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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

True confessions time!

I've often thought it was a pity that we don't often have the opportunity to tell the stories of what went wrong. You know, the cautionary tales. The embarrassing stories. Don't those have the same educational power as the success stories? And if not, at least some amusement value for everybody other than you?

So here's your chance. Today's topic is dumbest thing I ever did in the archives stacks.

Restrictions: we're aiming for humor, here. Please don't tell me about the horrible accident that injured five people. I have a friend who was permanently crippled when a microfilm cabinet fell on her. Granted, she wasn't doing anything stupid (the fact that it wasn't bolted to the wall was a mistake not of her making) so that story might not qualify anyhow, but let's keep it somewhat light, shall we? That isn't remotely funny. Oh and keep it relatively clean too? I'd prefer not to change the setting on my blog to "adult content" or to have it forcibly changed on my behalf.

I've got a doozie for you, and I'll lead off with that after I've received a few responses so I won't be the only one who is going to be admitting to goofiness.

Here's the confessional part: I will keep your name off of it unless you tell me you're okay with my going public with it. Use my home email address (arlene underscore schmuland dash 1 at yahoo dot com) to contact me and since neither it nor my blog are associated with my job, that should be enough to keep me from being subjected to Cronon-esque FOIA requests. However, beyond that, your anonymity is up to you. If you give enough detail about your escapades or the layout of the institution that former coworkers are going to be likely to recognize it, that's on you, not me. I'm a little confused at the moment about how I've set up the comments on this blog so I think they're unmoderated (where I'll leave them unless necessity proves otherwise) so don't use the comment function to get in touch with me.

Oh, and make sure the story is about you, okay? No stories that might embarrass other people unless you have obtained buy-in from those individuals. And if you have a co-worker with a spectacular story you think needs to be heard, you need to convince that person to tell it to me. Not that I'm going to be able to fact check you here, but let's all be ethical archivists and let people tell their own stories.

Now, off to my email to hopefully watch the submissions pouring in. For the edification of all of us.

And if you do have that NC-17 story to tell me? Go for it. I might not be able to post it, but I can use the laugh.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The subscription rate stops here

I've been listening a lot lately to librarians talk about what libraries pay for content. Not books so much, those can be pricy, sure, but for everything else.

And I have to wonder: why? Journal and database vendors are one of the growth sectors of this economy. Say what you like about the oil companies and their record profits in these times when gas is going up over $4.00/gallon (I paid over $4 per gallon just two days ago) and the airlines and their record profits at the same time as they're charging us $25-$50 a checked bag plus the inflated ticket prices, they have nothing on the journal and database vendors. Seriously.

These vendors raise prices at a whim. Anybody else notice how some venture capital firms have bought some of them and not traded them off for a quick profit? They're a cash cow.

To be fair, the libraries don't have a lot of choices. These are resources to which people need quick access. It's not like there's an alternative, either. It's not the tortilla chip market where if the store is charging too much for brand A, you can grab a bag of brand B on sale. The content is good. The content is valuable. The content is needed by your consumers, whether they be members of the public, students, faculty, etc.

Or are there alternatives? A few libraries and library systems have struck back, boycotting various vendors and their products, but those really are the big guys. And worse, it doesn't seem like it's made a difference. I work with a Collection Development Librarian who is pretty good at getting deals and getting vendors to lower their prices, but you know others aren't getting the same deal just because she does. (Come to think of it, there's a strong resemblance to the airline ticket market there...)

In a perfect world, it might take a two-pronged approach: Libraries have to boycott, authors have to refuse to submit. Okay, so I know well enough that's not going to happen, especially in the academic market where not publishing can cost you your tenure track job or your grant funding that pays your wages, but I sometimes dream, late at night, that we could all do this for a year. And then see if maybe those prices might go down.

Okay, so that's probably hit ridiculous (entrancing, but unlikely). But here's the conspiracy theorist part of my brain and the tangential connect to things archival.  I've heard a lot of people over the past few years reassessing library missions. And here's what I'm hearing: that the future isn't in the published stuff. As more and more goes online, do libraries really need to hold/subscribe to local copies? Their own copies? Of stuff that's accessible elsewhere? And the corollary: Can't libraries pretty much outsource a lot of the work involved with accessing these things? Automate it? Does it all need to be within a brick and mortar library building?  Can't libraries just partner in consortia to provide a lot of this material in tandem? (Yes I know this is too simplistic on sooooo many levels, but bear with me here. The overarching direction still holds.)

