I'll be giving a little talk next month at the fortieth anniversary conference of the Society of Georgia Archivists, and SGA asked a few of the speakers at the conference to answer a handful of questions about archives, for publication on their blog.
I've ignored this dear blog of my own for so long, since other responsibilities and interests have eaten away my time, that I thought I should repeat these questions here, in the hope that doing so might encourage me to do a little more thinking about archives in this space. Whether this tactic works or not to motivate me, I had a good time answering these questions:
How did you become an archivist?
At some point early in adulthood, I had a couple of degrees in English clutched in my fist and no interest in making the next step and earning a PhD in the field. I found myself in need of a career, so I faced a decision that thousands of people have had to make over the course of human history: Do I become an archivist or a lexicographer? My interest in lexicography, which continues to this day, grew out of my interest in language and the magical way in which discrete sets sounds or markings could carry so much meaning. My interest in archives grew out of my early work as a genealogist, where the only valuable research—I soon came to discover—came from using actual records. Of course, both fields have an abiding focus on detail and thoroughness, which helped make my decision more difficult.
But my life experiences made my ultimate decision simple. One day in a small town in rural France, I stumbled across a critical church book, a book I didn’t know existed in a town I had not planned to visit, and that changed me. The process of finding the book was happenstance. My father and I had stopped at a church to ask directions to the next town, and the priest there suggested we look through his books. The book itself was tossed in a cabinet filled with books and papers askew, and the ink was flaking off its pages, leading me to wonder how much longer the volume would last.
I became an archivist because I decided that this field held more opportunity than lexicography did, and that proved to be a correct conclusion. But I really became an archivist because I decided that people needed something better than happenstance to find a record, because I realized that records needed to be cared for if we wanted them to last and be used into the future, and because archives is a humanistic enterprise: We keep records not for the records themselves, but for the people who need them. Although central to our imagination, records are almost ancillary to our mission because those records have value only to the degree that people need them, to the extent that the records serve humanity, in big and small ways.
So I am an archivist because I’m passionate about the interplay between the record as a continuing embodiment of humanness and the humans whose lives and work and passions can be supported by those records.
What's changed the most since you became an archivist?
I am just old enough so that my training for my MLS included only cursory coverage of electronic records. In 1988, there were still a few people at school who did not have computers of their own, and people were a little unsure about what this electronic world was going to be and how it was going to affect our lives. So although there have been many changes to the profession since I became an archivist—a greater reliance on standards, a healthy broadening of the archival profession, and clear progress towards greater professionalism—the biggest change is that huge and often sleeping giant in our midst: electronic records and our crying need to manage them well. The question of “forever,” the question of permanence haunts us deeply with electronic records, and we still feel incapable of dealing with electronic records.
And that self-doubt shows. Most of us struggle to deal with electronic records. A few hope to avoid them altogether. Many probably believe that electronic records do not have the allure, the ineffable attraction of paper records or, better yet, records on parchment—yet these all are merely signs of human activity, each filled with the same blood and life that any other record of the same type holds. If anything will define our era of archives, if anything has the greatest potential to leave our tender throats exposed to the sharp blade of criticism, it is how we address this huge necessary change in our work. This is our greatest challenge, and one that we have to be up to. We cannot lose this battle. The signs everywhere demonstrate that we are experiencing a digital sea change at this very moment. Digital photography far outstrips traditional photography. A current blockbuster best seller is selling better on Amazon.com as an e-book than in paper. And most of the recorded information in the world is born digital and often dies without ever touching paper. If we don’t teach ourselves how to manage electronic records, we will be incapable of fulfilling our broad mission to document human activity. The recorded world, the world of unique and fleeting records, the world that we are responsible for preserving, will disappear.
What's stayed the same (for better or worse)?
Even in the face of enormous change over the last twenty years, I’m sure that much has remained unchanged, but what I think about most in this regard is us. As archivists, we are sometimes too cautious for our own good. Why? Because we know that we are each an essential link in a profound chain of responsibility, and because we know that our mistakes could very well have negative consequences that will last forever. Any record lost or destroyed on our watch is likely a record that will never be seen again, so caution is our byword. But caution can take us only so far. At some point we need to be fearless, we need to take calculated risks, we need to accept (for instance) that we might fail if we try to preserve electronic records. Yet if we do nothing, we know we will fail, and we cannot guarantee failure. What we, as archivists, have to learn, even if it goes against our general nature sometimes, is how to take risks and how to advocate for necessary change in our organizations.
How did you become interested in electronic records?
As computers arrived in our lives, I became interested in them for what they could do for us, for how they could change our lives, so I experimented early with computers to figure out how they might support a different kind of writing, provide greater control over page design, and allow for the creation of kinetic poems for the screen. And this last interest made me someone interested in the knotty problems of digital preservation back in 1986. Starting back then, before I was an archivist or thinking of becoming one, I developed a plan for preserving the first significant collection of early digital poems, the Canadian poet bpNichol’s “First Screening." To ensure the preservation of these poems, I preserved, as well as I could, the original 5.25-inch diskette that held them and a backup copy I had made, I printed out the computer code, and I created a videotape of the poems playing on a screen. What I failed to do was save the code electronically, but I saved enough for a dedicated group of people to reproduce the original experience of watching these poems move on screen. I was the only archivist in this endeavor.
My interest in electronic records, you see, grew out of a personal interest in preserving digital experiences of what it is to be human. What I didn’t want to lose was that sense of what we were as humans at any point in the digital past. For some people, the digital world is somehow inhuman and soulless, but I do not see it in that way. The digital is what makes us unique as animals. The digital is simply another way in which we express ourselves. I like to tell people that digital records are those records that best represent us because they, like us, require electrical impulses to be.
What advice do you have for new archivists or those interested in the profession?
My first bit of advice to new archivists is “Don’t limit yourself.” When I was in library school, my goal was to work eventually in literary manuscripts. And I have seen a literary manuscript or two in my career, but those opportunities to work in that particular field never materialized. Instead, work in government records did, and work with a broader records management focus but centered in an archival framework. What I have found is that this work is exciting, various, challenging, and that it has allowed me to work with hundreds, if not thousands, of people over my career. The flexibility I had, borne originally merely out of a desire to pay my bills, proved more than worth it in the end. My other bit of advice is to take pride in what we do as archivists, and by that I don’t mean that we should take pride in how we care for records (though we must do that as well). I mean that we must realize, accept, and prize that we are service workers, that we serve, every day, human beings. There is no higher calling.