Thursday, July 5, 2007

Archival education and professionalism

First, a preamble regarding my future archival education.
In September, I will be starting a two year Master's degree in Information Studies, with Archives as my particular area of focus. As this will be my third university degree (BA, MA in History), I am looking forward to it and feel quite comfortable with doing the program. There are a number of courses that I look forward to taking; some will be clear-cut professional development oriented courses, some required and some out of general interest. Even though most of this entry involves criticism of the present mode of archival education in Canada (it appears to be done on similar lines in the UK and USA), I am looking forward to this program and do think I will learn from it.

One of the first things one notices about archival education is that it is a professional program. In financial terms, this means that it costs more than undergraduate programs and that the student generally pays for it. In terms of costs, the tuition is far from a nominal fee. In sad contrast to the MA I am completing (where I only had to pay about 10% of my fees as the rest was covered by a tuition scholarship), one has to pay to do archival studies. Let's say that it is higher than your typical undergraduate program, while still much lower than what law and medical students pay. Another characteristic of professional programs is the degree in question is required for the career (e.g. LLB/JD for law, MD for doctors, B.Ed for teachers etc). While I am irritated at the high costs, these two characteristics are acceptable.

My critique is more concerned with the fact that archival/librarian education is done as a separate graduate degree. In many job listings, a MLIS (Master of Library and Information Studies, or equivalent credential) degree is required. However, this is not always the case. Some small archives will simply employ librarians, without any specific training or education in archives, as archivists as these employers either don't know about archival training or don't care. (Now, don't get me wrong, I'm very keen on libraries and like librarians, but libraries and archives are different institutions, with different rules and procedures.)

From what I see in working at two archives, speaking to archivists and an initial evaluation of the archival (also library) curriculm, there doesn't appear to be a major research component, traditionally a defining aspect of graduate programs. Indeed, is there a single good academic reason that archival/library programs could not be offered as an undergraduate program? It could be like a specialist (i.e. 50% or more of all courses taken have to be in the archival/library area) undergraduate program. This would have the great advantage of providing another professional option at the undergraduate level, surely welcome in an era where BAs are overproduced and often underemployed. Is some aspect of archival/library school that really requires a prior BA? My guess is not - maybe a year or two of university study, at most.

Why then is archival education organized on the graduate level? I think this is a grab at professionalization and status. Archivists may not have the prestige of professions with regulatory agencies like doctors, lawyers, teachers etc (e.g. an agency which licenses people to a profession and which requires them to possess a certain degree), so they opt for prestige with a special degree. But really is it necessary for it to be like this? I know there are some Canadian archivists (many archival professors, it would appear) who envision a major vision of graduate education, with thesis research and all of that. Sure, I like to do research and have even done a traditional graduate degree, but is all that really needed (or professionally useful?) for an archivist?

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