Saturday, January 3, 2009

"I was an archivist, yeah."

The Democracy Now Web site has just posted audio, video, and text versions of host Amy Goodman's 2004 interview with U. Utah Phillips, who died in May 2008. In it, Phillips looks back on his life as a rail-riding teen and young adult, soldier, peace activist, labor activist, anarchist, folksinger -- and archivist for the State of Utah.

Phillips became an archivist at some point in the 1960s, but was fired in 1968, when he ran for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom ticket. Although Phillips never again worked in a repository, his archival work left a lasting impression:
AMY GOODMAN: So, you were an archivist in Utah?

I was an archivist, yeah. I handled 75,000 cubic feet of public records. For an information junkie, that’s heaven. Yeah, I loved studying archival science, and I still have a library in my home that I curate, my own little research library of popular antiquities. And that’s where my mind lives when I’m at home.
In the interview, Phillips went on to denounce electronic records, which he viewed as dangerously unstable and vulnerable to alteration, and asserted that corporations had deluded libraries and archives into investing in digital technology. It's painfully obvious that Phillips hadn't engaged with the ever-growing body of archival literature relating to electronic records -- and that his politics led him to view digitization and electronic recordkeeping solely as conspiracies perpetrated by rapacious corporate interests -- but it's also plain that he continued to think about archival issues and to seek out archivists and librarians well after he gave up hope of finding another archival position.

To me, the most remarkable thing about Phillips's brief archival career is that he was hired in the first place: after high school, he joined the Army, moved from town to town, and then spent eight years at a Catholic Worker house in Salt Lake City. In 2009, his chances of getting archival job would be slim to none.

There's a running debate within the profession as regards the appropriate educational background for archivists. Should obtaining a master's degree be a prerequisite for obtaining a professional position? If so, should it be in history, library/information science, or archival science? What about dual-degree programs? Can on-the-job experience and immersion in the professional literature compensate for the lack of an advanced degree or an advanced degree in the "wrong" subject?

Even though I fall a few credit hours short of the mark, I believe that a dual M.A. in history and M.S. in library/information/archival science is the optimal credential. However, at times I wonder what we as a profession are losing as a result of our increasing emphasis upon having the "right" graduate degree(s). Will the profession eventually be dominated by people who have little experience of life beyond academe, and, if so, how will this situation affect our ability to document society in all of its complexity?

Having spent the better part of my twenties in a history Ph.D. program, I'm not exactly swimming against this particular tide. I nonetheless think that there should be a place in our profession for people with non-traditional backgrounds. I know lots of great archivists who have only one master's degree or bachelor's degrees and decades of work experience. There are also lots of people who become de facto archivists because they are passionate about the history of their communities or organizations or think that professional archivists have somehow fallen down on the job. We should reach out to these folks, some of whom instinctively "get" the basics of archival theory and want guidance re: preservation, etc.; doing so is one of the goals of the SAA roundtable that I currently co-chair.

Perhaps promoting archives as a second career would help to ensure that the profession remains grounded in the real world. I know plenty of people who went back to school and became archivists after doing other things: teacher, realtor, director of a non-profit organization, social worker, independent bookstore owner, seminarian, secretary, nurse, potter, actor, stay-at-home dad. All of them bring their past experiences to bear upon their current work (e.g., the former non-profit head knows the world of grants like the back of her hand).

Endowing a scholarship or two for prospective archivists entering the profession after at least a decade of doing something else might help, albeit in a small way, by supporting the education of a few archivists and raising the profile of the archives-as-second-career option. Maybe we could even figure out a way to pull a few wayfaring musician/agitators into the fold . . . .

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