Do they owe us a living?


What with the gentle hearts in Chicago blogging and tweeting about the great concern the constituency of archivists has for its employment status, this blog is going to back off of its other reading, and deal with this.

President Bell’s post contributes to a kind of misdirection. The fundamental employment problem in archives is the exact same one faced across the economy as a whole: slack demand, private sector hoarding cash, government rolling back its baby-Keynesian interventions. Students of everything, not just archives students with our patchwork of degrees, can’t find full-time professional employment. Students of not-much-of-anything can’t find employment period. The problem is systemic. Archivists, welcome to the party.

So it’s fascinating to see the head of a professional organization for archivists post that an appropriate response to the employment problem might be to accept fewer people as professionals. Even if it were true that we had a glut of the kind that say the American Bar Association has, wouldn’t that automatically shrink the pool of dues-paying SAA members? Which is something as president you’d like to grow, right?

And true or not good or evil, Bell’s still dressing the employment problem up in the ancient drag of the certification/professionalism/accreditation/why-don’t-we-have-a-bar-exam problem, which is tried and true territory. See Hugh A. Taylor in 1977, [all of these links are open to SAA members, sorry] admitting that chemists and biologists and all kinds of folks made good archivists and then arguing for an Academy of Archival Science to accredit and imbue these folks with the rhetorical bodies and modes of History. Here’s Peace and Chudakoff in 1979 saying that SAA’s professional standards divorce archivists from their natural friends in libraries. Oh wait, here’s Jacqueline Goggin’s complete history of the professionalization question (1984), which I will have to stop this post to go read. Let’s leave it at this: there’s a strain of writing-about-archives, para-archival writing maybe, which subsists entirely on reducing the questions Who are archivists? and What is their knowledge? to Who authenticates, attests to, certifies archivists’ knowledge? And that’s a REAL GODDAMN SILLY THING TO DO.

Let’s instead address the question of employment from the demand side. Just yesterday a leaking gas main exploded two buildings in Harlem. No one has seriously addressed the state of America’s bridges since the I-35W collapse in Minneapolis. There is a century’s-worth of paper records sitting in archives still unprocessed 15-odd years after the ARL survey that said this was maybe a thing. Archives are the infrastructure of history politics culture goddamn every field of research that isn’t based on experimentation and a lot of the stuff that is or can be, so let’s treat them like critical knowledge infrastructure and agitate for them like the essential works they are instead of managing their decline and throwing up barriers to entry in some wanna-be-infanticidal fury or impotent managerial cliquishness. You already know the answer to the question.

Of course they fucking do.

1 comment
  1. heavly said:

    It’s shit like this that I feel is contributing to the difficulty I’m having in finding an archivist job. I have a BS in New Media IT and MA in History with a year of archival experience but not THE archival/library defined degree or certification or whatever mostly because I’d like to keep some amount of income and have less debt/loans. Asking questions is great, but not when you’re trying to define or limit something. EMBRACE ALL THE THINGS. Be surprised at how a detailed oriented tech person can just as capably handle archives. We have these degrees and these degrees shouldn’t limit options based on someone else’s terms (who will only be in charge for so long before someone else steps in and mucks it all over again).

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