Friday, November 13, 2009

CSI: Archives

As promised, the second post in as many days! (Man... I hope you guys don't think I'm making a habit of this.)

So, Tuesday morning, I am having a meeting with the Library Staff Association here to plan our annual holiday party. At the conclusion of this meeting, my student informs me that while I was in said meeting, someone from the bookstore called looking for information about the school's logo, specifically when the various iterations thereof are adopted. He also mentioned something about police officers, to which I said to myself, "He must have heard wrong. Police Officers don't go to the university archives." I have him look it up in a couple of locations while I'm at lunch, planning to call the bookstore director when I get back.

Returning from lunch, it turns out that my student got the boxes, but apparently did not get the memo that I wanted him to, you know, actually look in them. Sigh. I do the research myself, double check our course catalogs for the appropriate branding, make some photocopies, and call the bookstore director. "Great!" says he. "The officers and I will be right over."

Me: "Wait, what?"

As it turns out, the police officers are real! They are in from Los Angeles investigating a cold case from around 1985. I don't know many of the details, nor am I probably allowed to mention them even if I did, but apparently they recently discovered a portion of a missing person's anatomy in a ditch, wrapped in... wait for it... a University Bookstore bag. They brought pictures to show to me and the director of the bookstore. Ahem: EEEEEW.

The reason they need to talk to me is because the logo appears on one side of the bag, and identifying when said logo was in use is apparently critical to determining the possible range of dates the, um, separation could have happened. What a great opportunity to explain about archives! Sort of! I walk them through the various documents, talk about their provenance and their authenticity, and help them with the interpretation thereof. They seem very interested in what I have to say about the logo while I am trying to not throw up in my mouth a bit, take down my statement and my contact info, make an oblique reference to the possibility that I will have to fly down to LA as an expert witness, and thank me for my time and assistance. I am left more than a little nonplussed.

I have to say, I've seen a lot of weird stuff in my archival career thus far-- for example, the University of Maryland College Park Archives has a portrait of Spiro Agnew made out of feathers-- but I think providing evidence that a bookstore bag is from the appropriate time period based on when the logo was or was not in use is the strangest thing I've yet had to do. They don't really prepare you for this sort of thing in Library School (and as such I hope I'm not doing anything wrong by posting this here! It was just such a surreal experience that I had to share it. Hopefully I'm being vague enough that I'm not contaminating anything).

One does wonder what whoever did this was thinking when they wrapped up said body part in a bag with location-specific branding on it. Clearly the person was not exercising... *puts on sunglasses* Respect des Fonds.


(If you don't get that, go here. You're welcome.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jon Stewart, Archival Education, and Other Things That Are Far Out, Man

We're back, baby! Wow, really haven't posted here since January? Guess this is proof that while lack of content can't keep a good blog down, it CAN keep a mediocre one down. (My discovery of Twitter in March probably didn't help.) Buuuut, this week there are not one, but TWO newsworthy things to talk about! Whee! (The second of which will come tomorrow.)

So, as essential background, last week the University of California-Santa Cruz posted a, shall we say, unique job opportunity on the SAA website. Yes, that's right, ladies and gentlemen, you too can smoke pot and drop acid for 30 years and still have a respectable archives career:

The University Library of the University of California, Santa Cruz, seeks an enterprising, creative, and service-oriented archivist to join the staff of Special Collections & Archives (SC&A) as Archivist for the Grateful Dead Archive. This is a potential career status position. The Archivist will be part of a dynamic, collegial, and highly motivated department dedicated to building, preserving, promoting, and providing maximum access both physically and virtually to one of the Library's most exciting and unique collections, The Grateful Dead Archive (GDA). The UCSC University Library utilizes innovative approaches to allow the discovery, use, management, and sharing of information in support of research, teaching, and learning.

Under the general direction of the Head of Special Collections and Archives, the GDA Archivist will provide managerial and curatorial oversight of the Grateful Dead Archive, plan for and oversee the physical and digital processing of Archives related material, and promote the GDA to the public and facilitate its use by scholars, fans, and students.

Full disclosure here: When I saw this posting, I may or may not have proclaimed it the "best job ever posted on the SAA Career Center" on my twitter account. (This is, to be fair, not that hard of a thing to be.)

