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.”
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.”
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?
Researcher: My camera?
Researcher: My granola bar?
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!
 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.
 Mary Jo Pugh, Providing Reference Services for Archives and Manuscripts (Chicago, Society of American Archivists, 2005), 150.