Talking Amongst Ourselves: What We’re Reading

“I’ll give you a topic: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Discuss.” Bonus points if you know this SNL skit! Image via Vanity Fair

While we work up to the next themed post here on Reading Archivists, this seems like a good time to talk amongst ourselves. I’ll give you a (very broad) topic: what we’re reading, watching, or listening to that has implications for the archives field, archivists as individual professionals, and even the archival canon.

Personally, I recently attended a compelling panel at my place of work about the religious, political, and ecological implications of Laudato Si, the Pope’s recent writing on climate change. The panelists’ remarks have pushed me to think about what archivists can learn from the document. One of the panelists pointed out that in Laudato Si, Pope Francis providing inspiration for people around the world to take up the cause of climate change; items up to us to find “cures.”

I’ve been thinking about this in two ways:

1. I’ve been more closely following the work of ProjectARCC. Climate change affects collection care as well as our collecting itself. ProjectARCC is split up into four committees:
– Protect, aimed at educating archivists about environmental protections, both preparing for disaster and responding to disasters
– Reduce, which examines strategies for reducing our professional carbon and ecological footprints
– Preserve, working to document the work of climate scientists and activists for future use
– Elevate, using relevant collections to “improve public awareness and understanding of climate change”

ProjectARCC’s work is important in part because it provides a model for multi-pronged approach to effecting real change in and outside the archives. We can think about using the model in our repositories, to capture materials on climate change as well as on other subjects. Which leads to point two…

2. What other issues in the field need a “call to inspiration”? Kathleen Roe’s “Year of Living Dangerously” worked to galvanize outreach, though SAA’s work under her leadership was more directive than Laudato Si or ProjectARCC. I would argue that diversity and inclusivity throughout our profession, particularly in our collections and our colleagues, is another such issue that could benefit from our focus, although work will need to be more extensive and future-thinking than one piece of writing or one year of effort. We’ve already touched on this in the past here on RA, looking at Jimerson’s 2005 presidential address “Embracing the Power of Archives,” and Elizabeth Adkins’ 2007 address, “Our Journey Toward Diversity — and a Call to (More) Action.”

A more recent and non-presidential look at diversity in the field is courtesy of the 2011 article, “Educating for the Archival Multiverse.” (The American Archivist: 2011 Spring/Summer, Vol. 74, No. 1, pp. 69-101. DOI) The article concludes with an eight-objective model for pluralizing archival education, many of which work in concert. The article sketches out that relationship, but I wish it were made more obvious throughout the article. But the recommendation to encourage multidisciplinarity in the field may in turn foster pluralized doctoral education, which in turn would help to open up archival theory and practice to viewpoints outside the dominant norm and encourage a more pluralized student body. Similarly, if archives programs promote service learning, community engagement may be strengthened; again, leading to less narrow archival theory and practice and a more pluralized student body.

So, what’s on your mind? What do you think of the articles above? What should we join you in reading, listening, and/or watching?

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Reading Archivists Looks at Ask a Manager: Twitter Chat—The Bad Employee

Just a reminder that tomorrow, Tuesday July 28 at 8 pm Eastern, I’ll be hosting a twitter chat about the July Reading Archivists discussion, which has focused on a question and follow up that appeared on the Ask A Manager blog. The question involved the original poster wondering whether to tell a friend that he’s probably a bad employee due to his poor work ethic and attitude, and a follow-up that details the friend’s plan to go to library school, thinking it might lead him to a career that was better suited for his personality. During the twitter chat, we’ll discuss about how different personality traits help archivists in their work, how our personalities may have changed as our careers have moved forward, and what qualities managers want to see (or not) in people they supervise. I’ll be hosting from @carynradick using the hashtag #RAaam.

Click on the links below to see the previous posts in this discussion.

See Post 1

See Post 2

Here are some of the questions for discussion

  • Thinking about your career as an archivist, what qualities do you think helped you in your early career and do you feel that these changed as you advanced? Did you consciously make changes to suit new responsibilities and roles?
  • If you’re a student or new archivist, what qualities do you think will help you in the archival profession and as you’ve learned more about the profession, what might you like to develop?
  • If you’re a supervisor, what qualities do you look for in the people you hire or supervise and what qualities do you hope to bring out?
  • What qualities have you seen in colleagues that you would like to develop? What qualities are you telling yourself never to develop (this recent New York Times article comes to mind)?

Feel free to comment here or tweet me about other questions regarding this discussion. Looking forward to Tuesday, July 28 at 8 EST!

