Archivists on the Issues: A Defense of Institutions in the Pandemic

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following post is from Bradley J. Wiles, a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Information Studies. 

The COVID-19 pandemic promises to be a game changer in many areas of contemporary society moving forward. Aside from the devastating mortality currently unfolding, the most immediate impact involves severe disruptions in healthcare systems, economic activity, and supply chain management, all of which have short and long term consequences for communities depending on the depth and scale of the damage in a given location. A major outcome so far is that the pandemic has forced people and organizations to rethink and reconfigure daily interactions previously taken for granted, both as a response to stemming the spread of the virus in real time and in preparation for future disruptions. For many individuals and organizations, virtual interaction through networked digital technologies has been the main route of accessing or retaining some sense of normalcy during this trying time.

In some instances, the ability (and often privilege) to utilize online communications and cloud-based applications offer the only possibility of keeping employed, delivering education, receiving medical treatment, reaching out to loved ones, and participating in other aspects of everyday life. Although the drastic modification of these and other social activities is likely temporary, the pandemic demonstrates that the value of the internet to maintain social cohesion is beyond question (if often problematic) and that many people and organizations can no longer get by without it. Ideally, this era will spark productive conversations and activity on digital infrastructure development that extends from matters of life and death during the pandemic to more prosaic cultural interests in less extraordinary times.

For better or worse, the cultural world has experienced something of a digital flourishing during this extended social distancing period. Concerts, plays, lectures, book readings, and other cultural events that were previously accessible to limited audiences are now offered regularly and freely in real time via various conferencing platforms, social media outlets, and streaming services. Approximating normalcy, staving off boredom, and raising spirits seem to be the main motivations of these efforts, but these also serve to bolster online communities and their cultural correspondents by keeping the focus of cultural interests within the online environment where so much other activity already occurs.

For their part, many individuals and organizations in the archives sector have tried to maintain their regular duties and transition further to online delivery of services. A recent post in Atlas Obscura described several notable projects aimed at engaging new and existing user communities through the web. These and other ongoing institutional efforts reflect theoretical discussions and practical trends in the archives discipline that emphasize the growing importance of community-based initiatives to expand their scope and direction toward greater inclusion and representation, while also supporting the network of non-institutional cultural heritage interests in documenting an increasingly diverse society.

The proliferation of web-based technologies has helped facilitate the growth of independent community archives, as well as enabling traditional archives to establish more targeted documentation strategies and projects that incorporate the expertise, perspectives, and labor of non-archivist collaborators in everything from collection development to public programming to archival description. The prevailing notion is that archival work can no longer discount the people, groups, cultures, and identities reflected in the collections and that, whenever possible, those who might legitimately speak on their behalf should be involved. Often these are current or prospective audiences that can bring a fuller understanding to the collections–a process made more immediate and accessible by mobile digital networks and social media utilities.

Undoubtedly, sustained effort to engage new and diverse publics is a moral and practical necessity for all archives institutions in this emergent digital reality heightened by the pandemic, regardless of one’s location in the overarching network of cultural interests. The pandemic also offers an opportunity for American archivists and other records and information professionals to advocate on behalf of our institutions and our shared principles as a bulwark against the entrenched difficulties of reaching common ground on facts, evidence, and truth in a tribalist and politically polarized society. Journalist David Roberts has spent the past several years tracking this “epistemic crisis,” which he links to comprehensive right-wing attempts at undermining public faith in government, academia, media, and science¹. We see firsthand how dangerous this is in the current administration’s woefully inadequate, dishonest, and fatalistic approach to a national and global emergency.

However, this only tells part of the story. Various strains of the skeptical relativism that characterize the current social and political landscape are residual holdovers of intellectual movements originating in the academic left during the 1960s and 1970s. Although many of these movements were focused on peace, justice, equality, and liberation, they were fundamentally based on mistrust of institutions. It is most definitely a stretch to draw moral equivalency between armed protestors railing against social distancing measures in 2020 with activists marching to protest the Vietnam War in 1968, but the impulse to react and respond to real and perceived threats from powerful institutions transcends political identification and ideology.

The personalized information universes enabled by the web now make it easier for groups and individuals to coalesce around a narrow agenda or set of beliefs without having to engage in wider discussions that contradict these. Everybody has their own unfalsifiable truth and nobody can deny anyone else’s reality. In this setting, facts and evidence supported by verifiable information and reliable records are meaningless, or rather they hold only situational meaning and arbitrary relevance. Institutions are suspect because they are gatekeepers incapable of serving all equally or effectively.

Undermining an institution involves discrediting its experts, rejecting its animating ideas or mission, disparaging its central functions, and casting doubt on its social value and historical legitimacy. In most instances, this arises against an institution’s authority from an external oppositional standpoint, but with archives the opposition and skepticism frequently originate within the profession. This often takes the form of critical evaluation and deliberative efforts by scholars and practitioners to improve institutions. But there are several intellectual and activist strands that seem equally intent on categorizing mainstream archives institutions as just another tool of systemic oppression, an irredeemable cog in the larger framework of white supremacy, colonialism, misogyny, economic exclusivity, heteronormativity, etc.

Certainly, there are many instances over time that justify a skeptical or even pessimistic position on mainstream or traditional archives. There’s no doubt that the prominence of community-centered models based around intersectionality and social justice in recent disciplinary conversations reflects attempts to redress such historical marginalization. Although there seems to be general consensus in the profession that this is a net positive for archives, I don’t think anyone can determine with any certainty what the long-term impact of this shifting focus might be on the mainstream institutional networks or on the historical record more generally. That said, precarity related to funding, technology, and administration all present more of a threat to traditional archives than the muddled postmodern criticisms of scholars, but the lack of any comprehensive defense of institutions in the face of inward criticism and outward threats is still very unfortunate.

It is my belief that a positive defense of institutions must be made to internal skeptics and external parties that are unaware of the value that archives provide. This is not a “you’re either for us or against us” proposition, but rather a reminder of the important role that institutions play in cultural memory and democratic stability. If the past few years have revealed anything about power and authority, it is how easily norms can be discarded by unprincipled leadership. If the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us anything, it is that information, facts, and evidence are a matter of life and death. It should be clear by now that our institutions are largely responsible for holding the line against historical threats, both those posed by rare natural phenomena and others resulting from the epistemological free-for-all of the digital age. Archives institutions are flawed but essential social assets that still offer the possibility of finding common ground and preserving the truth.

¹ See the following articles for more reportage and details on Roberts’ view: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/3/22/14762030/donald-trump-tribal-epistemology; https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/11/2/16588964/america-epistemic-crisis; https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/11/16/20964281/impeachment-hearings-trump-america-epistemic-crisis

Archivists on the Issues: Creating Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation: A Workshop

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following post is from Laura Alagna, Digital Preservation Librarian at Northwestern University; Keith Pendergrass, Digital Archivist at Baker Library Special Collections at Harvard Business School; Walker Sampson, Assistant Professor and Digital Archivist at the University of Colorado Boulder; and Tim Walsh, Software Developer at Artefactual Systems.

Background

In 2017, we  came together due to a shared concern over the increasing environmental impact of digital preservation. Despite some notable recent work calling attention to and investigating the environmental costs of practices in our field,[1] we observed that most discussion of sustainable digital preservation was still focused on financial and staffing concerns, sustaining practices as a long-term program, or on the large amount of electricity used by digital storage infrastructure. Additionally, we noticed that current frameworks and standards push practitioners toward optimal digital preservation whenever resources allow, instead of providing guidance when lower levels or standards may be sufficient.

