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.)


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