Archivists and historians–Am I giving archivists too much credit?

In case you’re not following me on Twitter, I’m nervously preparing to participate in my first annual meeting of the American Historical Association, where I’m part of a panel that will be discussing Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives by Francis X. Blouin, Jr. (Bentley Historical Library) and William Rosenberg (Univ. of Michigan). You can read more about Blouin and Rosenberg’s arguments in this interview.

I only have fifteen minutes or so to convey something I hope will be brilliant and provocative, so I’m planning to focus on the two concluding recommendations the book makes for archivists. The first concerns the perceived inability of archivists to understand the historical context of their records or the potential value of those records for researchers:

Many archivists schooled in the technologies of information management may resist the idea, but the inherent historicity of all archives leads us to suggest that understanding the kinds of questions scholars might want to put to their documents may be as important as assessing their evidentiary and institutional value. Records in digital archives clearly have to be understood in these terms if they are to have some value beyond their current use, if they are to serve as future testimony to past processes and practices. . . . Moreover, archivists will only be able to maintain their important roles as reference counselors and curators if they have some understanding of the historical issues implicit in their materials. This will also help assure that their repositories remain at least partially connected to the needs and cultures of all their users . . . [211]

Although it is not clearly stated, the implication I take away from this, following as it does from the discussion of why it is desirable for archivists to “[extend] their professional hands across the new divide” to historians,  is that archivists currently do not have the sort of knowledge and understanding needed to put electronic records into their historical context or understand how they might be used by researchers.

I would be the last person to say that having stronger relationships with the historical profession wouldn’t be a good thing, but am I wrong in saying that I think archivists actually do have a good grasp of these kinds of issues? Of course we can all probably benefit from greater understanding of our users (all our users, not just historians or scholars), but I honestly think this isn’t an area of critical weakness for the profession. Or at least not one that needs to be remedied by help from historians. What are your thoughts about this? Do we lack historical understanding and understanding of the needs of scholars? Or is it just electronic records archivists who suffer from this? I know I’m sounding cranky here, but this argument really irks me. If I’m wrong, help me to see the light, please.

The second recommendation concerns the need for archivists to seek the help of historians in describing and making our collections accessible online. This is a lengthier discussion, but my impression is that it seeks to address the inability of archivists to describe collections in ways that are useful for scholars and the sheer volume of records that archives are responsible for describing. More important than these factors seems to be the opportunities technology provides for scholars to supply information via simple tools such as tagging and adding notes, as well as through more advanced mechanisms such as the creation of “parallel finding aids” or parallel access systems.

Now, I love crowdsourcing as much as anyone, so I have no objection to this argument in general. However, I do question its value when historians are singled out as a target audience. Around the world archives are opening up their catalogs and finding ways for users–all users–to contribute knowledge. I see little value for archives in establishing specific projects or tools designed to harness knowledge from historians (unless it is something like a grant-funded project for which the historians will receive appropriate professional recognition). I don’t think any archives would reject information about a collection supplied by a scholar who had worked with it (and there is no reason this couldn’t happen in our traditional paper world) but how often does this happen? Are historians interested in contributing tags, comments, and other information if there is nothing in it for them? I’m sorry if that’s cynical and crass, but I’m not the only one to ask these kinds of questions–see this article about a study being done by the Wikimedia Research Foundation about the factors that discourage experts from contributing to Wikipedia.

Certainly the opening up of cataloging data will continue to enable interested scholars to create whatever “parallel finding aids” or other tools they find helpful in finding and describing archival materials. Hopefully they will do so in cooperation with archives. But, to return to the original question, to what extent should we as archivists be assisting or promoting this kind of activity–again, outside of more broadly focused crowdsourcing efforts or specific grant-funded projects? Is the impetus on us to encourage historians to contribute their knowledge or create new descriptive tools?

As you can tell, I think the answer is no. Although I should raise here a caveat I must remember to make at the beginning of my talk: it’s impossible to make generalizations about what archives should and shouldn’t do. Each repository is unique in its institutional context, collections, and resources. There may be archives for which it does makes sense to cultivate the contributions of a group of historians. But in general? Should we treat them any differently than we do any other group of users?

To return to the title of this post, I think archivists are already doing a pretty good job in the two areas in which Blouin and Rosenberg suggest we need help from historians. Which is not to say that individual archives or archivists shouldn’t seek the help of historians if they think they can benefit from it, but that as a whole, I think we’re doing all right. What do you think? Am I looking at the archives world through rose-colored glasses? What should I say to that audience of 100% Ph.D. historians about what archivists need from them?

