Librarians, Archivists, and Researchers of the World Unite

Another hyperbolic title.  It’s just so tempting.

In light of my recent archive experiences, I re-read a news piece Inside Higher Ed ran earlier this month titled “Eroding Library Role?”, which discusses the decreasing role of librarians in the research of humanities scholars.  Apparently, people like me are more and more likely to use Google, and less and less likely to use the frumpy guy behind the research desk at the library.  To which we all say, of course, No Shit, Sherlock.  But rather than crying like a bunch of whiny newspaper editors and reporters (in the words of Nelson, “Ha ha!  Your medium is dying!”), let’s briefly discuss why librarians (and archivists, for that matter) are less important to me right now than a fast Internet connection, and how and why that should and might change.

Here are my top three problems with librarians and archivists:

  • a lot of them are painfully awkward, painfully mean, and/or painfully smelly
  • they don’t know jack shit about my field, much less my work
  • their “research assistance” amounts to a keyword search in the library/archive’s version of Google, which I can do myself much faster and in the comfort of my home with an open container of something delicious.

For these (and other) reasons, I am often loathe to consult librarians and archivists.  On the other hand, I am also drawn to them in the belief, sometimes confirmed, that they actually know the archive/library, and they can get me to the thing I know I’m looking for or — even better — the things I hadn’t even thought of.

In short: I want to work with archivists and librarians, but things have got to change.  And it’s not just them.  I think that I, and other researchers, could make some changes in how we approach the archive and make things more pleasant and productive for everyone involved.  And so, in the pursuit of Truth, which we researchers and archivists make together, some suggestions.

For researchers:

  1. Do your prep work.  Compile a keyword list.  Get the dates, places, people, and events of your topic straight.  Write down the footnotes and citations from other work that you’d like to check out yourself.  Bring all of this with you to the archive–or, even better, send it to the archivist/librarian ahead of time, when you schedule your appointment with her/him.
  2. Be friendly but persistent.  The archivist/librarian, despite a foul attitude/smell, is a person and deserves civility.  But that person is also getting paid to do this–not much, granted, but it’s still a j-o-b.  So if you get a “I don’t know” response, keep pushing.  Try asking your question in different ways.  Be such a nice pain-in-the-ass that the archivist wants to help both because you’re a good person and so that she/he can get rid of you.
  3. Follow up.  Send a thank you note to the archivist/librarian.  I’ve noted the potential pay-off from this.  And write to the bosses, administrations, funding agencies, and politicians who have budget power.  Probably the main reason that archivists and librarians don’t know enough about our fields is there simply aren’t enough of them.  It’s impossible to become an expert in all the areas these people supervise, particularly when the jobs don’t pay enough to retain people long enough to become as familiar with the material as we need them to be.  Researchers have a responsibility to advocate for those positions.

For archivists/librarians:

  1. Adjust your attitude.  I’m sure it gets boring when you have to answer the same questions day after day.  I understand that some researchers don’t know what they’re talking about, and that you have a lot of other things to do.  But you knew what you were getting in to, so quit your whining and go study the finding aids some more.
  2. Spend some time in the stacks.  Get to know the material that the researchers are coming in for.  If you have 100 cubic feet of something labeled “Subject File 10,” maybe you should figure out what that means, exactly.  No, you don’t have to look into every folder or even every box.  But you should have some sense of the scope of collection.  You need to make yourselves invaluable to a researcher.  If you can’t tell me anything more than what I can find on the computer, then your job is not safe.
  3. Ask more questions.  In the best of situations, researchers will only have a partial sense of what they are working on and what they are looking for.  Ask us questions: who was involved in this topic?  When did it happen?  What kinds of materials are you looking for?  What have you already found?  What tools have you used in your research?  The less time I have to watch you run the same search I just did ten minutes ago, the more time we have to identify new materials and new ideas.

I should end with this: alles liebe, archivists.  I love you, even with your bad attitude and your often pathetic computer skills.  We can make this work, baby.

Archive Blogging: In Sum

I made it back from NARA-College Park, and earlier than I thought; I decided that there was no more to see on Friday, so I got an earlier flight home, arriving four hours early to the surprise of my spouse.  I’m in the midst of processing and assessing the trip.  By the numbers:

  • Hours in archive: 30
  • Photos of documents: 1,233
  • Cost: $1,071.82

Quantitatively, the trip was fine.  Flying and staying in/around DC ain’t cheap, I have learned, so the cost was more or less unavoidable.  And I came back with a lot of document images, especially considering how relatively little time I gave myself.

