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.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Something about those who don't learn from history...

Some years ago, ten-plus, our local public library reorganized staff. The full time Alaskana expert was no longer really a fulltime local expert position. And a few years later, he retired. And his position wasn't replaced. There had been others who had it as a portion of their job, but nobody really full-time. Hours for that section of the library, which was physically segregated from the rest of the library, were cut substantially.

I'm tempted to say "Crickets" but the truth is I wasn't really paying serious attention myself--enough troubles of my own at the time with budgets and staffing--and I don't know how much really was said about it, how much public outcry happened. Maybe there was some and it just didn't go anywhere. Whatever the outcry was, it didn't change the outcome.

A few years later, our professional archivist heading up our local National Archives branch retired. Along with a few of the other long-time workers. Some of those positions were sort of refilled, but not entirely.

Again, I'm tempted to say "Crickets" but the truth is I wasn't really paying serious attention myself--enough troubles of my own at the time with budgets and staffing--and I don't know how much really was said about it, how much public outcry happened. Maybe there was some and it just didn't go anywhere.

I know the use levels at the NARA branch had been dropping for some time, I don't know what the use of the collection/space at the public library had looked like but I'd gotten the impression that maybe it had dropped some too? I don't know, that's purely speculation.

Flash forward a bit to about 4 years ago. The National Archives is facing budget shortfalls, looks around at the least used vs most expensive facilities vs existing staffing, decision made, our branch gets closed and most of the stuff gets shipped about 1200 miles away (some very few collections were removed from federal custody and placed with public institutions in state but the details of that are quite nuanced and long and not worth delving into at this point).

Not crickets. Massive public outcry. Fair enough. I'll admit, it kind of went through my head that maybe we should have been yelling about this a tidge bit earlier, like at the time of the no replacement for the retiree level, but we didn't. Game over, NARA is gone. FYI: it's still having massive funding issues on the federal level, too. The cuts continue.

Flash forward to recently. City library has a flood in their local collections space, the circulating materials that survived the flood are moved to other parts of the library, it speeds up a master plan to move the collection to a not-so-segregated space closer to other library collections, word gets out. Massive outcry. There's something special about that space! We need the expertise of the Alaskana specialists! I'm not mocking this attitude, I happen to agree, about the expertise at least. And I'm wondering why we didn't fight it when we had a fighting chance to fix it, back when the last expert left 10 years ago and wasn't replaced. Or even before that, as the staff of seven full-time subject experts dwindled. Or the facilities types were allowed to defer the maintenance on the space because of budget cuts and things that were regarded as higher priorities. We all know the longer a position goes unfilled, the less likely it is to ever be filled again. And the longer a facility goes without upgrades or maintenance, the more expensive it gets to overhaul it, especially if it's a space that's going to need some specific environmental conditions aimed at long-term preservation of materials.

Here's some other things some of you have maybe noticed but haven't really understood to be a possible forecast for the future of locally focused collections (archives collections, library collections, museum collections and by the way no, none of those are interchangeable terms) here and elsewhere in state. Ready for it?

The library for the local universities? Hasn't had a full-time Alaskana librarian for over 15 years. Currently the work is being shared among several librarians with the retiree still putting in a fair amount of time of her own on a volunteer basis but certainly it's not the same level of effort as had been happening when this was a full-time position. Several other library positions have fallen vacant and have been cut. Not to mention that the parking lots and parking garages at the university are expected to be self-funded (no tuition dollars, no state appropriations) so the cost of parking is steadily increasing proving an obstacle to access. And yes, we pay for parking too, it's not just the community members and students suffering from this.

Our State Archivist position went unfilled for well over a year. We have one now, thankfully, and it appears their staffing is finally full up over there not that they couldn't use more, but I didn't hear much, if any, public outcry over that position while it was vacant.

Our State Library and State Museum has a bunch of unfilled positions, many of them working with their Alaskana and historical materials. Who's yelling? Who is pushing the Legislature to get them the funding they need to fill those positions?

The archives of the state's flagship university library has two people (including one retiree convinced to come out of retirement temporarily) doing the work with textual and photographic archives that used to be done by several people not five years ago, not to mention many other vacant and now gone positions elsewhere in the library, including the head of that department that encompasses the special collections at that university. Those vacant jobs aren't being advertised so it's probably a fair assumption that they won't be, either. Because of a flood that damaged the space (thankfully not the collections) well over a year ago, they've been operating by appointment only and their website will tell you that it's due to continue til next February because apparently the renovation keeps getting delayed and delayed and delayed and the delays aren't coming from within the library. The 600 pound gorilla of archives in the state is accessible to researchers by appointment only. By Appointment Only. Does anybody else have an issue with this?

Our local museum's library and archives just had a librarian leave. The remaining staff can't/won't talk about what might be happening with that position, but I'm wondering what the Museum's administration would say about their plans to replace that individual. Know what I think? I think the job line will be repurposed elsewhere in the Museum and there's not a darn thing the others in that department can do about it. Will somebody please ask the Museum's administration about this? And then publicize the answer?

And these are some of the most visible, purportedly well-funded orgs in the state. This doesn't even include the many cultural, tribal, historical libraries, archives, and museums all over Alaska that have been struggling for a very long time and continue to struggle because they don't get the financial and other support they need to do what they do. Occasionally they're able to hire or train staff for the work that needs to be done but then because of other shortages, those specialists end up working the reception desk or providing security for one of the exhibits because there's nobody else there to do it. These institutions are doing incredible work in the face of huge challenges, but it's not til they've closed that anybody seems to notice and then it's often far too late.