In light of these trends, we proposed a paradigm shift in digital preservation practice in our 2019 article, “Toward Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation.”[2] Rather than focusing on strategies that simply reduce the unsustainability of current practice by improving the efficiency of the technological infrastructure we use to do our work, we argue that truly sustainable digital preservation can be achieved only when digital object management, successful use, and environmental sustainability are explicitly balanced and integrated into decision-making criteria. Suggesting a paradigm shift[3] along these lines, we outline ways for practitioners to critically reevaluate appraisal, permanence, and availability of digital content—providing a framework for integrating environmental sustainability into digital preservation practice.

Workshop Protocol

Throughout our research and writing, we returned again and again to a driving factor behind our work: that the changes we propose can make a difference. The breadth and enormity of the climate crisis should not drive us to despair that our actions are inefficacious. When aggregated, our actions can result in significant positive change. To this end, we want to continue sharing our work in the hope that it will inspire others to implement and advocate for environmental sustainability at their own organizations. To facilitate this, we developed a workshop protocol designed for participants to discuss issues of environmental sustainability in digital preservation, identify and enact change toward sustainable practices in their organizational contexts, and identify and plan further research. The protocol is available at: https://doi.org/10.21985/n2-hxe1-m195.

BitCurator Users Forum 2019: Workshop First Run

We ran the workshop for the first time at the BitCurator Users Forum 2019 on October 24, 2019 at Yale University. We briefly introduced our article’s core arguments, set the ground rules for discussion, and split into three discussion groups based on the paradigm shift areas. Groups reported back in two sessions, with participant-created notes available here.

In the first session, we broke into three groups, each lead by a facilitator:

  • Appraisal. Discussion in the appraisal group focused on collecting policies, and in particular that many participants feel that they do not have the authority to influence the appraisal process or collecting decisions. There was consensus that the low cost of storage has resulted in an reluctance to invest in staff and technological resources to conduct critical appraisal, and that reappraisal is even more difficult to accomplish.
  • Permanence. Participants in this discussion group also discussed digital storage, particularly whether participants’ organizations accounted for environmental factors when implementing new (or refreshed) on-premises or cloud storage solutions. On the idea of acceptable loss, participants discussed how much loss would be acceptable at their organizations in different contexts, and how the concept could be communicated with collection curators. Those in the permanence group also compared notes on how each organization approached fixity checking, with a wide variety of practices reported among participants.
  • Availability. This discussion group observed that the availability of digital content is tied to reappraisal and permanence decisions. Decisions earlier in a digital object’s life cycle have consequences for access that should be incorporated into organizations’ decision making and transparently explained to researchers. Participants discussed digitization projects in detail, particularly the issue of on-demand digitization versus mass digitization, and the lack of clear guidelines on determining what the critical mass of user need is that would move a collection or group of materials from on-demand to mass digitization.

After the general discussion on each of these areas, the three groups focused on plans for implementation, and the facilitators encouraged participants to think about actionable steps that they could take at their own organizations. A sample of these action items follows:

  • Appraisal
    • Develop and implement policies for regular reappraisal.
    • Ensure that curatorial and collecting guidelines cover digital content.
    • Write preservation policies that include tiered levels of preservation so that organizations can consistently select the most appropriate level during acquisition (and communicate this to donors).
  • Permanence
    • Promote collaboration with those responsible for appraisal to ensure implementations of tiered preservation solutions are meeting donor/organizational/user expectations.
    • Implement a lower tier of preservation commitment for digitized content that has a stable analog original.
    • Enact file format policies that do not migrate stable file formats.
  • Availability
    • Document demand for digitization to inform preservation approaches in line with the tiers advocated for in OCLC’s 2011 Scan and Deliver
    • Develop criteria for shifting collections or groups of materials from on-demand to mass digitization, especially for audiovisual materials.
    • Investigate central or interoperable discovery systems, to avoid duplicating digitization efforts across organizations.

When the groups reported out, it became clear that there were some implementation ideas common across all three areas. Foremost among these was advocating for environmental sustainability: all three groups brainstormed ways to advocate at their own organizations, from demonstrating the need for environmentally sustainable practice to working with existing environmental initiatives. Additionally, some participants noted that having more quantifiable data on the environmental impact of digital preservation, and the positive correlation between environmentally sustainable actions with staffing and financial sustainability, would help them make the case for their action plans to their organizations’ administrators.

Next Steps

We are making the workshop protocol available so that others can run this workshop at conferences and in their local organizations and communities. Conducting the workshop at BUF2019 made it clear that participants had many areas of shared interest, and significant enthusiasm for the subject. There is ample further opportunity to learn from each other and work together to implement specific actions across organizations.

We hope that individuals and existing or newly-formed working groups will take on investigating subjects such as:

  • Data and metrics on the impact of digital preservation at cultural heritage organizations.
  • Strategies for advocating for sustainable digital preservation practices.
  • Frameworks for gathering use statistics or user demand for digitization.
  • Guidelines and policies for implementing tiered preservation approaches.

We are excited to continue working with the digital preservation community on moving toward environmentally sustainable digital preservation and look forward to seeing new research on this topic from others.

[1] See for example Eira Tansey, “Archival Adaptation to Climate Change,” Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 11, no. 2 (2015), https://doi.org/10.1080/15487733.2015.11908146; Benjamin Goldman, “It’s Not Easy Being Green(e): Digital Preservation in the Age of Climate Change,” in Archival Values: Essays in Honor of Mark Greene (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2019); and Linda Tadic, “The Environmental Impact of Digital Preservation” (presentation, Association of Moving Image Archivists conference, Portland, OR, November 18–21, 2015), updated December 2018, https://www.digitalbedrock.com/resources-2.

[2] Keith Pendergrass, Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh, and Laura Alagna, “Toward Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation,” American Archivist 82, no. 1 (2019), https://doi.org/10.17723/0360-9081-82.1.165, open access via Harvard DASH: https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/40741399.

[3] See Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System (Hartland, VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1999), open access via the Academy for Systems Change: http://donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Leverage_Points.pdf; and John R. Ehrenfeld, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

Archivists on the Issues: Discussion and Disagreement in Good Faith

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following post is from Bradley J. Wiles, a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Information Studies. 

In August of 2019, I rejoined SAA and the general archives fold after several years away due to professional and personal factors that diverted my time and energy into other areas. I immediately second guessed this decision after reading about what happened at the SAA annual meeting with the cancelled Brown Bag Lunch discussion on Frank Boles’ unpublished article, “To Everything There is a Season.” I was not at the meeting, so I can’t speak firsthand about the “pall” cast over the proceedings by the session or whatever other immediate fallout resulted from the decision to cancel it. However, the subsequent explanations by the SAA council and American Archivist editors, along with the apparently unquestioning acceptance by the membership at large, demonstrated what has become so disappointing about discourse in academy-dominated professions like archives. Or, in this case, the resoundingly negative discourse on social media that seemed satisfied with mostly attacking Boles’ character while providing minimal analysis of the article or its arguments.[1]

In any event, when it comes to instances like the session cancellation, I would never accuse anyone of acting in bad faith nor would I question anyone’s motives for defending their principles and doing what they think is right. I have no doubt that there are many valid points that people could make and did make from a variety of perspectives. Specific responses to the Boles article recently made available on the American Archivist website offer some illumination from an oppositional standpoint.[2] My disappointment stems from the apparent inability or unwillingness to engage with ideas or opinions that do not fit prescribed insider viewpoints or that might merely suggest the slightest deviation from a set of rigid premises that now seem to dominate the professional discourse. Heck, I probably even agree with most of these premises, but the notion that I should not be spoiled by other views that disagree with them is absurd. I read the Boles article and there were some things that I liked in his argument and other things that I didn’t. Imagine my surprise when my brain didn’t explode upon this realization.

