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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Observations from the point of exhaustion

What a week. My SAA conference followed several days of family activities in Ft. Wayne and Detroit and a couple of months of heavy workload, so I have to admit I was kind of tired going in. But even more tired upon coming out.

Mostly that’s a caveat. I won’t say any of my perceptions are free of the general level of tiredness that accompanied me most of the week.

A good conference, mostly. Scott Simon (would never have put that face with that VOICE) was charming and funny and did a pretty mean Nina Totenberg imitation. Lots of choices as to sessions.

But here’s the thing on the sessions. I can’t help but think an awful lot of us keep reinventing the wheel. Or perhaps we’re just not doing our due diligence before we say something: it’s our experience, so we assume it must be universal.  Let me give you a couple of for examples from a single session I attended.

I’d love to tell you the name of the session but as I write this I’m about 30,000 feet over Saskatchewan somewhere and don’t have my program handy and honestly, it doesn’t really matter. I saw it played out in a lot of sessions in a variety of ways. The chair of the session got up and talked about how graduate archival education, way back when he went to graduate school, very carefully divided the theory from the practice. You got all the theory first, and then you went on to the practice. And while that was understandable from the standards of the time (btw, 10 years prior), it wasn’t really practical anymore and how wonderful it was that things were changing.

I happened to be sitting next to a couple of current grad school students from my own alma mater and I’m not sure I impressed them much by my sotto voce comments. I’m still kind of thinking WTS? I went to grad school 20 years ago, studied under Bert Rhoads (for those of you who don’t know your NARA history, he was AOTUS while Nixon was in office and if working as AOTUS under Nixon wouldn’t make you a great archivist, I don’t know what would), and even way back then, our little program had theory and practical application running concurrently and mixed. Sorry, Mr. Chair, if your huge and big name university didn’t have that figured out as recently as 10 years ago, but this isn’t a new trend.

My WTS attitude was not materially helped by another speaker in the session who talked about expediting practical computing-based experience for students by virtualizing software access. Basically loading the software onto servers rather than onto individual machines. And how nobody had done this before.

Again, huh? Way back yonder when I worked for the state of Utah (’98-’02), most of our software was running off the LANs and servers and not off our individual machines. Made file sharing and shared software significantly easier. The whole state government of Utah managed that over 15 years ago. Why is this new? I won’t argue for a second that the mechanisms would be the same now, but certainly it had been done and done well.

I can’t decide what’s going on here. Are we all too busy to do the more meta research before we engage on projects? Are we forgetting to look to fields outside our own? Is that “this is how I did it at my shop” model holding such sway over the profession that we forget?

At the same time, I know none of that is true. One of my favorite papers was delivered by somebody from UNC-CH who has been attending digital forensics conferences and reading the journals in that field and figuring out what we can learn from that field and bring home to use in our own archives. It’s really cool stuff and very applicable with only minimal tweaking. And the session on metrics on Saturday, well, I can’t say enough good things about that one. Spectacular and definitely underattended, though I suspect that had more to do with the airlines forcing bunches of our east coast colleagues onto early flights back home. Shared practice, solid structures developed for using back home, and fascinating statistics from the studies done.

So a mixed bag, on that front.

But the networking, oh, the networking. Of all the “best times had by me", that list would have to include hanging out at the Networking Cafe and meeting so many new and upcoming archivists who wanted resume advice. Such amazing talent and skills out there which, okay, I have to say it. I wasn’t going to say it, but I have to say it. Please, all my recruiting colleagues: will you please, please, occasionally open up one of your early career jobs as an entry level job and hire somebody out of grad school? Figure out what you need going in, hire accordingly, and you won’t be disappointed.

And my joy at that experience was—full disclosure here—increased by the helpseekers who would stop mid-discussion and say: “You wrote that blog on job-hunting? I love that blog! Thank you!” Groupies always make a girl feel better, I’ll admit. And I even sat on the other side of that table for a few moments and got some sage career advice from one of the guys I regard as one of the statesmen of our profession (who used to be a Young Turk, not so long ago, but I guess sooner or later time catches up with us all).

But back to the networking. I know we have some significant challenges to the face-to-face conference that are growing and in desperate need of being addressed. The costs are unbelievable (this one ran me close to $2500, and I don’t know yet if I’ll get any of that reimbursed and even if I do, I won’t get more than $1300 reimbursed). And that was with staying at a less expensive hotel even. There’s a strong push profession-wise to virtualize as much as we can and I agree with that. It’s hard to encourage diversity and professional development in a largely ill-paid profession when the costs of attending conferences run so high. I’m glad the Council is forming a task force to look at these issues. But I also hope that in expediting distance attendance we don’t forget the value of being there in person and that we figure out ways to support in-person attendance by our colleagues who don’t have the financial or logistical wherewithal to attend easily.

