No

I don’t know about you, but I am SUPER into Meghan Trainor’s new song, “No.”

My name is – no

My sign is – no

My number is – no

You need to let it go, you need to let it go, need to let it go . . . 

YAAAS . . . when I hear this song on the radio, I get on my diva status. I flip my hand back and forth telling everyone else in the car (which is usually no one LOL), to talk to the hand. Why? Because there is something so disturbingly fun and powerful about saying “No.

Unfortunately, archivists are not immune to this “no” power trip. We have the history (and the emotionally scarred patrons) to show it. For many years, archivists viewed themselves as protectors of and gatekeepers to archival material. In 1981, F. Gerald Ham confronted archivists about their dirty, “no”-ridden past in his well-known article, “Archival Strategies in the Post-Custodial Era.” Ham says,

During the custodial era, the mass of records we contended with was relatively small. . . . Concern with the uniqueness of material in our care, and the normal expectations of our custodial role tended to make us uncommonly introspective, preoccupied with our own gardens. . . . Our custodial ethos also made us excessively proprietary toward our holdings.”[1]

Likewise, Mary Jo Pugh says “in the past, access to manuscript repositories was granted only to ‘serious’ researchers or scholars. . . . In these settings, access was seen as a privilege, not a right.”[2]

While many of these past archivists probably felt as though keeping as many people away from records as possible was the best form of preservation, it also served as the best way to discourage patrons from coming to the archives at all. We have to be cognizant that archival research can be intimidating, and even though archival practice is second nature to us, it is not that way for the majority of our patrons. We may have the tendency to rattle off “no” without even thinking, and we justify it with the excuse that we are just doing our jobs. No harm in that, right? Well, we may not intend any harm, but listen to how this dialogue may sound to a new researcher . . .

Researcher: Can I bring my backpack?

Archivist: No

Researcher: My camera?

Archivist: No

Researcher: My granola bar?

Archivist: No

Researcher My—

Archivist: No

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Now in the archivist’s defense, “no” is an appropriate answer to the researcher’s questions. Cameras, food, beverages, bags, are almost always prohibited in any space where archival materials are being used because all of these items put archival materials in danger. I once had an undergraduate student throw a mini tantrum at the Woodruff Library in the Atlanta University Center. I was there rattling off “no” after “no,” when finally he just had enough and spouted,” We can’t do anything in here!!” I felt discouraged because it seemed that I had given him a negative view of the archives, but on the other hand, I couldn’t just let him disobey access policies at the expense of archival materials. So, as with most things, there’s a bit of a compromise involved. As archivists, we will not shirk our duties as preservers of history. In order to live out this mission, we have to make rules, including access policies, that limit what researchers can and cannot do while they use archives. However, as we do this, we can think of ways to be gentle with our researchers and explain to them why we have these policies and how they can help us fulfill them. Here are a few strategies I’ve picked up to help turn negative answers into more positive ones:

  • Focus on the materials—not the researcher. When we explain to a researcher why he or she cannot do something try not to make it sound personal. Instead, focus on the fact that this particular access policy keeps materials safe.
  • Be consistent. One of the worse things we can do is let our researchers see us engaging in partiality. Let’s remember that the SAA Code of Ethics requires us to uphold equality of access.
  • Smile. A smile goes a long way. Even when you have to give news that’s not the greatest, a smile always makes it better!

 

no button

[1] F. Gerald Ham, “Archival Strategies in the Post Custodial Era,” The American Archivist 44, no.3 (1981): 207, http://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.44.3.6228121p01m8k376.

[2] Mary Jo Pugh, Providing Reference Services for Archives and Manuscripts (Chicago, Society of American Archivists, 2005), 150.

Processing Archivists’ Support Group

I love archives. If you’re reading this blog, hopefully you know that! However, I’m also a human being. And because I’m a human being, I too, can sometimes find archival processing to be a bit boring. After all, continuous hours of sifting through document after document, refoldering, removing paper clips and staples, making preservation copies, etc., has a way of making a girl question the meaning of life! In other words, sometimes I am tempted to stop and ask myself, “Is all of this really necessary?”

Generally, I struggle with these thoughts when I’m working with material that has little to no preservation issues. To the naked eye, the materials look perfectly fine. In fact, the whole idea of having to spend precious time conducting proactive preservation measures seems like, well, a waste of time. Don’t let pristine-looking collections fool you. Most of them are made of organic materials, which means they will inevitably undergo a natural aging process that occurs as their complex polymer molecules slowly break down.[1] Just because a roll of film doesn’t smell like vinegar (yet), a paper clip hasn’t left irreversible rust marks on a document (yet), or a newspaper clipping hasn’t acidified itself into smithereens (yet), does not mean these things will never happen. Honestly, if left to their own devices, all of these deteriorations will eventually take place, especially in environments that experience heat, humidity, excessive light, or stagnant air.

Now, some archivists feel more strongly about the urgency of deterioration than others. This is where the whole MPLP (More Product, Less Process) debate really comes into play.[2] I happen to be a big fan of MPLP in CERTAIN CONTEXTS, but I’m not going to get into the background and implications of this theory today. Instead, I just want to provide a little encouragement to archivists who may be feeling a bit jaded with the current collection they are processing and who may be wondering, “Is all of this really worth it?”

Check out these crazy before and after pictures from the collection I’m processing at my internship. The “before” picture is how I found the newspaper when it was lying on top of some notebook paper. The “after” picture is what I saw when I lifted the newspaper off of the notebook paper.

By golly, acid migration is real!!! So if you’re feeling weary, “just keep processing … just keep processing …” *Dorie voice*

 

[1] Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Preserving Archives & Manuscripts (Chicago, Society of American Archivists, 2010), 95.

[2] To read about MPLP, see Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” The American Archivist 68, no. 2 (2005): 208 – 263.