Individual responsibility. It’s on us to strengthen focus on community–in the archives profession but also in how we work and engage. And by expanding the stories of human experience, good and bad, recorded in archives.
Although the focus is only one of the issues covered, the title of this essay comes from Stacie Williams’s blog post, “Implications of Archival Labor.” She points to the way we describe archives in terms evoking “love and passion.” Sometimes, as she says, that obscures issues such as time and money.
At other times, as for me in much of my recent blogging, the use of such framing stems from a complicated place. I choose to write from a place of love and hope about a profession whose goals I find transcendent. That doesn’t mean I haven’t faced discouragement, grappled with professional challenges for which there were no good answers, or seen disturbing things happen.
That may be the case for others, too. The life journeys of those with whom we engage are not always evident IRL, much less online.
Some of my past experiences with powerful, frightening forces during my archival career have been sobering, lonely, and dark. I’ve learned from them and moved on. At times my blogging reflects my experiences in Fedland, which I sometimes reflect on during my evening walks.
These days I walk towards the light. But the past and present show in the complex combination of idealism and realism with which I discuss archives transcendence. Hoping others do well, wishing them success, is a part of that.
Stacie Williams (@Wribrarian) looked at labor in the context of grant funded projects and the use of poorly paid grad students and unpaid interns and volunteers to process collections and digitize materials. And asked why the archival community is so bad at advocating for itself.
Some of the issues she raised–digitizing materials, how it is done-are part of managing archives and libraries in a time of change. She observed that some of the “labor is often times unequal, rooted historically in sexism, racism, ableism, and classism, and that will always present a challenge to the access we hope to provide.”
Contentious relations between universities and the communities can affect work in academic libraries and archives. So, too, the hidden cost of working among the more privileged. This passage about acceptance caught my eye in @Wribrarian’s discussion of fit:
“If they know the right jokes or listen to the right music or watch the right kinds of shows or perform gender identity in a subjectively acceptable way. And we expect little to no criticism for it.”
Fit and inability to speak up can have a deep impact, especially on job seekers and those in precarious job situations. In 2014, I saw how barriers to job insecure participants discussing employment and labor issues led an online archives forum to implode.
Establishing a Code of Conduct (CoC) expresses the values of a professional association or group. Some participants learn and adjust their behavior in meaningful ways. Others go underground.
Establishing safe space through individual action depends on the willingness of people to speak up on behalf of “the unlike,” not just oneself. This can be indirect or direct. Because the source of disruptive behaviors is not clear, pointing to and rewarding good behaviors is one option.
In Wild West online space without Codes of Conduct, as IRL, defending the vulnerable can place a speaker in the crossfire. Some people are more willing to do that for disadvantaged members than others are.
In space with a CoC, participants who “don’t see the problem” may feel a sense of grievance, even persecution, at having to operate within set rules. Or perceive themselves rather than others as the victim.
Unwritten rules can constrict actions in the workplace or online. In the worst cases they undermine the values in “vision statements” and other official pronouncements. Online and IRL, it takes insight, awareness of individual and group dynamics, humility and a lot of work to establish space where diverse voices are welcome in more than name only.
If old conventions don’t fit you, it can be hard to make your voice heard in a “locker room” or “old-boys club” environment. This especially is the case in settings with towel-snapping status-jockeying putdowns not of individuals but entire professions or classes of people. Or “othering” as bonding mechanisms.
In other settings, fitting in may require using certain jargon, pandering to a popular or elite subset of the group to be cool, or carefully crafting words to suit the predominant style.
The locker room, the clubhouse, the suite for the elite, the overly buzzword-dependent showcase, all can exact a hidden cost on participants. And on the group. Hiding behind masks can limit effective discussion of complex issues and the crafting of solutions.
I limit what I tweet about Fedland but Twitter is my preferred forum for connecting with archivists, librarians, information professionals. However, as a secure, white, female professional rarely subjected to toxic behavior online, I know it is an easier place for me to engage than for others. And that some of us go home to different places than others do.
If you’re on Twitter to push product, or don’t have time to listen, you’re not getting the full benefit of it for learning. As Jarrett Drake observed in a tweet last year about not speaking for others, but letting them choose how, when, where to speak and what they–not you–need to say, sometimes you have to “stfu and listen.”
You see Jarrett at right, with Bergis Jules, at a diversity panel at the Society of American Archivists conference last year. More recently Jarrett spoke on “RadTech Meets RadArch: Towards A New Principle for Archives and Archival Description” at the Radcliffe Conference on Technology and Archival Processing. (I’m still thinking through the complex issues he raised and may blog about some in a future post.)
