Eira Tansey

Professionals without Professionalism, Part 3

Part 1: The shutdown of the Archives & Archivists listserv

Part 2: The landscape of archivist professional dialogue

After spending a lot of time thinking about what the current state of archivist discourse is like, I started thinking about how much more and better and varied it could be. So, this last post in this series is a bit of a wishlist of things I want to see develop over the coming years.

Let’s start planting some seeds, archivists.

We need to increase the amount of conversation in general and with more archivists’ voices at the table. 

It’s striking to me how few archivists are engaged in public conversation about the profession. I wish it were a professional norm among everyone to engage in active conversations about the nature of our work, and yet there are many archivists out there who are not participating in these conversations whatsoever. As a result, the same voices dominate conversations about digital preservation, archival social justice, metadata, DACS, copyright, etc etc.  I personally find this really baffling. Sometimes I get the sense that lots of people are listening, and reading but not… contributing. Why is this? Is it because they feel like they don’t have something to contribute? Is it because we’re afraid to critique others’ ideas? I often hear anecdotal evidence that people are “not supported” in their jobs to read and write, but I also don’t know of many archivists who are working in a billable hours environment.

Divest our dialogue from platforms owned by profit-oriented companies.

This is a big one for me because I am planning to leave Twitter soon, and the only reason I haven’t quit sooner is because Archivist Twitter brings me a lot of joy and information.

I don’t really know what the answer to this is. Could we go back to 2005 with everyone owning their own domain, when people read blogs and left really thoughtful comments on them, and our main hits of new information came via RSS, and that was the main internet discourse? I know that that environment had its issues, but I miss how non-monetized it was and how people didn’t give a shit about their brand and how it was SLOW. I guess I can dream. I personally want to revive Reading Archivists.

We need a renewed emphasis on the public implications of institutional recordkeeping, especially by governments.

I am a bit skeptical of the recent emphasis on collecting social justice from demonstrations and private parties as the major expression of archival social justice (and I say this as someone who is active in some of those efforts). In my opinion, the greatest impact we could have on effecting social justice through recordkeeping is to assert the public interest on records issues – like demanding consistent access to law enforcement records, pushing against the creation of surveillance records, and so on.

Millions of people are affected by records that will never be transferred to an archival repository. These are also the same records that will disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Archivists need to be active participants in these efforts, and right now, we generally are not.

We need the voices of government and corporate archivists in our professional dialogues.

I’m not the first archivist to observe how atomized our already small profession is, and how dominated by university affiliations the general makeup of the Society of American Archivists has been. Clearly many archivists have found organizational homes elsewhere that meet their needs more than SAA. I don’t blame them, but I still miss their voices. As a past Nominating Committee member, and a current chair of the SAA Records Management Section, I’ve seen how much the domination of academic archivists within SAA has pernicious underdiscussed effects. While I’m an academic archivist myself, a huge part of my work is informed by public records issues. It is stunning to me how many archivists within SAA spaces do not understand extremely basic information about FOIA and the way state records issues depart from federal records issues, and I think this is because we do not hear from government archivists as often as we hear from academic archivists within archival discourse.

This would be kind of amusing if it weren’t such an obstacle for our profession. The worst is during the inevitable “politicians who fuck up their recordkeeping obligations.” I’ve seen SAA leaders, who come from an academic background, sharing information that blatantly is contradictory to NARA policy. How the hell are we supposed to advocate for the archival profession when we can’t even get our news stories right?

We need ways for great minds that think alike to find each other for collaboration

Much like finding a way to divest from profit-driven platforms, this one is a bit of a head-scratcher but I still feel strongly about it. I’m pretty well-connected and know who to ask if I’m thinking about starting a new project and want to find collaborators. But this takes a really long time to figure this out for new professionals and it shouldn’t have to be this hard. I wish there was a universal matchmaking directory where people could say “here are the projects I’m working on, I’m looking for collaborators to help me with this part” and then we could all be doing fun amazing things together.

We need more archivists to represent our profession outside of our profession

As my interests have drifted towards environmental issues, I’ve started to attend conferences in other fields. I’ve also published in non-archives journals. And it’s the best thing ever. I realize that flexible conference funding is a huge area of privilege, and I wish I had a good answer for how to start solving this. But I strongly encourage other archivists within whatever capacity they have to present to, work with, and write for non-archivist audiences when possible. It helps us learn how to talk about what we do to people who have no idea what we do (or at history conferences, people who think they know what we do), and often times non-archivists get super-excited about your work when you talk about it, which is lovely and affirming.

What’s on your archives dialogue wishlist?



Categorised as: professionalism


  1. bjules says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say here, especially the first point about why more archivists don’t speak up. I’m often frustrated by this as well but I try to understand why some folks might not want to put their thoughts out there. It can be a scary thing. I still get anxious every time I tweet something or publish a blog post that goes against the traditional and this is mostly because people of color who speak up in this profession oftentimes receive negative push back that many don’t see. We also never know people’s situations at their home institutions. They may not be in a climate that supports speaking out. All that said I think folks should still try find ways to join the conversation. One thing that helped me was getting encouragement from folks who had been in the game raising hell for a while and having opportunities to co-write or co-present with them. I’m happy to do the same for folks.

    • admin says:

      Bergis – I totally agree with your assessment. I know many people work in environments hostile to professional participation (even in ostensibly benign arenas, like metadata standards development), and I’m glad you commented on what helped you – I’d love to hear more from other folks.

      (Also thanks for commenting, your contributions to the profession are immense!)

