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.

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