As an archivist, this is music to my ears. Because what then makes the library special, unique, worth keeping around, a content-provider in the truest form, are the local collections. The unique collections. The Alaskana, the Washingtonia, the "local history" sections. The Institutional Repositories. The Rare Books section. THE ARCHIVES. We're the pieces of the  libraries and governments that are going to matter. Because we're the future of the libraries. We are what will bring in scholars and researchers to a physical place. That will make this library, in this location, matter.  The source for information that cannot be found elsewhere. The archivists, curators, local specialists have always known it, even if we haven't been particularly adept at arguing it. But it is nice to hear our allied professionals argue it on our behalf now.

Whether that's right or not, it is something of a compelling argument to me. And (here's a neat writing trick: returning to my original topic) I wonder if maybe the vendors haven't kind of figured it out as well. I notice that a lot of them are turning some of their efforts to the software market: building, or trying to, anyhow, tools that make discovery of library holdings simpler. Are they making profits off the journals and databases while they can, knowing this can't hold out forever? Maybe they do see the light at the end of the tunnel and are starting to realize that what's coming at them is not expanding and infinite profits, but the UV-coated reading room lights of thousands of archives and special collections who don't need to pay for a multi-year subscription to an academic journal on mitochondrial DNA. Each. Are they making as much as they can before the well runs dry? (come to think of it, there's your comparison to the oil companies. And yes, I know I'm in a shaky moral spot complaining about oil company profits given how the state government of Alaska is largely funded...)

But I'll get off that conspiracy theory kick, because it does make me sound like a conspiracy theorist and mostly I make a very bad one. What else it makes me wonder, is if all those people cutting budgets realize that they're destroying their own futures when they see the special collections as an easy target. (University of Nevada Reno are you listening?) We bring in a lot of free content, donated by members of the community or created by the institution. We bring in grants. We bring in monetary donations. We provide safety, security, access for those institutional records you'll need if you ever get audited or sued. We have personnel costs, sure, but that should be assuaged by how much we're NOT paying for the acquisition of content that can be obtained in other places. And even personnel-wise, we're often the smallest departments in the library or state or local government so cutting us really doesn't take that much off the top of your personnel budget lines.

Want to have a real and long term effect on your financial bottom dollar? Go after those vendors and content providers who keep raising their prices every year and aren't giving you anything more or anything special to show for it. Make them roll back that 45% increase in subscription costs over the next 5 years (one particularly appalling incident I heard about this year for one of the primary medical journals) if they're not going to give you some ice cream with that. The librarians and the archivists aren't the ones getting 45% raises over the next five years (or ever, mostly). Does anybody really believe that the cost for editing, cataloging, servers and tech support for those database vendors go up by 9% a year? Why aren't our institutions pushing back? Especially the ones funded by municipal, state, federal funds? Why aren't all of our institutions pushing back, as a group? A united front? We're all facing the same budget challenges, though the degree may be different. Why do we insist on thinking that this is something we have to deal with as individual institutions? And then pay for, when we don't win the argument with the sales rep?

Dare you. Double dog dare you.

And after that, you can help me take on the software provider for our digital archives. Speaking of not getting ice cream with that upgrade...

Friday, March 18, 2011

what this archivist does

Preface: I was asked to give a short presentation as a part of a “alternative careers with a history degree” panel session at a Phi Alpha Theta conference in Feb 2011. The following is NOT that presentation. It’s all the clutter I had to get out of my head before I wrote something a little more appropriate to the occasion. You have been warned.

Oh, and as it turned out? A few of the professors in the room ended up getting a little verbal (defensive, snarky, call it what you will) because as a panel we ignored the option of becoming post-secondary history educators. Apparently the purpose of the luncheon session hadn’t been explained thoroughly to everybody in the room. But since it ended up in a good discussion, who's to say that was bad?

Good Afternoon.

I am not an Architect.

