Guest post: An archivist at THATCamp New Orleans

Thanks, Eira Tansey for this guest post about THATCamp:

One of the perks of living in New Orleans (besides, of course, all the outlets for laissez les bons temps rouler) is the number of conferences coming through town. This brings many opportunities for attending workshops, sessions, and events from outside of the archivist-niche that I normally wouldn’t have the travel funds to access. When the American Historical Association came into town, with a THATCamp during the first day of the conference, I was excited to attend an event that I’d been intrigued by for a long time.

For those who don’t know, THATCamp exists somewhere between a workshop, meetup, roundtable and conference. It is often described as an “unconference.” THAT stands for “The Humanities and Technology.” Going to THATCamp is different than the typical workshop or conference experience, because the schedule is created that day (brief proposals are submitted by participants ahead of time through the specific THATCamp website, e.g. AHA’s THATCamp site). To determine the schedule, each proposer gives brief remarks to the assembled group about their proposal. Following all the proposals, a show of hands is taken to determine interest in scheduling proposals.THATCamp is explicitly non-hierarchical – no one is accorded more or less respect or floor-time based on their professional status.

As with any meeting with multiple sessions, inevitably there are slots with overlapping interesting sessions. THATCamp organizers encourage people to move between sessions if one isn’t holding their attention, and reminded the proposers not to take such actions personally. Moving between sessions has always been my MO at traditional conferences, but it was a relief to hear it so openly embraced in this setting.

The first slot of the day included a discussion on the recently released Ithaka report. Kate has discussed this report before, and I was curious to see what historians had to say about it, given the response generated within the librarian/archivist communities. The turnout for this session was small, but I’d estimate the makeup of the attendees split in half, between librarians/archivists, and historians. As a result, a lot of the discussion centered around library and archival practices, without as much insight into how historians reacted to the report. One of the initial criticisms that came up was the unrealistic expectation that libraries could manage to have more librarians specializing in particular subfields (p. 43). Besides the obvious issue of funding, are librarians and archivists truly obligated to be experts in every possible subfield?

One of the historians noted her frustration with the lack of a centralized location for finding archival sources. The librarians and archivists in the group asked if she had heard of or used ArchiveGrid, and this was new to her. Of course, ArchiveGrid is a fantastic resource but it is only as good as a) archives that can make finding aids available online and b) archives that contribute those finding aids to ArchiveGrid.

A point I brought up was what the problematic phrase “research archivist” (p. 42), based on recommendation #4 to archives:

Historians deeply value the expertise of the research archivist, and archives should ensure that they are devoting adequate resources to engaging actively as interpreters of the collection and important connectors within their subfield. Archivists can play a patron services role in working with historians, and they should be afforded the time and other resources needed to serve researchers in this role. Archives are uniquely positioned to facilitate connections within the community of researchers who use their materials, and should make efforts to support engagement between researchers.

The inevitable question of “When will we have the all-digital archive” came up. In retrospect I have to believe that this wasn’t a serious question, but some of the librarians/archivists in the room pointed out that even if archives were funded at the levels that could even make this conceivable, the massive IP/copyright barriers to “digitizing everything” make it unlikely any time soon.

The proposer of the session raised a point which I think deserves significantly more exploration than we could do justice to in this session: At what point are archivists and librarians collaborators with historians, and at what point are they supporters? In what ways are archivists accorded similar respect and recognition as scholars, and in what ways are they viewed as something akin to helpmates? A few related turns in the discussion included someone asking (paraphrasing) “Where is the incentive for faculty to gain skills that enable them to work more productively with archivists and librarians?” This probably relates back to similar problems within digital humanities (e.g., how can digital humanists use DH projects as evidence for tenure/promotion). Another question was raised regarding whether the Ithaka report would help librarians and archivists get leverage for activities they’re already doing. The librarians and archivists present noted that the distinction that “archivists give you the originals, librarians give you secondary sources” was very artificial.

This was an interesting exploratory discussion, but I have to imagine that the historians who showed up were already interested in the relationships between librarians, archivists and historians. What about the historians who don’t care about those relationships or linkages? (And by extension, how much should that concern archivists?)

I should note that a staff member from (if I recall correctly) the National Endowment for the Humanities was present at this session – NEH helped fund this particular Ithaka report, however more reports will be forthcoming on the changing research practices of other scholars. (I don’t believe the NEH is funding the subsequent reports, but I could be wrong). There was also a session during AHA itself about the report. Unfortunately I was unable to attend that session, but there was a recap and remarks from one of the panel’s speakers. The points raised in these recaps probably deserve their own more developed responses (e.g., if archivists are “decreasingly well positioned to facilitate access to archival materials”, my own gut reaction is that’s due to our funding sources remaining absurdly reduced or stagnant, not because the profession does not want to meet new challenges).

The other sessions I attended during THATCamp including envisioning the teaching spaces of the future, much of which covered the idea that learning is no longer closely aligned with the classroom as setting (clearly, the experience of libraries retooling their spaces as learning commons, workshops, and other active environments has a lot to offer to this discussion), a session on collaborative mapping tools, and a session on programming for historians (in which one of the participants showed off a script he made to identify the box and folder numbers of images he took during archival research).

Attending THATCamp AHA was a great experience – I think it’s critically important for the voices of archivists to be present at conferences such as AHA. Likewise, I think THATCamp is insightful for archivists, since so many digital humanities projects incorporate archival materials. THATCamp is a welcoming atmosphere – regardless of your experience level. I encourage all archivists and librarians to attend a THATCamp. Given how widespread it’s become, there’s probably one coming near you.

**And it probably goes without saying, but the demarcation between “front of house” and “back of house” archivists often and necessarily overlaps. I have a job which ostensibly is that of a primary processing position, but I serve on the reference desk several hours a week, as do all my colleagues. We also have a public services librarian. So, in many archives, often people perform both duties and the line between the two sets of skills can be fuzzy. This points back  to previous points Kate has made that historians would benefit from knowing more about the workflows, hierarchies, and institutional structures of archives-land.

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