Friday, October 8, 2010

Best Practices Exchange, day three: educating stewards of public information

The view from a rest stop, Interstate 10, south of Phoenix, Arizona, 1 October 2010.

This is the second of two posts relating to the Policy and Administration 7 session held at the 2010 Best Practices Exchange (BPE). The first part, which concerns the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration's functional classification system, is available here.

Helen Tibbo and Lori Richards discussed the Educating Stewards of Public Information in the 21st Century project, an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded effort to create a joint MPA/MSIS and MPA/MSLS program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This initiative grew out of recognition that archivists, librarians, and other information professionals are responsible for the preservation of an ever-increasing amount of digital materials and must be able to advocate for digital preservation within the policy arena.

To date, two cohorts of students, one of which started last fall and one of which started a few weeks ago, have enrolled in the combined degree program. They will complete their degrees in three and a half years and will complete internships at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the North Carolina State Archives, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Archives, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Environmental Finance Center.

Helen and Lori then highlighted the skills that 21st century information professionals either must or should have:
  • Ability to write short, concise documents that officials will read and can understand
  • Strong oral communication skills
  • Ability to convince others that records management is important
  • Ability to determine who to influence and to cultivate stakeholders
  • Ability to develop a business case and to estimate the costs and benefits of programs
  • Knowledge of national and international initiatives that inform one's professional activities
  • Ability to evaluate policy and its implementation
  • Ability to conduct macro-level appraisals (a point of overlap with the Vermont project that Tanya Marshall discussed during the first half of the session)
  • Ability to advise government officials about both the technical and the social aspects of preserving and providing access to public information
  • Understanding of the fundamentals of consensus building
  • Knowledge of how government works and what the different parts of government are
  • Knowledge of how the activities of government are conducted in an electronic environment
  • Ability to engage in project planning, management, and evaluation
  • Knowledge of information flows across the agency and between agencies
  • Ability to engage in change management
  • Understanding of the legal framework and the legal issues that impact stewardship of digital information
The attendees then engaged in a lively discussion about the need for these skills and the extent to which new archivists and librarians were (or, more accurately, were not) being prepared to meet 21st century challenges. Although a few of the points made consisted of the complaints that seasoned professionals always have about their newer and, in particular, their younger colleagues (e.g., "they don't know how to behave"), many of the comments were substantive and, in my opinion, completely accurate. They centered around three main areas of concern:
  • People skills. Given that archivy and librarianship attract disproportionate numbers of introverts, it's not surprising that many new archivists and librarians have unpolished verbal communication skills. The attendees noted that public speaking is a particular problem area and wished that graduate programs devoted more attention to cultivating this skill; one noted that she has referred new colleagues to Toastmasters in order to ensure that they become polished speakers.
  • Project skills. New archivists and librarians must be able to demonstrate the ability to develop workable projects and to see them through to completion. Unfortunately, at present, many library/information science programs do not devote sufficient attention to project management.
  • Technological skill and comfort level. This is a particular concern of mine: even though future archivists will be responsible for preserving and providing access to an exponentially increasing volume of electronic records and the repository for which I work is located a few miles away from a university that educates future librarians and archivists, I have real difficulty finding interns interested in working with electronic records. Perhaps I'm overseeing some uninteresting projects, but several other attendees have encountered similar problems. Unfortunately, the archival profession is still attracting people who are not comfortable with technology and who want to work only with paper records. This does not bode well for the future.
All in all, a fascinating session, and one that made me start thinking that archival education really needs to change. When I commented during the session that many of the skills listed above were those that I would expect to find in an archivist who was in the middle, not the beginning of his or her career, Helen Tibbo noted that schools of government and public policy strive to ensure that students begin their careers with these skills in hand.

I'm starting to think that a two-year master's program simply isn't sufficient and that we as a profession will eventually have to commit to a three- or four-year graduate program or to a two-year introductory degree and an additional, perhaps mid-career advanced certificate or degree program. The list of skills that archivists need is growing and growing, and our education programs must expand accordingly.

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