I am occasionally an anarchist, but that is more about my personal opinions than about my professional life.

I am an Archivist. Not Ark-ive-ist, Ark-iv-ist.

I am NOT a librarian. Librarians, while generally a swell bunch of people with whom I associate frequently, do not do what archivists do. Neither do museum curators, and by the way, they’re a lot of fun to hang out with as well.

So now that I’ve told you what I’m not, let’s talk about what it is that I do. I work with original, unique, one-of-a-kind information resources not only to preserve them, but more importantly, to provide access to them. And since that’s possibly the world’s most boring elevator speech since Walter Mondale was Vice-President, let me change approaches.

What do I do? I get to watch people’s home movies, read diaries, look through photographs, review divorce case files, and at no point do I actually have to write or publish a learned paper on any of those things, though I have done that as well. I get to work with the raw materials of history on a daily basis. I go out and convince people to donate these materials to the Archives, I care for these materials, I provide descriptions of the materials, and I assist researchers in identifying and using the primary sources they need to complete their research. The work that I do not only makes it possible for historians to do the work that they do, but also for researchers in many other fields, like medicine, anthropology, vulcanology, economics, law, and education to name just a few of the researcher types I've worked with over the past few years. My decisions about what to collect and what not to keep may have ramifications for any study of the past for many years to come.

So now you’re saying: great! Power, money, and reading love letters on work time! And all with a history degree! Where do I sign up?

As you might guess, it’s not quite that simple. While you can get archives-related jobs with an undergraduate degree in history, you’re probably not going to be able to get a job that pays well enough to survive on. Though you probably won’t need a doctoral degree, a masters with a focus in archives is pretty much required for most professional positions.

Let me take this to the negative, for just a moment. I suspect a lot of people went into archives for all the wrong reasons. For some, there’s a lot of romance in the idea. They thought that they were going to get to “touch the stuff of history.” Or that they’d spend all their time fiddling around with little pieces of Japanese paper fixing rips in Renaissance manuscripts. I’m almost certain that some archivists I’ve met got into the profession because they thought it would allow them to hide at the back of the house and never again have to deal with another human being. 

None of those things are true. The stuff of history? Probably has mouse droppings or mold on it, depending on where it was stored before it came to the archives. The Renaissance manuscripts? Mostly nobody even gets to touch those, much less effect repairs, not to mention that most places don’t have a lot Renaissance-era documents and can’t even support a part-time professional paper conservator and the job opportunities for conservators are getting thinner and thinner on the ground (it’s not exactly like they’re making more old manuscripts. Well, outside the forgery market, anyhow). The people who want to hide? Wrong job. Really, really wrong job.  Most archives out there are 1-5 person shops. Chances are, some part of your job will involve working with the public, since access is, or should be, the primary mission of any archives.  And if you’re in a big enough organization that you can specialize to a degree where you don’t have to work with the public? That just means that you have tons of co-workers about.

As you can probably tell, I’m not much of a romantic, at least when it comes to my career. There, pragmatism has to win out.  Look, I love my job and most days I’m pretty good at it. For me, it was the right choice and about 18 years after entering the profession, I’ve got the job I always wanted. I’m working with the types of collections with which I want to work, I’ve created a wonderful team of workers in my department. I have a lot of support from my administration. Of course, it helps that I get regular grants and last year pulled in the single largest monetary donation the library has ever received. I get to teach when I want, but I don’t have to teach things I don’t want to teach. I have great, collegial relationships with my fellow archivists all over the state and we work together to strengthen our collections instead of fighting over them. I get to work on great projects like the Alaska’s Digital Archives. I’m being paid well and, I’d argue, appropriately to my level of expertise, experience, and responsibility. But it also took me over a decade and a half to hit this point. And despite being a professional archivist and having the title of head of Archives and Special Collections, there are those days when most of my day is spent shaking out boxes in hopes that dead mice—or worse, live spiders—don’t land on my feet. Or moving thousands of pounds of boxes of paper or photographs or films, 50 pounds at a time.