(Note: thanks to the wise and wonderful Rodney Carter for reminding me to look at Terry Cook’s article on a similar subject in the current American Archivist and also Tom Nesmith’s relevant 2004 Archivaria article. I won’t have time in my 15 minutes of AHA fame to bring these into the discussion, I think, but I hope to make use of them in my future work.)

 

Be Sociable, Share!
This entry was posted in Archival profession, Conferences, History & related professions. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Archivists and historians–Am I giving archivists too much credit?

  1. Jessica says:

    I don’t think you’re wrong in arguing that archivists already (in general) posess the kind of contextual knowledge that Blouin and Rosenberg are advocating. I work at a historical library/archive that employs a good mix of historians, librarians, and archivists on the reference staff, and not only do the archivists keep up with employees from other backgrounds, in many cases those from the archival side have become active in the historical community, publishing etc…

    As I see it, understanding the context of the records we preserve is as much a part of the archival profession as arrangement and description. Without that understanding, we are less than ineffectual.

    Luckily, as you pointed out, this doesn’t seem to be something that archivists in general lack. Thanks for an interesting post!

  2. Erin says:

    At my repository, we’re seeing more and more archives-based assignments from historically-centered English, women’s studies, Af Am, etc. classes. Many of our non-student researchers are from these fields as well. Traditional historians (or history students) — essentially folks grounded in a history department — don’t make up the majority of our users.

    That said, I was an English major as an undergraduate. During my undergrad, I had two or three English courses, a Religion course, and an Art History course that included assignments with research in our school’s special collections library. I took three courses given by the history department – none surveys – and not a one had even a visit to special collections or a discussion of archives/primary sources. So, I would actually argue that the traditional “history” field isn’t the only place you can learn to place records in their historical context. And traditional historians don’t have a monopoly on understanding/interpreting/contributing knowledge to the historical record.

  3. I think the issue is more that those particular historians aren’t giving archivists *enough* credit. Archivists work every day with an understanding of the historical record and its authoritativeness (and lack thereof) because they are the ones creating it by the choices that they make over what stays and what goes. Not to mention, it is rather dismissive of the notion that historians could be archivally trained, or archivists could be historians (apparently, they have missed the whole “public history” aspect of the profession).

  4. John says:

    If you take _Processing the Past_ as a call for historians to better understand archives and archival practices, then your task isn’t trying to prove that archivists have disciplinary knowledge, but how to get historians to care about ways in which they can help archives. The “archive question” is coming up a lot with digital humanists and my initial response has been to note the possessive language (that DHers, or in this case, historians need to “own” archives in order to correct archives), but a more productive conversation would be to work with historians to think of ways to virtually remix the representational material of archives (finding aids, digital collections) so that they can create an interpretive layer that works for their respective research and teaching needs. Otherwise, it seems to me, archivists and historians have a pissing match about who knows more (and I’m on the side of archivists here, even though I am not one) and that can’t be helpful, can it?

  5. Kate T. says:

    Well, I am summarizing their argument, so it’s not quite as black and white as that. But you’re right that they seem to assume archivists no longer have any background in history, which I think is often not the case.

  6. Kate T. says:

    Well, my task at the moment is to respond to the book in some way in a 10-15 minute window. My sense is that (many, not all) historians want to work with archival materials for cool digital projects, but don’t necessary want to work with archivists. They want access to our stuff but not our advice, partnership or involvement. Which, in a way, is fine, as long as the site has appropriate credits and links back to the original sources so that users can see where it came from. Talking about how to encourage historians to, as you say, “create an interpretive layer that works for their respective research and teaching needs” is a more positive way to spin it. But is that the responsibility of the archivist? To seek out historians and try to encourage them to create these kinds of tools? Why should we invest the time in these niche users instead of building tools with a wider public appeal? (To play devil’s advocate)

    But, wait, can you please explain what you/they mean by “correct archives”?

    Thanks for your comment. I think this topic is one which really needs to be addressed in more thoughtful manner, for just the reasons you discuss.

  7. rgscarter says:

    First of all I must say thank you very much for the kind shout out *blush*. I will try to be live up to your billing as ‘wise and wonderful” here.

    As you know, I have many, many thoughts on Processing the Past and the authors’ conclusions but I will try to make my points succinctly as possible.