On the one hand, I can understand the distaste of highlighting controversy for its own sake, as expressed in the statement by the Archivists and Archives of Color Section. But it stretches credulity to claim that the article and lunch session were categorically divisive in intent, design, and execution. As far as I can tell, other reasons for it being canceled were flawed planning and because it was deemed incompatible with the program requirements for inclusivity. Ostensibly, it failed to adequately question how archivists are “navigating power dynamics, facilitating transparency, preserving the history of transgender and other marginalized communities, or researching transnational records to actively transform our pedagogy and practice, and how do our actions affect the people and communities we serve.” In my reading, Boles’ article generally fits within the spirit of this statement, but apparently his approach or conclusions did not properly align with how the program committee and others thought this should be expressed. Although, it’s not clear if anyone who made the decision to cancel the session had a problem with the article until the social media backlash began.

Unsurprisingly, Boles’ account anticipated the reaction that unfolded at the meeting. All official responding parties made it a point to say they reject censorship, welcome vigorous debate, and appreciate multiple viewpoints, but the cancellation makes clear that this is only true to a certain extent. And if Boles’ article represents the intellectual tolerance threshold or demarcates what is or is not acceptable in disciplinary discussions, then the profession and our institutions are in big trouble. In so many ways, the archives profession has gladly assumed many of the highly caricatured qualities of the academic left, but we’ve really leaned-in to the ideological calcification aspect of it without generating the commensurate usable knowledge an applied discipline demands. The resulting self-congratulatory spiral of conspicuous wokeness is both exhausting and meaningless, offering the veneer of intellectual robustness and social value without the substance. The admirable and necessary impulse to rethink and reform institutions and practices in the name of inclusivity, representation, and justice too often shifts into a knee-jerk rejection of anything that smacks of convention or tradition.

In a telling sign of these Trumpian times, the archives profession appears more likely than at any other point in my career to embrace a narrow orthodoxy that leaves little room for criticism or consideration of frameworks that do not mirror the inviolable beliefs of those now making the rules. I suppose that’s where my regret mostly resides—not because I reject those frameworks or beliefs out of hand, or because I think there is something so important or essential about Boles’ perspective or the cancelled discussion, but that this incident further galvanizes a standard that can be easily applied against anyone else who finds themselves out of step with that orthodoxy or the hashtag warriors enforcing it. And let’s be honest: it’s not like we’re shouting down neo-Nazis or tangling with fascists in the streets here. Attempting to spare the archives world from Boles’ perspective perfectly embodies the half-baked approach by the academic left to policing itself through speech and thought codes. At the end of the day it allows the archives profession to do what it has become so good at: patting ourselves on one side of our back, while flogging ourselves on the other.

It comes down to this: a judgement was made in the service of zero-sum identity politics that preempted anyone from having to think about the matter any more than necessary. But that’s just the world we live in now and I regret re-entering the archives professional fray in an atmosphere where intellectual freedom has become so loaded with preconditions and unwritten rules that are arbitrarily applied. But I also know that my regret—my ability to have it and express it—is tied to the relative privileges that I enjoy and I do not take this for granted, nor do I begrudge anyone’s right to be offended. My hope is that good faith professional discussions can still occur even if they are uncomfortable or contentious. Good faith assumes civility or at least the lack of malign intent. I don’t see how archivists advance as a profession if we cannot move forward on this basis, especially if our default reaction is umbrage against those with whom we might disagree, effectively killing necessary conversations before they begin.

[1] See the Twitter hashtag #thatdarnarticle for the tenor of the discussion, and for substantive analysis in other non-SAA venues see these blog posts by Geof Huth and Eira Tansey.

[2] See the responses by George, Inefuku, and Stuchel.

Archivists on the Issues: More than a warehouse: why the closure of Seattle’s National Archives facility matters

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following is from Burkely Hermann, recent graduate of the University of Maryland – College Park’s graduate program in Library and Information Science, with a concentration in Archives and Digital Curation.

On January 26, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved the sale of the 157,000 square foot National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Seattle facility, which holds permanent federal records for Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. This decision raises the question: which is more important, access to historic records or selling a public facility in a high-value real estate market? There has been fierce opposition from historical societies in Alaska and Seattle, historical researchers, genealogical groups, indigenous leaders, university professors, archivists, and historians. They were joined by a bipartisan group of eight Alaskan state legislators and 16 Congress members. The latter, comprising Washingtonian, Alaskan, Idahoan, and Montanan politicians, was also bipartisan. Washington Governor Jay Inslee also opposed the decision, as did Washington’s Secretary of State Kim Wyman. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is considering suing the federal government over the closure. He reportedly submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the five-person Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), OMB, NARA, and the General Services Administration (GSA) regarding the closure. The Washington State Archives even created a page about the topic.

History Associates Incorporated, which cautioned their clients to plan ahead for the facility’s closure, noted the process would take 18 months. They also included the estimate from Susan Karren, NARA’s Seattle director that only “.001% of the facility’s 56,000 cubic feet of records are digitized and available online,” and stated that permanent records may be inaccessible when transferred between facilities. According to NARA, no actions are being taken imminently which affect users of the facility, and NARA has requested to stay in the facility for three years following the sale. With such hullabaloo on this topic, one question is relevant: why does this closure matter to us, as fellow archivists?

NARA’s Seattle facility in Sand Point is more than a “giant U.S. government warehouse” or “excess property” as described in bureaucratic language. This facility holds records on indigenous people in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. It also holds: Chinese Exclusion Act case files which have been diligently indexed by local volunteers for the past 28 years; Forest Service teletypes about the Mount St. Helens explosion in 1980; federal case records from the early 1900s; and other important local documents. Such records make the NARA facility part of the “historical ecosystem” in the Northwestern United States, providing the public “direct access to government documents, from genealogical records to court files.” These aspects make the facility a “high value” federal property (or “asset”) which has a “deferred maintenance backlog of $2.5 million.” Additionally, no public PBRB meeting transcripts showed discussion of the closure. In one meeting, “warehouse[s]” used by NARA for “long-term storage” was touched on and at another there was a passing mention of Seattle.

Some may point to existing digitization efforts. Sure, some of Alaska’s records have been digitized, but record series are often digitized by FamilySearch and the project is only five years old. For instance, some records relating to Alaska have been digitized like crew lists, immigrant lists, draft cards, and naturalization records, as is the case with Washington and Idaho. But these are primarily 20th century records, with very few 19th century records. The letter from congress members criticizing the decision also called this out, stating that “NARA’s partnership with FamilySearch to digitize records has…not resulted in actual access to records that have been prioritized by stakeholders,” a unique and rare criticism of the NARA-FamilySearch partnership. The limitations of existing digitization undermines NARA’s reasoning that some of their “popular records” are already digitized or available online, asserting that public access to their archival records will stay in place.

Access to “archived knowledge” is vital and inherent to archival ethics. Moving records away from those who can use it, dividing it between two existing facilities in Riverside, California, and Kansas City, Missouri, is an act of cruel inaccessibility. Furthermore, splitting the records between two locations, regardless of the reason, leads to a strain on those facilities, which need additional storage space. NARA itself admits that the closure will negatively affect those who use the facility. They pledge to engage with researchers in a “smooth” transition when the facility is shuttered, even though this change will undoubtedly disadvantage various stakeholders, whether state archivists, government employees, scientists, students, or others. In a recent invitation-only meeting, they showed their commitment to the closure of the facility, pledging to work with indigenous groups.

