Advocating for archives without (advocating for) archivists
Let’s play Jeopardy! Here’s an answer from a Q&A in a recent SAA publication:
“It is in the nature of archives to have backlogs—sometimes huge backlogs. And it is an unfortunate reality that archives are often understaffed. At a time when the volume of archival records created is increasing monumentally, it is common in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world for budgets to be cut and paid staff to be reduced.”
So…what’s the question? Perhaps something about the need to advocate for funding for archives? Maybe something about More Product Less Process, or efficient archival processing? Or something about prioritization when you don’t have the funding to do everything you’d like?
Well, if you guessed any of those, you’d be wrong. The right answer, for some definitions of the word right, is: “Why have volunteers in archives?”
On Wednesday, SAA released a new publication titled Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives. I was super excited when I saw the announcement, because the line between ethical and unethical volunteer programs is a fuzzy one, and we as a profession could use some guidance in this area.
Having read the thing, I would describe it more as a set of examples than a set of guidelines. The 90-page document contains 82 pages of volunteer project descriptions and sample forms and training manuals used in real-life archives volunteer projects. NARA uses volunteers to assist with research and reference. The Shelburne Museum has a volunteer who appraises photographs. The Indiana Historical Society volunteers find new homes for deaccessioned materials. Many, many institutions train their volunteers to process collections.
Readers may notice that a lot of these projects are not all that different from the kinds of work that entry-level archivists–when they can find work–typically do.
In answering the question, “What are some of the special challenges for volunteer programs at archives?” the volunteer guide dismisses the concerns of archivists who are wary of these programs:
“Not all employees at archives are supportive of volunteers in archives. There is a feeling among some staff, including supervisors and managers, that volunteers diminish the status of the archival profession. Some staff fear that volunteers will replace them and take away their jobs.”
If volunteers are doing the work of professionals in your archives, you should absolutely fear for your job. Why should your institution pay you to process collections or answer reference questions when someone else is willing to do it for free?
And why is my professional association endorsing this devaluation of archival work? I’m honestly at a loss here. Isn’t it in the best interest of SAA, which is supported by dues paid by professional archivists, to promote paid employment in the field?
In September, SAA President Jackie Dooley wrote a letter to the governor of Georgia in protest of the closure of the Georgia Archives to the public. Exactly the kind of response I’d hope for from our professional organization. But a few days later, when SAA cited this article on the effort to keep the archives open, they failed to address some important misconceptions about the role of professional archivists:
“Although Clayton State University, which is located next to the Georgia Archives, offers a master’s degree program in archival studies, Kemp said using student interns to keep the facility open is not a viable option. It would mean the secretary of state’s office would still have to pay security and janitorial staff to work.”
Archivist Jeremy Floyd, quoted on ArchivesNext, explains it best:
“So the Georgia secretary of state says professional archivists can’t be replaced by unpaid interns, not because they lack the training or expertise necessary, or that it would be exploitative of those students, but because ‘oh yeah we’re also firing the janitors and security guards that allow the building to stay open’. Maybe they can get unpaid janitorial and security interns, problem solved. Seriously, we need to eliminate the perception that budget shortfalls can made up for with volunteers and interns performing essential functions. Its not good for the interns, its not good for the archives, and its not good for the profession.”
It’s obvious to those of us working in the archives profession that you can’t have archives without professional archivists. But that news article out of Georgia shows the the danger of assuming that people outside the profession share this view. If you advocate for archives without advocating for archivists, you’re sending a message that the value of archives comes from the stuff, rather than the services.
I expect better from my professional association, and I think you should too.