Thursday, April 14, 2011

Archives and History: Notes from the New England Archivists Conference

Dana Goblaskas

Archives and history have always been fields that are closely intertwined; without archives, historians would suffer a loss of many valuable primary sources, and without a sense of history, archivists would have no context in which to place their collections. Without history, frankly, archivists would be out of a job.

Or would they?

The idea of a divide between the disciplines of archives and history may seem unimaginable to many involved in those fields, but according to James O’Toole, the Charles I. Clough Millennium Chair in History at Boston College, a split may already be forming.

This “archival divide” was mentioned a few times during the recent spring conference of the New England Archivists, held at Brown University, April 1-2. One of Saturday morning’s first sessions, titled “Is Archival Education Preparing Tomorrow’s Archivists?” featured a lively discussion (as lively as a room full of archivists can be at 9 am, anyway) about how the field is changing and how education is changing in response. To sum up: as records shift from paper to electronic formats, archival education is beginning to stress competence in digital preservation, database management, and knowledge of web architecture and social media. Some members of the profession are concerned that a rift is growing between students interested in the digital realm of archives and those more attracted to the “analog” side of things—the manuscripts, photographs, and other ephemera that spring to mind when one thinks about an archive.

After an hour’s worth of conversation about how to bridge that gap between digital and analog spheres, O’Toole—formerly a professor of archival studies at UMass Boston—broached the question: Where does history fit into all of this? Based on what had been covered in the session so far, it seemed like the whole idea of history was taking a backseat to the new technical aspects of the profession. O’Toole expressed concern that archival educators may be growing so obsessed with teaching new technologies that they’re no longer placing emphasis on understanding historical context.

Silence filled the room as veteran and fledgling archivists alike reflected on what this observation could mean for the future of the profession. Maybe it was just me, but there seemed to be a very faint sense of panic in the air, especially when another session attendee wondered aloud what would happen in twenty years when many “classically trained” archivists retire, leaving the young technical turks in charge.

Before any lurking sense of doom could take over, a voice from the back of the room spoke up, identifying herself as a student enrolled in the library science and history dual-degree Master’s program at Simmons College. With several fellow students beside her nodding in agreement, she explained that there’s no need to panic quite yet; there are still some archivists-in-training who feel that history is hugely important, not only in order to have an understanding of context, but also to know how to conduct historical research, which has the added bonus of helping archivists better understand and assist researchers.

Though this enthusiastic Simmons student helped to quell the panic a little bit, O’Toole’s point is still a distressing one. Later that day, at the conference’s closing plenary session, he discussed how some archival neighbors, such as historians, aren’t “in the neighborhood” anymore, and how the profession needs to hold on to its roots as it explores new and exciting technologies. I certainly hope the educators in the crowd—and the mentors, students, and others working in the field—heard his message. The digital vs. analog divide may be more popular in archival discussions these days, but the sneakier split growing between archives and history may be the one that proves deadly to the profession if left unchecked.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

This year at least a third of the graduates from our undergraduate B.A. program have expressed strong interest in archival studies, and three of them are entering master's programs. I also am optimistic regarding the continued connection between our profession and that of the archivist.

hcr said...

Dana: This is truly an eye-opening piece. I'm surely part of the problem, so anxious to make sure my students don't miss the newest technology that I forget to teach them the things about historical archives I assume they know (which they probably don't). And you're absolutely right, this is a disaster. Thanks so much for pointing it out now, rather than when it's too late.

Love the comment about lively archivists, too!