Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Attila's fables: the cat and the moose

A lot of my Anchorite friends have been posting a link to a NPR story this Christmas day regarding the moose that move into Anchorage in winter. What I particularly loved about the story was the lovely photograph of the moose standing in a driveway. If you look carefully at the large window in the house to the left of the moose, you'll see a cat sitting in the window, checking out the moose.

Reading that story, and probably a few too many of James Thurber's dog stories this morning, reminded me of one of my favorite Diefenbaker stories. Dief is my 10YO domestic shorthair (that's vet speak for kitty-mutt). He has butterscotch & white coloring, and on a good day is between 12-13 lbs. At the time of the events I'm about to recount, in April 20__, he was closer to 18 lbs, as a result of grief-eating himself into a stupor after Anitra, my late great dog of my heart and Dief's adopted mother, had died the previous Christmas Eve.

So due to a rather Thurburian set of circumstances which included a few too many gallons of water entering my downstairs apt, I and Dief were staying with my friend LuAnne at her apt cross-town. It was shortly before I was due to leave on a work trip, and LuAnne had agreed to babysit Dief (who could no longer be left alone for any length of time due to the grief issues) so Dief & I moved in.

It was a lovely spring evening. We had the windows open for air but the shades were pulled, and Dief was hanging out on the windowsill as LuAnne & I were talking at the dining room table. All of a sudden, there arose such a clatter! The blinds crashed away from the window and back down and there was this orange-colored blur headed across the room at top speed. It took me a second to figure out it was Dief since I didn't know he could move that fast, and I really didn't know that Dief the BeachBall could move that fast.

Well, I looked at LuAnne, and she looked at me. We were both standing at this point. So she walked over to the window and pulled up the blinds and both of us in unison jumped back and shrieked. There was a yearling moose with its nose pressed up against the window screen--LuAnne's apt was a few steps above ground level, so the young moose had been right at eye level to Dief. It wasn't impressed by how much it had startled the two of us, or it didn't like us as much as it did Dief, because it gave us a rather long-suffering look and wandered off.

It took us two hours and tuna to coax Dief out from under LuAnne's bed, and most of the remainder of the evening to get him to go back into the dining room. By the morning, he was sneaking up to the windowsill and peeking just over it. I left that day for my trip, but LuAnne reported to me that he spent much of the following week glued to that window. Waiting, apparently, for the moose to come back.

It never did. But every so often, Dief, now back down to 13 lbs, spots one from the window of my apartment, and he ends up practically impressed into the glass in his attempts to get as close as possible. I worry, sometimes when we're out on walks with him on leash, that if he spots a moose, he's going to get me entangled in some sort of situation that won't end up with me in good shape. I have no idea what he'd do with one if he met up with it with no screen between, but since he once attacked a badly socialized Rottweiler, I suspect the outcome could be difficult as I explain to State Fish & Game why one of the wild moose in town is cranky from little puncture wounds on its nose. I don't know if there's a fine for people who let their house cats attack moose in town, but I'd rather not find out. Perhaps I could claim Dief was acting in defense of life and property, but I suspect he'd really be acting as himself.

Merry Christmoose, everyone.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Can't we all just get along?

My mom was a librarian.

She's still alive, just retired from the library world for a number of years now.

What's the lesson you should take from that? Attila has had a birds-eye view of the library world for a lot of years now both through Mom and through her own work, so often affiliated with libraries. And she respects librarians and librarianship. What librarians do is irreplaceable and important. And they and their work are currently under threat for no good reason that Attila can discern, though in her darkest of hearts, she occasionally has the suspicion that it's because what they do is irreplaceable and important and that's always scary to those seeking power who think they may not be able to harness those that do the irreplaceable and important work.

Okay, I've got to stop talking about myself in the third person--that's just too weird. Back to me.

Despite this affection and respect for librarians, recently I've found myself incredibly resentful of librarians. To the point to which I almost unleashed a rant on a totally undeserving librarian, who was making an excellent point about information management by sharing an anonymous piece about institutional memory that has some good lessons for those who are smart enough to pay attention to what has been written. Though I'm a trifle bothered by being unable to find any sort of clear sourcing information on this document: I'm okay with people being anonymous, but please can somebody step up and say "I know this person and s/he is for real?" Maybe it's the archivist in me, but the total lack of context on this document makes me doubt its authenticity and if I want people who I think are in need of the lesson to read it and to learn from it, I hesitate to give them something I can't provide any provenance on whatsoever.

But back to my library story. The librarian in question is a long-time hero of mine, The Lipstick Librarian (Linda Absher).  For those of you who haven't heard of her, go "like" her Facebook page. I read a higher per capita amount of her shared links than any of the other people I follow on Facebook, which is saying something. Plus she puts up cute kitten videos whenever she's nearing a milestone in fan counts, so that's always a bonus in terms of lowering blood pressure. At any rate, she passed on the above link and noted something to the effect of this is what happens when corporations wipe out their libraries and let their librarians go. And God and Melvil Dewey, 1851-1931 forgive me, but my first thought was: "This isn't about libraries. This isn't even remotely about libraries. What the Schellenberg? Where does she get off claiming this is about libraries?"

It's been a hard couple of months for Attila here, especially when it comes to librarians. I've had it a little too forcefully driven home to me that some librarians don't understand what it is I and my fellow archivists do. So I think I can be forgiven--a little--if I got somewhat resentful that a librarian had posted that link and turned it into a discussion about libraries when it to me seemed clearly about archives and records management, not librarianship and this was just another example of librarians who don't have a clue about their allied professions when we're expected to know everything about them...

Yeah, more than a bit of an over-reaction. And why I think I deserve at least a little bit of forgiveness is that I didn't unleash the blame dogs on the Lipstick Librarian, because while librarianship was her term, what she was really talking about was information management.  And as far as that goes, all of us whose professions fall under the umbrella have indeed been under attack, though perhaps in the case of records management and archives, it's been not so much an attack as a failure to adopt in the first place.

Where am I going with this? I'm not sure. First, I want to apologize to LL for having gone off--even if only in my head--at her. She's posted stuff before that I've thought was more about archives and less about libraries and usually I've just shrugged and thought "well, at least she's getting the story out to a wider audience." Or I've just mentally done the translation from "librarianship" to "information management" without even really involving my forebrain. We're all in that business together. And many of us have duties that overlap. Corporate librarians have long had duties that encompassed records management, legal compliance, care of original documentation, grey literature, published works. This archivist, though while primarily responsible for original documentation in a variety of media, also cares for a [semi-]rare books collection and also makes acquisition decisions for some institutional records that effectively translates to acting as an occasional records manager as well. We all seem to deal with legal matters no matter what our job title: whether it be copyright and fair use, standards like HIPAA and FERPA and FOIA and other laws and regulations that affect access to information, determining compliance issues, and so forth.

The acronyms we may use might be different. The jargon terms we use may occasionally overlap, if not always in meaning. I might measure things in linear feet or mb, gb, or tb, the librarians in linear feet and numbers of items, the records managers might be doing risk analyses of varying retention periods. Because, really, in the end, it's about creating and saving and disseminating the important information out to the people in need of it. Choosing what to save and what not to save and how to save it and how to provide access to it and taking the responsibility that the choices we make will affect information seekers, no matter where along the records life-cycle continuum we may spend most of our time.

So if maybe sometimes librarians don't seem to understand what it is we archivists do or neither the librarians nor the archivists seem to respect the role of records managers (forgive me: I'm using RM to cast the widest possible net) quite as much as we should, so be it. Let's each do what we can to rectify that and, while remembering that while I can only really guarantee that I educate myself, sometimes my own act of learning can serve to educate others. And I need to remember that I'm least likely to educate when I'm yelling at people for not understanding me. I don't have to know so much that I can do their jobs, I just have to know enough to know when I can rely on others to do the work so I don't have to. Or maybe I can advocate that institutions hire people who are best suited to solve the problems that face them. Maybe, just maybe, despite occasional internecine squabbling and misunderstandings, what matters is that we all carry a lot of power. So much so, that we're a threat to people who are scared of information and access to it. Think of what we could do if we could really understood the strengths each of us brings to what has been and continues to be a rather nasty battlefield out there. A battlefield based on ignorance and lack of communication which are problems that we, no matter what the alphabet soup after our name or our job title may be, have been specially trained to defeat.

Information power, people, information power.

And just in case that doesn't work, here's a picture of one of my cute kitties (Diefenbaker) attempting to help me type this piece by lying across my arms.

Hey, if it works for the Lipstick Librarian, it might just work for me. Who said I can't learn anything from my library colleagues?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

the airport shuffle

Somewhere about 35,000 feet over the Gulf of Alaska Thursday, I earned MVP status on Alaska Air. Which is the first time I've ever done that. I guess flying from Anchorage to Orlando and back, flying from Anchorage to Chicago and back, flying from Anchorage to Honolulu and back and then to Portland in about 7 months is enough to get you some serious miles racked up. So all the nice benefits that brings me aside, it also means that I've spent a lot of time in airports this past year as well as going into and out of them.

I'll tell you right now, SeaTac is winning my favorite airport award. If I had such an award, of course. Why? Free wifi, decent restaurants (even if overpriced, all airport restaurants are overpriced), a place I can get a pedicure and manicure, and the fact that their TSA types haven't yet patted me down.

