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, April 1, 2012

Archives and the future

There's this battle, see. It's a battle over scarce resources. And it's a battle that a lot of archivists have entered kind of late. And it's the whole justifying our existence thing. Not us as people, per se, but why an institution should have archivists and archival collections. I'm going to narrow that focus to academic institutions.

What I realized a few years ago was that while it was self-evident to me why archives are important in an academic institution, it wasn't self-evident to a lot of people at my institution. Because we weren't really serving our students, our faculty. And while the program was supported, some thought was being given to pulling it. That the service we were providing outside the academy wasn't sufficient to justify our cost.

NOT what any archivist wants to hear, but the correct response, of course, is a combination of outreach to those user groups and education for those around us to understand how we can support teaching and research at our institutions.

So when I was asked recently to do a presentation for an academic group on where the future of  archives/special collections lay and what such collections can offer teaching and learning, I had to put into words everything I've been trying to achieve for the last several years and that for which I continue to aim. I've redacted and modified the following considerably to anonymize it, but I think there's broader applicability here anyhow.

The first topic of the day is my vision for [Archives and Special Collections (A&SC)]. This is almost always a dangerous thing. If I say, A&SC can and should be the shining jewel of the Library, I’m probably going to offend everybody in the room that isn’t within A&SC. If I say anything that doesn’t completely correlate with your consultancy report, I take the risk of that getting back to the author and since he’s a good friend and writes support letters when I need them, I need to keep on his good side there. And if I present an image too at odds with the existing status of A&SC, it could be perceived that I’m failing to recognize the incredible work being done currently. I could solve that all by being too vague, but that’s not good for any of us.

So here it goes, that dangerous thing.

There’s a theme in the Library world and in writing about libraries these days. It’s popped up in a number of discussions about the future of academic libraries. As more and more library resources go electronic and more and more can be accessed at a distance, does the library really need to remain a physical place?  I think the answer to that is already shaking itself out in academia and clearly as libraries reposition themselves. The physical library collections will never go away entirely, but more and more space will be devoted to the library as the knowledge commons, the place to study, the place to get work done.

But I don’t know if you’ve spotted one of the undercurrents to that theme. I’ve been aware of it for some time but I missed seeing the significance to it until just recently. Last year some time, one of my Facebook librarian friends posted a link to a blog entry on Library Journal’s site.  It was about the greying of the profession and how all these library jobs would be opening up soon, except it wasn't happening. I keep hearing the bit about the greying. I’ve been hearing it since I started looking for an archives job in 1993. It goes something like: the profession is filled with all these older people who are going to retire and everybody will move up a step and there will be tons of jobs suddenly open at entry level. It’s like trickle-down economics for the job market. So I was responding with my usual internal monologue of “those people never retire. And even if they do, those positions aren’t necessarily getting filled”--which, to be fair, was the exact argument the author was making--when I spotted the line of advice to new librarians that made me flare. The posting advised grad students and new librarians to go after one of the “hot specialties like archives.” And that was enough to get a written response out of me—partly because I wasn’t thinking of the size of the audience that Library Journal might command. And shortly one of the editors called up and asked if they could reprint an excerpt from my response.  Which was, in short, that it was ridiculous to suggest to librarians that they seek employment in an allied profession that has approximately 10%, if that, of the population base of their own profession and already has specialized degree programs of its own.

But what I missed was what this portends. Perhaps this groundswell, this push toward entering the profession that at the moment means one of the most dismal job markets I’ve seen in the 20 years since I began looking for my first archives position, is an indicator of things to come. That perhaps the future does lie in A&SC. Specialized content, unique to the institution, often at little or no cost to the acquisition budget, these departments can continue to provide a role for the library collections in the library’s future as a location, but they also can be a focus for the library, the materials we can hold up to prove that we’re special, we’re different, we’re not just the same as any other academic library.

And what might that future hold? In looking at that, I’d like to switch focus to the second portion of the question. What makes an academic library an academic library? Support for teaching, learning, and research. Else why would the university administration dedicate any of the budget to the library? I’d like to start by focusing on research, though those three are tightly interwoven from my perspective. What is the qualities that make research that matters? Originality. Uniqueness. The ability to bring in grant funds, or barring that, not being overly expensive. The marketability and perhaps patentability of the end product. The publishability of the end product. Primary and unique resources held in A&SC afford academic researchers access to raw data, unique data, very often specialized data very often in non-synthesized form and you don’t have to go through the Institutional Review Board to read those documents and books.

