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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15 Responses to Archives are a luxury

  1. ArchivesNext says:

    I have a few notes to add below, but first let me say that I had concerns about putting this up. I can (and do) second, third, and fourth guess virtually every word in a post. But because I have other projects to work on, it was either put this up, imperfect as it no doubt is, or not post it. I couldn’t spend any more time working on it. As I said, I think it’s worth raising the ideas to see what others have to say.

    – Why am I excluding government archives? I may be biased as a former employee of a government archives, but I think it’s much easier to make the case these archives contain records that are of demonstrable, practical value. These archives have a higher concentration of records which document citizens’ rights and provide government accountability. Again, I may be biased, but I think it’s easier to make a case for the value of records that document government actions. I’m also sure that government archives probably need to advocate for their funding just as much as any other kind of archives, so perhaps I’m wrong to exclude them. I just had a hard time including them under the “luxury” umbrella.

    – And, yes, I know that funding isn’t the only area in which we need advocacy. We also need lobbying in areas like government secrecy, copyright, etc. I think my basic argument applies to these areas as well in most cases.

    – And, sure, SAA could use their new lobbyist to organize the kind of coalition I’m suggesting. Taking one course of action doesn’t preclude taking the other. SAA is waiting for the recommendations of the new Government Affairs Working Group. Perhaps we will hear something similar from them?

    As I said, my intent is to get people thinking. And hopefully talking, so comment away!

    Kate

  2. Paul Lasewicz says:

    Damn, where’s that pitchfork when you need it? Actually, I couldn’t agree more! In my world of corporate archives, we very much are a luxury. So your views are not heretical to our community – corporate archives have to continually justify their not just their funding levels but their very existence. What you propose – expanded community outreach – is exactly the kind of work we do internally on a regular basis … identifying potential users, and proactively bringing our capabilities to their attention. We routinely take on charges that are outside of our job description because it increases our value add, raises awareness of our skills and expertise, and just generally helps us retain our jobs.

    Admittedly, I’m not terribly conversant with SAA’s activities as an advocate for the profession. But my sense was – long before these tough budgetary times – that any progress the organization made in the Washington arena would be small potatoes at best for just the reasons you outline in your post. Moreover, I always thought any such progress would likely benefit only a small percentage of the overall membership. So I thought that activity was wrongheaded then, and even more so now. And I certainly would not want to see membership fees increase to pay the salary of a lobbyist, certainly without some very tangible demonstration of how said advocate was going to benefit each and every member.

  3. D says:

    I think most of us believe archives lean much more to the “need” end of the spectrum than they do the “luxury” side. However, who of us hasn’t had to explain what we do and why it’s important? We spend our careers justifying, educating and demonstrating why people should value the collections beyond the fact that they are cool and old.

    A wise archivist once said that the world wouldn’t end if the archives was destroyed. At first blush it smacked of heresy; however, after a little consideration it instead smacked of truth. Life will go on if all the archives burn. Our role then is to explain why life is better, more expansive, more connected with archives.

    Oh, and I would wholeheartedly agree with you about government archives. Could be because I work for one….

  4. Jeanne says:

    I think that shifting the focus from ‘why are archivists important’ to ‘what could we not do without archives’ makes a lot of sense. I frequently have been frustrated by cases in which archival records were used for research and the results of the research got high profile press without any acknowledgment of the archives used. One example: http://www.spellboundblog.com/2007/04/26/epidemiological-research-and-archival-records-records-used-for-research-fail-to-make-the-news/

    Another example of very tangible important things that can be done using archival records is reflected in the work of the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (http://www.iedro.com/).

    What you are pointing out shouldn’t make people angry. You are being realistic. We need our existing patrons to speak up .. and we need to reach out to new communities so that they too can realize how archives can impact their lives.

    Of course – as this Steven Colbert report highlights (http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/187342/october-07-2008/the-red-lending-menace – skip forward to 2:42 if you are feeling impatient) “when the economy is bad, libraries boom”.