The PBRB’s executive director Adam Bodner claimed that the closure of the facility was a decision by NARA staff. If true, this would put them at odds with users and stakeholders who want the facility to remain open. On pages A-68 to A-71 of their report, the PBRB concluded that NARA wanted to move to a more modern facility and that the 10 acres the facility sat on would be great for residential housing, apparently worth tens of millions of dollars as one article claimed. The PBRB also stated that NARA could only fulfill its storage needs at another facility because the current facility does not meet NARA’s “long-term storage needs.” In the process, some records will be moved to a temporary facility. Reportedly, NARA justified the closure by the fact that the facility is the third-least visited NARA site in the country and has “high operating costs.” Such arguments don’t consider the fact that the 73-year-old building could be retrofitted for the agency’s needs or records could be moved closer rather than split between two locations. This closure also stands against NARA’s stated goal that public access is part of its core mission and violates the Society of American Archivists’ Code of Ethics, stating that archivists “promote and provide the widest accessibility of materials.”

In coming days, NARA will be submitting a Report of Excess to the GSA, headed by Administrator Emily Murphy, which will collaborate with the PBRB and OMB to help “offload” properties like this facility. As such, to speak out against the closure, you could email Emily Murphy at emily.murphy@gsa.gov, the GSA’s Deputy Administrator at Allison Brigati at allison.brigati@gsa.gov, call 1-844-GSA-4111 or contact the GSA’s Office of Real Property Utilization and Disposal at 202-501-0084 and at realestate.buildingdisposal@gsa.gov. Alternatively, you could contact the OMB’s Russell Vought at Russell.t.vought@omb.eop.gov or Archivist David Ferriero at David.Ferriero@nara.gov.

Archivists on the Issues: Where are all the California Archivists?

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Joanna Black, the Digital Archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library.

It started with a discriminatory “bathroom bill” and ended with the absence of almost an entire state’s worth of SAA members. For this upcoming SAA 2019 annual conference in Austin, TX, there will be a considerable gap in representation from California-based archivists, most of whom are employed by the State of California.

Many of us recall in 2017 when the issue was first brought to the attention of SAA members. After the SAA Council narrowly voted to move forward with holding the 2019 annual conference in Texas – a state where legislators tried passing “bathroom bill” SB6[1] and, when that failed, passed HB 3859[2] which allows child welfare providers to refuse adoptions to LGBTQ individuals based on “sincerely held religious beliefs” – the SAA Council acknowledged[3] that Californians will be subject to California State Assembly Bill 1887,[4] which bans California State employees from traveling on business to Texas. This ban extends to the SAA 2019 annual conference.

Putting aside the appalling nature of HB 3859 and how social justice intersects with the archival profession (which the SAA AGM Program Committee Co-chairs acknowledge here), little attention has been given by SAA leadership on the impact of California archivists’ absence from this year’s conference. Beyond loose commitments to implement “live-streaming and/or other virtual conferencing options”[5] for those who cannot travel, and with limited evidence[6] two weeks before the annual conference that this commitment will be adequately honored, the exclusion of most California SAA members should be of concern to all members who value diverse perspectives and inclusion within the organization.

Each SAA annual conference is a chance to share professional values, build partnerships, and exchange ideas. It is one of the most prominent opportunities of the year for members to introduce themselves to greater diversity within the profession. The SAA Archives Records 2019 program website states:[7]

By attending the Joint Annual Meeting, you can:

  • Bring back fresh ideas and new knowledge to benefit all of your colleagues;
  • Discover cutting-edge tools and resources in the Exhibit Hall;
  • Enhance your professional development by attending a pre-conference course;
  • Become a better advocate for the archives, records, and information profession;
  • Network with colleagues, who may share new ideas you can implement at your institution or in your classroom; and
  • Promote your institution’s profile in the archives community!

But without the attendance of most California archivists – one of the most diverse blocks of archivists in the world – SAA members should consider how this absence limits perspectives within the conference itself and hinders the exchange of information within the profession as a whole. California is home to some of the most forward-thinking archivists in SAA, but how will their knowledge reach other members? How do California archivists build partnerships with other institutions when most are excluded from this year’s primary networking event? As one archivist from the University of California library system told me last month, “As archivists, we like to discuss inclusivity, but I do not find anything inclusive about holding our national meeting in a place where the majority of the archivists from our largest and most diverse state are unable to attend.”

As a California-based archivist, I am one of the lucky few who will be attending the conference this year (I am not a California State employee). I will be representing my institution as well as all my California colleagues who can not attend. As I prepare to be “on the front line”[8] of activism in Texas, I reflect on SAA’s Statement on Diversity and Inclusion. Diversity, it reads, encompasses not just “socio-cultural factors” but “professional and geographic factors” that reflect SAA’s “desire for broad participation from archivists working in various locations, repository types and sizes, and professional specializations.”[9] With little support offered to those California-based archivists excluded from the conference this year, SAA is falling short of its own commitment to “promote diversity and inclusion in all of [SAA’s] professional activities with an eye to ensuring effective representation of our members.”[10]

The SAA 2019 annual conference promises to address the intersection of social and political issues with the work of archives and archivists.[11] This also extends to the ways SAA members are able to show up, participate, and grow within the organization and its events. All SAA members should be cognizant of our colleagues, whether from California or elsewhere, who cannot attend the 2019 annual conference. When conference goers come together in Austin next month, let us support not only those whose lives are negatively impacted by the bigotry steeped in bills like HB 3859 but our archivist colleagues as well who, by extension of discriminatory legislation, have been excluded from this year’s gathering.

 

[1] Alexa Ura and Ryan Murphy, “Here’s what the Texas bathroom bill means in plain English,” https://apps.texastribune.org/texas-bathroom-bill-annotated/, (July 13, 2019).

[2] Legislature Of The State Of Texas, Chapter 45. Protection Of Rights Of Conscience For Child Welfare

Services Providers, https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/85R/billtext/pdf/HB03859I.pdf – navpanes=0, (July 13, 2019).

[3] Tanya Zanish-Belcher, “An Open Letter to SAA Members Regarding the Location of the 2019 Annual Meeting,” https://www2.archivists.org/news/2017/an-open-letter-to-saa-members-regarding-the-location-of-the-2019-annual-meeting, (July 13, 2019).

[4] State Of California Department Of Justice Office Of The Attorney General, Prohibition on State-Funded and State-Sponsored Travel to States with Discriminatory Laws, Xavier Becerra. Assembly Bill No. 1887.  https://oag.ca.gov/ab1887 (July 13, 2019).

[5] Zanish-Belcher, https://www2.archivists.org/news/2017/an-open-letter-to-saa-members-regarding-the-location-of-the-2019-annual-meeting.

[6] There is no mention on the program website that any virtual conferencing options will be available to members. However, after reaching out to Carlos R. Salgado, Manager of SAA’s Service Center, regarding the virtual conferencing option, I was told that SAA “will be introducing live streaming this year and will be posting information to the conference website this week” (email received Jul 15, 2019).

[7] “‘Making Your Case’ to Attend,”https://www2.archivists.org/am2019/resources/making-your-case (July 13, 2019).