Qualitatively, though, the trip stunk.  I’m miserable when I’m away from my spouse, so there’s that.  As for the research, I’ll be lucky if ten percent of those photos are actually of any use to me.  When it became clear that what I was looking for was buried deep inside not just a record group, not just a series, not just a box, and not just a folder, but at the document level, I started taking shots of anything that looked remotely relevant.  This is, of course, the right way to do it when you have limited time, but it’s hardly satisfying.  Beyond that, NARA-College Park is an intimidating place with intimidating people.  Maybe it’s just my west coast sensibilities, but there are some real assholes there.  The exception: David Pfeiffer, an archivist in the reference section.  Nice guy, knows his stuff, and can come up with different ways of approaching your topic and what you’re looking for.  I’ve sent a thank you note (always a good idea, by the way–your mom was right about this).  His colleague Eugene was also good, but another fellow, who I won’t name, was a real prick.  “I don’t know” followed by a grunt was his typical response.  And he farted while walking by.

Fuzzy but delicious Peruvian chicken and yucca.

All in all, I’m glad it’s done and I hope not to go back.  Actually, I do hope to go back, but to Washington proper rather than College Park.  I only made it into Our Nation’s Capital once, to meet my cousin for dinner at Matchbox.  It was the highlight of the trip.  Coming in a close second was the cheap dinner I had the first night at Sardis Pollo a La Brasa in College Park — delicious, delicious Peruvian food.

My thanks to Yelp for the tip, which was much better than the cab driver:

Me: You live in College Park?
Cabbie: Yeah.
Me: Any good pizza places?
Cabbie: Oh, yeah, there’s one across the street from your hotel.
Me: You mean the Pizza Hut?
Cabbie: Yeah.
Me: Thanks.

Archive Blogging: PULL!

For those not in the know, “PULL!” is what you shout when you’re skeet shooting and you’re ready for the next clay pigeon.  I went and did this with my father-in-law one year, and I almost blew his foot off.  By accident, of course.  And that’s the story of how I learned that I’m not comfortable with guns.

“Pulling” is also what the archive monkeys do when you want material: they take your little form and disappear into the stacks, reemerging with your coveted boxes of yellowed paper.  In smaller archives (like the state archive I used to be a monkey for), you can get things pulled as you need them.  But at NARA-College Park (and most other large archives, I imagine), there is–of course–a procedure.  They only pull at 10am, 11am, 1:30pm, and 2:30pm (plus 3:30 on Wed, Thurs, and Fri).  So as a researcher, you have to figure out how to arrange your pull slips so you don’t end up with any dead time–so that while you are going through one pull, the monkeys are in the back getting the next stack of stuff.

This can be highly stressful if you have limited time (like me during this trip).  If you miss a pull time, you fall behind, meaning that you might not get through your research, meaning you might have to come back.  Which costs money and time, neither of which I have a lot of right now.  Okay, okay–graduate students have all the time in the world.  But only as much money as our significant others allow us.

In any case, I was having trouble staying up on the pull times yesterday morning, but by mid-day, I was moving along.  Of course, I forgot to eat until 3pm, by which time the cafeteria was closed, so I had a disgusting pre-made chicken salad.  But more on my culinary experiences in College Park later.  Now it’s time to get my pull slips ready.

Archive Blogging: The First Day is Always a Throwaway

I’m doing some research at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland this week.  It started off horribly, as is always the case for the first day at an archive.  The journey itself was so horrible as to be laughable, if only because I was delirious from exhaustion.  A bumpy red-eye flight from the west coast; no breakfast; a 45-minute wait for a shuttle from the airport to the hotel; a 30-minute wait for a shuttle from the hotel to the archive; a 30-minute drive to cover 3 miles.  You get the picture.  But I finally arrived, my computer full of references and all ginned up to do some research.

[whump]  That’s how I imagine it sounded when my enthusiasm and my exhaustion hit the wall.  Turns out my references were not at all useful; the full professor at Harvard who wrote the citations (and got them published in a paper!) fucked them up as to be totally unusable.  Just so you know, writing down the record group and the box number is not, in fact, sufficient, when a record group includes hundreds of separate programs, each with their own number sequence.  So fuck you anyway, Harvard prof.

Anyway, I spent about an hour flipping through binders of incomprehensible accession numbers, put together a records request for who-knows-what, and then just stopped.  I stared at my computer and felt like I was going to pass out.  I was about to give up and leave, then decided, what the hell–I walked up to the reference librarians and said, “Guys, you gotta help me figure out how to game this.  I’m exhausted, I’m only going to be here until Friday, and I have no idea how to proceed.  Help.”

And they did.  The two of them (Eugene and David in civilian records, second floor) came up with some great ideas, and now I’ve got a set of record requests ready to go when I get to the archives this morning.  Really–those guys came through for me.

Which is usually how these things go.  The first day at an archives, in my experience, is almost totally worthless.  You’re tired, you have no idea what you’re doing, the staff sees you as an increase in their workload.  And just when you’re about to break, things start to click.  You don’t get much work done–but you get just enough of a sense of how things work that it’s worth coming back.  So I’m off, ready to tackle the largest archive in the world.

