Thursday, August 30, 2007

The question of archival professionalization: should there be volunteers in the archives?

I have now finished my summer placement at the small religious archive. As with many small archives, it suffers from having a terribly small budget which forces all sorts of stop-gap measures. One of these measures is the use of volunteers. This is a difficult subject for a professional. I would like to see (or at least see it throughly discussed) some kind of archives college or society, similar to a College of Surgeons, to license archivists in the same way that physicians and lawyers are regulated.

As I see it, one can make quite a good argument that permitting volunteers undermines the professional archivist. The argument against volunteers is that it devalues the skills and education of archivists (i.e. if I can train a volunteer to do 50% of the tasks at the archive in 2 weeks, why the hell did I spend two years during an archives Master's degree), it undermines arguments for reasonable compensation (e.g. if I can get a volunteer to do most of your job for free, then why should I hire you for $50,000 a year plus benefits?), and so on. On the question of status, I worry that having a volunteer (especially if they work in an important capacity) could imply that archival work is little but a hobbyist activity.

The argument in favour of permitting volunteers to work in an archive is a mix of pragmatic concerns and archival PR. If planned properly, having volunteers can raise the profile of a given archive and raise public awareness of same. Pragmatically, some tasks could be offloaded onto volunteers are effectively no cost. I think these are some of the reasons that public libraries so readily accept volunteers. Indeed, back in my high school days, I volunteered at the local public library (before it became mandatory in my province) and it eventually help me land my first job there.

What's the thinking out there on volunteers in archives? Only in small archives and then under certain conditions? I'm certainly curious to find out what others think about this issue.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

City of Winnipeg Archives has artist in residence

In partnership with the Winnipeg Arts Council, the City of Winnipeg Archives will host an Artist in Residence for six months beginning in September 2007. The selected artist is local filmmaker Paula Kelly, see press release for further information on Ms Kelly's work.

Through the Artist in Residence program and in collaboration with Ms Kelly, the City of Winnipeg Archives hopes to enhance public understanding of why cities create and keep records and the role records play in defining and expanding upon our understanding of "place."

As far as I am aware, this is a unique program in Canadian archives. Indeed, I have never heard of anything like it at any archives. I think this is a brilliant idea. In her 1925 essay, Virgina Woolf wrote that, "...a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," but I would submit that this is true of any creative person. Writing a novel, composing an opera and so on are major projects that are unlikely to generate income for the artist while they are in progress. Some could critique this as a distraction from the "archival mission," and that might be true. I am still developing my ideas as to what archives should be concerned about myself. Though I think this Winnipeg program is one very much worthy of emulation (or at least experimentation), I realize that some might consider it inappropriate. If so, I would be curious to see why exactly it would be resisted. It would raise the public profile of the archives in a good way and stimulate local culture. Both of these strike me as a laudable concerns.

What about a scholar in residence program then? A lavish program of this type would provide scholars (I assume mainly historians here, but I should certainly make it open to any academic or writer who can make a case that an extended stay at the archives would be beneficial to their work) with an office (complete with phone and Internet access and so forth) as well as a stipend of some kind (somewhere ranging from $5000 to $50,000 - it depends on length of stay and the cost of living in the area).

My interest in these kinds of programs was sparked by reading the opening pages of, "To the Castle and Back," a memoir by Václav Havel (dramatist and former President of the Czech Republic) where he writes, "I'm here as a guest of the Library of Congress, which has given me a very quiet and pleasant room where I can come whenever I want, to do whatever I want. They ask nothing from me in return. It's wonderful."

Notes on Winnipeg. For those readers not familiar with the city, Winnipeg has a population of 630,000 and is the capital of the province of Manitoba in Canada. It has two universities (University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg) and some interesting writers of its own, including David Bergen. The city makes up about 55% of the province's population.

Archival students ahead, making my way in the archival profession

In a few weeks, I will finally start my program in archival and library studies. I'm certainly looking forward to it more and more these days. I'm really looking forward to my archives classes and seeing what kind of people my fellow archival students will be.

I think that archival work could really be satisfying for me if I could straddle the line between archivist and academic. I want to provide good service at wherever I am eventually employed, but I also want to research and publish in journals like Archivaria, the journal of the Canadian Association of Archivists. I very much want to present at archival conferences as well.

On the matter of tuition, there is something that I would like to comment on. The cost of tuition at my program is equivalent to the cost of law school in Canada's western provinces. Interesting to consider, eh?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Another archivist bites the dust (No, not me.), an archival fieldtrip

There was some momentous news today at the Small Religious Archive (SRA) where I have been working this summer. The Archivist has announced that he will be resigning in some weeks. There are several reasons that this decision was made, which I consider entirely reasonable. The Archivist has worked at SRA for three or four years. Since the SRA's budget is too small for a real salary (If I were to offer an opinion: an absolute minimum salary of perhaps $45,000 Canadian in my vague estimation... I know that the British consider £20,895 a minimum archival salary ($42,000 Canadian), the Archivist has been splitting his time between SRA and the city's Public Library. After working six days a week for a year and having several interesting initiatives quashed for lack of funding, he has had enough of it. He is going to be based at the Public Library exclusively in the future.

I found this announcement very depressing. I rather like the SRA Archivist and am sad to see him leave the post. At the same time, I agree with him that the salary offered at SRA is insufficent and that making ends meet by working two jobs like this is quite taxing. The lack of job security has me thinking twice about going into the archival career. The fact that Religious Organization clearly considers the archive a bottom tier expense is discouraging.

The other event of note today was an archival field trip. We visited a church about an hour's drift away and collected quite a lot of their materials. Of course, the materials were stored in this terrible, dank room. I can see moisture damage in some cases, but I really have no idea how to perform conservation on such things.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Define "archivist" in one sentence

Accidental Archivist was at the cottage this weekend and was asked to explain what he will studying. I said, "Archives," but this elicited blank stares. Having not yet taken any courses or done any kind of formal study, the best I could offer was something along the lines of, "preserving information and making it available for use." That's part of it, but not quite there. I would like to be able to give people a definition that is understandable, short and gives due to importance of the profession.