On that last criteria? I'm not kidding. I get patted down. A LOT. If I were the paranoid type, I'd decide that the main reason this is happening is because if TSA agents pick an occasional strawberry blonde out of the lineup for her "long flowing skirts" they can claim they aren't racial profiling individuals who come from cultures with higher modesty standards than apparently most of the US follows. And it's not that I'm really objecting to the pat-down as I'd like my flight not to be interrupted for security issues. What I'm objecting to is the thought that I might be the beard in this situation: I don't like being used so somebody can claim they're not behaving badly.

I'd also like to know what the exact length or tightness the skirt needs to be before you cross the TSA modesty line: my fave ankle-length dark green mermaid-cut skirt has gotten me patted down twice at at Anchorage, but not at San Diego, Anchorage, or Kona. My calf-length grey jersey full skirt has gotten me patted down at Portland but not Anchorage. And my hot pink lower calf-length circle skirt has gotten me patted down at Ft. Wayne but not O'Hare. But I suppose I'd be mad if they made some sort of arbitrary rule about the skirt must be 3" above the ankle and at full extension the hem must be less than 36" in circumference or some insanity like that.

At any rate, for the aforementioned reasons, SeaTac is coming in first. Portland would have been a close tie, except for the TSA pat-down which, I note, was the first time I've not had the offer of some privacy for the event, but was also done with me blocking the detector and holding up an already elongated line of people trying to get through so nobody would walk off with their bags that were already through the xray machine and awaiting retrieval. Not even the presence of a Powell's branch store that carried used as well as new books and a snack shop that carried my favoritest ever obscure line of red licorice was enough to mitigate that TSA rudeness.

Losing? At the moment, no clear answer there. I'm rather annoyed with O'Hare and Honolulu as I am a left coast girl and the thought of a major airport where people get stuck on layovers for goodly periods of time forcing people to pay for wifi access tends to make me a little crazy. Really, if Ft. Wayne, IN can manage to provide WiFi for users, the bigger airports should be able to figure it out. And no size arguments there, because SeaTac has it figured out too. Most of the Kona waiting areas are outside (what do those people do in a downpour?) so maybe that's their reason for not having wifi, but it's still kind of annoying. Honolulu is doing rather badly in the contest: I haven't gone through security there, but between the for-pay wifi and what seemed like an interminable march from the main terminal to the one where the inter-island flights are hosted accompanied by a strange lack of directional signs to guide you, not so much. And Anchorage's wifi isn't enough to make up for the TSA dislike of my favorite--and extraordinarily comfortable for traveling--skirt.

So, there you have it. My completely arbitrary and random evaluations of airports. Ironically enough, now that I've hit MVP status I've pretty much had it for traveling. Here's hoping I get some energy back and somebody decides they really do need to bring me to Bellingham, Atlanta, DC, Seattle and other places to teach my archives job-seeking workshop next year. To educate people on this issue, I'll even tolerate a clumsy pat-down. Now, that's dedication to my topic.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Yelling into the wind

I've had a lot of advice in my brain lately. That's going outward, I mean. And for the most part, it's been unasked-for and those pieces of advice I generally keep to myself, but some of it was asked for and still ignored, or received eye-rolls. Lately I've had a couple of people repeat advice I gave them years ago and which they finally took and surprise! it worked out well for them, so in that spirit, I'm just going to dump down a few pieces of advice I regularly give people. Just to save some time. Ignore it at your leisure, everybody else does. Even me, and some of this is stuff I've tried to work on myself.

The good news is I hardly ever say I told you so, so no worries on that front.

  • It's Ark-iv-ist. Not Ark-ive-ist. Both i's sound like the i in ick, not in yikes.
  • Just go watch Buffy the series. You'll like it. The first season is really smart.
  • If the shoes you're wearing hurt you, give them away.
  • Speed up into the curve. 
  • Read Connie Willis's Bellweather, Jerome K. Jerome's 3 Men in a Boat, William Kotzwinkle's The Bear Went Over the Mountain, or William Goldman's Princess Bride in the next year. You'll enjoy one of them and may even laugh out loud.
  • That bit at the top of your resume that says what kind of job you want? Delete it.
  • Driving defensively does not always mean hitting the brakes.
  • Nobody sane expects the top and bottom pages of the documents in your tenure binder to line up perfectly evenly.
  • Work on reducing how much you swear.
  • Paginate and date all documents.
  • If you're putting off an apology? Get it over and done with.
  • Laundering your dirty clothes is better than spritzing air freshener on them.
  • Listen.
  • Unless you live on a farm, cats are indoor pets.
  • Tell somebody you love them, preferably somebody you a) love and b) hardly ever tell.
  • Send your mom flowers once in a while.
  • After cutting onions or garlic, rinse your hands with water and rub them on your stainless steel faucet. It will get rid of the smell. No, I don't know why, but it works.
  • Take more photographs.
  • Remember other people have bad days too.
  • Apologies are not necessarily an admission of guilt.
  • Life is too short to eat food you don't really like. (Stolen from my friend Jenny.)
  • When a friend gives you good advice, steal it and pass it on.
  • Make somebody laugh once a day.
  • Don't dwell on what you've done wrong if there's a reasonable chance it won't ever happen again.
  • Details make compliments better.
  • Drink more water.
Okay, I feel better now. Back to writing my workshop where people will pay for advice they may choose to use or to ignore.

Oh, and one last piece which isn't so much advice, as a wish.

Have a nice day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Observations from the point of exhaustion

What a week. My SAA conference followed several days of family activities in Ft. Wayne and Detroit and a couple of months of heavy workload, so I have to admit I was kind of tired going in. But even more tired upon coming out.

Mostly that’s a caveat. I won’t say any of my perceptions are free of the general level of tiredness that accompanied me most of the week.

A good conference, mostly. Scott Simon (would never have put that face with that VOICE) was charming and funny and did a pretty mean Nina Totenberg imitation. Lots of choices as to sessions.

But here’s the thing on the sessions. I can’t help but think an awful lot of us keep reinventing the wheel. Or perhaps we’re just not doing our due diligence before we say something: it’s our experience, so we assume it must be universal.  Let me give you a couple of for examples from a single session I attended.

I’d love to tell you the name of the session but as I write this I’m about 30,000 feet over Saskatchewan somewhere and don’t have my program handy and honestly, it doesn’t really matter. I saw it played out in a lot of sessions in a variety of ways. The chair of the session got up and talked about how graduate archival education, way back when he went to graduate school, very carefully divided the theory from the practice. You got all the theory first, and then you went on to the practice. And while that was understandable from the standards of the time (btw, 10 years prior), it wasn’t really practical anymore and how wonderful it was that things were changing.

I happened to be sitting next to a couple of current grad school students from my own alma mater and I’m not sure I impressed them much by my sotto voce comments. I’m still kind of thinking WTS? I went to grad school 20 years ago, studied under Bert Rhoads (for those of you who don’t know your NARA history, he was AOTUS while Nixon was in office and if working as AOTUS under Nixon wouldn’t make you a great archivist, I don’t know what would), and even way back then, our little program had theory and practical application running concurrently and mixed. Sorry, Mr. Chair, if your huge and big name university didn’t have that figured out as recently as 10 years ago, but this isn’t a new trend.

My WTS attitude was not materially helped by another speaker in the session who talked about expediting practical computing-based experience for students by virtualizing software access. Basically loading the software onto servers rather than onto individual machines. And how nobody had done this before.

Again, huh? Way back yonder when I worked for the state of Utah (’98-’02), most of our software was running off the LANs and servers and not off our individual machines. Made file sharing and shared software significantly easier. The whole state government of Utah managed that over 15 years ago. Why is this new? I won’t argue for a second that the mechanisms would be the same now, but certainly it had been done and done well.

I can’t decide what’s going on here. Are we all too busy to do the more meta research before we engage on projects? Are we forgetting to look to fields outside our own? Is that “this is how I did it at my shop” model holding such sway over the profession that we forget?

At the same time, I know none of that is true. One of my favorite papers was delivered by somebody from UNC-CH who has been attending digital forensics conferences and reading the journals in that field and figuring out what we can learn from that field and bring home to use in our own archives. It’s really cool stuff and very applicable with only minimal tweaking. And the session on metrics on Saturday, well, I can’t say enough good things about that one. Spectacular and definitely underattended, though I suspect that had more to do with the airlines forcing bunches of our east coast colleagues onto early flights back home. Shared practice, solid structures developed for using back home, and fascinating statistics from the studies done.

So a mixed bag, on that front.

But the networking, oh, the networking. Of all the “best times had by me", that list would have to include hanging out at the Networking Cafe and meeting so many new and upcoming archivists who wanted resume advice. Such amazing talent and skills out there which, okay, I have to say it. I wasn’t going to say it, but I have to say it. Please, all my recruiting colleagues: will you please, please, occasionally open up one of your early career jobs as an entry level job and hire somebody out of grad school? Figure out what you need going in, hire accordingly, and you won’t be disappointed.

And my joy at that experience was—full disclosure here—increased by the helpseekers who would stop mid-discussion and say: “You wrote that blog on job-hunting? I love that blog! Thank you!” Groupies always make a girl feel better, I’ll admit. And I even sat on the other side of that table for a few moments and got some sage career advice from one of the guys I regard as one of the statesmen of our profession (who used to be a Young Turk, not so long ago, but I guess sooner or later time catches up with us all).