[8] Zanish-Belcher, https://www2.archivists.org/news/2017/an-open-letter-to-saa-members-regarding-the-location-of-the-2019-annual-meeting.

[9]  SAA Council, “SAA Statement on Diversity and Inclusion,” https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-statement-on-diversity-and-inclusion (July 13, 2019).

[10] ibid.

[11] Zanish-Belcher, https://www2.archivists.org/news/2017/an-open-letter-to-saa-members-regarding-the-location-of-the-2019-annual-meeting.

Archivists on the Issues: The Values First Approach

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Emily Gibson, a processing archivist at Hoover Institution Library & Archives on the campus of Stanford University. She has also worked as an archivist in the U.K. at Roehampton University, and in Miami Florida at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, the University of Miami, and the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. 

Whenever I see Elsevier in the headlines I think back to a symposium I attended a few years ago on the publishing house’s namesake, Elzevir. Presentations by book historians from St. Andrews and Oxford, among other well-known British universities, were given in a combination of English, Latin and French. I had hoped to brush up on my knowledge of the history of the book, but what I took away from the experience was how esoteric the study of the history of the book is.

Fast forward to December 2018 and Elsevier was in the headlines as universities across Europe ended their contracts with the notorious science publishing house. I gathered that the two Elseviers had more in common than their name – that the history of the subscription model of distributing primary source research may end up a sub-branch of the study of the history of the book.

In September of 2019, the European Commission and the European Research Council initiated a project to put in place systems that would make all publicly funded research freely accessible at the point of publication by 2020, called “Plan S.” The “S” stands for “science” and includes the humanities as well as hard sciences. It’s slogan is, “Making full and immediate open access a reality,” and their goal is to eliminate the publication paywalls associated with subscription-based publishing models in order to promote “universality,” which is a fundamental scientific principle that declares that “only results that can be discussed, challenged, and, where appropriate, tested and reproduced by others qualify as scientific.”

Driven by this initiative, around 300 European universities and institutions were ending their contracts with Elsevier. Germany’s Max Planck Society said upon ending their contract that, “The system of scholarly publishing today is a relic of the print era […] We want to activate a real paradigm shift in order to finally utilise the opportunities of the digital age.”

In the United States a similar shift is taking place. In April 2018, Florida State University announced that it would be ending its comprehensive subscription to Elsevier journals. And in March 2019, the University of California announced that they too were ending their contract. The University of California publishes nearly 10% of US research papers and 18% of them are in Elsevier journals. Both universities cited excessive subscription fees as the reason for ending their contracts.

“Within scholarly communications, Elsevier has perhaps the single worst reputation,” according to an article published by the Guardian in June of 2018. “With profit margins around 37%, larger than Apple and big oil companies, Elsevier dominate the publishing landscape by selling research back to the same institutes that carried out the work.”

It’s all hands on deck at the archive where I work, where a “Digital First” initiative is slowly transforming the landscape. Space, equipment, staff, workflows and the terminology we use to talk about them are evolving to meet the needs of a community of users seeking the paradigm shift the Max Planck Society articulated so well: a system of radically expanded access to primary source documents that utilizes the opportunities of the digital age. Scrawled somewhere in the middle of a page of notes that I took during a meeting on “Systems Infrastructure/Conceptual Design,” are the words “access is our ultimate goal.” As I wrote them, I remember thinking, “Hasn’t access always been our goal?”

To answer my question, I consulted the Theodore Calvin Pease Award-winning article by Judith Panitch, “Liberty, Equality, Posterity?: Some Archival Lessons from the Case of the French Revolution.” Pantich explains that the term “archives,” as it was used from the 10th through the 15th century, described the titles or charters upon which rested the entire legal, political, and economic legitimacy of the monarchy and nobility, and that these documents were maintained in secrecy. “State archives were understood to constitute the personal documentation of the sovereign and to remain at his personal disposition,” Pantich explained.

In the United States, the National Archives formulated a “forceful enunciation of a theory of access to records” in the 1960s, according to Trudy Huskamp Peterson. In “The National Archives and the Archival Theorist Revisited, 1954-1984,” Peterson explains that the theory had two major premises: researchers have a right to know what records exist, and researchers have a right to know which extant records are available for research use and which are restricted for some period of time. According to Peterson, “These premises culminated in the assertion that records are available on terms of equal access for all users […] and a philosophic commitment to the free exchange of information and ideas as the underpinning of society.”

As a method of distributing knowledge, American archives have been practicing a doctrine of equal access that resembles Plan S for many decades. A co-leader of the task force to implement Plan S described its goal as “making publicly funded research a global public good that can be utilized by anyone.” Today, the SAA’s statement on access and use described in its “Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics” reflects the values formulated in the 1960s and also asks us to be cognizant of the goal of access and use – to provide a public good: “Even individuals who do not directly use archival materials benefit indirectly from research, public programs, and other forms of archival use, including the symbolic value of knowing that such records exist and can be accessed when needed.”

In an online world of post-truth, alternative facts, disinformation and personalized click-bait, archival values are more important than ever. I often hear colleagues say that we’re behind the game, that the technology we employ to create access to our collections is not as good as the technology employed by other sectors, but I would argue that we’re ahead of the game, that values like equal access ensure that our work contributes to the public good as we grapple with the challenges and opportunities of the digital age, so that primary source information can continue to be discussed, challenged, and tested no matter how esoteric the subject matter.

Resources Consulted:

Akst, Jef. “Open-Access Program Plan S Relaxes Rules.” The Scientist, May 31, 2019. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/open-access-program-plan-s-relaxes-rules-65955

Buranyi, Stephen. “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?” The Guardian, Jun 27, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science

Kwon, Diana. “Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls.” The Scientist, Dec 19, 2019. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/plan-s–the-ambitious-initiative-to-end-the-reign-of-paywalls-65231

Lippard, Kelsey Lovewell. “Open Archives.” UARK Libraries, Oct 26, 2017. https://librariesblog.uark.edu/open-archives/

Panitch, Judith. “Liberty, Equality, Posterity?: Some Archival Lessons from the Case of the French Revolution.” The American Archivist 59, no. 1 (1996): 30-47. https://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.59.1.an67076131u104kj

Peterson, Trudy. “The National Archives and the Archival Theorist Revisited, 1954-1984.” The American Archivist 49, no. 2 (1986): 125-33. https://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.49.2.kp004u5716652n40

Schlitz, Marc. “Why Plan S: Open Access is Foundational to the Scientific Enterprise.” Coalition S, Sept 4, 2018. https://www.coalition-s.org/why-plan-s/

Taylor, Ashley P. “Max Planck Society Ends Elsevier Subscription.” The Scientist, Dec 20, 2018. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/max-planck-society-ends-elsevier-subscription-65258

Archivists on the Issues: Building a Community of Loners

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Joanna Black, the Digital Archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library.

When graduating with my MLIS about nine years ago — deep in the trenches of the economic recession — I had a very difficult time breaking into the professional archives world. Applications went out, nothing came back. I felt disheartened, inadequate, unprepared, and increasingly isolated. Amidst these difficult feelings, I recalled the guidance of the wise whose voices rang out in my ear, “Network! Connect! Participate!” 3b48729vSo I did what my introverted self was so hesitant to do: I reached out. I joined the SAA mentoring program and the Society of California Archivists Publications Committee. I started an archives-focused blog (very outdated now) to discuss issues in the field. I set up informational interviews at collecting institutions. I helped friends and family tackle their own archives. I did anything I could to get my foot in the door and move my career forward.