    Regarding your first question, I think B&R’s oversimplification of the archival profession and its concerns leads to their conclusion that archivists are now wholly focused on electronic records abd IT concerns which negatively impacts historical scholarship. They seem to completely ignore the fact that all professionally trained archivists have a background in something else – be it history, literature, computer science, psychology etc., etc. at the undergraduate level and many have advanced degrees outside of archival science – and that the critical skills and methodologies learned in that previous training, coupled with their archival studies, makes archivists fully capable of understanding the issues and needs of historians. As Nesmith argues, nearly all archival work involves some historical understanding -from appraisal through arrangement & description and outreach – and even if we aren’t capital-H Historians we do a heck of a lot of historical work.

    As for the second point, about archivists needing historians to do the work of description, I believe that it would be wonderful that they add their knowledge to finding aids – which is being done at least in pilot projects at some institutions, to varied success – but I have a feeling not too many would be interested in that (at least not until their research is published). Describing records in manner that is useful for academic historians means that the description could be pertinent to a small group of historians interested in that particular sub-field but it would necessarily mean that the description would not be useful for other researchers. As the postmodern-influenced body of archival theory has shown us (which B&R completely ignore in their book) archival descriptions necessarily privilege some and exclude others. Adding multiple streams of description made possible by new technologies would be fantastic and should be encouraged but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for historians to hand over their research notes.

    B&R privilege the academic historian to the exclusion of all other groups of researchers. This isn’t necessarily surprising given the audience they are writing for but it seems to me that the so-called ‘serious’ researcher who they think should have input in every aspect of archival work is a very small portion of the user community. I think we would be better off running things by genealogists as they make up a larger, if often under valued, group of researchers.

    Even though archivists are not (necessarily) trained as historians we can fruitfully collaborate with them. I draw the line at the notion that B&R put forward that historians should call the shots – there are several instances in the book where they are SHOCKED that historians are not in consulted on appraisal or other decisions.

    Best of luck at AHA – I am really curious to hear how it goes.

  8. P. Botticelli says:

    For this audience, I think the interesting question is whether archivists need historians as much as historians need archivists. I’d argue the latter point: historians are much more dependent on the choices made by archivists–especially in appraisal as opposed to description & reference–than historians generally acknowledge or even understand. How many historians have any idea how records are selected? They should all be reading T. Cook (on macroappraisal) in Ph.D. programs but I bet they don’t (they sure didn’t when I was in a Ph.D. program in history).

    I’d also argue that while it would be nice if archivists & historians could work together more closely, the fact is that archivists don’t have the time, especially as we need to drive more traffic to the archives, and let’s face it, the universe of document-hoarding asocial researchers (there’s a historian stereotype for you) isn’t a growth market. So the challenge I’d make to historians is to challenge the traditional assumption that documents lose value in proportion to how many people have seen or used them. In the digital age this may be a faulty assumption, and archivists have a clear incentive to try to prove it wrong by making archives more accessible.

  9. John says:

    This thatcampAHA session proposal gets at a lot of the “correct archives” issues: http://aha2012.thatcamp.org/12/30/session-proposal-activating-the-archive/; this and the Perspectives article you link to above (I haven’t read _Processing the Past_) plus conversations I had at HASTAC in December all give me pause about the way in which archives (and, frankly, libraries) are viewed by academics (and academics in training). My negative side agrees with you that academics want to take ownership of archives, work with the material therein, but not, as you point out, work with archivists. This process will correct (probably the wrong word, but I’ll stick with it for now) the archive by molding it to the researcher’s needs and disciplinary perspective. This in and of itself is wrong – it’s why you need archivists to be disciplinarily distinct – but the impulse (how can I make this stuff useful for my needs as an historian or literary scholar or sociologist or genealogist) is understandable and working with it is outreach. We want scholars to use our stuff, so how can we create, for instance, finding aid interfaces that facilitate multiple uses? Maybe we need something other than finding aids? Or digital platforms that are open enough to be reused in creative ways?

    I guess I’m encouraging you to see this AHA session as an opportunity to say “this is how (many) archivists interpret what you’re saying and it sucks” and then think about productive ways to redirect the conversation, though your devil’s advocate questions might be very provocative ways to get the conversation going. Clearly there are no simple answers and equally clearly this is a very important discussion. I’m curious to know how it goes; wish I could be there!