But back to the networking. I know we have some significant challenges to the face-to-face conference that are growing and in desperate need of being addressed. The costs are unbelievable (this one ran me close to $2500, and I don’t know yet if I’ll get any of that reimbursed and even if I do, I won’t get more than $1300 reimbursed). And that was with staying at a less expensive hotel even. There’s a strong push profession-wise to virtualize as much as we can and I agree with that. It’s hard to encourage diversity and professional development in a largely ill-paid profession when the costs of attending conferences run so high. I’m glad the Council is forming a task force to look at these issues. But I also hope that in expediting distance attendance we don’t forget the value of being there in person and that we figure out ways to support in-person attendance by our colleagues who don’t have the financial or logistical wherewithal to attend easily.

I sometimes wonder how many of those sessions where attendees sit there and wonder “how is this new?” might be alleviated by a higher level of networking in the profession made possible by face-to-face interactions. Some of the hallway conversations I had introduced me to so many things I’d never thought about. The dinners or late night drinks events with friends where they invited others along so I got to meet yet more people doing fantastic and wonderful things I didn’t know were going on. Those gave me new ideas and more to the point, ideas for handling old problems and a leg up on where to go looking for the data that might just keep me from making old mistakes.

Well, and tons of fun gossip too. What’s networking without some scurrilous gossip on the side?

And no, I’m not going to share THAT. Sorry, but you had to be there.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Lead by example

In my other blog on archival job hunting, I think I said something about trying to get a good night's sleep before an interview.

Knowing, of course, how ridiculous that really is. I'm not very good at doing that myself.

But here's the kicker. In early October, I'm teaching a two-day workshop on archival job hunting sponsored by Northwest Archivists and held at the Oregon Historical Society. How cool is that? It's inexpensive too, so go check out the NWA site and register early and often.

And normally, I'd say teaching a workshop is just exactly like going on an interview: you're going to be meeting many people you don't know and attempting to convince them that you do indeed know important things and can be of service to them in the sharing of that knowledge or skills. So theoretically, I should be aiming for a good night's sleep beforehand, right?

Sure. And I figured, no problem. Okay, so the workshop is Thursday and Friday and I have a meeting in Anchorage from 10 am to 1 pm on Wednesday that I cannot skip for any reason, but how hard will it be to get an evening flight out to Portland from Anchorage?

Apparently it's unreasonable. And by that, I mean cost-wise. Part of what is going on with the workshop is that this is a pilot project for mid-year continuing education for NWA and we're trying to see if NWA sponsored local education can be done on a cost recovery basis. Well, I have friends in Portland who can offer me crash space (thank you!) and to keep it green I'm not planning to do any handouts other than electronic, and if we make the lunches either brown bag or on your own, the only real cost is my transportation to Portland. So my deal with NWA is that they cover my plane fare, which I promised would be less than $600 (and before y'all panic, sorry, but that is what it typically costs me these days to get out of AK) and we'd re-earn that from registration fees. And to be honest, if we don't get enough registrations to quite make that, I'll cover the rest myself. I really, really, really want to do this workshop.

At any rate, about 2 months ago, I started hitting up the airline websites. Guess what? I can't get an evening flight into Portland that Wednesday night for less than $800. I'm still shaking my head about that, but Alaskan travelers know the score and the reality is, red-eyes are always cheaper. So in order to make that self-imposed cost restriction, I'm taking a red eye flight. Leaving ANC about 1 am, getting into Portland at 5:30 am. The very morning of the first day of the workshop.

The good news is I can sleep on planes and chances are I'll be able to do some napping between my daytime meeting on Weds and the time when I have to leave for the airport. And the ever-wonderful Diana Banning has volunteered to fetch me at the airport at Stupid O'Clock and take me out to for breakfast where I can attempt to ingest as much caffeine as humanly possible in order to make it through the day. I might not be the most human of beings at 6:30 pm that Thursday, but I'm pretty sure I can make it through the first day of the workshop and still be presentable and do a good job. Which, of course, will be exactly the opposite of what I will be advising workshop attendees: which is that they should never do this. So even if it all goes awry and I end up getting a little loopy from sleep deprivation at some point during the day, I can just point to that as the proof for why you should do everything you can to get a good night's sleep before so important an event as an interview.

It could be worse. Way back in undergrad, when I'd procrastinated so badly that I had to pull an all-nighter to do a paper or study for a test, I used to have this, well, treatment, for lack of a better word. Ready for this? I'd stay up all night and then about 6 am I'd run to the grocery store and pick up a 6-pack of Coke and a package of Oreos. And that's all I'd eat, all day. (Are you freaking out yet?) I'd be wired for bear all day long, get through it, the caffeine would finally dispel about 10 pm that night when I'd crash, badly, and wake up fine the next morning.

Do NOT do this at home. Honestly, some days I'm amazed I'm still alive and in good health. And I look back now and wonder how, so hyped up on caffeine and sugar and chocolate, that I could possibly not have been a danger to myself and others, especially since the vehicle I was driving back then was a rather ancient Ford Pinto. I'd also like to point out that I tried this once in grad school in my late 20s. It didn't work. All I did was make myself incredibly sick and I fell asleep anyhow. One of the benefits to the wisdom and stamina that purportedly comes with age is that I can often soldier through the sleep deprivation for the period of time I need to do so (especially when it's less than a day or two), recognize if I'm getting loopy, and take steps to counteract that or at least reduce the visible evidence of loopiness. Massive preparation is going to be the key to that one, here, and I'll be doing that massive preparation.

But I'll confess. I'm still a little worried about that Thursday night. See, at least 2 of our Portland colleagues have offered me crash space and in order to make this a true test of the costs, I had hoped to take one of them up on it. But really, I'm not sure that can happen. Because not only am I going to be exhausted, but I'd assumed that I was going to be taking a lot of homework home from the workshop from attendees that I could hand back to them the next day as feedback. So sleep-deprived me plus tons of homework plus really cool Portland colleagues who are so much fun I'm not going to be inclined to either sleep or review homework and that just looks like a recipe for disaster, not so dissimilar to the Coke/Oreos combination.

I'd thought about taking this to a survey to see what the readership thought: go for the crash space or just buy a hotel room for that night, but then I remembered. See, I only got about 4 hours sleep last night. I'm thinking the whole democracy thing might just be a product of sleep deprivation and one of those cues that I'm probably now not entirely in my right mind. So I guess I'll wait on that decision til I've caught up on some sleep. Which won't be for the next couple of weeks since I'm about to head out for a family visit and then SAA and if there's a place more likely than SAA for me to end up talking shop with colleagues til the wee hours, I haven't yet found it.

Knowing what my dance card looks like for the next few weeks? It's a very good thing I can sleep on planes. It may be the only sleep I get.  Good thing I don't have a job interview coming up.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Don't buy the cow

A while back I proposed an archival replacement for WTF. In this case, WTS for "What the Schellenberg?" (I also propose OMP for Oh My Posner.)

I had one of those WTS moments when I made the mistake of reading my work email on a weekend and found myself the recipient of a very nice note from a former potential donor.

This donor had some papers from an individual at the center of a fairly well known event in this state. And we'd been conversing, casually, about the option of her giving those materials to my institution so we could make them available for research. In the email, the donor let me know that she'd been on the verge of giving them to us, when another institution offered to buy them from her. And so the materials were going there instead.

Don't get me wrong here. All I really care about is that the materials have a home where they'll be accessible. It doesn't have to be us, it just needed to be somewhere, preferably in-state, which it is, so I'm happy with that piece of the outcome. And there were some related materials to the collection that we weren't able to take in, so extenuating circumstances, perhaps.

But WTS? Perhaps my dream of a collaborative professional relationship with fellow repositories in the state was always too Pollyanna, but really? I get that some archival institutions have more money than Allen or Gates but in this case, offering money for a collection that the donor was willing to give away, you have to admit that looks a bit like deliberate undercutting. I'm not convinced that was the intent, I really want to believe that wasn't the intent.

But that aside, I'm going to take my opportunity to get on one of my soapboxes here. Look, I don't have an acquisitions budget for archival materials. I occasionally reimburse shipping costs, but that's about it. Aside from the fact that I probably wouldn't get an acquisitions budget even if I asked for one, I've been convinced for a very long time that purchasing archival collections teeters very close to--if not over--the edge of unethical behavior for my institution. Not because people shouldn't be recompensed for their work or that a price can't be placed on materials such as this, but in light of everything else we do. Either you should pay for all of it, or pay for none of it. And if you're paying for it, perhaps you should reconsider asking for donor funding to care for it.

This past year, our institution was given a fairly sizable cash donation for the work we need to do to make one of our collections readily accessible. I'll be seeking matching grant funding to allow us to hire somebody to do that work over the course of a few years. The care and feeding of archival collections isn't free.  In this case, the donor gave us the records and then turned around and gave us money to do our piece of it. How--HOW???--can we possibly justify, in light of requesting money to make collections accessible, paying another person for a collection itself when we'll still have all the resulting costs of preservation/description/storage/access to follow? Is the message we want to give our generous and giving donor that we value her collection less, that she must pay for it to be accessible when we're willing to cover all those costs and more for other collections?

I don't want an acquisitions budget at this institution for these very reasons. I like the fact that some of our donors are willing to support long-term access to their papers by assisting us in our work. I don't like sending mixed messages to donors who are kind enough to support us in a variety of ways. Yes, I understand that the outcome will occasionally be materials going to other institutions who will pay for them. That's their deal, their choice. I'm not crazy enough to think that this means that eventually all collections will go on a marketplace instead of being gifted to institutions, it's not that slippery of a slope (I hope), but I do wonder about the other ramifications. Like an increase in competition between institutions, like the possibility that the acquisition cost of a collection could start to outweigh our other appraisal considerations, like the reduction in our ability to spend our budgets on caring for and providing access to the collections when the economy tanks...

