see relevance for this essay in the archival realm.  Interactions with patrons have certainly changed as more and more finding aids and even collections are available online.  While we can champion our ability to provide access to users who may not have been able to visit our repositories in person, I challenge archivists to consider a broader interpretation of our outreach mission.  I contend that our collections should be an invitation to conversation — whether that happens among family members after genealogical research, among community members remembering a long past event, or among academics after the publication of an article.  With the diminishing frequency of the reference interview between archivist and researcher, perhaps this found time can be devoted to organizing forums in which people can come together to discuss the importance and impacts of the people and events represented in our collections.

The Rise and Fall of Conversation


As I sat at a college football game, these messages, strung along behind prop planes, circled above the stadium filled with 80,000 people. These unorthodox proposals caused me to think about our current attitudes towards conversation. I hoped that Ron and Wayne did not choose to fly their proposals around a football stadium because of a lack of practice in conversation and a fear of the responsibility of having to say more than the brief messages that would fit on the banners trailing the planes. Our society prioritizes convenience, privacy, speed, and efficiency — direct deposit paychecks, home shopping networks, portable computers — and we actually diminish the likelihood of human interaction by displacing situations conducive to conversation. Now these priorities even encourage and facilitate businesslike marriage proposals by providing the technology of the prop planes and condoning this quick, efficient means of proposing to a woman. Across the board, our architectural preferences and technological ambitions demonstrate a lack of focus on the vital importance of conversation.

Take hall bathrooms, for example. Duke is one of the few universities that maintains these plumbing relics. Many students from other colleges express amazement that we do not have the convenience of private bathrooms, suite bathrooms, or at least private sinks. These critics question our integrity as a modern university. But I like hall bathrooms. Because we students tend to be on hectic schedules, the only time we run into some people is in the bathroom, brushing our teeth. Once or twice a week, I wind up spending twenty or thirty minutes catching up with someone as we stand in the bathroom. If I didn’t have to come out of my room to wash my face, I’m afraid I would scarcely talk to some people in my dorm. But I fear that architects do not attempt to facilitate conversation through their designs of new buildings.

Another conductor of conversation threatened by modern priorities is the front porch. Wide front porches, typically with swings or rocking chairs on them, have been the signature of small towns. If my neighbors can see me out on my porch sipping iced tea after dinner, they are more likely to call on me. But the popularization of air-conditioning discouraged people from taking advantage of the evening breezes on their porches; now architecture values separation and maximization of space over facilitating communication. Allocating space for a front porch is less of a priority than installing a jacuzzi in the master bathroom. In one contrasting example, the Blount Springs community in Alabama, with the expressed intent of fostering interaction among its residents, requires that all houses have front porches. Admittedly, the open atmosphere created by a community with front porches might limit your privacy. But we have become too secretive, hiding behind tall hedges and expensive alarm systems. Some porch conversations may not go further than name and rank, but at least neighbors would talk to each other.

Hall bathrooms and front porches represent two extant examples of the old school of personalized, face-to-face conversation. With the rise of sophisticated technology — faxes, modems, cellular phones — communication was to become easier. As one example, television was originally lauded as a wonderful means of quickly communicating with millions of people. Most households now have access to sets and the information they disperse. But television screens merely dispense sounds and colors to passive receptors. Television consists primarily of high-pressure advertising, glorified situational shows, and sensationalized “real-life” shows. TV sets inhibit communication in many dining establishments. Very few restaurants lack a television hanging from the ceiling, and its fast-changing images designed to attract attention perform their duty, at the expense of mealtime conversation. Televisions have even invaded the domain of the household dinner, impinging on the space for conversation with its loud jingles and contrived laughter.

In another example of modern technology, computer advances amaze me, but they also irritate me. Take automated switchboards, for instance. For the few people who call businesses and know either the name or the extension of the person to whom they wish to speak, the new system probably does facilitate their call. But the rest of us have to spend several minutes weaving our way through a barrage of selections for the privilege of talking to the human being that we used to be able to speak to immediately. In the name of efficiency, the computer-generated voice has replaced the receptionist. How far we have come since the original days of party lines and an operator who directed all calls. What have we sacrificed in the name of progress and privacy?

