Friday, July 23, 2004

Hot Topic o' the Week: Archives #@!?

Archives articles are all over the news this week: the Sandy Berger story, the Archivist of the U.S. story (very well summed up by Keith in a post below), and a piece on the New York Times Op-Ed page this morning "Foolscap And Favored Sons" by Caroline Alexander.

As the Senate Governmental Affairs hearing yesterday began, Sen. Joseph Lieberman marveled, mostly for the audience's benefit I believe, about the attention that the John Carlin nomination and Allen Weinstein's pending nomination have garnered.  My response to this episodic hubbub is an echo of a message delivered at College Park by Robert Sink (Center for Jewish History).  Archivists are not well integrated into the nation's political culture, so when issues of professional concern (disposition of a Governor's papers, for example) arise then communication and understanding is forced to overcome greater obstacles, perhaps, than other professions that have a more developed relationship with legislators.

I believe that the Society of American Archivists, regional professional organizations, and leading archivists are working to build better methods of professional advocacy, but in the meantime the profession plugs away as best it can.  Individual archivists, I believe, should consider how they can personally and professionally contribute to this needed change.

"Ready access to essential evidence," is the ringing phrase of the National Archives mission statement and the title of National Archives Strategic Plan 1997-2008, Revised 2003.  This model mission is "the great experiment" of information professionals of all kinds, and the politicians who manage them.   The great experiment requires, in my almost-professional opinion, that the challenges become less mystical.  The challenge that is taking shape for me is to bring better clarity to individuals in three main groups: information professionals, government/non-government groups, and users.

The solution to this situation will take much time and many minds to develop.  I believe the answer lies in part by following the trends in higher education generally (and archival education specifically), by professional archival organizations building a political action network, by building a greater infrastructure among national funding organizations to guide a new kind of investment in the skills and human resources, and of course a public relations strategy that takes our issues to the people--the people who are and who could be our favorite patrons and our biggest supporters.

The current climate is less than ideal.  Politically, we have a presidential adminstration clouded by a reputation of unilateral action and closed governmental processes.  The economy does not send investors a clear signal to take risks, and users are less and less interested in time-consuming research processes and simply interested in pre-packaged information products.

The archivist's mission is to adapt.  This is not necessarily a threat to our jobs, our values - we as free individuals control those.  This is an opportunity to keep the momentum going, now as we face a potential changing of the guard at the U.S. Archives, but after the change as well.  Good luck one and all!

 

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