  10. John says:

    Also, a book-length (or a special issue of a journal) response to _Processing the Past_ is clearly needed.

  11. Bill Landis says:

    I think you’re absolutely right on both points, Kate. Rodney Carter hits it right on the nose when he highlights the very narrow positionality of B&R in terms of the broader world of archives, archival repositories, and users.

    From my very narrow standpoint as an archivist and librarian in a large academic special collections repository, I’d say that we need to focus much, much, much more on teaching undergraduates how to ask questions, explore broadening/narrowing/reframing those questions based on sources, make connections between primary sources and the secondary literature they’re being tossed in the middle of by their professors, incorporate their natural inclinations Google and the web with the stuff in our archives and libraries, and so forth. I have interactions with undergrads on at least a weekly basis that clearly indicate to me that faculty don’t really know how to teach this. There’s a whole unexplored world around partnering between archivists and historians around undergraduate teaching that I think is begging for exploration and creativity.

    My goal as an archivist is absolutely NOT to put records (electronic or otherwise) into their historical contexts. If that’s what I wanted to do with my life, I’d have become a historian. I made an explicit choice not to do that. My goal as an archivist is to provide *enough of a contextual framework* (and by the way, that’d be a much more provenancial than historical contextual framework) so that users of all stripes can make sense out of the information in various formats we make available to them. I don’t think we really need to be reaching across any divide to historians, they’re already privileged enough in many of our repositories. Our focus needs to be on those who aren’t using our collections in whatever environment(s) we’re working in.

  12. Experts tend not to contribute to Wikipedia because it discourages “independent research” and the majority tends to rule. A lovely democratic principle, no doubt, but a terrible way of getting at facts (to say nothing of truth). If the majority decides that the Moon is made of green cheese, then the Wikipedia article will affirm this to be a fact despite expert testimony to the contrary.

    Archives, on the other hand, are run by people with a fair amount of knowledge of their records and their historical context, whether they themselves have a historical background or not. Archivists would be much more inclined and able than Wikipedia could ever be to assess outside contributions correctly.

    As to historians being consulted throughout the archival process, that seems unwise and unrealistic to me. Historians don’t generally have archival training. And I agree with Erin above that “traditional historians don’t have a monopoly on understanding/interpreting/contributing knowledge to the historical record.” But we might bear in mind that historical training can provide a greater ability to understand and interpret the record, as can be amply seen by the amount of dreck that is being passed off as popular history writing by people without that training.

    Disclaimers: I use and edit Wikipedia, and I was a historian before I was an archivist.

  13. Melissa McCarthy says:

    Further disclaimer, as I forgot to clear the Website section: These are my opinions, not those of my employer… you know the drill.

  14. Deb Schiff says:

    Best of luck, Kate. I hope the Historians come with open minds.

    Other folks above have already written my sentiments, although I think Erin’s statement “And traditional historians don’t have a monopoly on understanding/interpreting/contributing knowledge to the historical record” probably rings the truest to me.

  15. Michelle H says:

    Very interesting discussion. I’ve been working across both fields from the sidelines of publishing for more than a decade. 15 years ago in graduate school I had hoped for better dialogue and understanding and did not find it then so chose a third path.

    You might be interested to hear another historian’s perspective in this article from The Readex Report by Mark Cheatham, an historian on the rel. between archivists & historians http://www.readex.com/readex/newsletters.cfm?newsletter=180&article=181.

    Mark wrote about the reactions to the post in his own blog Jacksonian America here: http://mcheathem.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/from-blog-post-to-publication-the-evolution-of-an-idea/

    To me the fact that this is such a heavy (and somewhat contentious) discussion right now indicates the need for more dialogue, which I, for one, am very happy to see! I’ve been following this with great interest. Wish I could be at the panel!

  16. Greg says:

    I only want to address the inclination of historians to see archivists as untrained in historical contexts here. Disclaimer – I’ve been a full-time archivist for less than four years. Before that I worked in museums and historic sites. In our archival training, we learn that information is most (only?) valuable in context with the rest of the materials in a collection or record group. From my perspective (BA History, MA Museum Studies), it seems that much of the “visible” efforts of archivists is in putting item-level digital objects on the web. I know that there is always scholarly work being put into writing finding aids (whether EAD or otherwise), but outsiders could easily get the idea that we’re just trying to turn archives into libraries of individually described items.

    Bill Landis is right. It isn’t our job to put the collections fully into context, that’s what historians do. And P. Botticelli, I think, correctly notes that it would be helpful for you to challenge historians’ perspective of what we do and how we do it. Good luck with the AHA!

  17. Trevor Owens says:

    I like where you are going with this. I look forward to reading their book, but I feel we need a lot more conversation about how digitzed and born digital materials and collections of those materials in libraries, archives, museums and a range of other places can fundementaly change some parts of the historian-archivist discourse. This is one of the reasons I love Roy’s “scarcity or abundance” article. http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=6

    The digital offers an ouppertumity for some fantastic ways to reconcieve our rolls. The tough part is figuring out how our traditions fit in.

  18. Susan D'Entremont says:

    Wow, interesting discussion. Sounds like this could be an all-day program in and of itself.

    Totally agree with Bill Landis about the need to work with academics in their role as teacher of undergraduates. I went to a so-called elite undergraduate institution. Although not a history major, I took history courses, but was not introduced (at least in an effective manner) to the way sources are used in history. And it was not until I was well-established in the archival profession that I even knew that my alma mater HAD an archives and special collections department, never mind an excellent one. Things are probably better now that students get more explicit instructions on using primary sources in k-12, but most have still never used archival material.

    I think the historians have some good points about how they could contribute, but I don’t think they are aware of the fact of how big our audience really is or the fact that, frankly, we often get a lot more support, in terms of both financial donations and good p.r. (formal and informal) from our non-historian users. When historians do credit our institutions, though, it raises our profile considerably, so this is an interesting balance.

    Best of luck. Add my voice to the people who wish they could be there!

  19. Pingback: Fear. Mostly fear. | NixoNARA

  20. Merrilee says:

    Kate, thanks as always for kicking off a useful discussion. I heard Fran Blouin talk about some of his ideas for this book a few years back and I blogged about it here. While I haven’t read the book, what made sense about his argument at the time is that historians and archivists took divergent paths at some point and no longer things from the same perspective. I buy that. But I also think it’s job to make the records available and let historians (or whoever) do what they will with them. When researchers of any stripes come to us, we can help them to the best of our abilities, but really their projects and ambitions are their responsibility. It is not our job to crawl inside their heads and anticipate all needs.

    I agree that we are unlikely to be successful with crowdsourcing if that’s aimed at getting historians to contribute metadata or content — my instinct is that they are not going to find our portals natural hubs for conducting their work. The OCLC Research work with social metadata suggests that success is mostly achieved via engaging with audiences (particularly new audiences) and is less about creating content (this info is in Social Metadata for Libraries, Archives and Museums. Part 2: Survey Analysis which will be generally available later this month). So maybe focusing on engagement rather than new contribution is the sweet spot for success?

  21. Archivista says:

    Going back to the first paragraph you quote, the word “documents” stands out. It makes me wonder if part of the issue is that the “new” generation of archivists who are focused on preserving the electronic record don’t meet the needs of historians who still expect everything to look like a paper document, even if it’s available online.

    My second thought in response to all of this is “job protection”. In today’s economy, historians might want to “own” archives or promote the hiring of historians in archives to protect their part of the job market (and educational stream to it).

    I also wonder at whether this is nostaglia. Archivists *used* to be primarily historians and now they’re not.

    I’m not sure that any of this would help with your talk, but you can highlight that archivists understand that they are in a service profession – service to researchers of all stripes – and that they work hard to provide great service.

  22. Mary Beth says:

    Decided that the 140 character format would not work. Besides, I may say something to offend. I don’t think what you’re saying is wrong, but you have to appreciate a couple of things about their pov.

    First. historians are NOT trained in the principles of provenance. They are trained to see connections between periods of time in both events and in the literature. The latter is a weakness among archivists, IMO. The prevalence of MA’s in History among archivists really doesn’t mitigate that. You don’t acquire that historical thinking with an MA. You need to spend hours reading for comps, even more hours placing your diss into context, in order to get that. So, I would bet that’s what the archival critic is talking about.

    There is a bigger question — and I’ve been wondering about this myself. The decision to collect something for a repository, whether it’s a single photograph or the twitter database, is a huge power. How is that conferred? I have misgivings about it and I’m familiar with archival practice. But, archivists need to be open with historians about that process.

    Finally, academic historians have a proprietary interest in their research, interpretation and writing. (of course). It’s how they get promoted so they are kind of protective of their work. I think that’s one reason (but probably not the only) reason that they don’t contribute to wikipedia. Why contribute original stuff to have people add to it? It’s not just snobbery. It’s the way their economic model works.

    At this point, I believe you have presented your work. Good luck.

  23. Joshua Youngblood says:

    I recently joined a university Special Collections as a research and outreach librarian, transitioning from a state archives digital project where I was the “historian.” For the exhibits and collections produced there, historical input was vital althou many projects were tailored for audience deman (all the citizens of the state) as much as historical significance. Now I am interested in creating digital resources from the university library collection that will assist and appeal to students and faculty from the entire campus and other disciplines. I will be attending the session so I look forward to continuing the discussion there.

  24. Richard Pearce-Moses says:

    Kate,

    Do archivists need a background in history or historiography? And what do we mean by history? A background in history that provides only a broad overview (say, what you might get from a bachelor’s degree) would likely be of limited use for archivists working in archives focused on special topics. When working at an archives devoted to the history of photography, it was essential that I knew something about photographic processes and the way photographers worked, things I learned by studying photography (camera and darkroom techniques). Someone with an advanced degree in history focused on one area may be ill-prepared to work in a collection focusing on another area.

    It’s essential for archivists to have a broad understanding of the field they work in, including an appreciation for its past. They need skills in historiography, to know how to appreciate the development of the field over time. Casting this knowledge in terms of “history” misses the point by being too narrowly focused. If working in a corporate archives, a background in business may be invaluable.

    I think archivists of all stripes – not just digital archivists – do a good job here. I’ve worked with a variety of materials in a variety of archives focusing on photography, Texas government, Arizona and the Southwest, Native Americans, and Arizona government. The photography collections was 19th and 20th century, global in scope, and touching on broad subjects – though with an emphasis on 19th century European literature. Skills to work with the Native American collections parallel the question of historians working with archives. No one archivist could know all there is to know about the many different tribes and cultures in the collection as no one historian could know all the history in other collections.

    One statement from the quote strikes me as missing as essential aspect of scholarly research. (Which I say with some trepidation, given the authors!) “The inherent historicity of all archives leads us to suggest that understanding the kinds of questions scholars might want to put to their documents.” In one sense, archivists – no one – can fully anticipate the all the questions scholars might put to the documents.

    Scholars are looking for new insights and ideas. When working on my American Studies degree, one of my professors argued that one begins research with only a vague notion of the topic. As one learns more, the topic is refined. A significant aspect of research is, in fact, the process of figuring out the question to address. How can archivists be expected to provide information that researchers themselves have not yet asked?

    I believe that archivists do a pretty good job of staying current on trends in research. Some time back, archivists discovered that – shockingly enough – women and the “common person” played important roles in history. Since then, they have become more sensitive to those perspectives when processing collections.

    As important, processing is merely the first step. Finding aids may not always be up to date, but the reference archivist can fill those gaps. The reference archivist brings broad knowledge of the collections to the conversation with researchers.

  25. John says:

    I wish you the best of luck with your session. I actually have a PhD in history, but work as an archivist. One thing I’ve noted over the years is the laziness of historians–the “why didn’t you know I’d want to know about such and such” syndrome. Archivists, regardless of background, will never be able to predict the questions historians will want to address in the future. The best that can be done is catering to the questions being asked today–which will be passe in 10, 20, 30 or more years.

    If you carry this through, what happens is everything must be kept forever, which anyone with any sense will tell you just isn’t possible–you can’t arrange, describe, exert control over every record; but that is the argument many historians are trying to make. The idea of endless sources, stored for “free” electronically, makes them salivate. What they ignore is that of all the existing paper records, only a very small fraction have ever been mined to any meaningful extent. Huge volumes of records do not make for better history, they make for gridlock. Nothing would get done because the source materials would be so vast neither archivists nor historians would ever gain satisfactory control, much less mastery of them.

  26. John says:

    This blog post by Tim Wragge gets at these issues from a digital historian’s perspective.

  27. Bill Landis says:

    Richard P-M makes a great point that, at least in academic settings needs to be teased out and explored more thoroughly: “… one of my professors argued that one begins research with only a vague notion of the topic. As one learns more, the topic is refined. A significant aspect of research is, in fact, the process of figuring out the question to address. ”

    Being a facilitator for a two-way interplay between research questions and primary sources is, for me, a large part of the reward I get from my chosen profession. In many ways, I think some overly jaded historians could do with stepping outside of their area of contextual expertise and exploring something in archives about which they know little or nothing. It can be magical working with a bunch of 18-20 year olds who are doing it for the first time!