I eventually snagged a job. And a few year later, another, and another. As my professional experiences expanded, so too did my instincts for archival practice. So when I was thrown into a lone arranger position without notice, I wasn’t entirely unprepared. “You’ve got good instincts,” my colleague and friend Marjorie Bryer once told me, “you’ll make the right decisions.” But being a lone arranger can be difficult and, well, lonely. YOU make the decisions. YOU endure the consequences. YOU advocate for yourself. And although our professional organizations do provide some support, it is hard to resist falling victim to imposter syndrome from time to time.

 

At the Society of California Archivists (SCA) annual general meeting this last April, I attended a wonderful session called “Solution Room: Archivist at Work / as Workers.” As pexels-photo-935870part of the session, participants identified one of five key topics listed on the screen and broke into groups to discuss the one that resonated with them most. Topics ranged from wages and working conditions to supporting a more diverse profession. Although all the topics were significant, I was personally drawn to Group 1: Communities of Support which asked, “How can we create communities of support, and find common cause? How can SCA support archivists working in isolation?” Our small group burst with ideas for creating more communities of support within our profession, such as establishing an SCA mentoring program, providing a “helpline” for lone arrangers to call if a question comes up, and coordinating virtual and in-person meet ups for lone arrangers to support one another. As the session ended, I felt grateful knowing I was not alone and professional organizations want to do more to support lone arranger archivists. I felt grateful knowing that there is a larger dialog taking place about the need for community building in the archival profession. The implications of networking go so much farther than just snagging a job; they also ensure that once we have a job we’re able to sustain it.

Cultivating relationships with other archivists outside our institutions can be a form of survival for lone arrangers. When we have a problem, we can ask someone who has solved it before. When we are pushed to the brink of what we can accomplish on a shoestring budget, we can lean on our colleagues for support. When we feel like frauds, 3b50247rour archivist colleagues dispel that falesy and remind us of our worth. Especially for lone arrangers, being part of a “community of loners” can provide camaraderie and shared experience within an otherwise isolated environment.

When I pushed my shy, naive self to network with colleagues after graduating all those years ago, I thought the point was to gain employment. I didn’t realize I was also cultivating friendships that I would one day rely on for professional growth and support. I didn’t realize that by engaging with other professionals, I was laying the groundwork for my future membership in a community of lone arrangers.

For archivists, jobs can be few and far between. We may not choose to be lone arrangers but nonetheless find ourselves in that position at some point in our career. As if advocating for our work is not hard enough, doing so alone can feel near impossible. But having a professional community to lean on helps alleviate some of these challenges and provides a sense of connectedness. Belonging to a community is such an essential element of life outside of work, why not do more to establish them within our careers? If we can be advocates for our colleagues, those outside of the profession will begin to know our value too.

 

Archivists on the Issues: Rare & Ephemeral: a snapshot of full-time New England archives jobs, 2018-2019

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Genna Duplisea, the Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Salve Regina University. Genna would like to send special thanks to Caitlin Birch, Jaimie Fritz, and Olivia Mandica-Hart for reading and commenting on this piece, and to Suzy Morgan and everyone else who gave feedback during the initial data collection phase.

 

At the university where I currently work, there is a small but enthusiastic contingent of undergraduate students in the cultural and historic preservation and history majors interested in pursuing library school. As I am asked to give a picture of the archives profession to newly-declared majors every year, I think of the inadequate job market and question whether I am advising them well. This spring, feeling disheartened by what seemed like very few job postings and a rash of term positions, I found myself wondering if the data supported my perception that there weren’t enough opportunities for all the archivists in the region.

Methodology

I compiled information on full-time archives positions in the six New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont) posted between April 1, 2018 and April 1, 2019. My sources were the Simmons University Jobline (http://blogs.simmons.edu/slis/jobline/), ArchivesGig (https://archivesgig.com/), and the New England Archivists and Society of American Archivists listservs.

Compiling this data required making decisions about what constituted an archives job. I included any position shared through archivist professional venues, even if it was unclear whether most archival training would be appropriate to the position. I included museum positions that related to collections care, digital collections, or other skill sets that overlap with archives training (but not positions unrelated to archives work, such as development). I included corporate positions as well as public, academic, government, or non-profit positions. A position needed to dedicate at least half of its time to archival work to be included. Temporary positions were included if those postings were full-time, as were positions that did not require a Master’s degree.

Because I began this project after many job postings had expired, some information is missing. In some cases I had to make assumptions about whether a salary grade was posted, after reviewing the institution’s general practices in job postings. (For example, I knew several larger institutions (such as Harvard and Yale Universities) always post salary grades; conversely, if a review of an institution’s current positions generally did not include salary information, then I assumed that there had not been any in the post I was researching.) Future research would be more effective if job posting information were to be downloaded and recorded as it is posted, so that original postings can serve as reference points and more information can be gathered before the removal of inactive positions from job boards.

This study is a snapshot of a year in the New England archives profession, allowing for some broad conclusions rather than a statistically significant analysis. Undoubtedly, I have still missed a few, but positions I hope to draw useful conclusions from the data. The full table is available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YglMlu_SOIUXyknVzTvxiJSj_VC9v-Pb/view?usp=sharing.

The survey found 115 full-time archives jobs at institutions within the six New England states posted between April 1, 2018 and April 1, 2019.

Salary information

Most of the job postings did not include any salary information at all, whether a flat number, a grade, or a range. Of the 115 total positions, posting information was insufficient in 30 of them and it was impossible to tell whether salary information had originally been present. Of the remaining 85 positions, 47 (55.3%) included salary information, and 38 (44.7%) did not.

If we exclude Harvard and Yale, the two largest employers in this survey, then the salary information becomes paltry — only 17 positions at other institutions included salary information. There was not enough information on salary amounts to conclude anything substantial.

Location

Of the 115 positions, 30 of them (26%) were at Harvard or Yale Universities, meaning that over a quarter of all archives jobs posted in New England last year were at one of those institutions. The state with the highest number of postings was Massachusetts with 73 (63.4%). Connecticut had 25 (21.7%) postings, and Rhode Island had nine (8%). Vermont and Maine each had three postings (2.6% each) for the entire year, and New Hampshire had two (1.7%).

Temporary & Contingent Positions

The permanency of 11 positions was unclear. Of the remaining 104 positions, 72 (69.2%) were permanent. The rest were temporary positions, with terms ranging from two months to five years but mostly appointments lasting less than two years.

The value of the MS or MSLIS

Of the 115 positions, it was unclear in 25 of them whether a Master’s degree was required. Of the remaining 90, 61 (67.7%) required a Master’s or higher (one position required a Ph. D). Twenty-nine positions (27.7%) did not require it, and of those, 12 positions did not require a Master’s but preferred it.

Archives grads

For context, I was interested in finding out how many new archivists there were every year. The only archives management degree in an ALA-accredited LIS program in the New England region is at Simmons University in Boston. The Simmons University Office of Institutional Research provided information regarding the number of graduates with the archives management concentration. This includes graduates who earned the concentration in-person or online, and also includes graduates who pursued the dual-Master’s MS/MA program in Archives Management and History. (I myself am a graduate of this program.) Of course, not all archivists have Master’s degrees; not all Simmons University graduates stay in the region; not all archives graduates seek jobs in the archives field; and not all archivists in New England went to Simmons. The University of Rhode Island also has a library school (though not an archives-focused degree), and there are several public history Master’s programs in the region; all of these, as well as online programs, also train area professionals who work in archives, but the number of archivist graduates would be more difficult to track. Still, Simmons’s data provides an idea of how many new archivists enter the job market in the region annually.

