The problem with the scholar as “archivist,” or is there a problem?

I have a problem, dear readers. And I think the solution to my problem is that I need to get over my problem. But let’s get to the end of the post and see if you think that’s the right solution.

Regular readers will remember past discussion here about “the increasingly common use of “archive” as a verb,” the use of the phrase “citizen archivist,” and the evolving relationship between archivists and historians. I was reminded of some of these discussions as I started to delve more seriously into resources about the digital humanities to prepare to write a blog post and the role of the archivist in digital humanities. This is not that post. This post returns to the same old semantic ground as earlier posts. What should my reaction be when I hear scholars talk about the “archives” they have created, collected, or manage? Because right now my reaction is pretty much akin to my dog’s when the mailman approaches. A low threatening growl, possibly followed by sharp nasty barking if the situation escalates (well, I’ve never actually barked at a scholar, but you get the picture). When my dog does this, I try to calm her down and explain that the mailman is our friend. He brings us something we need. She is not swayed by these arguments. Neither does it matter that the mailman delivers mail almost every day and never enters the house. You’d think she’d get over her instinctual reaction to protect her turf, and yet every time she growls. 

Before the advent of our wonderful digital age, scholars collected (primarily) copies of the materials on which they based their research. Slides, photographs, photocopies, transcriptions. I’m sure university archives are used to weeding through these kinds of personal research collections. Did scholars call their materials “archives” back then too? Probably, but I would guess they had a better understanding that what they had assembled was more akin to a personal archives–their own research collection–than an “archive” in the strict sense of the word.

But today, as we have previously discussed, just as you are curating your snack collection when you pull those Doritos off the supermarket shelf, any collection or assemblage of copies of original materials gets called “an archive.” When a scholar says her students are creating archives when they are assembling collections of links to digitized archival materials, does she really not understand what’s wrong with that usage? Does a scholar not understand that when she talks about the “archive” that she’s created, that I’m confused because I don’t know whether she’s talking about a collection of copies or a collection of original materials, and moreover, that this is an important distinction?

And what of scholars who are collecting copies of potential digital ephemera? Harvesting copies of things from the web that today are something publicly available but tomorrow may be unique and valuable scholarly collections? Do these collections have a more valid claim to the word “archives”? Should I growl at them too because they talking about “archiving” things and aren’t involving any real archivists?

And so, back to my problem. I don’t want to be like my dog. Scholars and historians who work with or collect archival materials–whether originals or copies–are our friends, just like the mailman. And, like the mailman, they will keep encroaching on archival turf (semantically and otherwise) day after day, taking no mind of a little growling. As we’ve previously discussed, the world does not care about what it truly means to be an archivist or for materials to be “an archives.” They use the words the way they want to. And it’s possible that we should even be flattered, as the term “archives” may be employed by scholars to add an air of increased importance or academic heft to their digital projects.

Intellectually, I know the popularist approach is the right one. In other words, if David Ferriero wants to call someone who tags images a “citizen archivist” because it makes that person feel more valued and empowered, then I should just get over my qualms. The important thing is that people are contributing to the descriptions of records and getting more involved with the archives. If historians are working with digital collections of archival materials, that’s the important thing. It’s all good, right? And I, maybe more than most archivists, want to see our profession move out of the background and get more attention for the work that we do and the collections that we care for. So I should just relax and embrace everyone, like a laid-back Golden Retriever, right?

“Fertörakos #16” courtesy of Thomas Lieser

Ah, but there’s still a problem. People do appreciate our collections.

Scholars and the public love it when they have access to our collections, in person or online. Everyone loves the old stuff in archives, and they love to interact with it. But most of them (scholars included?) have little or no understanding that there’s a profession and discipline behind that old stuff.  Yesterday afternoon on Twitter an archivist wrote:

was just told, by one of the Town employees who is taking over the archives, “An archive is just like a library, how hard can it be?”

Sometimes when my dog growls, it’s not the mailman. I’m sure that the archivist in this case took some time explaining to the archives’ new custodian that it is not, in fact, just like a library. If a scholar truly does not understand the difference between a digital collection and an archive, then we archivists have a problem. That’s hardly a new observation. As a profession we’ve known for a long time that we need to do a better job of promoting the value of what we do. And for scholars who do have some understanding of the true meaning of archive but still think it’s appropriate to use it for their own collections of copies, we need to try to make them understand that for many archivists this appropriation of the word shows disrespect for the professionals who are trained to care for archives.

So, to wrap up with my extended dog simile, I don’t want to be like my dog who growls at the mailman everyday but I don’t want to be like the lovable Golden Retriever who growls at no one. I think I should emulate the watchful sheepdog, who lets the flock have their freedom until they stray out of bounds. Then, it’s time to go to work.

 “Sheepdog in action” courtesy of Carron Brown 

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