And I'm betting all of the rest of these institutions in the state that don't appear to be in crisis are one employee retirement/departure from going into free fall. It's that bad out there, folks.  And it's a state-wide problem.

Are you asking why we, the people who work at these institutions aren't saying anything? Asking for help earlier?

Often we can't. It can be dangerous for us to try and drum up public support for a program in crisis: if the outcry is sourced back to one of the employees, and the administration is embarrassed by it, do you really think most of these employees are going to chance their jobs? But it's not even fear of retribution, really. Honestly. When your program is in that level of crisis that you're doing all you can do just to keep the doors open and the email and phone answered and point people to the stuff they need/want to use and put as much online as possible because people think if it's not online it might as well not exist, but yet nobody is giving you the insane amount of money that putting stuff online costs so you have to skip other required work to do it, you honestly have no additional time to go out and try and get attention. You're way too busy trying to get the work done. Or possibly job searching so you don't have to go unemployed if the worst happens and your repository closes. And besides, who is going to pay attention to you anyhow? Administration? The legislature? The workers in these institutions can't advocate at the level that really needs to be done because almost everybody who hears that assumes we're just trying to protect our jobs. Those in public institutions are probably actively forbidden from budget advocacy. If our users, our researchers, our public don't defend us, if they don't feel we're necessary enough to defend, our resource allocators certainly aren't going to defend our budgets. And while librarians, archivists, and curators tend to be a pretty generous bunch when it comes to sharing our time and expertise in support of colleagues who need our assistance, most of us aren't working for institutions that support us spending time on other institutions that aren't us.

Are you seeing an institution in crisis? Want to protect your local library/archives/museum from going down this path?

Increase your visits. Increase your use of stuff. Make sure you attribute it correctly. Encourage others to use it. One of the common threads in some of those above examples? Was decreasing use and the lack of the staff's ability to prove that these collections were being used. And lack of public recognition from users. That cool photo up on the Alaska's Digital Archives? Probably took about a half hour minimum of some worker's time to put up (multiply that by the 90,000+ items up on the Digital Archives) and that doesn't even include the $30-65,000 a year it has taken over the past 15 years just to maintain that website. Make an effort, please, to learn about the largely invisible labor that it takes to make this stuff available and what that labor realistically costs. Share that information. And when you download that image and use it in whatever, cite it properly. And contact the institution who put it up and let them know what you're up to with it so they can prove that this is an effective use of their time when they do have a chance to have these conversations with their resource allocators.

Thank the people who are doing this work. Thank them publicly. Write their administrators and your legislators and explain why what they do is important.  If you have some money, even $5, donate some money earmarked to their departments in thanks for the work they do and if you have to earmark it further, earmark it for things that are not currently being funded (like employee development travel or expensive specialized supplies) instead of operational aspects that should be funded by administration like staffing and collection materials. Ask your librarians/archivists/curators: they'll gladly tell you what things they need but will never get under their regular funding. It's amazing what you can buy with enough $5 donations.

Here's an Attila rant: skip the next paragraph if you don't want to hear the things we need you to stop doing:

Please stop telling us that if we'd just do exhibits, we'd get the attention we need. People have to be coming into the building to see exhibits. And if we don't have the funding to do our normal work, where in the heck are we going to get the funding to create a proper exhibit? Why are you under the impression that those don't cost money and time? Please stop telling us to just put everything online: take the time to learn why that may or may not be the answer and how much that actually costs. Hint: it's phenomenally more expensive than you think it is. Before you yell at us for a decision we've made, take a moment to talk to us about why we did that and be respectful of an answer that revolves around making the best of a bad situation while, especially in public institutions, trying to ensure we respect some basics about the functioning of public institutions like equal access. Remember that hosting events costs money and time and may cut into other services for us. Please stop telling us to seek out grant funding: grant funding is great for short term projects but we can't make it work for programs where the funding runs out but the work and the costs don't, like digitization. Plus have you noticed that a lot of granting agencies don't have as much funding anymore either? Please stop telling us our collections don't have what you need in local documentation: talk to us about what documentation exists and help us bring it in so you and others can benefit from it. Please don't say: just hand that stuff over to this other organization, they can do the work. Chances are they don't have the funding/support/staffing/mission to take it on either.

Please think about how to show the benefits of the things you've used from local information resources. Don't just rely on abstract concepts like "history is important!" Your average person who is worrying about the next meal, the next job shift, the next rent check, isn't going to view that as relevant to their lives. Think about how you can demonstrate how what you've found in a library, in an archives, in a museum has had a real, tangible effect on people recently, on people now.

Please remember that our ability to advocate for ourselves and for our professional colleagues may be limited and may not be heard. You will always be a louder voice for us than we ever can. Please: go talk to your librarians/archivists/curators. Listen to what they say and try and work for what they say they need; within the context of what you need, of course. Go press the funders--whether that be the city, the borough, the state, private organizations, or all of them. Donate what you can and not just for your own access: for the access of anybody else that could use those materials but who don't have your financial wherewithal.

Above all, speak up before the place you love, the resources you use, the resources you'll want to have access to in future, are having to reduce hours and access. That's a very hard slope to get away from. Once they're gone, they're unlikely to come back. In the meantime, we'll be doing what we can, as we always do, hoping that we'll be able to beat the trend.