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.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

a [tough] love letter to a researcher

Dear Dr. X (PhD, Ret):

A few months back when we met at that lecture, after some desultory small talk, you asked me if we had anything on topic Y. I  mentioned a few collections, suggested some other agencies, to which you responded "well, just send me an email with a list."

If I've got a fault, it's in that I'm not always as quick as I'd like to be, verbally. Okay, I've got lots of faults, but this is the one that came into play that evening. So from the perspective of a few months, here goes.

You haven't received that email from me. You're not going to receive that email from me. I'm still not entirely sure you weren't kidding.

Here's the thing. For many years, you've taught many students how to do history and how to do research in history. I work at an academic institution. My job is to teach, too. If one of your students came in, I wouldn't just hand them a list of things to look at. I'd maybe tell them about a few to help them get on their feet, research-wise, but I'd spend most of my teaching time with the student working on getting them to understand how to identify archival sources that relate to their topic. Plus all those other skills like evaluating the reliability and authority of the sources they find.

There's a scary archival myth out there, to which some students fall prey. And that's the myth of the omniscient archivist. If there is such a creature, I've not yet met that person. I've met a few researchers who think they've met one, and heard their stories, and wondered at such a belief that even witnessed third-hand appears to have holes in it through which you could drive a handtruck loaded with cubic foot boxes. I have some knowledge of our collections, but students will probably need to rely on archival materials outside my collections, on which I'm decidedly not informed. Plus, of course, the sheer volume of materials to which we provide access: even if I had the time to read every page and look at every photograph and view every moving image and listen to every audiotape in our holdings, I don't have an eidetic memory. If people with eidetic memories exist, I suspect their occurrence rates in the general population is relatively low. So the chances that a student will find an archivist with an eidetic memory who has looked at every single document in their collection? I'm thinking the odds are pretty low.

But truly? Whether or not I'm an omniscient archivist is irrelevant, if I'm really doing my job as an archivist in a teaching institution. Our goal here is--I hope--to provide students with the skill sets to do good, solid research on a topic. Skills that will allow them to locate the information they need no matter what, no matter where, no matter why, no matter who. Collection inventories or no collection inventories, online resources or not, with assistance of knowledgeable archivists and librarians or without.

To take a different angle on it, I read somewhere once that there's a researcher's gift. And that's some sort of unique ability when going through a ton of material skimming at high speed, to have your research topic or keywords more or less jump off the page at you. I've generally found that true when working on my own research topics. But see, your topic is not my topic. I have no real passion for it. I'm not the one who is going to be putting all the evidence together, telling the story. Guess what? Those words probably aren't going to jump off the pages at me.

And Dr. X (PhD, Ret.), not to belabor the point, but you're both a PhD and Retired. If anybody should have the expertise and time to do his or her own research in a most efficient manner, you would be one of the first people I'd identify. And you're a Name in your field. Why would you rely on the unproven skills of someone you barely know on the research for a topic for which you're probably seeking publication? It's not that I'm a bad researcher, I'm not, but you have no way of knowing my skill level and whether or not it is reliable enough on which to stake your own professional reputation.

I also read somewhere once that there's a serendipity at work in archival research. That very often you start it with the intent to document or prove one thing, but as you go through archives, often what you find is something else. Something more interesting, something more important than whatever your original topic was. The author in question was using this concept to argue against the idea of item-level description, but I also think it applies in this case. If I were to identify some materials of use to you, what incredible, ground-breaking potential question or topic might you miss simply because you relied solely on what I provided in response to your relatively short description of your topic? 

So Dr. X (PhD, Ret.), I have an offer for you. Being an equitable access provider is something of a passion for me. If you'd like to come in and have the same conversation with me that I would have with one of your former students, I'd love to do that. I could offer a few suggestions, teach you to search our finding aids, teach you how to formulate your search terms and queries, and help you get going on how you might identify and locate archival resources on your topic, whether in our holdings or elsewhere. I hope you'll find it a productive and helpful experience.

I look forward to seeing you soon.


P.S. You may have noted that I didn't cite the sources for those "I read it somewhere" comments I made in the body of this missive. That's because I don't remember off-hand what book or books those were, other than it is or they are somewhere in my list of about 500 novels with archival content. Despite the topic being one of my own research interests. Point taken?

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