I sometimes wonder how many of those sessions where attendees sit there and wonder “how is this new?” might be alleviated by a higher level of networking in the profession made possible by face-to-face interactions. Some of the hallway conversations I had introduced me to so many things I’d never thought about. The dinners or late night drinks events with friends where they invited others along so I got to meet yet more people doing fantastic and wonderful things I didn’t know were going on. Those gave me new ideas and more to the point, ideas for handling old problems and a leg up on where to go looking for the data that might just keep me from making old mistakes.

Well, and tons of fun gossip too. What’s networking without some scurrilous gossip on the side?

And no, I’m not going to share THAT. Sorry, but you had to be there.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Lead by example

In my other blog on archival job hunting, I think I said something about trying to get a good night's sleep before an interview.

Knowing, of course, how ridiculous that really is. I'm not very good at doing that myself.

But here's the kicker. In early October, I'm teaching a two-day workshop on archival job hunting sponsored by Northwest Archivists and held at the Oregon Historical Society. How cool is that? It's inexpensive too, so go check out the NWA site and register early and often.

And normally, I'd say teaching a workshop is just exactly like going on an interview: you're going to be meeting many people you don't know and attempting to convince them that you do indeed know important things and can be of service to them in the sharing of that knowledge or skills. So theoretically, I should be aiming for a good night's sleep beforehand, right?

Sure. And I figured, no problem. Okay, so the workshop is Thursday and Friday and I have a meeting in Anchorage from 10 am to 1 pm on Wednesday that I cannot skip for any reason, but how hard will it be to get an evening flight out to Portland from Anchorage?

Apparently it's unreasonable. And by that, I mean cost-wise. Part of what is going on with the workshop is that this is a pilot project for mid-year continuing education for NWA and we're trying to see if NWA sponsored local education can be done on a cost recovery basis. Well, I have friends in Portland who can offer me crash space (thank you!) and to keep it green I'm not planning to do any handouts other than electronic, and if we make the lunches either brown bag or on your own, the only real cost is my transportation to Portland. So my deal with NWA is that they cover my plane fare, which I promised would be less than $600 (and before y'all panic, sorry, but that is what it typically costs me these days to get out of AK) and we'd re-earn that from registration fees. And to be honest, if we don't get enough registrations to quite make that, I'll cover the rest myself. I really, really, really want to do this workshop.

At any rate, about 2 months ago, I started hitting up the airline websites. Guess what? I can't get an evening flight into Portland that Wednesday night for less than $800. I'm still shaking my head about that, but Alaskan travelers know the score and the reality is, red-eyes are always cheaper. So in order to make that self-imposed cost restriction, I'm taking a red eye flight. Leaving ANC about 1 am, getting into Portland at 5:30 am. The very morning of the first day of the workshop.

The good news is I can sleep on planes and chances are I'll be able to do some napping between my daytime meeting on Weds and the time when I have to leave for the airport. And the ever-wonderful Diana Banning has volunteered to fetch me at the airport at Stupid O'Clock and take me out to for breakfast where I can attempt to ingest as much caffeine as humanly possible in order to make it through the day. I might not be the most human of beings at 6:30 pm that Thursday, but I'm pretty sure I can make it through the first day of the workshop and still be presentable and do a good job. Which, of course, will be exactly the opposite of what I will be advising workshop attendees: which is that they should never do this. So even if it all goes awry and I end up getting a little loopy from sleep deprivation at some point during the day, I can just point to that as the proof for why you should do everything you can to get a good night's sleep before so important an event as an interview.

It could be worse. Way back in undergrad, when I'd procrastinated so badly that I had to pull an all-nighter to do a paper or study for a test, I used to have this, well, treatment, for lack of a better word. Ready for this? I'd stay up all night and then about 6 am I'd run to the grocery store and pick up a 6-pack of Coke and a package of Oreos. And that's all I'd eat, all day. (Are you freaking out yet?) I'd be wired for bear all day long, get through it, the caffeine would finally dispel about 10 pm that night when I'd crash, badly, and wake up fine the next morning.

Do NOT do this at home. Honestly, some days I'm amazed I'm still alive and in good health. And I look back now and wonder how, so hyped up on caffeine and sugar and chocolate, that I could possibly not have been a danger to myself and others, especially since the vehicle I was driving back then was a rather ancient Ford Pinto. I'd also like to point out that I tried this once in grad school in my late 20s. It didn't work. All I did was make myself incredibly sick and I fell asleep anyhow. One of the benefits to the wisdom and stamina that purportedly comes with age is that I can often soldier through the sleep deprivation for the period of time I need to do so (especially when it's less than a day or two), recognize if I'm getting loopy, and take steps to counteract that or at least reduce the visible evidence of loopiness. Massive preparation is going to be the key to that one, here, and I'll be doing that massive preparation.