Here I’ll make you an offer. If you’re interested in remaining in the history field—to a point—but you don’t want to teach, you don’t want to have to write lengthy essays on the futility of engaging in a land war in Asia, and you don’t want to grade anybody else’s paper on the futility of engaging in a land war in Asia, but you like working with people, you like working with documents whether textual, photographic, or otherwise, you may want to consider Archives as a career field. Would you like some direct exposure to what it is archivists do? Consider doing a short-term volunteer project with us. We can sit you down with a small collection and our template for a collection description and work with you to have you write up a finding aid to a collection, or we can have you digitize some university photographs and write up the description that goes with the image online. Or you can work with one of our bigger collections and do some of the rehousing, or indexing, or folder level listings to expand the description we already have. You can get an idea for the types of materials Archives collects and what some of the day-to-day work entails.  If that sounds like something you’d like to do, get in touch. We can probably figure something out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The opening salvo

Why another blog on archivy? You might be asking yourself.

This time, I'm happy to point the finger of blame at a colleague. This is Gina Rappaport's fault. Gina, for those of you who don't know her, is a very bad influence on me. And probably a lot of other people.

Here's the story. Early in 2011 a contract faculty member in my school's history department was put in charge of organizing a regional (aka Alaska) Phi Alpha Theta (history honors society) conference. He decided that the attendees would need a break from history papers at lunch, but still wanted to keep them around, and thought it might be nice to present them with a panel of people with history degrees but who were employed in allied fields: i.e. NOT academic historians and yet still able to use their history degree to get paid regularly. Somebody pointed out to him that my masters degree was technically a history degree, and so the invitation was extended to me.

I have a bit of a soft spot for things Phi Alpha Theta and so I agreed. And I sat down to write a 10 minute presentation about who I am and what I do. And what I found was that before I could write something I felt comfortable in presenting, I first needed to get some stuff out of the way. I had a lot of thoughts bouncing around in my head that maybe weren't the best things to say: snarky, irrelevant, esoteric, irrelevant... And so I wrote a piece entitled "What this archivist does" and shared it as a note via Facebook with some of my colleagues. I'll admit, a little bit of it was in hopes that I could rescue some of the text in my presentation, but those fond wishes went the way they always do.

And in steps Ms. Rappaport. Who asks me to post it on my blog because she wanted to share it with some other people and knows very well my FB account is about as locked down as I can possibly take it. I was flattered though perhaps I shouldn't have been, and asked her if I could think about it. At this point, I had 3 blogs, in essence. The first was my departmental blog and though I get occasionally opinionated on it, I try to treat that space as less about me and more about the department. So that was out. The second was a recipe blog for my sister's occasionally strange but compelling recipes. So that was out. The third was my blog I did last year about how to survive and thrive in a job search. I had always intended that to be a one shot deal: a chronology-based blog on what I was seeing (or rather, wasn't seeing) as I was engaging in archival recruitments. So that was always intended to be a time-limited blog on that very specific subject. So that was out.

But I did have some concerns about opening up another blog. Like: do you really want to set a schedule for yourself in writing? I've never been so good about meeting regular deadlines for written work (and that job search blog almost killed me there: I achieved that one only because I'd drafted over half the postings before I took even the first one live).  But then I thought about some of my other favorite blogs and realized: who's asking for scheduled postings? And though I have fun sometimes sharing my rants with a few colleagues, sharing them with a wider world isn't always so appealing. A little scary in fact. But nobody said I had to post everything to a blog: if I'm worried about something, I can always take it to my FB notes and pretend I control who sees it.

That's when Gina's request went from flattering to outright dangerous. And when I decided I could do this. Just don't expect regular entries and be prepared for occasional nuttiness. As I write this now, I'm actually home sick from work today. Occasional temperature spikes, massive headache, the works. On top of a lack of sleep. That may be when I write entries and so, hey, no promises to always be clear, lucid, rational. Even worse, I may change my mind--do complete 180s--from post to post. I keep telling myself that's a good sign that I'm educable and flexible, but that may be the illness talking. We'll see. Welcome, and by the way, feel free to provide feedback. I might not agree with you, but who said we all had to agree?

And next up: yes, Gina, I'll post "What this archivist does" here. Though I spotted a couple of typos in it a couple of weeks ago, so I want to fix those first. And maybe edit a few things.

Oh, I may regret this. But what's life without a few regrets?