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.

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.