Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Future of the Archival Professional

Lots of people are talking about the future of archives, mostly from the point of view of materials and access, and these are indeed very pressing issues. Reinventing the mission of the archives and finding ways to mediate and educate the user will certainly be the greatest challenge in the coming years.  But occasionally scholars are diving into the waters of defining archivists themselves. Richard Cox wrote a bit about what he terms the “generational divide” that archivists are facing. Cox postulated in 2011 that since many managerial archivists today did not grow up in a multiverse of information technologies, while their subordinates are “first-generation digital natives”, this is going to lead to a lot of friction about future paths, if it has not already. New careers and job titles are already flowing out of this new reality: digital archivist, data curator, instructional archivist. Seamus Ross, involved in digital humanities at the University of Toronto, has said that one of the most serious problems in archives today is the lack of collaboration between archivists and IT workers.  The gaps between those two groups are still large, although archivist like to think that they're closing it. Perhaps the "native digital" generation will help close that further, or maybe it's up to who will follow us to close it.
Lawrence Serewicz had an interesting postulation on how the materials we preserve will change: he claimed that in just 20 years, we may be faced with digital collections surpassing paper collections. I don't think he's being too hasty; if my own collections are any indication, some institutions are already at that point. Kate Theimer recently wrote that she envisions the entire mission of archives changing. To put it bluntly, I think this is amazing and I love her idea of explicitly calling archives a place that adds value to people's lives. For me, it ties in with how I want my institution's archives to be: a place where the community comes to find out about itself.

And these changes will necessitate a change in how archivists are created, and how archivists perceive themselves, and how archivists educate themselves and interact with their peers in IT and libraries and museums. As the archivist changes, so too does the archivist’s goals and ambitions. Diversity of experience leads to new definitions of what’s important to collect, the best means of collecting and preserving, and the best way to provide access. The whole plane is shifting under our feet. Embracing these changes is the only way to stay standing. I think that figuring out ways to incorporate the variety of skill sets/experiences of current or new archivists, beyond just their archival training, is a good way to start taking action. As Richard Cox said, we are dealing with generational issues and professional status issues, not just issues of products or process. This would be a small step, to be sure, but if we don't start with what we already have--our own diversity of experience and knowledge of the world, and personal feelings about how we interact with technology and the historical record--I'm not sure that we'll get very far with the other areas, either.
"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.