I was on the phone today for a while with somebody who is about to become a member of the family. At one point she said "tell me again what it is you do?" And I said "I'm an archivist." Now usually with that, I go on to some variant of the elevator speech, but for whatever perverse reason, I just left it there. Without even pausing, she said "Do you like your job?" I said: "I love my job." And that was that.
Here's the thing: I still have no idea if this nice woman has any clue what an archivist is. And it was the most extraordinary thing: I hadn't realized how freeing it would be not to care! Does she need an intensive--if short--explanation of what it is archivists do and why we matter? Probably not. Most of my family doesn't really understand what archivists are or do or I wouldn't have aunts who throw out years of family and friend photographs on the grounds that "nobody could possibly care about these." Or a father who asks me for advice on getting conservation work done on a circa 1920 KJV bible. See? None of the ones who are related to me by actual blood understand what it is I do nor do they particularly care. Nobody related to me has ever read my thesis (and it's actually kind of fun) or any other paper or presentation I've ever given, for that matter. And aside from the photo-destroying aunt, no harm done. It's not going to affect our relationship as family members.
Here's the thing I'm starting to suspect. Bear with me a bit here, this isn't fully realized yet and I could later decide I'm completely wrong about this. But at the moment, here's my theory: Somewhere in all of our hindbrains, we've all become convinced that if people don't understand what it is that we do, they can't possibly value it. And if they don't value it, we'll all be unemployed and sitting on street corners with a sign saying "Spare change for a temperature & humidity controlled vault please?" while the archives buildings burn around us.
Look, those elevator speeches I referenced above? They're pretty succinct. Accurate, as far as that goes. Nice encapsulations of what most archivists do or think they do. A bit epic, even, which is always handy. But I really wonder what purpose they serve. I wonder if they'd actually give non-archivists an understanding of what it is archivists do, or if they're really (oh, this is probably heretical, I'm probably going to archival professional hell for this one) more for archivists or maybe even historians than for anybody else. How many non-archivists would even do the thinking time to really grasp those concepts? If I were a little less lazy and a lot better at designing and carrying out psychological experiments, I might even start going up to strangers and see whether or not the elevator speeches help them picture what archivists do and why archivists matter.
But I'm sort of getting off track of where I wanted to go with this and I did it right there in that last sentence of the last paragraph. I've been noticing that a lot of us of late (okay, me) seem to be focusing on making everybody around us understand what it is we do on a daily basis. Does everybody need to picture what archivists do to get that archival work matters? Really? Seriously? Why are we (okay, I) drawing the conclusion that the only way to get people to value archival work is by giving them crash courses in it? An awful lot of other professionals seem to go blithely on their way, bringing in the funding, without spending the kind of time that we've (okay, I've) been spending explaining ourselves and our daily work.
A while back (a long while back) I dated a Navy engineer who was training with nuclear reactors so he could go work on one of the nuclear subs for the rest of his enlistment period. Did I really understand what it was he did? No. Did I think it was important? I think the answer to that would be a fairly resounding yes. (Not that I approve--necessarily--of the development and use of nuclear power but that's a whole 'nother discussion which I'm not prepared to have now. Or ever, really.)
And I think of all the other professions I think are important such as oncology, and bank auditing, and cetacean biology, and epidemiology, and criminal justice. Do I really comprehend what it is the people working in those fields do? Not so much. But guess what? It may not be a proportional rate, but as much as we need them? They need us too. Somebody has to take care of the data sets and documents they either create or need to access to do what it is they do.
But again, I digress from my main point. Is explaining what we do the most efficient way to get people to understand that we're important? I'm beginning to think not. I'm beginning to think that this constant stream of words is just boring people. Perhaps the archival promotion isn't the elevator speech contest, but the "I found it in the archives" contest, which skips the verbiage and goes straight to the results. (okay, slight digression: I would have said something like "I got it in the archives" instead of found which runs a little too close to my most-hated term in contemporary archivy: "hidden collections." But that's another discussion for another day and I realize my suggestion needs some serious wordsmithing because it's a bit too reminiscent of transmissable diseases). Bringing the past to the present? A lovely thought. A house buyer being able to track ownership of their land to see if the creek that runs through their property ever had a silver mine's tailings pile on the banks? That's practical. That's real. That matters. That's archival.
So bravo, the good folks at SAA, for the I Found It In the Archives promotion for making it practical and real and relevant and more about the what than the how.
And to beat a dead horse just in case I haven't made my division of concepts clear: while I don't think that everybody needs to know what it is we do, I do think that people need to know that archives matter. Maybe not everybody, but a lot of people need to know that. Probably far more than currently do. Because sooner or later, they're going to need some resource in our protection and to which we provide access. Sometimes it'll be life and death, sometimes it won't.
But for now, for this nice woman marrying into this family? Here's what I want to say to her: "Oh, honey. Do you really know what you're getting into?"
And that's in the custody of no archivist anywhere. At least, I sincerely hope not.