But I'll confess. I'm still a little worried about that Thursday night. See, at least 2 of our Portland colleagues have offered me crash space and in order to make this a true test of the costs, I had hoped to take one of them up on it. But really, I'm not sure that can happen. Because not only am I going to be exhausted, but I'd assumed that I was going to be taking a lot of homework home from the workshop from attendees that I could hand back to them the next day as feedback. So sleep-deprived me plus tons of homework plus really cool Portland colleagues who are so much fun I'm not going to be inclined to either sleep or review homework and that just looks like a recipe for disaster, not so dissimilar to the Coke/Oreos combination.

I'd thought about taking this to a survey to see what the readership thought: go for the crash space or just buy a hotel room for that night, but then I remembered. See, I only got about 4 hours sleep last night. I'm thinking the whole democracy thing might just be a product of sleep deprivation and one of those cues that I'm probably now not entirely in my right mind. So I guess I'll wait on that decision til I've caught up on some sleep. Which won't be for the next couple of weeks since I'm about to head out for a family visit and then SAA and if there's a place more likely than SAA for me to end up talking shop with colleagues til the wee hours, I haven't yet found it.

Knowing what my dance card looks like for the next few weeks? It's a very good thing I can sleep on planes. It may be the only sleep I get.  Good thing I don't have a job interview coming up.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Don't buy the cow

A while back I proposed an archival replacement for WTF. In this case, WTS for "What the Schellenberg?" (I also propose OMP for Oh My Posner.)

I had one of those WTS moments when I made the mistake of reading my work email on a weekend and found myself the recipient of a very nice note from a former potential donor.

This donor had some papers from an individual at the center of a fairly well known event in this state. And we'd been conversing, casually, about the option of her giving those materials to my institution so we could make them available for research. In the email, the donor let me know that she'd been on the verge of giving them to us, when another institution offered to buy them from her. And so the materials were going there instead.

Don't get me wrong here. All I really care about is that the materials have a home where they'll be accessible. It doesn't have to be us, it just needed to be somewhere, preferably in-state, which it is, so I'm happy with that piece of the outcome. And there were some related materials to the collection that we weren't able to take in, so extenuating circumstances, perhaps.

But WTS? Perhaps my dream of a collaborative professional relationship with fellow repositories in the state was always too Pollyanna, but really? I get that some archival institutions have more money than Allen or Gates but in this case, offering money for a collection that the donor was willing to give away, you have to admit that looks a bit like deliberate undercutting. I'm not convinced that was the intent, I really want to believe that wasn't the intent.

But that aside, I'm going to take my opportunity to get on one of my soapboxes here. Look, I don't have an acquisitions budget for archival materials. I occasionally reimburse shipping costs, but that's about it. Aside from the fact that I probably wouldn't get an acquisitions budget even if I asked for one, I've been convinced for a very long time that purchasing archival collections teeters very close to--if not over--the edge of unethical behavior for my institution. Not because people shouldn't be recompensed for their work or that a price can't be placed on materials such as this, but in light of everything else we do. Either you should pay for all of it, or pay for none of it. And if you're paying for it, perhaps you should reconsider asking for donor funding to care for it.

This past year, our institution was given a fairly sizable cash donation for the work we need to do to make one of our collections readily accessible. I'll be seeking matching grant funding to allow us to hire somebody to do that work over the course of a few years. The care and feeding of archival collections isn't free.  In this case, the donor gave us the records and then turned around and gave us money to do our piece of it. How--HOW???--can we possibly justify, in light of requesting money to make collections accessible, paying another person for a collection itself when we'll still have all the resulting costs of preservation/description/storage/access to follow? Is the message we want to give our generous and giving donor that we value her collection less, that she must pay for it to be accessible when we're willing to cover all those costs and more for other collections?

I don't want an acquisitions budget at this institution for these very reasons. I like the fact that some of our donors are willing to support long-term access to their papers by assisting us in our work. I don't like sending mixed messages to donors who are kind enough to support us in a variety of ways. Yes, I understand that the outcome will occasionally be materials going to other institutions who will pay for them. That's their deal, their choice. I'm not crazy enough to think that this means that eventually all collections will go on a marketplace instead of being gifted to institutions, it's not that slippery of a slope (I hope), but I do wonder about the other ramifications. Like an increase in competition between institutions, like the possibility that the acquisition cost of a collection could start to outweigh our other appraisal considerations, like the reduction in our ability to spend our budgets on caring for and providing access to the collections when the economy tanks...

So that's the heart of my argument. Not all of it, but a lot. Good news for those of you still purchasing Alaskana items: you won't be getting any competition from me.

And P.S. to the dealer who wrote me last week offering some small Alaskana manuscript items and wrote that he was hoping that maybe the economic climate in Alaska was better since his clientele in California and elsewhere had cut down on their buying: when I wrote back and said "we don't buy collections?" This was part of what was going through my head. And by the way, a good sales pitch to this archivist doesn't usually involve telling her she's way down on your list. You want me to pay $750 for a small album of about 30 photos? Don't tell me a bunch of other people have already turned you down. Okay, so I wouldn't have bought anything anyway, but if I liked that sort of treatment, I'd go back to junior high prom. OMP.