Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A love letter to a researcher and friend

My dear friend:

For some time now, we've been having a friendly discussion over archival use rules. More specifically, you've been angry at the way you were treated at another archives and have told me about it at length. I'm willing to consider it a discussion. I understand you found it insulting to your reputation as a degreed and experienced historian to listen to a reference archivist lecture you on the no pencils, no rearranging things, no food and drink, must wear white gloves, and so forth. Of course you already know this. Of course you shouldn't be treated as a know-nothing small child who must constantly be reminded of the rules.

I need to confess something to you. When you were in the other day? And witnessed one of my archivists having to gently remind another researcher, a professional researcher, of the rules she was attempting to break despite not only having been told them but having signed the same use rules document that you signed? It's small of me, I know, but I took great pleasure in the fact that you were able, finally, to see why we archivists make degreed and experienced researchers sit through those interminable lectures, sign those use agreements, over, and over again. As you noted at the time and in doing so made my heart do a little pitter-pat: "it's people like her that ruin it for the rest of us."

It is, of course, and here's what I haven't yet said to you. In my experience, it's often the professional researcher that needs the reminding over the student or neophyte researcher. Most of the young or rookie researchers are so intimidated by our rules and regs and having to sign documents agreeing to behave in a certain way, that they don't tend to try and break those rules and regs and when they do, it often it is out of their unfamiliarity with the process or their inability to process the large volume of instructions they've received all in one go for the very first time. What are we left to blame it on when an experienced researcher challenges the standards so?

So can I beg an exchange of gifts? If you'll try to be forgiving of the occasional archivist that seems to dwell too deeply in that culture of despair that assumes that professional researchers will break the rules, I'll try myself to continue to give the practiced researchers the benefit of the doubt and not assume that it is simple contrariness that leads them to contravene our policies. Perhaps you, setting the professional and proper standard you do, will help bring some of those poor archivists up out of that slough of despond occasionally. As I, setting a helpful and courteous tone, may remind our wonderful and compliant researchers that I do respect their credentials and experience and value their time with us.

And if you ever meet up with that researcher who once told us that every time he goes to a new archives he tries to convince the archivists that he knows nothing about research so they'll do his work for him? Well, I have a favor to ask on that score. Several favors, really. I'm sure I'll be able to pay them back, someday.

Your fellow soldier in the good fight,
Attila the Archivist


  1. Sing it, Sister Arlene! The man-handling, finger-licking, gorilla-esque behavior of many "experienced" historians/researchers is commonly found in our reading room.

  2. ouch! Okay, so am I the only one feeling the love here? :)

    Masked stranger, whoever you are, I wonder if maybe it's not so much the researcher but the archivists who haven't been upholding their own standards, letting the professionals get away with little things because it's too hard to remind, too hard to watch, occasionally being a little too cotton wool and giving more leeway, more help to experienced researchers more than we do unexperienced researchers, all heading down that slippery slope to the researcher we've now trained to behave like this. To paraphrase Dan Savage, if your researcher says "nobody else ever had this problem," do you only have another archivist to blame for faking it?

    (If there isn't a point system for working Dan Savage into a discussion on archival reference tactics, there should be. Just sayin.)