Not a Luxury

Posted on October 24, 2008 under advocacy

Archives Next has a post up called “Archives are a Luxury.”  Kate’s responding to the SAA’s idea of hiring a lobbyist for archives and archivists, and says that when you put archives up against such things as hunger, homelessness, the energy shortage and so on, archives are clearly a luxury.  We should acknowledge this and as a result work smarter on advocacy by building a united community of users.  She concludes:

The value of collections lies in how they are used. Understanding and connecting to our users should be our first priority as a profession.

So, there, Frank, that’s my answer. If I were President of SAA, or even better, if I won the lottery, I’d invest resources in building a coalition of users of archives. I’d harness their voices—and their lobbyists—to help make the case in Washington for archives funding. I would collect hard data on usage of archives nationwide—an A*CENSUS about our users. I’d try to get funding to conduct the kinds of broad public surveys that ALA has done on public perceptions and usage of libraries. I would pursue a public relations campaign that shows people how archives support things they care about (I might have to win the lottery for that one!). And if the surveys and data collection show that archives aren’t actually being used that much, I would make increasing usage a major focus.

Archives are a luxury. This means we have to fight harder and smarter to compete in the difficult economic times ahead.   

I agree with her conclusions about the value of collections and about harnessing user goodwill and energy to advocate for archives, but I disagree that archives are a luxury, and even if you deeply believe that, I don’t think it’s a useful place to start when it comes to advocacy.    

I think effective advocacy comes from a place of confidence and belief in our missions of preserving, researching, interpreting and providing access to knowledge, information and authentic materials and artifacts.  (I’m talking here about the work of museums, archives, libraries, and other cultural institutions as a whole.  I readily acknowledge that I don’t know much about archival community internal debates.)  To start by saying that our work is not as objectively important in the world as more bread-and-butter issues leaves us in a bit of an uncomfortable position.  If we start from this place:

We are trained to think that what we do is essential. But is it? When you stack it up against things like feeding people, finding cures for diseases, repairing crumbling bridges, funding for police and fire fighters, keeping people from being homeless, finding alternative sources of energy—how essential does what we do seem? 

It begs the question, why are we not working on those issues?  Why am I in the museum today instead of in the lab?

We don’t need to apologize for our work.  Lobbyists for corporate interests don’t tell legislators that they’re not essential parts of the country.  Other educational and social service groups don’t tell legislators that they’re not so important as the other interests.  The AAM has some great primers on advocacy, including reasons why to get involved and talking points about why museums are so important.  AAM empowers museum professionals to do our own advocacy on behalf of our sector.   I see no reasons why archives and archivists can’t follow this model.  (Also, the National Coalition for History lobbies on archives-related issues, and the SAA is already a member organization.)     

I don’t think archives are a luxury, or museums or libraries.  Repositories of the world’s knowledge and culture are key to putting our world back together and building a sustainable future.  (That’s one reason that there are so many museum/history/heritage based structs on Superstruct.)  We don’t have a future without the real stuff of the past.  After natural disasters, one of the first things that happens, while cleanup and evacuation and food relief and reconstruction are starting up, is storytelling and the collecting and saving of stories and the material culture of stories.  That’s where we come in.  Our work is worth every penny.

2 Comments on “Not a Luxury”

  1. Suzanne,

    I felt uncomfortable when reading Kate’s blog post about this, but I did not know why and after a few days of thinking about it I still did not. But now that I have read your post, I think I am clearer on my feelings. Thank you for bringing this to light.

    I have been blogging lately in part about archivists and the promotion of themselves and their archives. Maybe I need to investigate the AAM and how it does things. That might provide some good recommendations for archivists and what we need to do professionally to teach ourselves (or be taught by others) how to promote. Thank you.

  2. I wonder whether the use of the term “luxury” as it applies to archives is used not so much how we or the public view them, but points to how people making budgetary allocations differentiate between “wants” and “needs.” In many cases, public history wants are being squeezed out. Consider that only recently, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) had to temporarily curtail reading room hours.

    I’ve seen such institutions in worse positions in terms of budget. As someone who still was working for my former employer, the National Archives, (NARA) during the reductions in force (RIF) which took place during the the first year or two of the Reagan administration, I know how budget cutbacks affect archivists. The NARA unit in which I worked (the Nixon Presidential Materials Project) lost half of its staff to the 1981-1982 RIF. We had not recovered in any meaningful way in terms of staffing and funding by the time I left NARA to take my present job as an historian at another federal agency in January 1990.

    Given the fiscal outlook, I expect there will be a lot of belt tightening at the federal, state and local levels in the next few years. We who work in the public and private sector understand and appreciate the value of archives, museums, and other public history institutions. However, I think we face new paradigms in terms of convincing those who allocate resources that archival activities deserve a fair share of shrinking funding. The pie can only be sliced so many ways, and for every dollar spent on one program, another program is denied funding.

    Russell James and other archivists are taking a look at a number of advocacy issues and I commend them for it. Unfortunately, the environment is very different from what it was like in 1976, when I first became an archivist. That, among other things, makes outreach much more of even more of a challenge than in the past. But again, I do commend those who are tackling these issues, uphill thought the climb may seem.

    Maarja Krusten
    Federal historian and former archivist

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