  28. I’m in charge of archives for a French foundation that supports research in humanities and social sciences.

    Experience has shown me that historians are not necessarily more likely that archivists to determine which documents should be archived in a sustainable manner. They lack a certain distance with respect to their own interests and research practices.
    However, I try to work in tandem with a researcher from the discipline for every archive to be treated (history mainly but not exclusively).

    This whole discussion makes me want to read the book you mentioned.

  29. Liz B says:

    I think this is a fantastic conversation for archivists and historians to be having, but I think to be most productive, both sides need to tweak their communication strategies. If what Blouin and Rosenberg mean to say is “hey guys, let’s help out!”, then fantastic. But they should be very aware that they way they’re framing things sounds, to archivists, a lot like “you’re doing it wrong.” Which is a really terrible place to start a conversation.
    Reading the AHA interview, there were so many comments that were so frustrating. For instance, at one point Blouin says “Archivists have been talking about the problem of digitalization now for 10, 15 years.” But then a minute later Rosenberg states “We’re really eager to focus on this question, to think about how historical archives in the future will be constituted. What materials will they contain? Will there even be any? The question is not being asked.”
    Um, excuse me? We know we don’t have it all figured out, and ideas about how we can solve problems are very welcome. But again, coming to the table from the perspective of “you guys have no idea what you’re doing, and need us to tell you how to do it” is really, really unproductive.
    But this leads to the second problem – that the cliché of the introverted archivist hiding in the back room does have some truth to it. We often do not do a great job at advertising ourselves, both at an institutional and a professional level. And when you don’t tell people what you do and what you believe, you really shouldn’t get your feelings hurt when they don’t understand it.
    All of which is to say, I’m so pleased that you’ll be at this panel, because this is exactly the sort of opportunity we need to advertise what archivists do.

  30. Great discussion here. I proposed the THATCamp session on Activating the Archive and I’m a historian/American Studies/cultural studies scholar by training.

    First, I hope to correct the lurking idea here that professional historians should “look down” on archivists–on the contrary, I think the digital offers the opportunity for new kinds of cooperative work between historians and archivists.

    Second, I think there are few historians who do not believe in a commitment to wider, public access to archives. Sure, there are professional pressures on historians to “own” the interpretation (or even access to) a certain archive, but that’s changing because of the digital. I think it is safe to say that most historians, like most archivists, want to share their love of historical artifacts and the experience of examining them within an archive (and of being aware of the political dimensions of archives as assertions of knowledge and power). We all care about source materials and most of us in the archives and the historical profession want to see them widely examined and investigated and interpreted.

    I’d like to see us get out of the us vs. them binary based on professional identity and into an activity-based awareness of how the interests of archivists and historians intersect (or diverge, which is fine too). It’s not about archivists as service-providers and historians as clients. It can be about cooperative work around the making of historical meaning in all its forms.

    Most of all, I think the question is…the questions. Which is to say we might identify what the kinds of questions we want to ask about particular materials as historians, as archivists? Do we want to hook that evidence into specialized historiographical debates? Do we want to curate the materials for a general audience? Do we want to enable archives to become more dynamic, living spaces of intellectual inquiry through the digital medium? What else? I think the questions can help us identify common ground as well as the different desires and goals we have to make useful use of the archive.

    Thanks for this great post and conversation and I hope the AHA panel is productive and fun!

    All best,
    Michael

  31. Lisa Rickey says:

    On the one hand, it’s true that a very broad study of history may not be particularly helpful to an archivist who works in an archives having a very specific focus. For instance, in the public library archives where I work, most of our materials have to do with the history people/places/organizations in and around Dayton, Ohio. A person could learn that history as needed. But on the other hand, it’s certainly helpful to (in the beginning) have a general background in history and how to research history – both so that you can research your collections and understand them, and to have a better idea of what other researchers might be able to glean from your holdings.

    My first master’s degree program was actually an archival studies program that was conducted under the umbrella of an M.A. in History. So we had both grad level history courses, as well as practical archival instruction. But many archivist positions are attached to libraries and so library science degrees are wanted (which is why I have a second master’s in library science!). But, I wonder if these historians who think archivists don’t know “enough” history (not getting into a debate about how much “enough” is) have encountered archivists who are really librarians and never had any formal history training?