  5. jordon says:

    While I understand you’re talking about archives in the context of public policy issues like improved federal funding to preserve collections, your statement made me think that the fact that archives are a “luxury” may be perceived not as an obstacle but has an opportunity. Like I work at a law school that is among the oldest in the country. So we have this institution that is steeped in tradition, and many of our collections reflect this. In the competitive environment of law school admissions, perhaps making potential students aware of our law school’s tradition, via its collections, presents that “luxury” as a way that distinguishes our law school from others. It’s an intangible benefit, to be sure, but I do think the students think they’re part of something bigger when they browse an an exhibit of student essays from the 1850s on their way up to the study rooms to continue the grind. So this “luxury” to which you refer is something that might make our institution seems exceptional when compared with the rest of the pack.

    So, yes, archives are a luxury. But they’re a welcome luxury, at least personally speaking.

  6. I don’t see why anyone would get mad, but I’ve had to spend a day thinking about this before I responded.

    I agree that archives are a luxury, usually for the history departments on campuses and the history buffs outside academia and government. I have always thought it might be a good idea to find some way to prove your importance to engineering and mathematics and fashion design departments and business schools. But when I have mentioned this to other archivists, they have either laughed at me or laughed off the idea.

    I’m still not sure, however, that we don’t need to form and better understand our identity. An archivist must know who they are and what they do (professional identity) before they can market their archives, at least I think so.

  7. Magia G. Krause says:

    As someone who studies archives and their value in democratic societies, I could not agree with you more. With the recession we are facing, cultural institutions are sure to be towards the bottom of the funding pool. Archivists can argue about the importance of their profession, but users are the ones that really justify the existence of archives. This is something that Elsie Freeman Finch argued in 1984. How can we get our users to speak up on our behalf? One good way to start would be a comprehensive census as suggested by the blog author. The Archival Metrics Project (http://archivalmetrics.org/) developed a series of free evaluation toolkits to help archives gather data about their users. One goal of this project was to create a national data repository of this data so that archivists could compare their findings and better understand the range of user needs. The toolkits are freely available and as more archivists use them and generate data, perhaps we will have even stronger arguments for why archives are vital and should continue to be supported by our government and private funders.

  8. David says:

    Excellent post, Kate. There are two points in the discussion that I feel need future discussion: 1) Making people understand the value of archives. Helping people understand archives, in a sense demystifying archives – how do we achieve this?; and 2) Professional identity and Archivists. Who are we, what do we do, really, especially in these difficult and trying times? Is it time to broaden our horizons, embrace change, radical change?

    I’m feeling a little lazy, so I’ll highlight the part of your blog post (and comments) that struck a cord with me:

    “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.”

    And from Russell D. James, CA:

    “I’m still not sure, however, that we don’t need to form and better understand our identity. An archivist must know who they are and what they do (professional identity) before they can market their archives, at least I think so.”

  9. t says:

    Great post, kiddo! There’s a lot to think about here and many of the comments above reflect the complexity and breadth of your provocation. I’ll just add my little bit here and think some more.

    >

    This is the identity question in a nutshell. First, I sort of buy your argument on government archives, but in a lot of ways only the most essential records qualify here – vital records, property ownership, voter registration. If government archivists are honest, they also feel uneasy when they are forced to justify their existence agasint cuts to basic social services. Which leads to the second.

    We might be best served by allying with related “make peoples lives better and more interesting” professions – museums, parks, libraries, historic preservationists, etc. and continue to make the case that the real choice isn’t between archives and healthcare. The choice could also be between uselss wars, foreign and domestic and economic theft by the ruling oligarchy and a fuller life for all of us.

    And finally. I’m not completely onboard with the centrality of archives instead of archivists. The records are meaningless except in the context of their usefulness to human beings. Records values have changed through time. As D alluded to, Rapport’s records-destroying bombs will not erase our lives or culture. So the real value to users is in identifying what has importance *now* to *them* and that is a key responsibility of the archivist. It ties into the whole “social justice” and “activist archivist” model that is currently trendy. If we want to look at identity, we need to be much more willing to get in the mix and actively build ties among users, among colleagues, and with the records they can use.

    That’s my 3 cents.

  10. t says:

    “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.”

    This is the quote that should fit after the lonely arrow above . . .

  11. Kathleen Roe says:

    There are several comments I would like to make on components of this post…but even with the limits of reading online tolerance, this is as brief as I could get it so please excuse me. The question, to me, is more “what is the value of archives” than whether archives are a “luxury”, which is a nicely value-laden word that makes me think of pink frills, bubble bath, or say, owning seven houses.