So that's the heart of my argument. Not all of it, but a lot. Good news for those of you still purchasing Alaskana items: you won't be getting any competition from me.

And P.S. to the dealer who wrote me last week offering some small Alaskana manuscript items and wrote that he was hoping that maybe the economic climate in Alaska was better since his clientele in California and elsewhere had cut down on their buying: when I wrote back and said "we don't buy collections?" This was part of what was going through my head. And by the way, a good sales pitch to this archivist doesn't usually involve telling her she's way down on your list. You want me to pay $750 for a small album of about 30 photos? Don't tell me a bunch of other people have already turned you down. Okay, so I wouldn't have bought anything anyway, but if I liked that sort of treatment, I'd go back to junior high prom. OMP.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Born of frustration, a call to action

A few weeks back, Renna Tuten sent out the annual call for volunteers to work the Career Center at SAA. A point of clarification: this year it's known as the Networking Cafe and encompasses more than just the traditional Career Center functions. (Nice job there, all. Excellent idea.)

At any rate, I always get a kick out of volunteering for this so I semi-promptly sent my dates and times of availability off to Renna. And in response, I received a very kind email back from her, thanking me for volunteering because, as she phrased it: "I'm really excited that you'll be able to be there and lend your expertise - since you are the expert!"

Whoa. I wouldn't be human if I weren't complimented by that. I wouldn't be Attila if I didn't wonder if that were boilerplate language used in every thank you she wrote. But since I am Attila, and decidedly human, I also got to thinking about it. Me? Expert? How does one gain a title like that?

Well, duh, you write a blog. A single topic blog with postings 3+ times weekly for several months. That's how you get a title like that. Whether or not that's fair.

Expert? Sure I'm an expert. If by that you mean somebody who finally got frustrated enough to say something.

You know what? I'm not kidding about that. There's a lot of people out there that have conducted a lot of archival recruitments. A lot of them were kind enough to share their thoughts with me as I worked on the blog. A lot of people have worked on various projects to make jobhunting advice and ideas available to archivists. If you're looking for some of those, switch over to Elusive Archives Job and look around the site. There's some links there that will give you a start.

When I started working on the project? I was pretty burned out on professional involvement. I'd had a few bad experiences in a row with archival association committees or events and simply decided that I needed to go on hiatus.  What I went on was another recruitment. With about 86 applicants. And was reminded of all the things that had annoyed me about so many of the applications I'd received in the previous recruitments. Those who called my institution the University of Alabama Anchorage. The applicants who told me they'd be calling me the following week to check up on the status of their application (and to date I've only ever received one of those calls, and was able to tell them nothing anyway.) The applicants who addressed me as Mrs. Schmuland. The applicants who dedicated 3/4 of their resume space to experience that I wasn't seeking and didn't dedicate 3/4 of their cover letter to explaining why it related to the job we had on offer. The ones who probably were really qualified candidates otherwise, but in their attention to detail failed to mention one of the little skill sets that we listed as a requirement.

Hours, and hours, and hours of reading applications. Closely, thoroughly, occasionally multiple times because how could such an otherwise qualified candidate not know something about running a scanner but somehow they'd failed to mention it... Setting score levels for the various KSAs (this much experience is worth this much, that much is worth that much), adding up totals, reading the applications from people who were apparently applying for architectural work and who had clicked on the wrong job title link to submit their materials.

Some really good candidates submitted really good applications. Some didn't. And I was left wondering why. Why apply for a job and do a bad job of it unless you weren't all that interested in it? And if you weren't interested in it, why were you wasting your time and mine? Or maybe, just maybe, some of the applicants didn't know any better. Maybe not enough training was happening.

Here's an Attila trait. If I'm feeling a certain way, I tend to assume I'm not alone. I tend to assume that a lot of other people feel that way too. I wish I would have figured that out a little earlier in life--say in junior high when we all hated ourselves and thought everybody else was more popular and so forth--but I know it now. So I sent out a call and got tons of responses from other friends and colleagues who were indeed feeling the same way.

At any rate, I'm getting a little off track. Here's the sum of it all: bad applications from good archivists drive archival recruiters nuts and drive good archivists out of the profession when they can't get jobs. This may always be the case, but maybe, just maybe, it doesn't have to happen for everyone anymore. Maybe, just maybe, I can get a better return on applications, a proficiency rate that doesn't force me to cull over half the apps in the first go-round due to missing requirements or badly written documents.  So I spoke up and as a result, got at least one person calling me an expert. And a bad case of professional burnout wound me up in a place where I was getting involved in the profession again.

Am I an expert? Or just the one who spent the most time writing on the topic for public consumption? That's not for me to decide. But what I do know is there's a bunch of other experts out there who year after year after year staff the Career Center/Networking Cafe and make their expertise available on a one-on-one basis to people who want some advice.  I'm betting a bunch of them don't regard themselves as experts either. I'm betting some of them just want to make sure that the people who need some help can get it.

So here's my call to action: are you attending SAA this year? Have you conducted an archival recruitment? Please volunteer at the Networking Cafe, even if it's only an hour. Renna is pretty easy to find online and I'm betting she'd love to get you on the schedule. After all, the frustration you save may be your own.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Put on your glad rags

1998 was the first time I attended a SAA conference. Held in Orlando, the conference organizers did a great deal of work to convince attendees to dress down. You know, casual. Befitting the venue, I suppose.

It's now 13 years later. And I have a proposition for all of you. See, I don't know what it was like before Orlando. For all I know, there was no actual change in what the average archivist wore to one of these things. But a few years ago at one of the receptions I was looking around and just observing archivists in their natural habitat (museums, apparently, with lots of alcohol available) and I realized that the best-dressed people in the room were all the international attendees. Some of the 20-early 30-something domestic archivists had some style going too. But for the most part, casual ruled the day. 

I don't want to change that. Heaven knows, enough of us can't afford much in the way of fancy raiment given the average wage of the average archivist and what conferences cost these days. But wouldn't it be fun--even a little--to see if a few of us could take it up a few notches? Maybe see if we could give some of the international types a little competition? 

So this is my proposal. The Friday evening All-Attendees Reception. It's at the Field Museum this year. Let's make Sue feel a little dowdy, shall we?  I've got just the right floor length black chiffon skirt & I'm betting a bunch of you have more stylin' duds hanging out in your closet too once you dig beyond the boxes of white athletic socks. Bring it on. 

Who's with me?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Dear Auntie Attila

Okay, it's time. Well, it's long overdue.

What could the archival world possibly need more than an advice column?

Don't answer that because I'm starting one anyhow. Have a question, your own, somebody else's, whatever that's been burning a hole in your brain? Need a non-legally-binding opinion on how to handle whatever that situation is that you've been enveloped in? Thinking that archivist talking to the vendor in the exhibits hall is kind of cute and want to know what a great opening line would be?

Here's the deal. Email it to me. Give me a redacted version (at least) with any identifying details you'd don't want public left out of it. You can give me the whole version too, if you like, I am a nice Auntie after all who is very interested in your life, but make sure you've provided at least one version I can go public with.  That way you don't have to worry about Auntie inadvertently releasing some sort of identifying information that she doesn't recognize as identifying.

Here's the other part of the deal. I'm going to be tapping some of my network of colleagues and friends for answers since I'm also a smart Auntie who knows far too well she doesn't know everything. You might well be wondering "but how on earth could Auntie Attila possibly have any thoughts about my problem?" You might well be right, but I'm betting I'll be able to find somebody who does. And even if I do have some opinions, I'll probably still be tapping that network to get a broader answer.

So let's hear from you. The confused, the annoyed, the lovelorn. Little questions or big, same low price. Nothing but an email.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The birthday thing

Everybody else seems to be far more interested in celebrating my birthday than I am.

I will freely admit I’m a bit of a nut in several ways. I tend not to like things that absolutely everybody else likes. Parades, apple pie, professional baseball games, Disney, and what is probably heresy for an archivist, touring archives or historical museums. In that last case, they’re either kind of tedious—I see this stuff every day—or if they’re really spectacular facilities, I just get jealous. Who needs it?

But I digress. (Surprised?)

Here’s the thing about my birthday. Any more, it isn’t so much my birthday as a personal memorial day. See, it isn’t just my birthday. It was my Uncle Stan’s birthday too. Periodically on that day one of us would call the other, say “Happy Birthday,” to receive the responding “Happy Birthday,” and then both of us would start giggling. Goofy, I know, but it was our little tradition.

Uncle Stan died 17 years ago, and I must say, I miss that dorky tradition dearly.

One of my favorite Uncle Stan stories is about the night I was born. As my Aunt Dorothy tells it, Stan was a pretty heavy sleeper. Didn’t wake up very easily. So when the phone rang, either really late at night or really early in the morning, I never quite caught which, Stan stumbled out of bed to get it. All Aunt D heard him say was: “A baby? That’s nice.” And then he hung up the phone and went back to sleep.