  32. Lisa Rickey says:

    Also, thanks for posting that article about academics not contributing to Wikipedia. Sounds like another aspect of the old “publish or perish” trap. The sad thing is, their research would probably actually reach more people if they shared it on Wikipedia.

  33. John,

    I’m looking over the comments above more closely here and I need clarification.

    When you write,

    “This thatcampAHA session proposal gets at a lot of the “correct archives” issues: http://aha2012.thatcamp.org/12/30/session-proposal-activating-the-archive/; ”

    are you saying that the proposal for the session is bad because it is some kind of critique of archivists by historians (not at all what I intended and I don’t think it’s in the text of that proposal, but would like to understand better what set off your alarm)…or are you saying that the proposal is good in that it suggests a way to work through the potential turf wars between historians and archivists. My hope was that the proposal offered possibilities for cooperative exploration of how to produce new knowledge from the digital versions of archives (calling that “outreach” from an archivist standpoint is fine by me).

    So I just want to get a better sense of what you meant here. (Notice by the way that I don’t use the word “correct” anywhere in the proposal.) Thanks!

    Michael

  34. I don’t have much to add, but I can tell you that as an historian, I always assume that archivists know the general historical context of their repository’s holdings. They may not always know the particulars of the specific historical event that I am researching, but I’ve found they often do and can make connections to collections about which I was unaware.

  35. K. Hering says:

    Many thanks for expanding the discussion beyond the panel at the AHA today! I agree that the archival divide analyzed by B&R is not evenly distributed, and that archival discourses and practices tend to incorporate a lot more historical knowledge than the other way around. As B&R highlight in their discussion of the archival divide, archival knowledge is no longer considered to be an integral and relevant part of historical scholarship – and I agree with P. Botticelli that, for example, archival literature seems to be rarely ever assigned in courses in U.S. history departments on historical method and theory.

    This archival blind spot is also reflected in many digital historical projects, which can affect their quality and sustainability – materials may be insufficiently described, contextualized, and hard to retrieve; the process of collection and selection may not be made transparent, and the lack of metadata can make it difficult to preserve and sustain these collections in the long run. Joshua Sternfeld’s perceptive recent article in the American Archivist addresses these issues [Joshua Sternfeld, “Archival Theory and Digital Historiography: Selection, Search, and Metadata as Archival Processes for Assessing Historical Contextualization,” American Archivist 74 (Fall/Winter 2011): 544-575]. At the same time, he emphasizes the need for greater collaboration between historians and archivists in creating a “shared vocabulary for the production, use, and evaluation of digital historical representations.” He then highlights elements of an interdisciplinary theory of digital historiography that incorporates archival processes and theories on selection, search, and the application of metadata. So, I found his article a very constructive contribution toward an interdisciplinary discussion of archival issues that can help bridge the archival divide, while also benefiting historical practice and theory…

  36. Kate T. says:

    Thanks, everyone for your many thoughtful comments. They were enormously helpful for me in preparing my remarks, which I’ll be sharing shortly in a new post.

  37. J. Hering,
    In the name of interdisciplinarity (and also because it sounds very relevant and smart and interesting!), I will definitely check out that article, Joshua Sternfeld, “Archival Theory and Digital Historiography: Selection, Search, and Metadata as Archival Processes for Assessing Historical Contextualization,” American Archivist 74 (Fall/Winter 2011): 544-575. Thanks!
    Michael

  38. John says:

    Michael, belatedly responding to your questions (I was enjoying a beautiful day on the coast!). Your THATcamp session was an occasion for reflecting on this as a two-headed thing: my negative reaction is that it’s an example of historians wanting to own the archives, to shape archives in a way that is satisfying to them without interacting with the people who work in the archives; my positive reaction that it’s possible, in the digital realm, to encourage different user groups to create layers that allow them to reconfigure the archive in a way that can be productive for them without being destructive (or at least annoying) to others. [And I’m sure you don’t use the word correct & it’s my own shorthand for a rhetoric of possession perceived by the negative side]. Both are there and I was suggesting that rather than tarrying with the negative, archivists should act on the positive.

  39. Pingback: EC: Round-up of AHA and MLA conferences : Digital Humanities Now

  40. Pingback: Archivists and historians–Am I giving archivists too much credit? | Archives de la FMSH

  41. Pingback: Back from the archives – historians, archives, and histories of archives « Stanford History Archival Workshop (SHAW)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>