It’s not just historians and literature professors. The users of archives—if they ever were primarily those two groups—are more diverse now than they ever have been. Vulcanologists seeking images of Aleutian volcanoes—usually taken by servicemen—to document the growth of those mountains and what might possibly happen with them in future. Climatologists using tourist photos of popular glaciers to create a composite and animated view of climate change on a micro-scale. Anthropologists tracing provenance of cultural materials in order to return museum-held objects of significance back to the groups that so desperately want them back—and those anthropologists are providing more than just the documentation of the items themselves, but replacing lost memories of how those materials were used within the culture. Digital humanities specialists using historical maps, photographs, published diaries, and objects to create visual and interactive displays of a place and time . Biologists using anthropological field notes, trading post, and cannery records to track the harvesting of wildlife to establish historical population estimates.  Economists using the same to estimate possible future harvests in order to establish industry quotas. 

A few weeks ago I was in a room with two professors, one a civil engineer, one a climatologist, waiting for a meeting to start. We were discussing the weather. It’s been a rough winter in SouthCentral Alaska and Valdez, which commonly gets 220+ inches of snow in winter, had already hit that level in December, with at least three months of snowfall yet to come. The civil engineer mentioned that in a heavy snowfall winter a few years back, he’d consulted for a commercial facility there because they were in danger of the roofs on the buildings collapsing because of snow load. That when those facilities were built in the 1970s, they didn’t have more than a few years worth of climatological data to estimate what the load capacity needed to be. As it turned out, the load bearing ability was lower than it needed to be. And the climatologist was nodding along, agreeing, when I said “What? Of course they had those numbers!” A bit of discussion ensued. And my argument was that just because it wasn’t in the official files of NOAA, that didn't mean the information didn't exist. In diaries. In correspondence from miners home to family in the lower 48. In tourist photographs showing city streets buried in snow.

In the holdings of your A&SC, in the decisions made every day about what to collect, what to bring in, what to preserve, what and how to make it accessible, is the raw material that can allow researchers—whether faculty or students—to shine. To discover and analyze and synthesize information that can be found nowhere else. That can have lasting impact in every field of research at this institution.

The same holds true for teaching and learning here. What better way to get a student in an ethics class to fundamentally understand—to have it made real to them—the importance of what they’re studying than to have them sit down with a legislator’s bill files and read the behind-the-scenes memos on redistricting that never make it into the official record? How better to get a history or communications student to understand how the format and delivery method of a document can define the message than by looking at the carbon copies out of a reading file system showing the dates elapsed between communication? You end up having to explain what a carbon copy is, but it’s a visceral understanding of the transfer of information and communication that can be obtained in no other way—not even by looking at a digital surrogate. The importance of pedagogical methods becomes far more clear to the education student when they watch video from the early telecomm distance delivery courses. Why not test the skills of advanced language students by handing them a handwritten diary—bad spelling, uneven cursive, and all—to see if they can still translate it? Or an old and rare book in that language that may have archaic forms and fonts? The journalism or public policy students: how about using university records to document the history of a topic of daily interest to them, like, say, the constant complaints about parking on campus.

And don't forget about plagiarism. Want to reduce the amount of plagiarism happening on campus? Assign research in materials from the unique or rare materials in A&SC—the chances that the student will be able to find something existing written about that exact document or topic is unlikely.

I’d like to give you an actual example of how you can bring A&SC materials into the classroom in unique and creative ways, expanding the learning opportunities for students. In September of 2008, I mentioned to one of my archivists that we should really consider doing something for Archives month in October. She said: an exhibit! I said, no. Exhibits are a huge amount of work, doing the selection, writing the interpretation, we simply didn’t have the time to do that nor did we have the funding to create the photographic surrogates of the original material. But I got to thinking about how we might do an exhibit without doing all the work. And the answer to that, of course, is to get somebody else or more than one somebody else to do the work for you.