Well, Aunt D was rather perturbed, as you might expect. See, there weren’t any known babies all that imminent as I wasn’t technically due for another six weeks. And this was in the days when long distance actually cost real money and my mom has never been good about using it, so I’m pretty sure she wasn’t aware Mom, her older sister, had gone into labor. So she shook him awake and said “Who had a baby?” To which he mumbled something about “what baby?” and went back to sleep.  Leaving her to stew for what was left of the night, not wanting to wake anybody else up by tracking down the source of the call.

Well, in the morning he disclaimed any knowledge of any such conversation and only after a few phone calls did Aunt D track down the story.

My other favorite Uncle Stan moment was back when I was about 13 or 14. Typical emotional, touchy teen. On a road trip vacation with the parents (three decades later, my brother still refers to those cross-country trips as hell trips) and resenting it like crazy. We were at Stan & Dorothy’s house without much planned, I’m pretty sure their daughters—both about my age—were both gone, and I was bored and attitudinal. So I was hanging around in the front yard, probably glaring at anybody dumb enough to walk by me, not that there were all that many people doing that since they were all hanging out in the back yard on the deck overlooking the lake. Uncle Stan took one look at me and said “Come on Attila, you need to help me go pick up soda for dinner.”

In retrospect, I’m pretty sure they weren’t in need of soda. Their garage always seemed to be packed to the rafters with 12-packs (sorry Aunt D, that’s probably TMI but it’s how my brain recalls it). But it was a bit of a ride to the grocery store and for all I know, Stan needed a break from all the family too. At any rate, we went into the store, he picked out two to three more 12-packs, and I realized he wasn’t kidding about my helping. He paid for the soda and walked away from the counter, leaving me to carry all of them.

So there I am, balancing these boxes of soda cans, heading out of the store. But here’s the thing. Remember those old grocery store automatic doors where you stood on the pad in front of the door to open it? This grocery store, for whatever infernal reason, had set them up so the exit was to the left, instead of to the right like any other normal store. And okay, I was in teen lala land as I try to exit to the right. So I’m standing there, not really thinking, waiting for the door to open, and it isn’t opening. Hasn’t even really crossed my mind yet that there’s a problem here when I hear this knock on the window to my right. I look over, there’s Uncle Stan outside holding his hands up in the air in the classic “What on earth?” pose.

Early teens are touchy, really really touchy. And embarrassment is something most don’t handle very well, and I was no exception. But when I exited the store to find Uncle Stan standing in the driveway in front of the store, doubled over laughing at me, I honestly didn’t get upset. I had a flash of what this must have looked like to him and started laughing too. We loaded the soda in the car, did the 45 minute drive home talking all the way, I don’t remember what about, and that was that.

That was the first time I really recall my (now well-developed) sense of the absurd kicking in.

So Uncle Stan, happy birthday. As I type this, I can hear you saying it back. I’m not quite at giggling point yet, but I’ll get there eventually. I do miss you. And that sense of the absurd? Probably the best birthday gift I ever got. Thanks.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

a [tough] love letter to a researcher

Dear Dr. X (PhD, Ret):

A few months back when we met at that lecture, after some desultory small talk, you asked me if we had anything on topic Y. I  mentioned a few collections, suggested some other agencies, to which you responded "well, just send me an email with a list."

If I've got a fault, it's in that I'm not always as quick as I'd like to be, verbally. Okay, I've got lots of faults, but this is the one that came into play that evening. So from the perspective of a few months, here goes.

You haven't received that email from me. You're not going to receive that email from me. I'm still not entirely sure you weren't kidding.

Here's the thing. For many years, you've taught many students how to do history and how to do research in history. I work at an academic institution. My job is to teach, too. If one of your students came in, I wouldn't just hand them a list of things to look at. I'd maybe tell them about a few to help them get on their feet, research-wise, but I'd spend most of my teaching time with the student working on getting them to understand how to identify archival sources that relate to their topic. Plus all those other skills like evaluating the reliability and authority of the sources they find.

There's a scary archival myth out there, to which some students fall prey. And that's the myth of the omniscient archivist. If there is such a creature, I've not yet met that person. I've met a few researchers who think they've met one, and heard their stories, and wondered at such a belief that even witnessed third-hand appears to have holes in it through which you could drive a handtruck loaded with cubic foot boxes. I have some knowledge of our collections, but students will probably need to rely on archival materials outside my collections, on which I'm decidedly not informed. Plus, of course, the sheer volume of materials to which we provide access: even if I had the time to read every page and look at every photograph and view every moving image and listen to every audiotape in our holdings, I don't have an eidetic memory. If people with eidetic memories exist, I suspect their occurrence rates in the general population is relatively low. So the chances that a student will find an archivist with an eidetic memory who has looked at every single document in their collection? I'm thinking the odds are pretty low.

But truly? Whether or not I'm an omniscient archivist is irrelevant, if I'm really doing my job as an archivist in a teaching institution. Our goal here is--I hope--to provide students with the skill sets to do good, solid research on a topic. Skills that will allow them to locate the information they need no matter what, no matter where, no matter why, no matter who. Collection inventories or no collection inventories, online resources or not, with assistance of knowledgeable archivists and librarians or without.

To take a different angle on it, I read somewhere once that there's a researcher's gift. And that's some sort of unique ability when going through a ton of material skimming at high speed, to have your research topic or keywords more or less jump off the page at you. I've generally found that true when working on my own research topics. But see, your topic is not my topic. I have no real passion for it. I'm not the one who is going to be putting all the evidence together, telling the story. Guess what? Those words probably aren't going to jump off the pages at me.

And Dr. X (PhD, Ret.), not to belabor the point, but you're both a PhD and Retired. If anybody should have the expertise and time to do his or her own research in a most efficient manner, you would be one of the first people I'd identify. And you're a Name in your field. Why would you rely on the unproven skills of someone you barely know on the research for a topic for which you're probably seeking publication? It's not that I'm a bad researcher, I'm not, but you have no way of knowing my skill level and whether or not it is reliable enough on which to stake your own professional reputation.

I also read somewhere once that there's a serendipity at work in archival research. That very often you start it with the intent to document or prove one thing, but as you go through archives, often what you find is something else. Something more interesting, something more important than whatever your original topic was. The author in question was using this concept to argue against the idea of item-level description, but I also think it applies in this case. If I were to identify some materials of use to you, what incredible, ground-breaking potential question or topic might you miss simply because you relied solely on what I provided in response to your relatively short description of your topic? 

So Dr. X (PhD, Ret.), I have an offer for you. Being an equitable access provider is something of a passion for me. If you'd like to come in and have the same conversation with me that I would have with one of your former students, I'd love to do that. I could offer a few suggestions, teach you to search our finding aids, teach you how to formulate your search terms and queries, and help you get going on how you might identify and locate archival resources on your topic, whether in our holdings or elsewhere. I hope you'll find it a productive and helpful experience.

I look forward to seeing you soon.


P.S. You may have noted that I didn't cite the sources for those "I read it somewhere" comments I made in the body of this missive. That's because I don't remember off-hand what book or books those were, other than it is or they are somewhere in my list of about 500 novels with archival content. Despite the topic being one of my own research interests. Point taken?

Friday, June 10, 2011

How old was that again?

I've been thinking a lot about age lately.

I suppose it really started a couple of years ago when I was reading a journal article and the clearly 20-something authors grouped archivists into a variety of age categories and I had the unpleasant realization that not only was I in the "middle-aged" group, but I'd been there for several years already, unknowingly. I continue to deny this description on the grounds that I come from a long-lived family (late 80s and 90s, generally) but the truth is, when I was 20-something, I probably considered my current year count middle-aged too. And being classified middle-aged was still better than their terminology for the over-55-crowd, which if I remember right, was elderly.  Thank heavens I've got a ways to go on that. I won't mind being over 55, but I think I'm going to have to mind being classified elderly when I get there.

I know this sounds like the beginning of the middle-aged woman's rant on aging, but it's not. Really. I was hoping to go somewhere else with this. Not just as some sort of ego trip, but more for all those friends of mine who have been bemoaning their ages to me of late. 47, 50, 56, whatever (I tend not to remember other people's ages, only my own).  I don't think I have a profound answer for you, but I think I can offer some perspective.  Let's see if I get there. And let me take a stab at that by telling you about something that happened today.

I had a pending project for when we get some student labor to help out and today was the day. It was basically re-boxing and re-foldering a collection for which I'd rewritten the inventory, which was item level, by the way. Some light proof-reading of dates and such, and entering box and folder numbers into the guide too. So when our student arrived and I was showing her the project, I opened up the first folder and started to explain what I needed her to do.

I was a couple steps into my spiel when I realized I didn't exactly have her full attention. This is really unusual for our student workers, who tend to really love the brief times they get to spend with us (I think the general refrain is "it's better than shelf-reading") and who tend to want to be on the list of students who get to spend time working for us. This student in particular. So I looked over at her and realized that her eyes were about as wide open as I'd ever seen.  And she was staring at the document laying in the folder open in my hands.

It took her a few seconds to notice I'd stopped talking and then the first thing out of her mouth was: "is that a copy?" Odd question, I thought, so I just kind of drawled out "No..." as I waited for the next piece.

Turns out that while I was trying to figure out what she was getting at, she was doing the math in her head. And figuring out that the hand-written letter I was showing her was approximately 153 years old. And this student, who tackles just about any job we give her with aplomb, was stopped in her tracks by this old letter.  Even maybe a little scared to be handling the collection.

I'm used to people saying "oh, cool" when you show them something old in an archival or rare books collection, but it was her follow-up question that stopped me in my tracks. It's not a totally surprising question, I just think it was the first time I'd ever been asked it when somebody was so clearly taken with the age of a document. She said "How much longer will it last?"