Reading Archivists Looks at Ask a Manager: The Bad Employee—part 2

In last week’s post, I linked over to two Ask A Manager posts in which the original poster wrote in to ask how to help a friend she suspected was a bad employee. At the time, the friend worked at a law firm, but a later update indicated that the friend was contemplating going to library school thinking that career path might better suit him. According to the poster, the friend had “no initiative or drive,” got angry when corrected, wasn’t willing to come in early or stay late, which the job sometime required. She also said, He’s also a total introvert and really doesn’t enjoy people. He avoids his office at all costs. He is a horrible networker. Plus, he’s one of those people who thinks he’s the smartest person in the room.

Now a lot of the behaviors the friend demonstrates might be reasonable depending on the circumstances (equating willingness to put in extra hours to being a good worker can be a slippery slope, and not everyone wants to move up). But, she indicates that he has a bad attitude, an inflated sense of his own abilities, and doesn’t like being around people.

The reason I groaned when I read about the plans to go to library school is that I wouldn’t want to work with someone who was arrogant, gave me a hard time regarding fixing mistakes, or was rude to people. I would also never recommend becoming an archivist to someone who showed these qualities because I think there are very few positions out there, if any, that would suit such a person. This led me to think about what personality traits/behaviors are helpful or useful to archivists.

Personally, I find the archival introvert/extrovert issue regarding archivists both fascinating and frustrating. Recent literature, such as Susan Cain’s bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, discuss the value of introverts in the workplace, but I’ve seen the “introverts are lesser” sentiment appear within archival discussions in the last few years. As the previous post mentioned, both have value and, I think, qualities that make for good archivists. I also think both are capable of adjusting their behavior to suit their circumstances.

Based on my experiences, I would say that it’s helpful for archivists to be curious, engaged, pleasant/professional, and willing to take some risks. In my pre-archivist career, I had moments where I thought my attitude shouldn’t affect my prospects as long as I got my work done, but saw my equally mad-as-hell but more “pleasant” colleagues get promoted ahead of me and realized that my “honest” sarcastic/angry responses weren’t helping my “I’m above this job, so promote me already” cause (I also should have been willing to take more risks and look for another job in some situations, but that’s another story).

Having shared some of my own thoughts and experiences, I’d love to hear what others think and have some questions for discussion. Feel free to comment or to participate in the Twitter discussion on July 28, 8 pm Eastern time:

  • Thinking about your career as an archivist, what qualities do you think helped you in your early career and do you feel that these changed as you advanced? Did you consciously make changes to suit new responsibilities and roles?
  • If you’re a student or new archivist, what qualities do you think will help you in the archival profession and as you’ve learned more about the profession, what might you like to develop?
  • If you’re a supervisor, what qualities do you look for in the people you hire or supervise and what qualities do you hope to bring out?
  • What qualities have you seen in colleagues that you would like to develop? What qualities are you telling yourself never to develop (this recent New York Times article comes to mind)?

In writing these posts, I’ve felt that a lot more could be said about the topics touched upon here (what defines “success” for archivists? What roles should supervisors have in “fostering” careers of their workers? What issues do archivists face drawing boundaries between personal and professional life?) What issues would you be interested in exploring? I look forward to seeing your thoughts and mark your calendar for the Twitter discussion on the 28th at 8 pm EST.

Reading Archivists Looks at Ask A Manager: The Bad Employee–part 1

As I mentioned in June’s preview post, I’m a huge fan of Alison Green’s Ask a Manager blog which dispenses advice to readers with common and more unusual work concerns or problems. This week, I’m going to link over to two columns from 2013 (the initial question and the update). Next week, I’ll discuss some of my thoughts on them and ask some discussion questions. I’d like to schedule a Twitter discussion about how different personality traits help archivists in their work, how our personalities may have changed as our careers have moved forward, and what qualities managers want to see (or not) in people they supervise.  I will set a date in next week’s post, but I’m thinking July 27 or 28.

Although AAM has a large librarian/archivist following, the discussion I want to look at is more general. It features a reader who is concerned that her friend has a bad work ethic and attitude and that these likely cost him one job and are about to cost him another.*

my friend is a bad employee — how can I help?

Alison and her readers offered advice, much along the lines of “even if it was your problem to fix, it’s probably not going to be easy.” The poster followed up several months later, indicating she wasn’t really able to help.

update: my friend is a bad employee

The part that especially caught my interest was:

“As it turns out, I think he might have realized that the environment he placed himself in just wasn’t made for his skill set. Last I heard, he is considering going back to grad school to get a masters in library science. While a library might be more fitting, I think some skills are necessary no matter the work setting.”

I definitely shook my head when I read this, and looking at the librarian comment thread which starts with the comment by Emily, which I’m quoting from below, I wasn’t the only one.