  2. Thanks for this post.

    I am really, really glad to see a mention of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws here, both state and federal. Too many (most?) archivists are completely ignorant of these laws and their responsibilities to the public under them, and it only ends up hurting everyone — primarily by denying the public access, of course, but also potentially financially hurting the repositories and institutions if there is a subsequent lawsuit.

    And it’s not the archivists’ fault at all! There really needs to be mandatory FOI training in MLIS programs and/or archives conferences. An afternoon or two is really all it would take. And I love the idea you mentioned on Twitter about forcing all potential archivists to make their own FOI request or two to various public agencies or archives, and then suffer through the usually-lousy response (if you even are granted a response at all, even though it’s supposed to be mandatory). Archivists really need to see what it’s like from the other side of the desk, as it were.

    Which brings me to the next point: in discussing archives and archivists ad nauseam, it is important to look around the room and realize who’s not represented in there: the patrons! Or the would-be patrons, if only the archives that hold our records of interest would deign to publish a listing of their holdings on their website, or if we could get our FOI requests fulfilled when we can’t visit the archives in person, and so on.

    It has gotten so bad that many of us have started banding together, actually starting non-profits that go out and sue archives for our records requests. Like, I personally raised almost seventy thousand dollars in just the past seven months, many from small-money individual donors, to be used to sue archives and put the records online ourselves. And we’re hoping to double that dollar figure in 2018. That’s how fed up we patrons and would-be patrons are.

    I mean, I’m sure years and years of circular firing squad #thatdarnlist discussions are terribly interesting, but they’re just soooo frickin’ insular. Meanwhile, the patrons have had quite enough of this, and are starting to storm the Bastille.

    Finally, I would absolutely agree that there’s a problem with archivists tying themselves to for-profit corporatized domains, but it’s not just about domains where we hold conversations, like Twitter. It’s also domains where we store the actual records! How many times have we seen major archives make the decision to outsource the digitization and records management of incredibly important record sets to problematic companies like Ancestry? How many “five year exclusivity deal” partner contracts does the public have to wait out at NARA — which also never seem to really go online when the five years are up (e.g. the 1940 Federal Census)? How many adult adoptees have to suffer through interfacing with for-profit companies appointed by the states to allow them to request and possibly see their own “open” birth records and adoption papers? Again, there is a lot of patron and would-be patron anger out there at these problems, has been for years, and it is growing.

    And the archives world, even Archives Twitter, seems totally oblivious. It’s a bizarre disconnect.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the comment! Semi-related, quite frankly I wish “release once release all” was reality (which would mitigate much of the need for y’all’s work), but it seems to not be an idea that’s really taken off. For example, someone can see that I recently requested the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection retention schedule, but all they can see is my request, not the responsive records. I understand some requests are massive and would quickly tax agency websites to provide, but the document I requested was a pretty brief PDF (and to WV’s credit, I received it almost as soon as I filed my request), and it’s a shame that it couldn’t be proactively posted alongside my request.

      I strongly suspect this is because in many scenarios (universities, many local governments), FOI requests pass through and are provided by General Counsel, not archivists. And in those scenarios, the view is towards risk management as opposed to information provision by default. Obviously NARA is a totally different ball of wax, and of course state and local records agency staffing varies wildly from place to place.

  3. Thanks for writing this series about professionalism and #thatdarnlist. Some users called A&A a town square. But many sat on the perimeter, talking amongst themselves. Few took the opportunity to walk onto the outdoor stage to share information with the community as a whole. The way people used the square reflected what the majority sought. Such insularity could be damaging, as Bergis Jules eloquently points out.

    Eira, I understand why in Part II you encouraged archivists and information professionals who gathered on A&A to keep current with literature about archival theory. That you mention ignorance of practice (especially of state and Federal requirements) in Part III highlights for me the lack on the List of conversations at deeper levels about archival and records management practice. Given the range of elements that affect electronic records and lack of knowledge about change impacts, much of that has yet to make it into the literature about archives and records management. And is missing in the classroom. All the more reason to regret we couldn’t have had more such conversations on A&A.

    Although I found it frustrating, I appreciate the honesty of #thatdarnlist posters who said in public that they weren’t interested in becoming leaders in the profession and had little time for or interest in reading archival literature or blogs. And that they were on the List primarily to find specific information to enable them to resolve narrow technical or procedural issues. That this was the case made me really appreciate the people who did reflect a managerial perspective (such as Lee Stout in a discussion about the National Archives and Records Administration’s research room hours).

    Unless you’ve been the decision maker and policy official, it can be hard to recognize what that entails. Not just trade-offs (policy issues can be complicated to navigate), but simpler issues, such as budget allocations. One of my bosses explained early my career, “There’s a limited amount of money to spend. If you want me to spend it on your project, tell me for which project I must cut spending.” As another official once said, “No matter what you do, someone’s going to be unhappy.” You learn to live with that.

    People often focus on what they need to achieve their goals, as practitioners, as educators, or as advocates. Limited discussion of theory and practice encouraged the haziness you describe in Part III. Many subscribers, including some SAA members, lack reliable information and practical knowledge about elements that can affect the records life cycle. (It’s why I encouraged people to check reliable links before making assertions.) From creation, records management, disposition, to accessioning or donation, to disclosure review (including FOI) and access by researchers.

    To say nothing of going beyond the “clean room” version posited in statutes and regulations. Looking beyond reductive images of heroes and villains sometimes depicted in news links. And learning about the complex realities of diverse workplaces where people work with records in various jobs. Much of it no longer reflected in records presently created, in contrast to more robust records from the period before the 1970s. All of which makes the breakdown in dialogue about contextual issues on the List all the more unfortunate. Thanks for your commitment to dialogue, improvement, and professionalism, Eira.

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