Good question. To which I had, and have, no answer. The rule of thumb, of course, is that permanent is about 200 years. But in this case, I suspect that might be on the lower end of the life expectancy for this document. At 153, it's still in pretty good shape. Doesn't get handled a lot, lives in a comfortable space, protected from light, so maybe it's got a while to go.

At a loss for a good answer, I gave her a reasonable one--at least reasonable by my admittedly limited evaluation--and said "oh, probably another 100 years at least."  Interestingly enough, that totally relaxed her. I guess she decided that the refoldering work she was helping to ensure that the documents would last that long so the importance of the task outweighed the scary "I could damage this" feeling.

At any rate, the whole conversation was turning over in my head for the rest of the day. And what I realized was that this student's question more or less paralleled some of the thinking I've been doing about aging. The thing is, on a daily basis, I tend to think about age in terms of has been, not what is to be. I'm not saying I want to start calculating my age in terms of "T minus N where N is an as yet undetermined variable." But maybe I could let go of the specific digits a little. And start thinking a little less about the existing wear and tear and more about what I'm going to be capable of in future.

Apparently, I need to remember my archival appraisal techniques. Age is more about context and authority and reliability, not so much a defining criteria in and of itself. So maybe I can concentrate on content instead. And what is ahead.

I don't want to be 20-something again. I wasn't all that bright back then. I may not be all that bright now, but at least I have some experience to fill in some of the gaps. I'm finally figuring out some of those important concepts, like which battles are important to fight and which you need to let go, that pride and embarrassment are often bad criteria in decision-making, and that it's okay not to always have the answers. I won't say I'm very good at living those concepts, but I'm getting better at them. And if the current pattern holds, I'll only get better.

Yes, I have a birthday coming up soon. No, that's not why I've been dwelling on this. Truly, it's been generated by my worried friends. All my sweet, funny, smart, and yes, sexy, friends. It's not about the number, my loves, you're more, far more than that. Let go of the 47, 50, 56. Let's start looking at what is to come.

What's ahead? Good times, all, good times.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Build to last, not to suit

First thing I have to admit: I own both Archival and Special Collections Facilities and Planning New and Remodeled Archival Facilities* (what would the profession do without Thomas Wilsted?) but haven't read either of them all the way through. Both, I've read the majority of, just not all.

*not sure those links are going to work. SAA demands you log into the website before perusing the bookstore. I'm sure there's a good reason for that, but it continues to escape me. And annoy me--like I need to remember yet another log in and password...

I've been discussing various facilities issues with a lot of people lately. We have some problems, some of which are basically insurmountable, some of which might be treatable.

But one of the fun parts, and it leads to the conclusion that I'm about to tell you, is the near-constant refrain of "but why didn't this get caught in the planning process?" There's always a little implied blame in that statement which isn't fair. Because, of course, lots did get caught in the planning process. I shocked one of my colleagues into an almost explosive and deafening belly laugh earlier this week when I told him about one of the victories my predecessor won in the planning process. See, the outside wall of the library is curvy. Pretty, but curvy.  And what I'm told the original intent was that our archival stacks wall nearest all this beautiful glass was originally intended to mimic the shape of that glass wall. That is, curvy. Yeah, because we all know that's an excellent shape for storage of rectangular boxes and long lines of shelving. So that we ended up with non-curvilinear stacks walls? Pretty much a win for efficiency on my predecessor's part. So basically, lighten up on the blame a little. 

But here's what I think. The curvy wall thing doesn't really forward my thesis, since that's more or less immediately obvious, but I think that some facilities issues you can only know because you've been a place that did them wrong. And as much as some of those things annoy us, there's tons more that we'll probably get wrong in future in other building projects, because this place didn't do them wrong, so we don't know enough to learn from past mistakes. And a lot of them, you can only learn after you've been in a space a while and have stretched it to capacity, thereby learning about that capacity.

So for your facilities edification, here's a beginning list of guidelines for facilities based on that most expensive of teaching aids: experience. From a variety of institutions in which I've worked or stories I've heard about others. Please feel free to add! You can either email your suggestions to me, or just put them down in the comments section. 

  • Outlets for any equipment that might output heat should not be placed directly under thermostats. In fact, just skip outlets under thermostats at all.
  • Excepting the above, put in far more outlets than you think you need, even in rooms that are intended to hold only storage items.
  • If certain doors are intended to be kept open: the heating/cooling systems on either side should work together.
  • Don't place security cameras directly above shelving units: they tend not to pick anything up but the tops of the stacks. 
  • When the magic words "temperature and humidity control" are used, be sure that the people using those terms understand that they should make no assumptions about "it's a dry climate" or "it's only a problem in the shoulder season" or so forth. Temp & humidity control should mean ability to add AND subtract both. At all times.
  • Your 10-year growth plan is probably insufficient. Consider building for 25 years and just lying and saying it's 10. Because you never know what enormous collection is going to walk in the door next and your original 10 year plan is probably realistically only 5. Plus all of us know the likelihood of getting a new building every 10 years anyhow.
  • If you have PA systems, small, enclosed rooms with lowered ceilings do not need the same population density of speakers as the large open spaces.
  • It's hard to have an open door policy when an office door is built to close automatically.
  • If you're in a public facility, have at least one enclosed, non-monitored, and windowless space. Good for quick wardrobe repairs and more importantly, for the ease of lactating mothers. 
  • Install the compact shelving in the first place. Aside from the delayed expense that is almost never planned into later budgets, replacing your shelving with compact shelving when you're already at 90%+ capacity is a giant pain for all concerned.
  • Secondary doors that need a latch to open them? That latch shouldn't be placed at the top (i.e. so only the 6'+ guys can reach them easily.)
  • Put windows in all public doors so people opening them don't run them into people standing on the opposite side. 
  • Put auto-open buttons on your reading room doors for handicap access.
  • The view to passers-by through any open public restroom door should not include any bathroom furniture or equipment.
  • Double up on the security cams in your reading room--you never know what the final furniture conformation will be (if there is, indeed, ever a final.)
  • Build in alternate exit routes.
  • Avoid strobe lights on alarms. They're migraine and seizure triggers for a lot of people.
  • Sit in a chair for at least 6 hours before purchasing that model for use at your researcher tables.
Okay, so that's a start. I'm sure I've forgotten a few that I know. Do you have any? Let's hear them.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A love letter to a researcher and friend

My dear friend:

For some time now, we've been having a friendly discussion over archival use rules. More specifically, you've been angry at the way you were treated at another archives and have told me about it at length. I'm willing to consider it a discussion. I understand you found it insulting to your reputation as a degreed and experienced historian to listen to a reference archivist lecture you on the no pencils, no rearranging things, no food and drink, must wear white gloves, and so forth. Of course you already know this. Of course you shouldn't be treated as a know-nothing small child who must constantly be reminded of the rules.

I need to confess something to you. When you were in the other day? And witnessed one of my archivists having to gently remind another researcher, a professional researcher, of the rules she was attempting to break despite not only having been told them but having signed the same use rules document that you signed? It's small of me, I know, but I took great pleasure in the fact that you were able, finally, to see why we archivists make degreed and experienced researchers sit through those interminable lectures, sign those use agreements, over, and over again. As you noted at the time and in doing so made my heart do a little pitter-pat: "it's people like her that ruin it for the rest of us."

It is, of course, and here's what I haven't yet said to you. In my experience, it's often the professional researcher that needs the reminding over the student or neophyte researcher. Most of the young or rookie researchers are so intimidated by our rules and regs and having to sign documents agreeing to behave in a certain way, that they don't tend to try and break those rules and regs and when they do, it often it is out of their unfamiliarity with the process or their inability to process the large volume of instructions they've received all in one go for the very first time. What are we left to blame it on when an experienced researcher challenges the standards so?

So can I beg an exchange of gifts? If you'll try to be forgiving of the occasional archivist that seems to dwell too deeply in that culture of despair that assumes that professional researchers will break the rules, I'll try myself to continue to give the practiced researchers the benefit of the doubt and not assume that it is simple contrariness that leads them to contravene our policies. Perhaps you, setting the professional and proper standard you do, will help bring some of those poor archivists up out of that slough of despond occasionally. As I, setting a helpful and courteous tone, may remind our wonderful and compliant researchers that I do respect their credentials and experience and value their time with us.

And if you ever meet up with that researcher who once told us that every time he goes to a new archives he tries to convince the archivists that he knows nothing about research so they'll do his work for him? Well, I have a favor to ask on that score. Several favors, really. I'm sure I'll be able to pay them back, someday.

Your fellow soldier in the good fight,
Attila the Archivist

Sunday, May 22, 2011

once more, with feeling

I'm going to explain this once, at length, and then I hope never to have to explain it again.

The shoes thing.

I've taken a lot of grief over the years about my shoes. I'll probably continue to take a lot of grief over the years about my shoes. I have no doubt that I'm going to sound cranky at times in the following. I'm not so much cranky as just tired of having to explain myself. I'm not mad at y'all, I'm not asking for apologies, I'm just asking for a few of you to let up a little. Here goes.

