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.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment