It’s the first day of American Archives Month, and a time to celebrate both archivists and the archival record that exists in so many archives, libraries, museums, corporations, historical societies and organizations around the country. There are many things I value about being an archivist—yes, I chose this profession intentionally, yes it has both challenges and amazing moments, and yes, after 30+ years, I still find things to astound, inspire, perplex and energize me.
One of the things I’ve most enjoyed over the years is “getting to know” people whom I will never encounter in real life—not because they are on the Internet, a blog, or twitter, but because, well, they are no longer alive. They are the voices that come from the records with which I’ve worked. Those letters, census pages, photographs, wills, and even maps provide the glimpses of a life lived in my “neighborhood” (in this case the state of New York), and sometimes tell compelling stories that intrigue and engage me.
One of my archival neighbors of whom I think periodically is Genevieve Hankins-Hawke. I got to know Genevieve through the records of New York State’s World War II War Council. Genevieve was a 30-something African-American nurse, widow and mother during the war. She saw a job posting for a nursing position at a hospital in Salamanca (that’s in western NY). Continue reading
In a recent OTR post Kathleen Roe emphasized the need to start gathering baseline data about ourselves, our repositories, and our collections. Not for their own sake, but to buttress our advocacy arguments. I am especially interested in collecting such information, and I would like to devote some serious energy towards compiling and evaluating the data we need to define, value, and promote our work.
It’s been over more than ten years since the A*CENSUS snapshot and we are in serious need of a refresh of those data. But at the same time I’m starting to wonder whether a repeat of that effort is the right way to proceed. If we simply gather a compendium of data about ourselves, who’s going to care? I’m concerned that a data set like that simply extends a self-referential conversation that has always gone on among ourselves and our closest allies.
But what if we were to turn the lens in another direction? What if, instead, we were to start asking questions about our users and their needs; how they use archives and for what purposes; and what changes in our public service model would help them achieve success? If we could make a data-informed case for public investment in archives based on expanding user success, then perhaps we will see people – funders, legislators, researchers, and employers — start to care. Funders, legislators, researchers, and employers.
I’m thinking we need to marry the the information that’s purely about us, with a very large helping of information that which is about use and users. It is those data that will ultimately define our public value and, therefore, substantiate our advocacy arguments.
So how do we start to gather this other data set? Who do we ask? What do we ask? How do we ask it? What existing data can we chew on? I believe we need to head in this direction, but I’m unsure how we turn the ship. I would greatly appreciate hearing your ideas.
Dennis Meissner, Vice-President/President Elect
Sometimes it takes a long time for information in archives to become accessible for a range of reasons. It may simply not have been examined, in other cases, age and condition have prevented our ability to literally see or hear the information. A sparkling New York colleague, Jean Green from Binghamton University, recently posted a link on her Facebook page to the following article about work at Yale University to reveal text on a map that is believed to have been used by Columbus in exploration leading to what are now called the Americas: http://www.wired.com/2014/09/martellus-map/
And that reminded me of another set of revelations thanks to technology lending insight on a question that those of you in my generation struggled with, what triggered the Ohio National Guard to shoot at Kent State students (a subject still raw for many of us). In 2010 technology brought forward more information:
More information on both of these stories, and countless others, will emerge as technology and work by archivists and researchers continues. If you know of examples of information finally emerging as archival records are treated or used, feel free to share it here. A good reminder after a long week (for me at least) of why we do what we do!
At various points through the year the issue arises of what we do and don’t know about the archives profession in terms of hard numbers. How many archives are there in the United States? What is the average size of an archival collection? What is the average size of collection by type–government, university, historical society, library, etc? What is the budget to support those collections? How many archivists are out there? Where do they work? What do they get paid? What degrees do they hold?
SAA collected a lot of data in the IMLS-sponsored Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States (A*CENSUS) in 2004 and our colleagues in the Council of State Archivists and the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators have collected other data. There have been surveys and data gathered by Heritage Preservation, archives program students, and task forces, roundtables and sections, regional archival organizations, and others. But we don’t seem to have a list (let alone a comprehensive list) of what those data-gathering efforts have been, or where those data may now “reside.”
So here is a different challenge to all of you: If you’re aware of previous efforts to gather data- about archives or archivists, whether national or regional, current or past, would you please share that information with us? We’d like to get some idea of just what data may be out there and what it looks like.
You can respond to this blogpost, or if you have more than would fit in such a response, send the information by email to the amazing Amy Lazarus, my recent partner in the SAA Mentoring Program, who I learned over the course of the past year loves statistics, is super-smart, organized, and has agreed to help out with compiling this. Here’s her email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Let us know what data you know about—and thanks for your help and ideas with yet another type of archival challenge!
For all of you who’ve made the commitment to participate in the “The Year of Living Dangerously for Archives” and for those who are still wondering just what this is all about (see the 9/3/2104 blogpost here), the first challenge opportunity is now live on the SAA website: http://www2.archivists.org/living-dangerously/value-of-archives
You’ll find suggestions for concrete actions to take in the next days/weeks to further our efforts to raise awareness of the importance and value of archives and archivists. Check out the suggestions, put your own spin on them, try them out and then tell us the results of your efforts.
Challenges will be issued periodically in the future focusing on different issues, times, approaches, or for particular groups within SAA whether Student Chapters, Fellows, or any of our roundtables and sections. Do one, do many—every action is another step forward in raising awareness.
It is an absolute joy and privilege to be part of a profession that can change lives, alter the path of policy, affect the economy, capture the minds of students, promote insight and understanding, and provide the information infrastructure for democracy. It’s time we let others know that this is what archives and archivists do. Join us in taking action for archives!
Earlier this week, the New York Times published an op-ed piece, “The New History Wars,” by American Historical Association Executive Director Jim Grossman. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/02/opinion/the-new-history-wars.html?_r=0) Because Jim’s piece teed up an opportunity to note the essential role of archival records in education, Dennis Meissner, Nancy Beaumont, and I pulled together and submitted the “letter to the editor” below.
If the world stays calm, no movie stars get married, and no natural disasters occur, there is a very modest chance this might get printed. But despite the odds, it seemed worth a try. Because I have, and will continue, to challenge our members to get involved in raising awareness of archives, it seemed appropriate to let you know that I’m trying to do the same—to find positive and productive opportunities to draw attention to the many ways in which archival records and archivists contribute to the educational, social, and political conduct of our society. I’ll continue to look for chances to raise a voice on the value and importance of archives, and hope you’ll join me in speaking up about archives whenever we can!
Here’s the letter as submitted (with painful deletions to get it down to the required 175 words): Continue reading
It’s really pretty simple. Archives change lives…sometimes in breath-taking ways, sometimes in quiet but essential ways. Nonetheless, every encounter that a user has with archives results in some increase or change in knowledge, some adjustment to a direction, some altered perspective, some affecting of the human experience. Archives have value for so many different people—our managers, our colleagues, our friends, the public, our users, potential users, and even people who may never directly use them.
I hope in the coming year we can work together to take some specific actions to raise awareness of the importance and value of archives in our lives, our organizations, our government, and our society. In my incoming presidential remarks at the recent Annual Business Meeting (http://www2.archivists.org/history/leaders/kathleen-roe/incoming-presidential-remarks-the-year-of-living-dangerously-with-archives), I issued a challenge to us as SAA members, as archivists, to spend a year “living dangerously” by taking some concerted actions to increase awareness of and advocate for archives. It’s not something that most of us have been trained to do, and it is something that for many of us is a bit beyond our comfort zone (hence the element of “danger”). Continue reading