Naturally, this sort of thing doesn't go unnoticed by people who are not archivists. The posting was picked up by Cory Doctorow on Monday, and of course people on the site saw fit to complain about how silliness like this is why the UC system is over budget all of the time. Uhhh, way to not understand how university finance works at all there, buddy. Of course, the real shitstorm hit when, presumably learning of it from Boingboing, The Daily Show saw fit to mock the posting on its 11/11 show. Let's take a look:

Hot stuff. I can embed video on this thing. Suck it, twitter.

Anyway. FOR SHAME, JON STEWART! You pronounced "Archivist" incorrectly. This is, of course, not what most of the archives twitterati and commenters on the Daily Show website were primarily concerned about. The primary problem was with Stewart's characterization of the Archives profession as overpaid and overqualified for what they do, which is, according to him, determining whether or not to file something alphabetically or numerically. ("What?! Alphanumerically? Slow down, I don’t have a doctorate!") The current thread on the A&A list is 15 posts long, and, as these things do, has quickly escalated from writing him letters to making up videos mocking him from an archives perspective to calling for his head on a platter. (I may have made that last one up, but stay tuned.)

Can we calm down here and put things in perspective before we do anything dumb like having SAA write the Daily Show an official letter of disapproval? (Because he won't mock that on the show or anything.) As I see it, there are two issues at play here: one, the fact that Jon Stewart and the Daily Show writers are underinformed about the nature of the Archives profession (no argument here), and two, that they are using that lack of information to deliberately and maliciously denigrate the profession and the fact that most of the serious jobs require an MA or MLS of some sort. Whoa, Nelly. Let's think about this last one.

First of all, it IS a comedy news program. The Grateful Dead Archivist is sort of inherently a funny concept, but it's not something you can write a whole bit about. I think it likely that the writers of the Daily Show rely on librarians, archivists, and other information professionals to help them research their bits and put together clips and montages, so they're probably not as ignorant about the profession as they let on. Maliciously insulting their in-house info staff seems like a bad decision if they ever want to show videos on the show again, so I suspect that "for the sake of the bit" was invoked here somewhat.

(Though, of course, the need for additional education about what it is an Archivist actually does is always there. My girlfriend, 2 years after we started going out, still says my primary job is "telling people where to put their email". She's only half-joking.)

Second of all, is it possible that part of the reason for this outrage is that Stewart's comments hit a little close to home for people? Two-and-a-half years after leaving library school, I am still not entirely sure what I learned from the archives classes that is immediately useful for my everyday work (though of course the practicums WERE immediately useful). Provenance and Original Order? Do I really need a master's degree for that? Of course there's more to being an Archivist than alphabetizing and categorizing, but I feel like most of what I do at my job I learned from my on-site experiences rather than from the classes themselves. (EAD and MARC? National Geographic Internship. Preservation? Phillips Collection Internship. Reference and Outreach? Working at the UMD Archives.)

I will maybe, MAYBE concede that I got a lot out of my Records Management class, but I didn't really understand how to put it into practice until I got my EOP job and started writing records schedules. Even my appraisal skills, which are by far the most "abstract" of the main Archives/RM functions, I got mostly from my History coursework and evaluating which documents are likely to retain historical value, rather than from Archives coursework.

There's been a lot of talk of late about revamping the state of Archival education in this country to make sure that the knowledge and skills being taught are the ones that will serve future archivists well in their careers. There's been considerably less action on same, as task force after task force has concluded that it's not an immediate concern and that the idea of having ALA or SAA accredit Archives programs is probably an unnecessary expense. Maybe the mockery at the hands of Jon Stewart will get people to reevaluate this stance, at which point I will laugh and laugh. It's bad enough that the Daily Show, as a "fake" news outlet, is already one of the best real news sources out there; if we use him to justify stop putting off reevaluating archival education, it's just further proof that truth is stranger than fiction.

All that said, there is no such thing as bad publicity for Archives and Archivists. Also, that part about finding a Grateful Dead fan with exceptional organizational skills was pretty hilarious.

EDIT: "No one cares about how you pronounce the word "archivist."--Mark Matienzo, via Twitter

EDIT 2: The official Daily Show forum for discussing last night's episode is also good for some lulz. THE DAILY SHOW IS SERIOUS BUSINESS