About the same time, I’d been staring at one of the older photographs in our holdings. It was a family portrait of some early inhabitants of Juneau. The man in the photograph is Richard Tighe Harris who in partnership with Joe Juneau, are considered the founders of Juneau. The photo is, and as near as I can tell always has been, labeled “Richard Tighe Harris and family.” And this caption does, and always has, irritated me. The group consists of Richard and his wife Kitty, who happened to be a Tlingit from Hoonah, two of their sons, and Kitty’s sister. This is not Richard Harris’s family as not every one in the photograph is directly related to him, this is Kitty Harris’s family. (Yes, I did my undergraduate history senior thesis on a women’s history topic.) And as I sat and looked at this image, I thought about all the things that could be read from it and decided it was perfect for an exhibit.

I tend to come up with titles first, and the obvious one for an exhibit asking different individuals to interpret a photograph from their own disciplinary background was, of course, Eye of the Beholder. So we had a title, we had an image, and we sent out the call. We sent out several calls, in fact. We targeted a number of faculty in disciplines we thought might add to the conversation. I took handouts advertising the exhibit—with the deadline for submissions—to the committees on which I was serving along with many promises to write wonderful thank yous for review files. I forced my employees, even the temps, to write something. I strongarmed one of my best friends, a history professor specializing in Native history, to write something. While not a faculty member, our Risk Manager’s response was one of my favorite submissions and judging by the response of viewers, was one of the ones to really get them thinking about how they could really put a subject angle on what seemed such an simple request to tell us what they saw in the image.

We’ve continued to do this once a year for October. It’s not growing terribly fast, but we are getting some repeats from several professors. The three regulars are the history professor, a public health professor, and a photography professor. The photography professor is a particularly interesting sample of what can happen: her submission to the original exhibit was a collage. Every year she’s encouraged her students to take part in it and has managed to convince a few to do so. This past year, one of her former students who is out of college now dropped by in September just to find out if we were doing it again and he created an entry for it again. But our photography prof is not only encouraging working with historic photographs in the classroom, she’s used other images from us for other collages which have been accepted into juried photography exhibits and count toward the creative component of her tripartite workload.

But back to the history professor. This fall she was scheduled to teach the historiography and methods course. It’s been more historiography and less methods, but she wanted to balance that more evenly. One of the learning outcomes she wanted for the students in this class was for them to have a better understanding of how images can be used for historical research. So among other archival projects, she decided to do a classroom variant of the Eye of the Beholder exhibit. I picked a few photographs, she selected one, and she assigned it to her students for interpretation. I brought some of the previous exhibits to the class and we went through them in one session.

In the assignment, the professor took it a step further and incorporated it not only into the research portion of the class, but also made the students demonstrate their understanding of the historiography curriculum. She didn’t ask them to interpret the image from their own perspective, but as major individual historians or groups representing major trends in historiographic perspective might have interpreted it. They had to choose at least three. In general, the students approached the project with a level of interest much above that of the other assignments they had. Through this research interpretation project, the professor was able to tell if the students really understood the historiographic trends. One of the most common interpretations used, of course, was cliometrics, the intersection of math, statistics, and history. The students who didn’t really understand cliometrics, just counted the number of people in the image. The students who did understand provided an interpretation or context for those numbers.

This one little project—the one that takes about 40-60 hours of my time a year and was born out of frustration and need and nearly no time—has had a cumulative and progressive effect upon the teaching, learning, and research missions of my institution. This is exactly how unique and rare materials, the materials held by A&SC, relate to the teaching, learning, and research mission of the university. The resources can be brought into all levels of that mission, from undergrad to faculty work. And not just the collections, but the people working in these units. The teaching expertise and potential of the individuals working in these units is significant for research methodologies. As hard as it can be for students and faculty to find what they’re looking for in the library collections? There’s often even a greater division between those people and the unique collections.

But A&SC now—and hopefully always will—have a greater mandate, a larger audience than just the academy. The people working reference in those departments are working with the community users who can include k-12 students doing History Day projects. Or somebody who googled into a finding aid and discovered some reference to a distant family member. Or explaining to a journalist as to why they may not have access to that collection or those records due to HIPAA or FERPA. This user experience, of working with quite possibly the most diverse audience that any information professional might, translates well into the classroom and into the teaching of research methodologies. They’ve already learned instruction is always more effective when tailored to the topic. They understand how foreign this kind of research is to most students and often faculty as well. They can present solutions, research methods that can get people over the worst of that hump. And even more, because they’re so attuned to working with non-synthesized information, they often come up with creative approaches to research.

