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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Learning a little in loss

I've been thinking a lot lately about donor relations.

Back in grad school on my five-month-long internship, I had the good fortune to be working for a rockstar archivist, Karyl Winn. Karyl did a lot to make sure I had as broad exposure to the field as she could possibly fit in five months. On a few occasions, she took me out on donor visits. On one of those trips, we had a drive of a little over an hour to get to the donor's house. Karyl, mindful of her role, took the opportunity to take a long drive and turn it into a teachable moment, and started musing about donor relations and archival training.

The gist of what she said was this: that most formal archival education doesn't really prepare you for some of the specifics of donor relations. She carefully spelled it out for me (I paraphrase since this was 20 or so years ago and my memory isn't that specific): when we work with donors, we're often working with people who are undergoing or who have just undergone a massive life change. Death, retirement, relocation, job endings or startings, all those things that shoot up your score on the list of stressors. Even when working with institutional records, we often are still working with people who are going through similar losses in a work setting. Karyl said she sometimes wished that graduate archival training could include some sort of counseling education to better prepare archivists to work with people going through these events.

Let's face it. Sometimes the records you're taking away in these situations may be some of the sole reminders of a person's life or career. And whether the individual you're working with is the source of those records or the child or spouse or friend of the creator, the records have a larger meaning than just boxes of paper: they become the physical representation of that individual and or that person's career. And that watching it walk out the door can be like reliving that retirement day, or that decision to move, or even a funeral service. And we need to be cognizant of this and respectful and hopefully convey our understanding and respect to our donors.

Now how you train for this? I don't know. I don't suppose we can all undergo additional degree programs in grief counseling and maybe for some archivists, that level of training isn't so necessary. I'd had a strong foundation in working with people in emotional distress as a child (no, this isn't the obvious family joke) since my father was a minister before he retired and one of his ministry strengths had always been in counseling. And I'd observed him using those skills with people not just in his churches, but also in a part-time volunteer gig as a chaplain for a local fire/emergency services department when I was a little girl. In fact a lot of my family just seems to "get it" when it comes to working with the bereaved or those who are caught up in other types of stressful and emotional situations. I won't say I'm perfect or that I couldn't be improved by some formal training, but I know that the informal training I've had has helped me negotiate some situations. Mostly, for me, I find it comes down to listening and listening well enough so you truly hear and understand the story and can reflect back your empathy for the person's grief and loss and show your respect for them and their needs.

So all of that was kind of mulling around in my head when last Friday night at about 9:30 I got a phone call. And was told that an elderly man I'd been talking to off and on for a couple of years about his photographs--he had been a professional wildlife and landscape photographer--had passed away earlier that evening. And it hit me, the grief. I didn't know him all that well--we'd had maybe three or four conversations in total--but I'd visited his house a few times and he'd shown me some of his beautiful photographs and talked about some of the stories behind how he'd taken them. I don't know all that much about what kind of person he was throughout his life but I'd been charmed by him during our interactions and I liked him and very much respected his work.  Certainly not the level of grief that those closest to him would be feeling, but still, that sense of loss that somebody I'd known a little and liked was no longer around.

And what I realized was this: that all that knowledge and empathy and sympathy and respect and the professional ability to bring those into play when working with others? That catch-all phrase about how the collections will serve as an ongoing tribute to and memory of the creator? I know that can be a soothing concept, though it's always struck me as a bit too, well, polished and smooth and without much depth, really. I prefer my sympathy and empathy be expressed in more specific ways. At any rate, all those things? Don't so much work when you're grieving too. I guess that's not all that profound--we all know that our abilities to deal can't always be turned inward--but I wondered: how do others deal with this grief when they're not just an impartial outsider with no emotional connect to the creator of the collection? Do they bury it in professional duties? Close it off and shut it away? Does it inform their interactions with the survivors, and if so, how? Do they grieve in private? Do they let the others engaged in the donor relationship know of their grief? Do the answers to those questions even really matter?

I'm not sure how I'd respond if another archivist told me that to be a good professional, I couldn't grieve for the loss of a donor. I've always viewed the relationships--the friendships, even the casual ones--I develop with donors to be a strength. I don't want to be the impartial, unbiased, distant archivist. If that's even possible, and I suppose for some it is, but it wouldn't be for me. So the result is occasionally I have to grieve. And occasionally, even though I know that I'm preserving a portion of the person's life and I can do a lot to show my respect for them through the work that I do, I know the loss is still greater than the part that remains. Papers are never more important than people, we learned that in preservation class in the section on disaster recovery, didn't we? The lesson just may have been a little more universal than we thought at the time.

What I do know is that this isn't going to change. As I told a colleague earlier this week, if one of the great joys of the donor relations portion of my job is getting to know incredibly interesting people? The downside is that sometimes I have to deal with the loss of those people too. And in the end, I think that's okay. I'm still a better person for having met them, known them, heard their stories. And for all those collections in our holdings for which we didn't know the creators? I like to think that the respect we've learned for those creators we did know can spill over into our caretaking of the records of those we never got to meet. The knowledge perhaps, that those stories existed for them too, we just weren't graced with the hearing of them. And perhaps, after all, there is some solace in the thought that as we make these materials accessible to others, the researchers who work with the materials can discover some of those stories for themselves. And learn from them and share them too.