Friday, February 20, 2009

What’s Past is Prologue: The Role of Archivists


The role of archivists has always been in flux, responding to the needs of the information world and providing the unique skill sets that librarians, historians, and records managers may understand but do not hold. In his essay, “Dear Mary Jane: Some Reflections on Being an Archivist,” John Fleckner (2000) writes, “Part science, part art, and—when done properly—part showmanship, our ability to quickly understand and evaluate the record—especially when it is old, large, or complex—is a unique facet of our craft” (p. 24). He believes that archivists are colleagues to librarians, historians, and records managers, but are a distinct class unto themselves.

In the second chapter of Understanding Archives & Manuscripts, James O’Toole and Richard Cox discuss how archives were first developed, stemming from historical societies at the end of the eighteenth century, research libraries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the rise of universities, which have employed many archivists. A theme throughout their discussion of the profession is that archives reflect the culture and technology of the times. For instance, historical societies were established as part of the historical manuscripts tradition, which collected public records as well as personal papers. This happened in part because the development of the postal service created growth in correspondence.

In the United States, the archival profession first laid roots in the late 1890s within the American Historical Association (AHA), forming the Conference of Archivists in 1909. In the early 19th century, the fields of history and archives advanced enough that one organization could not serve both. In the mid-thirties, the National Archives and the Society of American Archivists were formed, providing a professional identity to archivists. This was an important vocational moment because archivists were formally differentiating themselves from historians.

The rise of social history, new repositories, and professional associations fueled an influx of archivists in the 1970s. Today, the profession is in transition, as Baby Boomers retire, to be replaced with Generation X and Y. The A*CENSUS, a comprehensive nationwide survey of the profession conducted in 2004, found that the amount of people working in American archives “has roughly tripled [since the 1970s], a direct reflection of this expansion” (Beaumont & Walch, 2004, p. 313).

From the 1970s on, another crucial development of the profession was standardization, which “had always been problematic for archivists because they placed such emphasis on the idea of uniqueness” (O’Toole & Cox, 2006, p. 74). Collection distinctiveness is the point where librarians and archivists differ professionally. Although libraries may house rare or special collections, the majority of their holdings are published monographs, which have copies around the world with similar cataloging. Archivists, however, preserve and protect unique records, without counterparts. Additionally, while archivists deal with records only, librarians deal with many types of material. Archivists are responsible for information within a controlled environment, and librarians routinely handle information that crosses many technological and administrative barriers in the course of its life cycle. Since archival content differs at each repository, archivists must employ some type of standardization or best practices to provide access and give meaning to the collections.

As the technology of the 20th century allowed more records to be kept, there also became the need to distinguish between records managers and archivists. Archivists work with the permanently valuable records of an organization that no longer needs them for business purposes. Archivists make records available to researchers to document the history of the organization as well as the larger society. Records managers work with records no longer needed for everyday use, which may be temporary, awaiting a destruction date in congress with local, state, and federal law, or permanent, awaiting transfer to an archives. Traditionally, records managers do not grant access to these records for research because the organization still has legal control of them, thus controlling access to the records.

Despite the distinct professional identity that archivists hold, the profession is not as well known as similar professions like librarianship. Archivists face complex communication challenges within and outside of their organization. The absence of a standard university degree and a distinct career path affects how others with limited knowledge of the field perceive them. In my experience, I often have to explain what an archivist does to those I encounter. “It’s kind of like a librarian or a curator,” I explain. “I process files.” This, of course, does not convey the enthusiasm, stimulation, and fulfillment I feel as I work with records of enduring value. O’Toole and Cox (2006) sum it up best when they write, “The transition from archival monks to archival missionaries is by no means complete, but archivists have come to realize the importance of sharing the excitement of what they do with those who use archives—or would do if they understood them better” (p. 85).

Works Cited

Beaumont, N. P., & Walch, V. I. (2004). A*Census: Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States. The American Archivist, 69, 291-618.

Fleckner, J. A. (2000). Dear Mary Jane: Some reflections on being an archivist. In R. C. Jimerson (Ed.), American archival studies: Readings in theory and practice (pp. 21-28). Chicago: Society of American Archivists.

O’Toole, J. M., & and Cox, R. J. (2006). Understanding archives & manuscripts . Chicago: Society of American Archivists.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review of Leading and Managing Archives and Records Programs: Strategies for Success

Leading and Managing Archives and Records Programs: Strategies for Success.

My review of Leading and Managing Archives and Records Programs: Strategies for Success. Edited by Bruce W. Dearstyne. (London: Facet, 2008).
Published in Journal of Documentation, 65(2), 2009.

In Leading and Managing Archives and Records Programs: Strategies for Success, editor Bruce Dearstyne, Adjunct Professor at the College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, solicited essays from accomplished American and British information professionals in government, commercial, and nonprofit organizations to assist archivists and records administrators to lead effectively. Future leaders in the field need to advocate for increasing the public use and appreciation of archives, as well as understand technology, administration, strategic planning, and fundraising issues. With this book, readers will discover better solutions for creating mission statements, marketing services, weathering institutional change, and overcoming human resources and budgeting challenges.