In the perfect world of the future, the information about A&SC materials is fully and seamlessly accessible through all of the library search engines, meaning that those seeking information resources in the library don’t have to go to several pages or into several databases or catalogs to find that information, even assuming they know to do so. At my institution, our finding aids are being indexed by Serials Solution so that any student using the QuickSearch—the library google—on the main library webpage is not only accessing the library catalog and a significant number of our subscription databases, they’re also accessing our full-text finding aids. And this was at no added cost to our Summon subscription, since those subscriptions usually allow for a number of local information databanks to be added to the system.

In a perfect world, there’s not only no question that A&SC resources are necessary to the functioning of the academy, there’s shock at the thought that someone once might have thought any other way. In a perfect world, perhaps all library materials, databases, monographs, gov docs, A&SC resources are all seamlessly integrated in reference. In a perfect world, the Institutional Repository includes not just the publications and datasets of faculty, graduate theses, but the university publications, finding aids, and digital materials provided by A&SC.

This is the vision, encapsulated (and I should point out, much of this is already happening at many institutions): The collections of A&SC are incorporated widely in curriculum. The expertise provided by the librarians and archivists working in A&SC is regularly called upon. A&SC is a magnet for donors both fiscal and for collections. Where the track record of A&SC in meeting and exceeding the goals of their grant applications expedites the ability to bring in more grant funding. Where grant funding is coming from a wide array of granting agencies, both public and private. Where decisions are access driven. Where collaboration is happening with other institutions' A&SC units with collection overlap. Where it’s a safe place to take chances, just to see what the results will be. Where the community—academic and non-academic alike--feels an investment in the collections and provides support.

But here’s the thing. Visions are nice. But the theoretical only goes so far with me, especially since it’s often hard to tell what will work and what won’t, what is needed and what isn’t, until you are at the institution for a while. The vision is only as good as the steps you take to get there, if there’s a commitment of resources, the support, the time, personnel, funding, to get there. If you have a path designed. But a flexible one: that recognizes that roadblocks and emergencies happen and occasionally detours are a good thing. Where you’re attending to the daily work but making sure that feeds into the progress.

Here's what I think are some of the considerations that we need to have in both designing a vision and designing the strategic plan that allows you to reach the goals of the vision.