As a librarian, may I say “Oh, no!”? I hate it when people think of our profession as a dumping ground for the socially awkward or people who can’t hack it in other fields. What I do requires a huge amount of collaboration, sometimes with people who don’t report to me, which requires extra-hard work and persuasive skills…”

From the original poster’s description, her friend sounds like a bad colleague, period, (and I thought it  unlikely that an archives/library environment would do much to improve this without his making other changes). But, I’ve always wondered what my archivist colleagues might think of the original post and follow up and also thought these two posts might make for an interesting discussion on what personality traits have helped us as archivists, both in tackling the job and moving forward in our careers.

Next week, I’ll offer my perspective on the posts and observations about personality traits and archival careers, and asking some questions for discussion. In the meantime, what was your reaction to the columns, and on learning that the original poster’s “bad employee” friend was thinking about library school?

[*regarding the use of “introverted,” to describe the bad employee, a commenter addresses that introversion is not a quality that makes someone a bad worker and Ask A Manager has had many posts that address introvert/extrovert issues in a way that treats them as personality differences that both have value rather than as negative versus positive qualities. Our discussion can address these issues as well.]

Preview of July Discussion: Reading Archivists looks at Ask A Manager

Any Ask A Manager fans out there? Since I learned about Alison Green’s workplace and job advice blog at a MARAC conference, I suspect I’m not the only one.

Following Eira Tansey’s example of taking Reading Archivists in new directions, I have an Ask A Manager post in mind that I’d like to discuss in July (if you aren’t familiar, most of the posts involve people writing in seeking advice on issues running the gamut from your standard “How do I write a cover letter?” to some really interesting, distressing, and awkward workplace problems). I hope it will spur an interesting discussion about how different personality traits help archivists in their work, how our personalities may have changed as our careers have moved forward, and what qualities managers want to see (or not) in people they supervise.

Stay tuned. The initial post should appear in late June/early July with a Twitter conversation to follow in mid-to-late July.

May discussion: Second half of Delete

UPDATE! Sorry for the previous typo, the discussion is this Wednesday, May 27. The previous post mentioned the obviously incorrect “Thursday, May 27”.

This is the discussion post for the second half of Delete. Please remember that you can still join us to discuss this post and for the Twitter chat on Thursday even if you didn’t read the book or join us for the first half — there is a white paper by the author that touches on many of the major themes in Delete. All the details are in this post. The twitter chat will be this Wednesday, May 27 at 7pm Eastern, use the hashtag #RAdelete.

In the first half of Delete (previous discussion post here), Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues that society has shifted from a default mode of forgetting to always remembering. In the second half of his book, Mayer-Schönberger outlines potential responses and solutions to “reintroduce forgetting.”

There are six potential responses to the shift to remembering (many seem like they could or will overlap):

  1. Digital abstinence (people do not surrender or participate in online activities that might compromise their privacy)
  2. Information privacy rights (creating a legal framework that would assure that people’s private information should remain private)
  3. Digital privacy rights infrastructure (creating a DRM-like infrastructure where the technology itself is designed to protect personal privacy
  4. Cognitive adjustment (our culture simply adjusts to having so much more personal information available about each other)
  5. Information ecology (essentially regulatory constraints that say what kind of data can be collected and how long it can be retained)
  6. Perfect contextualization (collecting as much as possible so all personal information can be “perfectly” contextualized)

The author notes that the first three solutions are “relational” solutions that do not address the shift to remembering, whereas the last three are specifically intended to address the shift from forgetting.

Like the first half, I think the author would have benefited by having a better understanding of how librarians, archivists, and records managers have already approached some of the information management issues under discussion. Many of the solutions he proposes, particularly the section on ‘information ecology,’ echo the principles behind records and information management.

I also think the idea of cognitive adjustment gets short shrift — I was born in the mid-80s, and there’s a joke among millenials that once people in our generation run for office, the suspicious candidates will be the ones who don’t have embarrassing pictures of themselves online. Mayer-Schönberger readily acknowledges society can probably adapt over the course of several hundred years but worries about the decades in between.

Mayer-Schönberger argues for a new concept to reintroduce forgetting, which is to allow individuals to declare expiration dates for much of the personal content they have control over. I think this is an intriguing idea with major barriers to implementation:

  • Would technology companies have any compelling reason to allow users to set their own expiration dates? We’ve already seen how digital camera manufacturers have resisted adding features that would make it easier for people to add metadata to their photos. Arguably, many would have zero interest in making it easier for people to delete their content because many companies profit from monetizing other people’s content.
  • Even if users could declare their own expiration dates, my experience as a records manager makes me think people would lean towards declaring the longest retention period possible. Among most people, there is a tendency to save things because “maybe they’ll need it some day.” This is doubly true when electronic storage is cheap and does not have the same degree of visual clutter as paper files.