I don’t have good answers for some of the issues that Stacie Williams raises, such as the use of volunteers. Archivists have discussed unpaid labor off and on in recent years on Twitter and blogs. As with other complex issues, there’s room for various perspectives.
Lance Stuchell offered insightful comments about interns and volunteers in 2014 in a reflective post about his student and employee experiences. He also raised tough questions, admirably so, about insularity and our online echo chambers.
I blogged about the use of volunteers in 2012. Some unpaid labor involves students and job seekers in difficult economic circumstances who do general work similar to what a new hire would do for pay. A few internships lead to jobs but there is a huge supply and demand imbalance, more so than when I graduated.
In certain volunteering situations, retirees with good pensions assist for free on specific time-dependent projects requiring deep-immersion subject matter knowledge that new hires don’t yet have. They could return as well-compensated contractors for one, two, or three years. But they choose to give back as volunteers.
One such person is my longtime friend and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) colleague, Tim Mulligan. We are pictured last month at the same reception at NARA where I had the joy of meeting Meredith Evans. I admire Meredith for her public service and for her work with Bergis Jules on “Documenting the Now.” I admire Tim for his long public service as an archivist-historian and for now giving back to archives as a retiree.
Promoting online engagement comes with a caveat. I recognize the effect of information asymmetry. The higher people are in rank in the archives or library profession, the fewer places they have to be themselves online. Especially in Washington, in Fedland. (Although rare, I like seeing people of high rank show glimpses of their human sides online in engaging ways. I’ve shared at my blog some such stories about people I know and admire.)
Moreover, the elements with which senior officials deal are so complex, the environment so complicated, I’ve rarely if ever seen them covered well, much less fully, in traditional journalism. (I’ve blogged in earlier posts about the problems with “news” on partisan or tendentious sites.)
Seeing your actions misrepresented or not understood is part of life at the top. You have fewer peers than those of us at the managerial and the working levels. But asymmetry affects many others online, too, although not as profoundly. This makes me value willingness to consider “what don’t I know?” all the more.
In “The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight,” David McRaney wrote at You Are Not So Smart about why and how people wear masks, why they often engage in “othering,” and how groups form, bond, and interact.
“If you haven’t, go watch The Breakfast Club and come back. The idea is this: You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for the movie. When you part, you quick-change back and tell the person you are with why you appeared so strange for a moment. They understand, after all, they are also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often.”
Social Media adds to this. Some people are more self-conscious and strategic in use of social media than others. Some Tweet carefully, others are very spontaneous, at times quite visceral. We all represent in various ways.
Which leads me to our obligations to others.
Stacie Williams suggests, “Lift up and make visible the employees who do the digital or processing work, allow them to benefit professionally from their labor in the same way that their managers do. This is a field that takes a lot of people to produce the highest level work.”
Recognizing the contributions of colleagues of all ranks and functions applies in change environments more generally, as well.
The tone at the top of an entity–a library, an archives, a museum, a professional association, the people with the most status in online space–is important. In the best of circumstances, that’s where change and trust building begin.
The vision offered can be inspiring and aspirational. The challenge is in making it happen. And that’s where it is on us as much as on the leaders, whether we are members of professional associations, employees on the job, or participants in public forums.
Generosity matters. And so does realistic optimism. By that, I mean finding a spot somewhere between Lake Wobegon and the Land of Grumbledore.
I see that spot in the Supervisors Handbook that NARA issued in 2014 and updated in 2015. I admire its vision. The advice fits what I’ve seen in effective leaders, managers, supervisors. In some passages, I can hear the voice of my late sister, Eva, a Supervisory Archivist and Team Leader at NARA.
But does the Handbook describe the National Archives as all of it is now? Of course not. It’s a guide to where it seeks to be, a travel guide for new supervisors.
Our travel guides work best when we attract diverse people to walk along us. In 2013, I wrote about “Success As a Pathfinder in Archivesland.” I pointed to NARA staff perceptions of different cultures and valuations of various functions, some perceived (fairly or not) as elite.
I illustrated the contributions of employees throughout the ranks by using the same photo of the records center that Stacie Williams used in her blog post. And I wrote about Eva, at whose memorial service a colleague said, “She took pleasure in others’ accomplishments as if they were her own.” In later posts, I explored the meaning of “the true gift of what we do.”
I often speak of supervisory, managerial and executive responsibilities in terms of having people in your care. But beyond official Position Descriptions, we all have people in our care. Let’s use the skills and professional abilities of which we’re so proud not just to promote ourselves, but to lift and make others visible. To benefit them (and us) now. And our successors in the future.