NE_graddata
Graph created by the author using data from the Simmons University Office of Institutional Research.

For the past ten years, the annual number of Simmons archives graduates has more than doubled, from 56 in 2008 to 121 in 2017. (The latest figure for archives degrees awarded in academic year 2018-2019 is 38, but this does not include the 2019 spring semester.) The increase has not been steady, with a drop between 2012 and 2014, but the program has consistently grown since then. The online program began awarding degrees in 2014, and represents a substantial minority of those degrees. All told, 872 professionals have graduated with archives degrees from Simmons in the past decade.

Discussion

It does not seem that the job market in New England is supporting the influx of new graduates, or emerging and seasoned professionals. The exponential annual increase of digital information alone means, in my view, that society needs more archivists. A separate but related conversation with current archivists would surely conclude that people in this profession are overworked and understaffed, with job responsibilities ranging from processing to digitization to records management to teaching to digital preservation.

The Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA) has demonstrated concern for a dearth of salary information and low pay. SSA President Mark Lambert has published a series on the failure of national organizations and top archives directors are failing the profession (https://www.southwestarchivists.org/poor-pay-in-archives-how-top-archives-directors-and-our-national-organizations-are-failing-us/). Lack of transparency about archivist salaries allows institutions to avoid providing competitive compensation, and can generate huge wastes of time for candidates and hiring committees when applicants do not know whether a position will compensate them adequately. Last fall, SSA began collecting regional salary data (https://www.southwestarchivists.org/home/archives-regional-salary-research/). At its spring 2019 meeting, the Society of Southwest Archivists voted to stop posting or sharing job advertisements that did not include salary information (https://www.southwestarchivists.org/salary-information-now-required-in-job-postings/). As of this writing, a group of archivists is collecting information for a proposal to SAA Council to require the organization to require salaries in job postings (https://harvard.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_efCj42MurbrLAj3), and New England Archivists is considering a similar change. More regional and national organizations, not to mention library schools, could make similar statements and take action to support its communities of learners and professionals.

It has been a decade and a half since the Society of American Archivists conducted A*CENSUS (Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States), which revealed trends about the archival profession and archival education. The SAA annual meeting this year includes a task force on A*CENSUS II. Pre-planning for the survey will be complete by early 2020, with the Committee on Research, Data, and Assessment (CoRDA) implementing it thereafter. (https://www2.archivists.org/news/2018/saa-council-affirms-strategic-goals-creates-research-committee)

The frequency of temporary and project postings demonstrates how dependent the archives profession is on external or limited funding. It is alarming that nearly a third of the archives positions posted last year were term-limited. I focused on full-time positions because I wanted to get a grasp on the types of positions people graduating from archives programs ideally want — secure, full-time, in a relevant field. Yet even this set of supposedly ideal positions show that job insecurity prevails. Professional organizations have a role to play in supporting the creation of stable, benefited, appropriately-compensated positions for its members. New England Archivists supported a study on contingent employment, released in January 2017 (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1aFVWuA6zJsrTGFoPuKeU8K6SJ1Sggv2h/view). In response to the UCLA Special Collections Librarians open letter on contingent employment published in June 2018, NEA released a statement later that year (https://www.newenglandarchivists.org/Official-Statements/6814976).

A trend of precarious stewardship threatens archival collections, to say nothing of the impact on individuals struggling for economic stability. Eira Tansey’s recent May Day blog post pointed out that the best way to protect collections is to secure stable, ongoing support for staff (http://eiratansey.com/2018/05/01/mayday-on-may-day/). Yet the inadequate number of new positions, combined with the trends of salary secrecy and contingent positions, seem to demonstrate that archives are not valued as core functions necessitating ongoing operational funding within an organization. If the collections that archivists steward have enduring value to their institutions, then the staff should experience similar value and respect for their work.

 

 

Archivists on the Issues: I’m sorry, can you repeat that? Navigating Archives while Hard-of-Hearing

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Michelle Ganz, the Archives Director at McDonough Innovation,

Hard of Hearing (HoH) covers everything from not being able to hear certain vocal ranges or pitches to only being able to hear with the help of hearing aids or cochlear implants.

Every HoH person’s condition, and therefore experience, is different. Everyone has different coping techniques and strategies to navigate the world we live in and the environments we move through. I’d like to share my experience and how that has informed how I have navigated my professional life as a lone arranger.

I was born deaf in my left ear and have slightly diminished hearing in my right ear, especially in the higher tonal ranges. Until a few years ago I managed without a hearing aid but as I have gotten older the efforts to hear became exhausting and I decided it was time to get help. Before the hearing aid I spent a lot of time completely panicked that I was missing critical information at school, at work, and anywhere that wasn’t home. After the hearing aid everything is louder, but that doesn’t translate to easier to hear. If a room has a lot of white noise, electronics, or cross-talk all I hear is a cloud of indistinguishable sound. When I was first transitioning to the hearing aid I would often have to flee from group situations to sit in a dark room until I could calm down from the overstimulation coupled with even less understanding. Those moments have passed, but I still have problems every day with basic vocal interactions; even in seemingly quiet spaces. Having an invisible disability can make an already challenging situation feel insurmountable.

The type of active listening and hyper-awareness of my surroundings that I have to engage in every day is exhausting, stressful, and isolating.  Some days are better than others, but what really adds to the load is the constant reminders to others: of my disability, of the best ways to communicate with me, or the concessions that need to be made for me. At best this sets me apart from the rest of the team, and at worst I’m seen as a disruption to the normal flow of work. People require regular assertions that I am not making things up to take advantage of perceived ‘perks.’ I feel like I constantly have to apologize for being a ‘burden’ for requesting special accommodations or basic courtesies. This means that I don’t always tell people that I can’t understand them.  It means I spend a lot of time wondering if I misunderstood something or completely missed something I should have heard. It means when I ask people to repeat things sometimes I have to ask so many times they just give up and walk away. It means I’ve sat in meetings and wondered what the heck was going on because everyone mumbled and the pace was too fast for me to ask for everything to be repeated.

Wearing a hearing aid has helped tremendously, but it doesn’t fix all my problems. It is paired with my cell phone (which is awesome) so phone calls stream directly to my ear, but conventional phones are nearly impossible for me to use. Listening to webinars on my computer, participating in conference calls, and other routine uses of technology can be difficult or outright impossible. Regular interactions with my colleagues in our kitchen are always a struggle, especially when the coffee machine is doing its very loud fresh-grind thing. People get uncomfortable with being asked to repeat an offhand anecdote or comment so it’s just easier for me to smile and nod rather than try to figure out what they said. Meetings can be totally derailed by requests to repeat something, or even worse, having to have someone else repeat what was said.  My boss is quiet and often mumbles, and does not like to repeat himself. I have spent hours trying to figure out what I missed from one of our meetings. When I used to do teaching sessions questions from students were the most difficult part of the class. At my last archive I had to conduct a lot of reference interviews over the phone with researchers who were often elderly or had difficult-to-distinguish local accents. This was frustrating for the patrons, who just wanted quick answers, and frustrating for me since it often derailed outreach efforts.

I understand that the vast majority of people will go their whole lives without knowingly interacting with someone who is HoH. But hearing loss affects millions of people (many of whom don’t even realize they have issues) and hearing issues are going to become a more prevalent issue in archival spaces and in everyday life. Our world is filled with white noise; even reading rooms have a lot of ‘noise’ not noticeable to most people. If I deeply engrossed in my work and there’s a fan on I will not hear you unless you get my attention first.