    Archives may not be “essential” to sustaining physical human existence—unless one eats paper, archives will not feed, clothe, or protect the bodily health of a person. But existence quickly goes beyond physical survival…tattered phrase though it may be, there is some “quality of life” issues that soon emerge as a human need, and I do believe archives kick in at that point. You all can think up the rights of citizens uses, so I won’t go there. But there are others. Just a couple (but I could go on well beyond this….)

    For students, archives provide the past as a human laboratory for trying to understand how and why people act—no textbook allows the examination of the raw material of human action. I recall working with students in my teaching life in Indiana where we used archival documents about the Great Depression in their community to talk about why and how welfare came to be developed. Too many of my students were in families living on welfare—and too many others parroted their parents derisory comments about people on welfare. To make this short, in the process of discussing this issue in the laboratory of the past, we were able to accomplish some understanding that they were able to translate into the present, and achieved just a little breaking down of prejudice.

    Archives, as we’ve learned as a result of acts of terrorism or disaster, can be part of the grief, healing and memorialization process. Look at the long-term work the folks at Syracuse University have done with the archives of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which is an example of where things can and are going with 9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and others. Not just collecting, but the exhibits, public programs, etc, resulting have been significant to individual, communities, and beyond.

    Mental health diagnosis and treatment strides forward rely on longitudinal studies that require medical records (both public and private treatment sources). There are mental health researchers doing this right now to assess a range of treatment modalities. Ditto a range of incarceration approaches.

    Archives are important in community-building, in helping people to place themselves in time and space, and in developing a sense of belonging–which is very much a quality of life issue particularly as we move around more and more, and need to find ways to connect to place, but also as ethnic, racial, and other social communities. Places like the Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos at Hunter College is an important resource for the Puerto Rican community in sharing its past with those who have been born in the US, for providing a sense of identity and community understanding. Hey, as the mother of a teen-ager, anything that can help the emerging identify of a young person gets big kudos from me.

    On the issue of a lobbyist in DC for archives, I do agree with Frank Boles (and I can tell you why), but in the interest of space, if anyone wants to discuss that further, I’d be happy to via email or additional discussion on this site. Enough space taken up for now.

  12. Pingback: Not a Luxury « Public Historian

  13. Y. Perdiguero says:

    I’m reading this post from Spain, a year after you posted it.

    I completely agree. Although we have cultural diferencies (In Spain there aren’t lobbies) we have same problems and solutions.

    The economic problems are the same. There isn’t enough money and we will try show our utility for the society. What we really need is to be useful to our community. I mean firstly we must admit that a doctor or an farmer are workers more essential than us. Secondly we must invest all our intelectual effort to meet our users’ needs and keep the internal discussions about what our profession is for our free time.

    Regards Y.Perdiguero

  14. Yoperal says:

    I’m reading this post from Spain, a year after you posted it.

    I completely agree. Although we have cultural diferencies (In Spain there aren’t lobbies) we have same problems and solutions.

    The economic problems are the same. There isn’t enough money and we will try show our utility for the society. What we really need is to be useful to our community. I mean firstly we must admit that a doctor or an farmer are workers more essential than us. Secondly we must invest all our intelectual
    effort to meet our users’ needs and keep the internal discussions about what our profession is for are free time.

    Regards Yoperal

  15. RP says:

    I have to disagree with Kate on the idea of focusing more on archives instead of archivists. There are still a lot of organizations out there that love the idea of starting their own archives but don’t feel the need to hire anyone to run it. They think that archives magically run themselves. You can’t argue the value of archives without mentioning that archivists – or some other information professionals – are needed.

    Where I agree with Kate on this subject is that we need to argue for the value of archives in concrete terms that everyone can understand. To me, this means arguing that archives make or save their parent institution money. I realize that sounds like heresy to many old-timers, but to those of us struggling to make ends meet it is our only option for survival. ANY department in an organization that is deemed inessential to the bottom line is liable to get cut. It doesn’t matter whether you work in the non-profit, public or private sector: money talks. Archivists need to get out of their ivory towers and realize that most Americans don’t care about history. Unless, of course, history makes them money. Then they care.

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