The difference between managing and leading, which requires “envisioning, changing, inspiring, and transforming,” is vast (293). Dearstyne finds that “Too often, programs are tolerably well managed and deliver acceptable levels of service, but they fall short of their full potential for success and outstanding achievement due to lack of leadership” (293). To remain funded, archivists and records managers should not maintain the status quo but be innovative and adaptable, traits that they are not known for traditionally.

Leadership fosters intentional transformations directed at valued objectives. Therefore, everyone at any career point has the potential to be a change agent. In “The Records Management Leader,” Eugenia K. Brumm, a twenty-year veteran of records administration, notes that becoming a leader is “an ongoing, never-ending process of moving towards a goal, but never quite achieving it. The lessons are cumulative and evolutionary, changing with each new experience and affiliation” (33). Leon Stout of Penn State University Libraries, in “Leading from the Middle: Building a University Archives,” writes about his mid-level leadership experience, taking advantage of opportunities in historical outreach, service, and strategic initiatives.

Mark Greene, President of the Society of American Archivists and director of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, adds, “…Leadership can and should exist at all levels of an organization” (137). His essay discusses how he led a team to transform the American Heritage Center from a dysfunctional repository to an archival powerhouse. Skills to achieve this began as a lone arranger at a college archive and developed with each position in his career.

Leaders demonstrate the wider business benefits of a dynamic program by emboldening the professional development of their team. United Kingdom records leader Peter Emmerson writes, “Managers are prepared, often under pressure from the substantial marketing budgets of technology vendors, to invest in equipment and software for managing record-keeping but not the essential professional expertise to ensure the investment is fully realized” (112). Effective leaders understand that human assets are just as important as technological innovations.

In “Stranger in a Strange Land: The Archivist and the Corporation,” Philip F. Mooney, Director of the Archives Department at Coca-Cola, outlines principles for success culled from three decades of experience. He advises that archives should never be linked to a single function, but serve a “broad portfolio of users,” with services marketed to a constantly changing work force (202). Leaders use success stories to build strategic, visible programs that track against larger corporate goals, because “the days of quietly processing collections and hoping someone will recognize the work are gone” (203). Despite mergers, turnovers, and downsizing, archives continue to protect institutional memory and prevent intellectual and financial loss.

Leaders advocate for the usefulness of their programs and personify organizational missions to resource allocators, decision makers, and external constituencies. Relevance is key, remarks James E. Fogerty, Head of Documentary Programs at the Minnesota Historical Society. In his essay, “Competing for Relevance: Archives in a Multiprogram Organization,” he writes that “archival management must be adept in creating relevance through use of the archives’ holdings and its staff expertise, and equally adept in advancing the perception of relevance to both internal and external clients” (133). Relevant programs align with organizational priorities, while following archival and record-keeping principles and practices.

In “Managing Change at the Vermont State Archives: A Continuing Issue,” Gregory Sanford and Tanya Marshall note that archivists and record managers must integrate “special knowledge of record keeping, institutional memory, and of access and preservation into our service to our institutions and the publics they serve” (226). They advise that leaders should understand the organization’s culture before changing it, establish relationships with record creators and users, and create a brand and mission statement to promote their programs.

Archives and records managers face complex communication challenges because their programs involve many aspects of an organization. One of the many ways to alleviate this problem is to adapt records management standards as the baseline for creating or improving programs, which uses best practices from other successful institutions and fosters a collaborate, professional environment. The absence of a standard university degree and a distinct career path for information professionals affects how they are perceived by others with limited knowledge of the field. Brumm cites an instance when a large, international pharmaceutical company promoted an employee without previous records administration experience or a college degree to a director of records management position. This would never happen in a field with a more established path to career advancement, such as finance.

Dearstyne bookends the volume with essays that first provide context and then summarize issues raised by the contributors. He also discusses ways to identify and implement successful leadership strategies, issues for further consideration, and management and leadership sources. His choice to include essays on records management standards and the technical challenges at The National Archives seems disparate because the role of leadership is less articulated than the other essays.
Excellent books abound on the theory and practice of archives and records administration, but few offer the insight on leadership and program development included in Leading and Managing Archives and Records Programs: Strategies for Success. Archivists and records managers interested in developing and leading programs should consult this book for a fair assessment of the challenges and opportunities they will encounter in their new endeavors.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

World War II Rationing Ephemera

Examples of World War II Rations

The Ames Historical Society has a collection of World War II rationing ephemera online. The site explains,

During the Second World War, you couldn't just walk into a shop and buy as much sugar or butter or meat as you wanted, nor could you fill up your car with gasoline whenever you liked. All these things were rationed, which meant you were only allowed to buy a small amount (even if you could afford more). The government introduced rationing because certain things were in short supply during the war, and rationing was the only way to make sure everyone got their fair share...

Types of rationing included: Uniform coupon rationing (sugar is an example) provided equal shares of a single commodity to all consumers; Point rationing provided equivalent shares of commodities by coupons issued for points which could be spent for any combination of items in the group (processed foods, meats, fats, cheese); Differential coupon rationing provided shares of a single product according to varying needs (gasoline, fuel oil); and Certificate rationing allowed individuals products only after an application demonstrated need (tires, cars, stoves, typewriters).

Explore World War II Rationing