reflections on getting in trouble with archivists and the productive conversations that ensued.
My proposal for THATCamp AHA raised the hackles of a number of archivists. So this is a post to continue the process of probing the disconnects and possible connections between archivists and historians (and librarians and technologists and humanists and anyone else curious about using artifacts as evidence to think about the past).
There are a few issues tangled up here that seem, to me, worthy of separating out.
First, as ArchivesNext blogger Kate Theimer pointed out to me (playing the role of historian I should note!), we enter into a history of professional turf wars between archivists and historians (Blouin, Jr. and Rosenberg’s Processing the Past recounts these). Inheriting this past, we need to respect and acknowledge each other across differences of training, orientation, interest in archives as well as the perceived goals of what an archive should be and do.
Archivists do not need historians to do their jobs (historians do need archivists though, I should point out!). But with the possibilities of the digital, archivists may benefit from conversations with historians (and other archive users as well).
Overall, there needs to be recognition of the different sensibilities and problems and professional concerns that each field encompasses. The digital affords us an opportunity to think about what the archives are and what new kinds of knowledge they might be able to inspire, but only if we work together with respect for where our ideas converge—and, just as importantly, diverge.
(2) There are not totalities, only debates.
It’s easy to forget when we start working toward collaborations between archivists and historians that these two professions are large. Being large, they are cut through with internal debates and discussions. No archivist can speak for all archivists; the same goes for historians. What we can do is start to identify and describe the internal debates in our fields, particularly methodological debates, and discuss how they overlap across trainings—or do not.
Kate and I also noted that archivists and historians may be using the same words, but mean quite different things. For archivists, the difference between a digital archive and a digital collection might be vast; the important goal is precision of technical use. For a historian such as myself, an archive and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music are both archives of a sort; I like to think more metaphorically about terms in order to grasp how knowledge gets configured, categorized, arranged, and produced from archives broadly conceived as collections of evidence.
This difference in discourse is far from insurmountable. But it does take a kind of careful leaping between linguistic registers as we think about archives on the one hand pragmatically and scientifically and on the other imaginatively and adventurously.
(4) It’s not just archivists and historians. Archiving and historicizing as verbs.
Rather than get caught up in professional roles, we might explore the activities we do. Instead of picturing archivists and historians as nouns (and possessive nouns at that), what if we think in terms of verbs: creating archives and analyzing history as activities. In the digital age, these will involve multiple participants: archivists, scholars, curators, genealogists, history buffs, educators, citizens, voices from the past, people in the future, and still others. The archive will stay the archive, but it has the capacity to produce new kinds of commons, new publics from its arrangements of evidence and the way we decide to utilize that evidence.
(5) One person’s “alt-ac” (alternative academic career) is another person’s actual advanced training.
There’s been a big buzz among historians and other scholars about broadening specialized graduate training so that students qualify for a wider range of professional careers. There’s Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman’s now famous “No More Plan B” column and subsequent responses (including mine). And there are people such as Brian Croxall and Bethany Nowviskie, two among many smart people trying to map out the contours of “alt-ac” work and training.
This exploration is all well and good, but I wonder if we are forgetting the already-existing training that archivists and others pursue. Do scholarly graduate programs, especially ones in the humanities, need to do more work exploring the relationship of potential reimaginings of graduate work to existing fields such as the archival sciences, arts administration, curatorial programs, and other graduate professional programs? Does the construction of this project of rethinking academic careers using the “alternative” rubric pose as many problems as it does suggest solutions to the job crisis among Ph.D.s in the humanities? I wonder if we need to probe the ways we are conceptualizing shifts in humanities graduate training more fully here.
(6) The benefits of arguing about archives and history.
Overall, the very fact that discussions and interactions with archivists during and after AHA provoked all these questions and concerns is indicative of the ways in which talking across disciplines and trainings is not only necessary and practical, but also deeply intellectually stimulating. I shall be preserving my memories of this exchange while also, I hope, turning that preservation toward new insights!