To the fellow archivists who doubted my wisdom and/or sanity at the Pittsburgh SAA when I wore forest green suede high heeled pumps on a rainy walking tour of Falling Water.  I'll never regret it, because over those shoes I struck up what was to become a long friendship with Jodi Allison-Bunnell. But here's the background story. It was my second SAA, ever. I had attempted to sign up for the tour earlier, to be told it was sold out. When I arrived at the registration desk that morning, all dressed up in my professional clothes for a day of professional networking, I ran into Rand Jimerson who knew of my interest in the tour and told me that they'd chartered an extra bus and I could go if I wanted, only I had to leave NOW. No chance to run back up to the room and change. My preference would not have been to wear green suede spike-heeled pumps over what was a quarter mile hike across a mud road to the house and without a coat, but my only other choice was to miss the tour altogether and I'm not sorry I went. It was a great tour and besides, I netted Jodi A-B.

To the fellow archivist who, when we met up after I'd spent a vacation day shopping, said to me: "you bought 4 pairs of shoes in one day? I haven't bought 4 pairs of shoes in the last 4 years." This wasn't exactly a spree of criminal proportion.  One was a pair of winter boots of the type which I find it nearly impossible to find (more on that in a bit) and one was a pair of sneakers which I wear nearly every day when I work out on my elliptical and which replaced a much-beloved, much-worn 12 year-old pair of Avia sneaks that were no longer up to the task. And all checked in at together at less than $60, a heckuva sale. Frankly, your admission that you don't regularly replace your shoes--and I know you work out very regularly--should not be anything to be bragged over. How can your geezer shoes possibly be doing your feet any favors with all that athletic activity?

To the people who keep giving me shoe-related items: I appreciate the thought, really, I do, but please stop. What I need you to understand is that I have no interest in shoe earrings, shoe soap, shoe bottles, shoe calendars, shoe holiday ornaments, shoe spatulas, shoe bottle openers, shoe artwork, shoe shower curtains, shoe figurines, and anything that resembles a shoe that can't actually be worn as a shoe. On my feet. For several hours a day.

To the colleagues and friends, now and in every job I've ever had, who when I wear flats for over 2 days in a row make the point of saying something about it to me or who insist on introducing me to new co-workers or professional colleagues or who-have-you by drawing attention to my shoes: your interest in my footwear is far more obsessive and fetishistic than mine. (I'm far too tired to go look up if fetishistic is a word, sorry.) I wear what I feel like wearing, what matches what I've got on, what works for that day, what was sitting closest to the front door as I was running out it. I really, truly, don't spend much time thinking about it. If you really want to obsess about my footwear? My full permission, only please, leave me out of it?

To all the shoe manufacturers who think it's amusing to put flat, smooth soles or open toes on winter boots: you should be ashamed of yourselves.

To those of you who worry about me shortening my Achilles tendon by wearing heels all the time: thank you, but your concern is unnecessary. I spend most of my home life barefoot. I also spend a great deal of my leisure time in tennies. I own--and need--several pairs of hiking boots for my summer berry-picking and other wanderings in the semi-wilds of Alaska. Those tendons are in great shape. Trust me, if my doc could figure out a health reason to get me to stop wearing heels, she would. Same thing for bunions, corns, hammer toes. Not a problem here.

And now that I've alienated at least half my colleagues, co-workers, and friends, here's the explanation. It's relatively simple.

I have a motor memory and coordination deficiency. If you ever want to see any member of my immediate family burst into uncontrollable frenzies of laughter, just use the phrase "It's like learning to ride a bike." My big brother is particularly susceptible to that one, since he's the guy who had to teach me both times as a child. Every spring, the first bike ride is still a bit of a challenge. I've learned how to swim 4 times. I cannot swim now. My mother who taught knitting to all sorts of strangers and friends for years, tried to teach me how to knit at least 3 times. I can't knit. I had to learn how to drive a stick shift twice, though the first time was in a 1973 Beetle, so that may not count. All of you who learn to do some sort of physical behavior and hit a point where you can do it more-or-less involuntarily? Not me. I mostly have to think about all of it. About the only thing I've ever managed to get to that point on is driving a stick.

So how does that translate to wearing high heels? My very conservative mother (I couldn't get my ears pierced til 16, had to wear a dress to school at least twice a week through all of elementary and junior high, couldn't go to movies, couldn't go dancing, etc) struggled with my lack of coordination for years. She took victories when she could find them. And so when one Sunday before church the fifth-grade me put on the Nordstrom's plain black pumps she'd put out for herself to wear that day and walked around the living room in them, the most expensive pair of shoes she'd ever bought for herself and given inflationary rates probably still the most expensive pair of shoes she's ever bought for herself, she let me wear them. That Sunday, and for many Sundays to come. And also went out and bought me some more age-appropriate and inexpensive heels of my own.

So I started early with heels and wore them regularly. In other words, years of experience and training.

And my best heel height is between 2.5" and 4". I can do a 4.5 if it's built exactly right (which most shoes--of all heights--are not) but anything above that, I can't do.

Why do I mention the heel height thing? I not only have a motor memory and coordination problem, I also forget that I have a motor memory and coordination problem. When I wear heels in the proper height range? I don't forget. I become very careful about how I walk. When I wear flats or low heels, I tend to forget. I tend to treat them like I'm barefoot. I've seriously sprained an ankle twice in my life: the first time I was wearing sneakers (was walking sideways down some steps, missed the edge, and ankle touched the step below while foot was still on the edge of the step above) and the second time I was wearing a pair of 1" kitten heels (freshly waxed tile, heel went out from underneath me, ankle again touched the ground while I remained upright.) Neither of those events would have happened in real heels since I would have been much more careful about my foot placement.  The most recent time I seriously injured my foot/ankle, I was pulling a flatbed handtruck loaded with 500+ lbs of records, walked in front of it, and ran the protruding front end of the flatbed into the back of my ankle/lower calf. I was wearing flats at the time. Had I been wearing heels? The cart would have collided with the upper part of the shoe's heel and probably broken it. My ankle would have been fine. But again, if I'd been wearing heels, I probably would have been thinking about what I was doing and never would have walked in front of the cart.

I don't wear uncomfortable heels. If my toes can't do at least 4 hours in them, they're not for me. I don't wear shoes that don't fit properly, that are too large or too small. I don't wear shoes constructed to put my weight on the balls of my feet because I walk heel-toe, all the time, and when I stand, my weight is on my heels and not the front end of my foot, which explains why I can't wear anything above 4.5 inches which at the heel height/foot length ratio would force me to put the weight forward.  If it has a pointy toe, my toes are at the widest part of the shoe box, not crammed down into that tip. The arch of the shoe has to bend with my foot as I walk, thus no wedges, platforms, or thick heels. I also tend to have several pairs around because swapping them out regularly also helps me avoid the rare repetitive stress injuries that could be caused by wearing the same pair of shoes for days on end. Are you getting the picture that I'm super picky and careful about my shoes and shoe-wearing? The winter boots that I purchase for everyday wear--on the rare occasions I can find them--have lug soles and spike heels. The soles provide the traction most of the time, and the heels work just like studded tires do for your car when you're trying to stop on a layer of snow or ice.

To illustrate the winter boots point: a few years ago I was in Fairbanks in November for a work meeting. They'd just had a thaw/freeze cycle, leaving the streets and sidewalks covered with a half-inch thick sheet of glare ice. Two wonderful colleagues and gentlemen, Bob Forshaw and Jim Simard, and I were walking from the university to Bob's house to pick up Bob's car so he could drive Jim and I to dinner and then to the airport. Bob and Jim were both wearing standard Alaskan winter boots. I was wearing a pair of spike-heeled lug-soled boots (they looked exactly like steel-toed construction work boots, if you can imagine those in lilac, with pointy toes, and a 4" stiletto heel). The guys were clearly worried about my walking ability under the circumstances, but after an initial foray into the topic, took my edged "I'll be fine" as a definitive hint to leave it alone and as the gentlemen they are, let the subject be. About 15 minutes into our 20 minute walk, Bob slid sideways on the ice--he didn't go down, but it was a near thing. Jim assisted him with his balance and then graciously offered me his arm. I smiled and declined. Ten steps later Jim went sideways. He didn't go down, but it was a near thing, and he almost took Bob out with him. Once he recovered, I smiled and offered him my arm. He took it and we walked safely the rest of the way to Bob's house.

So, believe me when I tell you I'm safer and more comfortable in the heels that I wear. The Pollyanna Arlene occasionally tries to convince herself that this focus others have on her shoes that results in anything but complimentary phrases is light and unintended jealousy. For those of you for whom that is true, please stop taking my foot attire as a criticism of your own: I realize that in this case, I am an original created by some very unusual circumstances of both nature and nurture, and what is right for me is not likely to be right for the vast majority of people around me. By wearing heels, I am not casting aspersions on your own choice of shoes. For the most part I try not to comment negatively on the footwear of those around me (even when they're in shoes I regard as being evidence of the decline and fall of civilization and no, I'm not going to tell you what brands those are since that would be mean-spirited. Not to mention that those shoe manufacturers have plenty of money to hire attorneys.)  It's also not vanity. I'll admit I like pretty or eye-catching shoes but comfort will always take precedence over looks for me. And I'm not being profligate. The most I've ever paid for a pair of shoes is just over $200 and that was a pair of dress black leather winter boots I bought this last winter that I fully expect will last me for many years to come, and most of the rest of my stash cost no more than $20-$30 (I'm good at finding sales).

