“Using College and University Archives as Instructional Materials”

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Following up on last week’s post, I’m focusing again on the use of university archives.  Mark Greene presented these ideas as a paper at the Fall 1988 Midwest Archives Conference meeting and then published it in a 1989 issue of the Midwestern Archivist.

Greene asserted more of the focus on using primary sources as instructional materials came from manuscript repositories rather than college and university archives because the latter are assumed to hold primarily institutional history and to be run by archivists who, on most campuses, don’t have academic standing.

Greene was archivist at Carleton College at the time he wrote this paper, and he was clear about the importance of promoting the use of archival records by undergraduates:

“Advancing the use of archival records in the curriculum should be considered an important part of, rather than an alternative  to, the ‘administrative’ duties of the archivist” (32).

He recounted several ways he went about sparking interest in archival resources:

  • participating in orientation sessions for new faculty, in order to explain connections between the archives and various curricula
  • sending letters to professors about possible collaborations
  • designing outreach (e.g., brochures, exhibits, publications) that illustrated research possibilities

Greene also explained several roles he filled while working with campus courses:

  • reference interviews with students to assist them in refining their topics
  • explanations of how to handle fragile materials
  • lectures on the history of the institution and other topics from archival sources
  • bibliographic instruction talks

Based on his experiences, Greene shared several words of wisdom:

  • Indirect outreach through exhibits and newspaper articles proved more effective than direct letters to professors.
  • Don’t make assumptions about which disciplines are more likely to be able to find relevant archival materials — while history and political science produced no partnerships, biology, religion, American studies, and social sciences classes became archival users at Carleton.
  • Accept nontraditional uses of archival materials as legitimate uses (i.e., not everything needs to culminate in a term paper).
  • Archivists can go into the classroom just as easily as students can come into the archives.

“University Archives: A Reason for Existence”

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Continuing my look at university archives that I began last week, this week I turn to a 1975 article by Edith James Blendon published in the American Archivist.  I was taken by its clear and concise explanation of the purpose of university archives.  Blendon was acting university archivist at Princeton from 1972-74 and was assistant editor of the Papers of Woodrow Wilson at the time of this publication.

Blendon began with a simple premise:

“serious scholarly use of university archives does not appear to be commensurate with the potential opportunities for significant research” (175).

She offered three explanations for this situation:

  • Surveys indicated archival work was too often an ancillary job for the person in charge of the university archives, therefore, too little time was spent on care of the records.
  • She found university archives were too often relegated to inferior space.
  • Scholars perceive university archives as bastions of memorabilia and sentimentality rather than studied historical endeavors.

Blendon provided three suggestions of how university archives could improve their situation:

  • In providing reference service, take advantage of opportunities to point researchers to related relevant collections.
  • “[P]ublicize the archives’ holdings by arranging documentary exhibitions, by publishing notices of recent acquisitions in scholarly journals, and by writing brief articles based on the records” (176)
  • Get involved with the educational function of the university by advising thesis/dissertation writers or teaching historical methodology courses.

Blendon identified five areas in which university archival resources prove most valuable (and provided contemporary examples of each):

  • institutional history
  • intellectual history
  • social history
  • political history
  • documentary editing

The example she provided for documentary editing was the book Michael Kammen compiled from letters of Carl L. Becker.  She included one excerpt from a 1922 letter that’s worth consideration:

“‘The chief value of history is that it is an extension of the personal memory, and an extension which masses of people can share, so that it becomes, or would ideally become, the memory of a nation, or of humanity'” (180).

“The Messy Business of Remembering: History, Memory, and Archives”

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Mark Greene made a relatively early attempt to relate postmodernism to archival work.  In a 2003-2004 issue of Archival Issues, Greene wrote about “The Messy Business of Remembering; History, Memory, and Archives.”  He explained archivists were somewhat late to the game to begin discussing postmodernism because of the trend away from allying with historians (who’d been considering postmodernism for some time) and more towards information science.

Although this may in fact defeat the purpose of discussing postmodernism, for reference, here’s a definition from PBS:

“Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality.  In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality.  For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person.”

Greene contended that postmodernism is relevant to archivists in everything from acquisition choices to the legitimacy of uses of archives.  He used as a springboard for his analysis a 2002 article by an Amherst historian that presented a positivist view of historical research.  Where positivism asserts that “‘history is what trained historians do'” (96), Greene countered:

“Neither truth nor history nor even memory should be the secret of the few.  If we do it right–and as archivists we have something to say about that because it depends in some part on how we solicit, welcome, and assist both historians and genealogists in our reading rooms–everyone can play a part” (97).