I also understand that people can’t grow and change if they a) don’t realize they are doing something wrong and b) if they don’t know where to start. To that end here are some of the things that I would like everyone to know.

The recommendations I’m laying out here are ones that I believe you should adopt with everyone. I believe that if you use the same sort of approach with everyone you will move the onus of service back onto yourself. Take a look at the resources I’ve listed below like the diversity work group page as well as the access statement on disabilities currently being updated. But mostly, use common sense. None of the things I lay out here are complicated, costly, or even time consuming. They just take practice to become part of how you approach every interaction.

Make eye contact

It’s easier for me to know you are talking to me and not someone else in the room if you make eye contact before you start to speak. It’s also an important way for you to tell that I’m actually listening.

Don’t cover your mouth / Make it easy for your mouth to be seen

Lip reading doesn’t work like in the movies. You can only catch about 40% of what someone is saying and it’s really hard to figure out since your mouth makes the same motions for a lot of different words. BUT we do use lip reading to confirm that what we are hearing is matching what your mouth is doing.

Speak clearly / use a microphone

If you speak clearly and enunciate your words it will be much easier for me to understand you. If there is a microphone in the room please use it. See the great blog post by Jessie Ramey (link below) on this very topic. She addresses the issue of people who don’t use microphones.

Have an alternative method of communication via digital or physical notepad

There is nothing more frustrating than a communication barrier. Have an alternative method like the notepad on your phone or a piece of paper. For many hard of hearing people the higher registers and tones of a woman’s voice can be difficult to understand; don’t be insulted if we ask to speak with someone with a lower voice (and yes, this often means a male voice). And don’t assume that I know sign language. Most hard of hearing people do not.

Be understanding of involuntary noise or levels of loudness.

Hard of hearing people are loud. We usually don’t realize that we are making a ruckus or causing a disruption. I have no idea how loud I am, especially in a quiet room or if I’ve been intently working on something. I use outside stimuli to determine my own levels of noise; often I have grossly misjudged but don’t know until people around me react like a bomb went off. Be polite and we’ll do our best to keep it down.

Don’t assume, ask

I would rather you ask me a hundred times what I’d like you to do than you assume and get it wrong. Assumptions (or even worse, asking the person with me) are infantilizing and marginalizing.

I’ve spent my whole life dealing with being HoH, I spent my childhood hiding it, my college years learning how to advocate for myself, and my adult life working so that today’s and tomorrow’s kids don’t have to hide. But at the end of the day none of my efforts mean anything if able-bodied people don’t acknowledge invisible disabilities and take steps to ensure that they are treating everyone with respect.

 

Resources:

Working Group on Accessibility resources

The group has completed its task but the microsite has a ton of great resources and links to additional information.

Guidelines for Access Archives for People with Disabilities

The Approved guidelines for access. This is great resource to help you develop policies and to provide support with administration.

A Note From Your Colleagues With Hearing Loss: Just Use a Microphone Already

A fantastic blog post about the importance of things like microphones to HoH people.

 

There are a number of deaf and hard of hearing people on YouTube who have a ton of really great videos about their experiences. They explain a lot of things that HoH people deal with and review things like assistive technologies. I’m a big fan of Jessica Kellgren-Fozard and Rikki Poynter.

Archivists on the Issues: Archivists: The Superheroes of Time Travel

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Joanna Black, the Digital Archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library.

 

Data-entry-clerk
Woman Data entry clerk entering data for legitimate online jobs. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

I am incredibly honored to release my first blog post as a contributor to the SAA Issues and Advocacy Section Archivists on the Issues Blog Series. In joining a distinguished pool of past writers, I hope to build on existing perspectives and suggest topics that reflect some of the broader issues archivists confront within an incredibly diverse profession. Whether one is a cataloger, digital asset specialist, processing archivist, or somewhere in between, it is imperative that archival professionals align the job with their own core values. As I reflect on the ways the archival profession creates positive change in the world and how many other livelihoods simply don’t — specifically those that utilize cheating, harming, or killing to advance a “bottom-line” — I can’t help but ask, “How do I hold my values in one hand and perform hours of data entry with the other, without losing sight of the greater goal?

 

It is early afternoon toward the end of a long work week. A spreadsheet stretches wide across two oversized computer monitors. I am dizzy from scanning rows, columns, and boxes, inputting endless metadata. I pause, close my eyes to reset my vision, and gaze back at my sheet. Though at times I crave a good spreadsheet, I can only sit with one for so long until I think, “What am I doing with my life?” I have to step back and remind myself that although the spreadsheet may sometimes be a challenging part of my job, it has great significance. In preserving the “stuff” of the past — context, provenance, metadata, the nitty, gritty details that breathe life into collections — I can draw a direct connection between the duties of my nine-to-five job and the values that drive my life.

 

time_travel
Time Travel by Randall Munroe

Without knowing it, time travel is what led me to a career in archives. While pursuing a creative writing degree at San Francisco State University and interning at the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, I became enthralled with archives and the notion ofaccessibility. In working with my first archival object — a 1967 recording of Allen Ginsberg chanting the “Wichita Vortex Sutra” — it became immediately clear to me that people need to know these materials from the past exist; otherwise, what’s the point of preserving them? At that moment, I knew working with archival materials had some kind of intrinsic positive power to connect people across time. By recognizing archivists’ ability to time travel through memory, my drive to correct the wrongs of the past by amplifying experiences of the historically silenced took on new momentum.

 

ImmigrantFamiliesSigns
LGBT families for immigration reform, by Christopher Edwards

As an archivist today, I’ve built upon my roots in creative writing and pursue work that supports positive social and environmental justice reform. For three years, I served as the head archivist at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, an LGBTQ non-profit that “collects, preserves, exhibits and makes accessible to the public materials and knowledge to support and promote understanding of LGBTQ history, culture and arts in all their diversity.” Since summer 2018, I have been serving as the first staff archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library, a special collections library documenting the club’s 127 year history in environmental justice. In both positions, I have been able to merge my personal and professional passions to build a more equitable, inclusive, and just world by protecting and disseminating truth through the archival record. Whereas creative writing was an early mode for these intentions to manifest, archival work serves my passions even more broadly. Archivists, much like poets, are truth tellers; we share not just the loud truths, but the quiet truths whispered by those whom history often erases.

 

DC-Climate-March-2017-1070304_(33977952010)
Photos taken at the 2017 DC Climate March on April 29, 2017, by Mark Dixon

At a Sierra Club staff meeting last month, the Executive Director of the organization spoke about some of the club’s most recent victories. At the conclusion of his speech he said, “Our job is to change what people think is possible.” For archivists — the superheroes of time travel, the truth tellers of the past — it is especially relevant. Our individual pasts, stories, and experiences have enriched an increasingly diverse profession strengthened by differences in perspective. And with these differences, we each come to the profession out of a personal desire to make the world a more equitable, honest place. When archivists uncover truths, they stitch a small thread into a massive cultural and historic fabric, changing the pattern of that fabric for centuries to come.

 

Any time the spreadsheet doldrums get me down, I take a moment to remind myself of why I got into the archives profession all those years ago. Being an archivist is more than just a job; it is a means of traveling through collective memory and defending truths. Knowing that the ramifications of archival work stretch across space and time, archival professionals can be secure in knowing that we are true time travelers fueled by a passion to spread truth and promote greater justice. This is our professional foundation. The spreadsheet is simply a brick.