The author also addresses the negotiation of conflicting expiration dates when multiple parties are involved (e.g., how do you set an expiration date on a group photo?) as well as brief remarks on how this poses challenges to archival institutions. I don’t believe Mayer-Schönberger intends for those who work in the public interest to be able to set their own expiration dates related to their work, but even so, setting expiration dates for your content as a private citizen still has societal implications. These are incredibly important questions, neither of which received satisfactory treatment from my perspective. In particular, the conflicting expiration dates question seems ripe for abuse.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or join us on Twitter later this week. Here are a few discussion questions to get us going:

  1. Will society adjust to remembering organically, or is a technological or legal framework needed to help with the transition?
  2. Would user-declared expiration assist archivists by potentially reducing the future glut of electronic records?
  3. How do you think people would pick an expiration date for their content?
  4. How do you think archivists should participate in larger conversations around personal privacy?
  5. Has Delete changed how you view the intersection of technology and privacy?

April discussion: First half of Delete

This is the discussion post for the first half of Delete. Please remember that you can still join us to discuss this post and for the Twitter chat on Thursday even if you didn’t read the book — there is a white paper by the author that touches on many of the major themes in Delete. All the details are in the previous post. The twitter chat will be this Thursday, April 30 at 7pm Eastern, use the hashtag #RAdelete.

The first half of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s book, Delete, lays out his thesis that society has shifted from a default mode of forgetting to remembering. Through chapters 1-4, he weaves together the stories of people who have been burned by traces of their life being used against them in ways they didn’t anticipate, how technology and culture has embraced what he terms as remembering, a brief history of media/record  longevity,  and his arguments for the cognitive, individual, and societal benefits of forgetting.

This might be a very facile observation on a blog for archivists, but I frequently thought how much this book would have benefited by examining fields such as information and archival history. Perhaps it’s more of a reflection of the marginalization of archival history within other disciplines, but archivists obviously have a very unique perspective on entire concept of the human record. Our profession embodies many paradoxes, but chief among them is we realize every day that what we choose to preserve is only a very small “sliver of a sliver” as stated so eloquently by South African archivist Verne Harris.

And this is my major bone of contention with Mayer-Schönberger’s work (which on the whole, is one of the most important books on the intersection of technology and human dignity I’ve read): he construes “remembering” with large-scale data retention, and does not distinguish between the two. From my perspective, remembering is a process clearly tied to the links between individual agency, memory and emotion, and cultural context. Retention, on the other hand, is often devoid of these factors, and is what enables business and state use of information (often for good, and often for surveillance). I think it’s problematic to equate remembering with retention, because it marginalizes the whole issue of context. Context is essential to remembering, but the same type of context is not necessarily essential to the type of retention business uses to improve its profits or the state uses to track citizens.

Mayer-Schönberger looks at early models of information organization, such as libraries. However in focusing so much on organization, he does not consider the role of functions like collection development (libraries) or appraisal (archives) in enabling access and use. I think this is a huge oversight — part of the reason forgetting was the default mode of the past was not just due to media decay, but due to the deliberate decisions of then-gatekeepers to choose what to save (or in the case of publishers, print in the first place).

Finally, I think Mayer-Schönberger gives very short shrift to the ephemerality of digital content and digital decay. If you’re an archivist reading this, I assume you’re pretty familiar with the major concerns behind digital preservation and why it’s A Thing. However, I think the author’s neglect of this issue undermines his message to a certain degree. This is not a unique stance Mayer-Schönberger has taken, indeed look at how many people really do believe that things on the internet stay there forever, as if it were some electronic peat bog that mummifies any bits that happen to fall inside.

So! Hope we see you in the comments section below, or on Twitter. Here are some questions to consider (by the way, these just came off the top of my head — if anyone wants to pose a question, let me know and I’ll add it!)

  1. As an archivist, what did you think of the argument that society has shifted from forgetting to remembering? Is this true for some sectors (hi NSA!) but not others?
  2. Do you think there is a distinction between remembering and retention?
  3. How have digital preservation concerns changed the appraisal process?
  4. The concept of appraisal seems to fly in the face of business and the state which want to retain more and more personal data to reap the benefits of big data. Individuals are notoriously bad at culling down their own personal digital archives because they might want something someday. Does archival appraisal still have a future, and if so, how do we justify it in light of societal trends that push for retaining more and more? How do we communicate its value to others?