So where some contend that historical uses of archival records are more important than those relating to social memory, Greene painted a more inclusive picture of archival use.  He incorporated the analysis of management and business design expert Chauncey Bell about what the job of  an archivist should be:

“‘your job is not about storing and sorting information.  It is about appraising and keeping records of history-making events and the acts spoken by history makers, and doing that in a way that allows you to be effective partners for those history makers in their re-membering of the past'” (99-100).

Greene also looked to the words of psychiatrist W. Walter Menninger for an explanation of history:

“‘history is a record of present beliefs and wishes, not a replica of the past.  Remembering . . . is a reconstruction using bits of past experience to describe a present state'” (100).

Rejecting the notion of archivists merely as gatekeepers, Greene asserted that archivists cannot claim the neutrality of archival records because “Both the creation and the selection of archival material are tainted, if you will, by the values, missions, and even resources of the creators and the archivists” (101).  Not only do individuals and societies create and shape history and memory, but so do archivists.  He also pointed out that the ownership of history, memory, and the records that shape them — both literal and figurative ownership — is a challenge archivists have yet to resolve.  He concluded that dealing with these complications can be solved only with humility and courage.

“I’ve Deaccessioned and Lived to Tell About It”

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Last year, I looked at the 1980s writing by Leonard Rapport and Karen Benedict on archival deaccessioning.  Now I’ll turn to Mark Greene’s 2006 piece in Archival Issues — subtitled “Confessions of an Unrepentant Reappraiser.”

The title pretty much sums up his attitude — reappraisal and deaccessioning are a necessary yet shunned part of the archival profession.  Rejecting the notion that deaccessioning can weaken archivists’ relationships with donors, Greene provides evidence from several repositories where he worked that markedly improved their relationships with donors through a reasoned and transparent reappraisal process.  Ultimately, he gave his donors more credit for seeing the bigger picture and found they had no qualms with his deaccessions of their donated materials.

Greene looked back to Gerald Ham’s analysis that reappraisal “‘allows archivists to replace records of lesser value with collections of more significance, and it prevents the imposition of imperfect and incomplete decisions of the past on the future'” (9).  Greene acknowledged that appraisal is subjective and based on “the institution’s goals, clientele, and resources at a given moment in time, and the individual personalities and proclivities of any given set of staff” (9).  Because all of these factors are subject to change, an appraisal decision today may not necessarily reinforce an appraisal decision from decades earlier — which, as Ham pointed out, may have been based on imperfect or incomplete information.  Yet there is a theoretical challenge to deaccessioning that is based on the notion that archives are bound to preserve materials permanently — which Greene dismissed with the explanation that archivists of the 21st century have embraced the terminology of “enduring preservation” rather than permanent preservation, acknowledging our inability to overcome all obstacles, both man-made and naturally occurring, that may prevent a literal preservation of materials for all time.

Greene explained that appraisal (and reappraisal) decisions can include factors such as potential use of the collection as well as allocations of staff, space, and other resources.  He concluded, “The archival profession is difficult (and necessary) not because we are good at saving things, but because we are able and willing to decide what does not get saved” (11).  Echoing the ideas of David Gracy that I reviewed last week, Greene suggested archivists have a responsibility to transform this perception of our profession and can do so by explaining our decisions with clarity and taking responsibility for the consequences of these decisions.

Greene identified several elements that are necessary for reappraisal and deaccessioning to occur:

  • formal policies and procedures
  • institutional mission statement
  • collecting policy
  • appraisal standards — “one cannot make intelligent decisions about what to deaccession if one is unclear about what to be accessioning in the first place” (12)

He cautioned against reappraising without an overall scheme in mind because “piecemeal deaccession greatly increases the risk that dramatically different decisions will be made from one collection or series to another” (13).  He included in the appendix part of the Collection Management Policy of the American Heritage Center (AHC), which lays out the conditions under which materials may be deaccessioned (17):

  1. “it is no longer relevant and useful to the mission of the AHC”
  2. “it cannot be properly stored, preserved, or used”
  3. “it no longer retains its physical integrity, identity, or authenticity”
  4. “it is unnecessarily duplicated in the collections”
  5. “it is part of a larger collection other portions of which are owned by another repository that makes its holdings accessible to the public”

While I applaud the notion of laying out the criteria for deaccessioning, I wonder if these conditions adequately address the sins of the fathers to which he alluded earlier in the article.  Perhaps the first criterion can be interpreted to handle materials that were accessioned without regard to their enduring value — yet it does imply the institutional mission has changed, which in my experience is not likely to happen in noticeable ways with any great regularity.  Greene acknowledged that many repositories operate without the guidance of a collecting policy, yet I wonder if collections that have been accessioned in a haphazard manner in the absence of any overarching collections plan fall into one of these five categories.  I’m afraid the next reappraisal challenge will be to develop a professional mechanism to acknowledge and undo the appraisal mistakes of the past — those incomplete and imperfect decisions of which Ham spoke.

“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.

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