While automated switchboards merely irritate me, the possibility of using computers as the primary source of instruction for children frightens me. I agree that all children should be computer literate, but some valuable lessons can only come from a teacher and from working and playing and talking with other students. Much of education can only be facilitated by conversation. The push to incorporate computers into education began rather innocuously with the hope that each student in the classroom could have access to a computer. But now, reports have surfaced about the possibility of having students learn at home by a combination of computer, television broadcasts, and videos. If this happens, what would happen in the households that could not afford to purchase these educational apparatuses for their children? And how will children become socialized? I certainly could have learned more book knowledge by staying at home, but I would not have learned as much about living as a human being in a community. If anything, we need to pay more attention to interaction rather than less. As Maggie Kuhn said, “One of the reasons our society has become such a mess is that we’re isolated from each other.” Rather than turning to the computer as the panacea for our educational ills, we need to incorporate more creative, group problem-solving activities into our schools, thereby creating space for constructive conversations. Students can learn from the knowledge and skills of other students, and they can also benefit from the enthusiasm of their teachers.

I fear that unless we contemplate the effects that our architectural and technological development has on conversation, we risk blurring our reality into one of images rather than substance. A current commercial which announces the inevitability of viewer telephones claims that the new phone will be able to do everything except tuck your children into bed. What will this do to already fragile parent-child relationships if the visual nature of this device excuses the fact that it is a call rather than a touch? Enthusiastic researchers herald the arrival of interactive televisions within a few years, allowing us to order groceries, conduct our banking business, and share information with other subscribers. Will we become so dependent on computerized systems that we forget how to work directly with other people? We cannot and should not inhibit research out of a fear of new methods of work and communication, but we must continue to incorporate face-to-face conversation as a necessary aspect of our lives.

I do not know what happened to Jo Ann and Ron or Penny and Wayne. I hope that Ron and Wayne just wanted to be creative and to share their marriage proposals with their community. I hope the couples went home after the game, sat on their porches, drank lemonade, and discussed their future plans together. Technology cannot become our intercessor. In conversation lies our hope for the future.

“Strengthening Our Identity, Fighting Our Foibles”

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In putting together the list of writings by Mark Greene, I came across his 2007 inaugural presidential address.  He chose to kick off his SAA presidential term by delving into the identity of the archival profession.  He took inspiration from Maynard Brichford’s incoming presidential address in 1979.

Where Brichford wrote of “Seven Sinful Thoughts,” Greene wrote about “Five Frustrating Foibles” that he asserted are “diminishing our professional identity and our future” (2).

  1. We are too resistant to change.  Greene contended archivists are too comfortable with the “guardian” approach and, therefore, are reluctant to question established methods and practices.  Instead, he encouraged us to be agile in our processing and willing to modify our approach to finding aids, concluding, “we must make boldness and innovation hallmarks of our profession.  Change for the sake of change is chaos.  But change based on creative assessment of our mission and circumstances is energizing, inspiring, and essential” (4).
  2. We (still) don’t put our users first.  Greene asserted there’s a prevailing notion “that archivists are guardians and servants of the materials, not facilitators and servants of our researchers” (5).  He suggested users could gain greater involvement in collection development, appraisal, prioritization of processing or digitization projects, and annotations of finding aids.
  3. Frankly, my friends, we whine too much.  Greene summed this one up very well: “We must accept that our fate and future is in our own hands, and that improving our stature requires strong advocacy, led by each of us at our own institutions and led at a higher level by the national association, based on pride, strength, and clarity of message rather than grumbling, weakness, and the assumption that our importance is obvious” (7).
  4. Advocacy is not fully integrated into our daily and professional work.  Greene explained that advocacy needs to be a routine part of the archival profession and that “we must advocate for a profession that has a compelling and clearly understood institutional and social purpose” (8).
  5. We pay too much attention to the trees and too little to the forest.  Greene quoted Max Evans, saying, “‘we must be inoculated against the disease of mindless itemitis'” (9).  Greene asserted archivists suffer from this same malady, appraising at a very granular level out of a fear of disposing of a key document.

Greene concluded part of the forest archivists need to consider is our overall mission and goals.  He contended part of the solution is greater diversity and inclusion within the profession.  He parted by providing his vision of archives:

  • “Creativity should replace craft as we examine our daily work;
  • “Users should replace collections as we ask ourselves ‘why’ we do things a certain way;
  • “Pride in our role within our institutions and society should replace prickly sensitivity to perceived slights;
  • “Advocacy should replace insular navel-gazing about our practice;
  • “Commitment to professional unity should overtake the pull of fragmentation; and
  • “Change is the order of the day” (11).