DACS, NARA, AOTUS, and A Lot of Coffee

By Emily Minehart, (recently graduated) Undergraduate Student Processor

The archival community is pretty goofy. I mean goofy in a good way. It’s easy to spot the archivists; they’re holed off in a corner of the library, looking a little peeved and drinking coffee. (Last week I was asking a supervisor a question. We had to go downstairs to the stacks to figure it out. She sighed and said, “Well. This is going to be a problem. But I’m going to bring my coffee downstairs with me, so at least I can look forward to that.” I find this to be a pretty standard attitude. I also received a mug as a gift recently. It says, “Instant Archivist: Just Add Coffee!” Very accurate.) They’re also probably talking about being underfunded and underappreciated. More specifically, they’re concerned that all other library departments get storage space while the archivists keep boxes on the floor in the corner of the basement.

I recently changed locations with the BMRC. I moved from a Chicago Public Library branch to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Daley Library, and I’m finding archivists across institutions to be rather similar.

The prerequisites:

1.     Coffee lover;
2.     More love for manuscripts than people;
3.     A deep love of sarcasm; and,
4.     Exasperation at the world’s lack of appreciation for archives.

That almost covers it. About 75% of the time we’re also fairly small women (that’s definitely a scientific statistic), which makes for some interesting moments. Personally, I’ve had a few I Love Lucy-worthy episodes of almost-but-not-quite dropping a 40-pound record carton on my foot from off of the highest shelf. There are other times when the box has fallen on my foot. The documents were fine! My foot was less lucky, but also fine! I suppose that’s another thing about archivists: they’re more concerned about the materials than their foot/the dust they accidently ate/the potentially noxious black mold they’re inhaling/the gnarly crusty bits of hardened adhesive stuck to their shirt. (I should mention that those are all totally serious and totally real examples, except the mold. We do worry about breathing in the mold. That stuff is nasty.)

There’s a strange thing about archivists, though, that is contrary to the things that are, more often than not, the same across the profession: there are no real standards from institution to institution. My processing partner, Ben, and I find this curious. Ben assures me that in pursuit of my Master in Library Science, I will have a lot of class discussions about whether or not archivists are considered professionals at all. Can “archival studies” be a profession if there is no set of profession-wide standards? The Society of American Archivists (SAA) governs us. There are annual conferences. There is a standard certification exam. But you can practice without taking that exam, and SAA doesn’t certify advanced degree programs. We have to rely on the American Library Association for that. You can get a “certified” library education that has nothing to do with archives, but still technically have the profession-standard education. There are multiple standard guides from which an institution can choose and still be “correct.” (This webpage just kills me. There must be an easier way!)

It seems to me that SAA should begin to make some executive decisions about how to archive. Any researcher worth their salt recognizes that every different archive has an extraordinarily different way of labeling folders and titling things. Even with experience as a processing archivist, I still get confused when doing research! It’s extremely complicated, and often so intimidating that researchers are turned off and hope they can rely on published materials and the internet in the place of archives. That defeats the purpose of archives entirely.

(A concrete example: DACS, the standard BMRC follows, states that materials with no date should be labeled “undated;” lowercase and never abbreviated “n.d.” for “no date.” One institution that nominally follows DACS as well uses “n.d.” because they sat down with DACS, picked the guidelines they liked, and threw out the rest. What kind of standardization is that?)

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has just released an update to its long-term initiative plan, the Financial Year 2014-2019 Draft Strategic Plan, and is encouraging archivists to read it and offer suggestions before a final version is published. The plan heavily emphasizes standardization and ease of access within NARA, as well as an increased public presence. They have, for example, recently launched the Citizen Archivist program. Anyone with an internet connection can help identify photographs, transcribe written manuscripts, edit articles, and upload their own content. This kind of consolidation, crowd sourcing, and public awareness seems just like what the archival profession (trade?) needs. If any archive can push SAA to create stricter standardization, it’s the monolithic NARA. (Who could say no to David Ferriero? He’s “AOTUS.” Like POTUS, but “Archivist of the United States.” His title? Collector in Chief. I mean come on. How cool is that.) Hopefully SAA will pick up on what NARA and, on a smaller, more twitter-sized scale, a lot of other archives are doing. Do a people search for “archive” on twitter. The results include a lot of archives, a few blogger/archivists, and some open source internet-based initiatives. (NARA is even on tumblr.) The potential is there. The content is there. The archivists are gearing up. The internet revolution is making it easier. The community is communicating. We can achieve a uniform profession-wide standard that takes advantage of technology and social media. It will be a friendlier, simpler, streamlined process, easier for archivists, administrators, and researchers alike. Why hasn’t it happened yet? It’s an endlessly overwhelming undertaking, but in my (not-so-professional) opinion, it’s time.

But of course, I’m a novice, little more than an overeager intern. Perhaps attending graduate school will alter my opinion. I really don’t think it will, though. I think standardization would do nothing but good. And I think this is a very exciting time to be entering the field; I’ve talked to professors, professionals, interns, and graduate students, and they share one additional thing, beyond the coffee and general disgruntled-ness: a feeling that things are about to change. Cheers to my generation. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Someone should start brewing the coffee now, because we’re going to need a lot of it.