To Erin, who recently said about me: "I've witnessed her walking on ice with more grace in a pair of heels than anyone in a pair of those ice grabber shoes. I was stunned at how effortless she is in heels in all I'm a believer." Erin, I love you. I also love your own taste in shoes and knowing that I could never walk in most of them is one of the few things keeping me from stealing them from you.

To Val who, about a year after I left my job at the Utah State Archives, called me up and told me he'd heard the click of high heels approaching the research center that day and was gravely disappointed when the woman who rounded the corner wasn't me and that he missed me, thank you. Sense-memory is an amazing thing, isn't it? I miss you too.

To my immediate family who, though they make every attempt to point out every deficiency they can find in me, still have never been rude about the shoe thing and who occasionally have encouraged it, thank you for that.

Related to that, to Joel, a beloved nephew who as a teen not only spent hours with me in a shoe store but managed to pick out shoes for me that still bring in compliments years later, your taste in shoes is impeccable and trust me when I tell you that this trait will serve you in very good stead with women all through your life.

To the guy walking across campus near me one snowy winter night last November who blurted out "Wow, you can really move in those!" That was very sweet. But please be careful: judging by the expression on her face, I think your wife was plotting to tackle me, rip my boots off, and beat you to death with them. And I suspect I might have been next in line for grievous bodily harm.

To Jenny, who met me over a pair of fantabulous shoes she was wearing back when we were both undergrads in the dim past: thank you for introducing me to some of the few men I know who really appreciate my footwear, your own innate and well-developed respect for heels, and your company on countless shoe-shopping expeditions. You've been one of my mainstays, one of the very few to whom I have never, ever had to explain this.

And for those men and women who are willing and able to compliment me on my shoes without any extra or hidden meanings, thank you. Glad I could brighten your day in so minor a way, even though I'm doing it not for you, but for me.

It's about comfort, it's about safety, it's about what works for me. So please, can we stop with the "I don't know how you do it," or "I'm just concerned about your health" or "are you sure you're going to be okay on this walk" or all those other statements that often start out with a sort-of compliment that morphs into an implied criticism of my footwear choices?

Really. I'm okay. I'll be fine. And if I do stumble, I'll smile at your "I told you so," knowing in my heart that it wasn't the shoes, it was the distraction of your company that kept me from paying close enough attention to how I was walking.

And if you need an arm for balance, let me know. I'll be glad to offer you one.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

the sense of humor thing

Or: why you should never play a practical joke on your professional association.

Thesis fundamental: Program Committees have their senses of humor surgically removed.

Conclusion: You end up with things on your CV that you would prefer, really, not to appear on your CV.

Evidentiary piece #1: A number of years ago, somebody called me up and asked if I'd be willing to participate in a session on digital projects for NWA's annual meeting, that year in Olympia, WA. Or something like that. I don't recall the exact sequence of events, but I must have written some of the session proposal because the session title was all my own work. Consortial digital projects? I thought it would be funny to propose a temporary title: Multiple partners, multiple audiences.

Imagine my dismay when the Program Committee accepted the proposal with no requested changes in title. I consoled myself with the thought that at least I'd been smart enough to suggest it as a paper session with me as one of the speakers instead of a panel discussion. Why? As presenter of a paper I actually had a paper title to go in my CV when I went up for tenure and did NOT have to include that terrible session title. Unlike my pal Anne Foster who did not present a paper but chaired the session, and who is either the most forgiving of women or who never picked up on the joke either. (If the latter is true: Anne, I swear I never meant this to happen. Though I notice you got tenure too in spite of it.)

Karmic note: some years later I was bemoaning evidentiary piece #1 while walking somewhere with Jodi Allison-Bunnell, a good friend, regular conference roommate, and no slouch in the thinking department, and she stopped dead on the street and said to me: "I was on that program committee. I never spotted the joke." And promptly looked appalled. At herself and not me, I hope, but I didn't have the courage to ask.

Evidentiary piece #2a: In 1998, at my very first SAA meeting ever, I was part of a session on archives & archivists in the movies & novels. That's another story and probably further evidence in support of my thesis here, but at any rate, the session participants were Frank Boles, Danna Bell-Russel, and Kathy Marquis. Pretty high-end company, myself excluded, to be doing what we were doing. Fast-forward to the SAA meeting in San Francisco in '08 when Danna and I were sitting in the lobby lounge of the Hilton and I said to her: "Wouldn't it be fun if the four of us could do another "lighter side of archives" session together?" We decided we couldn't do a reprise of '98 since somebody else was doing archives and the movies as a regular SAA event and doing it very well indeed.  We realized we needed to do something nobody else would ever consider doing. Our eventual brainstorming focus was: "What can't get published in American Archivist?"

Well, once we had that, the ideas started flying (mainly from me) and getting vetoed (mainly by Danna, who is frequently the good angel sitting on my shoulder telling me to shut up NOW.) I suggested archivists' shoes, Danna told me that was mean-spirited. I suggested "What's on Council's iPods?" and that didn't get a verbal response, but her expression was sufficient. A haiku contest was one of the early winners, and that stayed in. But neither of us wanted to do that, so we decided Frank could take that one on. Kathy would once again be our Vanna White of the session: doing whatever pointing needed to be done. Danna was pondering something musical or blog-oriented, and that left me with the one piece I'd never written, never thought I could or should write, and that was the one topic I'd left out, deliberately, of my thesis on archives and archivists in fiction: archivists and sex.

Note that we hadn't yet consulted either Kathy or Frank. There's actually an explanation for that. I was considering this a giant practical joke. It would become the session proposal that would never die. We'd propose, the PC would turn us down, we'd re-propose the following year to be turned down by that PC, and so on and so forth. No Program Committee would ever seriously consider something like this.

The second Kathy heard about the haiku contest concept, she immediately nixed being relegated to the Vanna White role and demanded that the haiku section be hers. Which essentially meant that Frank was our Vanna, but we decided to be a little more respectful of him--he was President that year, after all--and call him Chair.

You see where this is going, don't you?  Yes, I'll admit my logic had been faulty to this point. There's a good role for the "lighter side of archives" fare at SAA. I'd even argue that it's essential. But I honestly thought that this was so far beyond that, that we were in the clear. Well, we weren't. The Program Committee bought it. Asked for 2 changes: the first of which was the session title (which okay, was really boring before, so boring I can't even recall what it was) and the second of which was that Frank be removed from the proposal. Apparently there's some sort of rule about SAA Presidents not participating in sessions in the year of their presidency. Well, that kind of wrecked my whole reunion concept but nobody said Frank couldn't attend and if we dragooned him to hand out the haiku prizes at the event itself, that might be good enough.

But back to the a-step-too-far part. The truth is, aside from my contribution, we really hadn't gone a step too far. Danna's proposal & resulting paper about archivists who blog outside of their professional responsibilities, was a fascinating look at the creative worlds so many of our co-professionals inhabit. She even managed to provide some practical advice for attendees on how to track blogs. And the response we received to the haiku contest calls was another amazing display of the creativity of so many archivists.  The winning entries as well as many of the other entries are now posted on the SAA site. Go and take a look. The finalized session title Archives After Hours, actually suggested by a Silicon Valley-type friend of mine with no connection whatsoever to the archival profession (hey Jen!), was not only incredibly accurate, but somewhat lyrical as well. We did good, as it turned out. And even some of the naysayers who attended walked away, if not overly impressed, willing to admit it wasn't the total waste of time they'd anticipated.

Okay, so maybe that wasn't such a strong piece of evidence. But I haven't arrived at the most telling part of the evidence. You see, the December email from the co-chairs of the PC approving the proposal was a huge shock to me. I honestly had never figured that the PC was going to go for it, or if they did, that they weren't just going to cut my piece right out.

Evidentiary piece #2b: Here's the thing: in another (dumb) moment of titling whimsy, I thought it would be funny to call my proposed putative academic paper on archivists in sexual fiction: Archives Uncut. Now, okay, I probably should have grabbed a clue that people weren't getting the joke when neither Danna nor Kathy said anything about it. But I know it's not that obscure of a gutter reference because when I handed the draft paper over to a younger librarian for proofreading and response, her first response was indeed "please, please, please tell me that's the actual paper title and not a placeholder!" So not only did the PC not ask us to dump my paper, they missed the double entendre, too.

And the worst part isn't that I now have this paper title associated with my name out on the net. If you go websearching my name (well, at least before I published this), you'd have to dig pretty far before finding this reference. So it's not a big deal for me to keep it off my CV if I want. I paid for conference attendance myself, did all of my research and writing on my own time and own computer, and so I can reasonably claim that this wasn't a product of my professional life. (Though come to think of it, claiming it's a product of my non-professional life probably isn't any better.)

The worst part? The worst part was that I'd forced myself into the situation where I actually had to do research on the topic. I had to go find appropriate fictional sources on the topic. And since some of these were not available, really, really not available through ILL, I had to buy them. You know how Amazon uses previous purchases to make recommendations? You should see my recommendations list these days. (Karmic revenge 1.) And not only did I have to purchase, I had to READ them. (Karmic revenge 2.) Let me tell you, there's a reason libraries don't buy this stuff. Several reasons, in fact.

In self-defense, I ended up writing one of the most academically-oriented lit-crit papers it's ever been my displeasure to write. The process of which was no pile of cuddly puppies, either.

So, in conclusion, this is why you should never, ever play practical jokes when proposing professional activities. I refuse to believe I am, I desperately need to believe that I am not, the only person on earth to whom this could happen. So consider me your cautionary tale. And let's hope I've finally learned the lesson too.