  • Flexibility. Sometimes things just don’t work they way they’re supposed to work. Sometimes the vision and goals change. Sometimes the support resources disappear. Usually things take longer than you want them to take. You have to deal with all of that. It’s not only strategic planning, it’s contingency planning.
  • Change. I know the phrase “change is inevitable” is trite, but it’s true. If there’s no difference between where we are and where we want to be, than we can stop working on all of this. Sometimes you have to let go of functions and duties that may seem central to the work now to make room for the new work.
  • Commitment to the vision and goals from existing stakeholders. There’s nothing more impossible to do than effect change in an institution without the support of those involved.
  • Assessment. It doesn’t always have to be formal, but it needs to be done. And it needs to be done constantly and it can be worked into the daily workload—it doesn’t always have to require a huge commitment of time. Who are your users? How do they use your materials? If I had to pick the single best library quote for the last decade, my choice would be the one about if you’re having to train people to use your tools, your tools are broken. If nothing else, assessment allows you to demonstrate the effects of the work you’re doing by providing use data.
  • Daydreaming. You need to plan for who your users and stakeholders might be as well as who they are. An occasional brainstorming session, or a troll through the university catalog or faculty directory can create some wonderful results. I’ve been able to build new user relationships through my membership as one of the faculty on the graduate curriculum review board. I hear what people are proposing for curriculum and I can figure out how we fit into it.
  • Transparency. Let people know what you’re doing and why. Don’t cover up the failures. Learn from them and move on. And share the lessons learned. Related to that:
  • Document, document, document. Write down the processes. Write down the procedures. That’s true for everything from reference requests to shelving procedures to descriptive standards to collection policies to outreach methods. And to save you even more time, put that information up on your site on a wiki so others who want can see it for themselves or that if it needs to be amended, it can be done easily.
  • The boss wins. If the people in charge don't like it, it doesn’t happen. That’s not to say that I don’t advocate for my position, that I don’t try to change their mind, but I learn when no means no. And I figure out a substitute or an alternative path.
  • Remember the why. Sometimes when you’re knee-deep in legacy finding aids that need to be transformed into a standardized form or in a basement full of old boxes covered with spiderwebs and bat droppings and you’d rather be out having cocktail parties with potential donors, you need to remember that it’s only 10:00 am and it would be unseemly. The drudgery is not always fun but you can’t always fob it off on students and volunteers. Yet the work still needs to be done and you need to dedicate some of your time to doing it so you can finish that piece of it eventually. Doing that work can also help inform the process: the easiest way to find the quickest method of doing a repetitive task is to hate what you’re doing: often the solutions and shortcuts become more obvious more quickly.
  • Balance tact with necessity. One of my donors came in a few months ago prior to cleaning out her office and asked me if I wanted all her plaques. The answer to that, of course, is no. We don’t. Nobody wants plaques. They’re heavy and take up tons of space and create preservation concerns and nobody ever asks to see them. (I generalize, of course). And we have some serious space concerns. But this is a very important donor who has brought in many other collections and some serious funding to our library and to our university. She’s also a wickedly smart woman and as she asked the question was watching me quite closely to read some of the thoughts that I thought I’d been hiding behind a fairly well-developed poker face. And before I could even open my mouth, she started laughing and said: “I know what the answer is going to be, I just want to hear how you phrase it.” And tactfully, carefully, I explained that since we are an archives within a research institution, one of the things we have to be very aware of while collecting is how those collections support the mission of the university. And while plaques do indeed provide some evidence of who she is, how important she is, and how she is regarded, they were of limited research utility. She turned to one of my archivists who was standing right next to her, elbowed her, and said “And that’s how you do it.” I also told her I’d be happy to photograph the plaques and keep those digital images with the collection. And it turns out that she's all right with that.
  • Advocacy. Support can come from the most unexpected places. Researchers can become donors. Donors can become researchers. Former colleagues may become volunteers in retirement. Stay attuned to the needs of your stakeholder groups and meet those needs when it’s appropriate. Keep advocacy toward the top of whatever you may be juggling at the time, and try and look at things through the lens of advocacy.
  • Staying open. You never know. This is true for anything from discovering talents and skills in your colleagues to donor work. I’d like to give you a very recent for example, donor specific. Last night, I went down to the hotel lobby a little early because I wanted to be sure I’d be there when my ride arrived. And the very personable hotel clerk asked me what I was doing, why I was in town, what I did, and among other things, turns out he grew up in Alaska. And when I came back through the lobby door later in the evening, we continued the conversation. Well that conversation wound around again to what I do and as I was describing to him the types of collections found in an archives he suddenly got really interested and said, you know, we have a bunch of those big plastic tubs just full of my dad’s log books from the time when he was a captain in the commercial fishing fleet. Would that be something you want? And I said yes, we would very much like to provide a research home for your dad’s papers.
  • Focus. You can’t be all things to all people. Remain open, but when something won’t work, don’t take it on. I get regular requests for subject or event-focused exhibits.  I often say no because of time and financial constraints, but in the spirit of tactfulness and advocacy, I often suggest that if they’d like to take it on themselves, here’s an estimate of the time and funding it would take for them to complete it. Occasionally they’re willing to take that on and do, and we end up with yet another exhibit or resource to share. The work that went into developing and populating our picturingUAA database of historic images was almost completely funded by an offshoot of our development office that wanted us to provide them with historic images for the university.
  • Stay user-centric. Why collect if it’s not going to be used? Why spend time reorganizing or writing description that end-users don’t care about or won’t see? If you almost always see researchers at 4 pm on Friday and never at 10 am on Tuesday, maybe it’s time to reconsider the desk hours. Tracking user statistics can be really useful when you’re about out of space and have to consider what may need to be moved into offsite storage or even what could be weeded as outside the collection scope.
And that, I think, is how you begin to craft the future of archives and special collections and of academic libraries, together.