Not a Luxury
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.