Archives are a luxury

This post is intended to be provocative, and I think it will make some people angry. But I think it’s a good idea every once in a while to make people question or defend long-held ideas. I think it’s worth putting forward. I hope it will make you think.

I should clarify the title. Special collections and non-government archives are a luxury as far as the general public is concerned. Organizational archives are, of course, not a luxury to the organizations that create them and rely on them for the conduct of their business. When I use the word “archives” below, assume it means special collections and non-government archives.

When archives seek to advocate for increased funding from the government, such as for money for grants programs, they are asking for money to support a luxury.

This will sound like heresy, I think, coming from an archivist. We are trained to think that what we do is essential. But is it? When you stack it up against things like feeding people, finding cures for diseases, repairing crumbling bridges, funding for police and fire fighters, keeping people from being homeless, finding alternative sources of energy–how essential does what we do seem?

I first started thinking about this driving home from the airport after the SAA meeting in San Francisco. Frank Boles famously said in his closing plenary remarks that he thought we might need to hire our own lobbyist in DC, and that to do this a dues increase might be necessary. I knew I didn’t agree with Frank and I was trying to reason out why. Why would we think that one lobbyist for one small “boutique” profession would make a difference among the tens of thousands of lobbyists in DC? Do we really think that this one voice will make a difference? I’m skeptical.

What would make a difference, then? How about allying ourselves with more powerful groups and causes? How about tapping into values that resonate with people who probably never have and maybe never will set foot in an archives? I feel as if too much energy in the profession (or at least in SAA) in recent years has been focused inward–trying to define our professional identity, coming up ways to define who “we” are and what makes “an archivist.” Will any of that thinking translate into a higher public profile for archives? I don’t think so. Will it make the average taxpayer–or Congressman–any more likely to vote for increased funding for archives? I don’t think so.

We would do better, I think, to acknowledge that archives and special collections are a luxury. We would be better served to spend less energy trying to make people understand why they should value archivists and more energy making people understand why they should value archives, and not why they should value archives for abstract principles, but for values that everyone can understand and share. The people who conceived PAHR understood this, I think–they make it about the American Historical Record. They made it appeal to broad, shared values.

Are libraries a luxury? Maybe, but far less of one than archives. Public libraries make a good case for why they are an essential part of their communities. Can archives do the same? Why should the ever-shrinking pool of available government (or private) funds be granted to your archives so that you can process your backlog or digitize your collection? What’s the public good? What’s the benefit to anyone other than historians?

The voice of one lobbyist, on behalf of a profession that most people don’t understand, will probably be lost in Washington–especially in the difficult years to come. But what if we could harness the voices of all our users’ genealogists, family historians, local historians, preservationists, teachers, journalists, professional historians, film makers . . . ? Those are the voices that could really testify to the value of archives. What if we invested our time and energy into building that coalition?

In these troubled times, funding for archives will not be a top priority. We are not essential. Neither are many other cultural organizations, like museums, opera and dance companies, and yes, probably even libraries. We will all be fighting for an ever shrinking part of the funding pie. How can we make our case compelling to our funders? Not by talking about what the definition of an archivist is, I think, or by talking about how much of our backlog we’ve processed, or all the advanced degrees we have. The value of collections lies in how they are used. Understanding and connecting to our users should be our first priority as a profession.

So, there, Frank, that’s my answer. If I were President of SAA, or even better, if I won the lottery, I’d invest resources in building a coalition of users of archives. I’d harness their voices, and their lobbyists, to help make the case in Washington for archives funding. I would collect hard data on usage of archives nationwide: an A*CENSUS about our users. I’d try to get funding to conduct the kinds of broad public surveys that ALA has done on public perceptions and usage of libraries. I would pursue a public relations campaign that shows people how archives support things they care about (I might have to win the lottery for that one!). And if the surveys and data collection show that archives aren’t actually being used that much, I would make increasing usage a major focus.

Archives are a luxury. This means we have to fight harder and smarter to compete in the difficult economic times ahead.

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