Also: any suggestions on the best way to get from NARA II to the Lincoln Memorial?  I’ve never been to DC, and I’d like to at least see the old man.

Organizing Update: Task Force Adjunct

I’ve been away from my desk for about a week–officiating a wedding in the Third World, an experience I’m still processing and will write about soon.  But for now, a quick update: the college where I’m teaching has decided to follow the recommendation of our little group of adjunct revolutionaries, and put together a “task force” to investigate, address, and (hopefully) alleviate adjunct concerns.   This is a victory? [pitch of voice increasing and punctuated with a question mark].  We’ll see what happens.  Task Force Adjunct won’t meet until next fall, so it’s not like this is going to have immediate consequences.  Laying the groundwork, building foundation, all of that.  Blah, blah, blah: where’s my damn health insurance?

The Troubles with Organizing Adjuncts

For the last year-and-a-half, I’ve been working as an adjunct at a Local Liberal Arts College (LLAC).  The department is great, the students are by and large wonderful to work with, and I love being my own boss for all intents and purposes.  But there are problems.  The pay is low (I’d make more as a TA at my grad institution) and I don’t get health insurance (which I would get as a TA).  I figured that there are probably other adjuncts who have similar frustrations, and so back in the fall, I sweet-talked the Dean’s secretary into giving me a list of all the adjuncts on campus.  I put together an e-mail list, called up a pub to set aside a few tables, and had a get-together in September.  My intentions from the beginning were to see about organizing the adjuncts into a union.  I’ve had some very good union experiences (at my MA institution) and some decent union experiences (at PhD school).  Moreover, I am well convinced that unions are indeed the way to go in a situation where the workers are basically expendable.  And that’s the case for adjuncts: we’re basically temp workers, a dime a dozen–you can’t spit without hitting a history PhD who is desperate for a job.  But together we could have some serious bargaining power, as LLAC, like other schools, has increasingly come to depend on temp workers–about a third of the faculty are adjuncts.  Together, we could shut the motherfucker down [says the tough-talking pseudo-radical].

Many of the people who came to the adjunct meetings were sympathetic, and sometimes enthusiastic, about a union drive.  But a few–and one dude in particular–were averse, if not hostile, to the idea.  And more than that: no one was coming to the meetings.  There are 100+ adjunct on the list, but no more than eight people would show up.  A few more would e-mail with apologies about schedule conflicts, etc., but the fact remained that people weren’t involved.  Hardly a positive indicator for union potential.  Overall, it seemed that the adjuncts were either too busy, too apathetic, or too satisfied to start the revolution.

So a change in strategy was necessary.  I’m putting off the revolution for now, and instead following a suggestion offered by another adjunct: sitting down with the university and talking it over.  A few other adjuncts and I met with representatives from the Dean’s office and proper faculty, and we’re pressing for a committee to be established to (a) come to terms with the scope of the University’s dependence on adjuncts; (b) investigate the concerns and hopes expressed by adjuncts; and (c) assess the current relationship between the university, departments, and adjuncts and see whether it might be changed for the better.

In the words of Anna Louise Strong (voice for the Seattle General Strike of 1919), “we are starting on a road that leads – NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!”  Except back off on the capital letters and exclamation mark.  I think this committee will come up with some recommendations, probably draft some policies and procedures, and hopefully clear up some things about how the university relates to its adjuncts.  Hell, maybe we’ll even get a salary ladder and health care.  But our comrades in Indiana have had less luck with that, and I have a feeling that when it becomes clear that what the adjuncts want will cost the university money, we’re going to have trouble.  At that point, the ambivalent adjuncts are going to have to make some decisions about what they want and how they can get it.  Maybe then they’ll show up to the damned meetings.

Article Ups, Money Downs

A bit of a roller coaster week here on the Bench, with a splash of good news and a dash of bad news.

The Good: Looks like I’ll be getting something printed in a relatively important academic journal.  I have to make a few minor changes, and it won’t go to press until May 2011, but it’s still Something Published.  I started work on this project back way back in 2006, so this is pretty gratifying.  The Adviser thinks this is kind of a big deal, so that’s nice.  And I needed win this week, because of…

The Bad: I have now officially been rejected by all of the fellowships for which I applied.  Every one of them.  As you’ll remember, I kind of expected this.  Applying for fellowships is like shooting craps, except you don’t get the joy of instant gratification and it takes way, way more of your time.  I gambled with about 100 hours of my life (20 hours/fellowship application, which is a low estimate) and I lost.  I’m sure that a lot of very qualified people applied for these fellowships–at least 400 applicants for one of them, I know–but there were only 150+ applicants for one particular fellowship that I thought I had a pretty good shot at.  That is a bummer.

In the long run, getting something published should more than make up for not getting these fellowships.  If the article helps me get one of those mythical Tenure-Track Jobs, then I’ve come out on top.  But that assumes that I finish my dissertation, for which I need time to research and write, and fellowship money would help give me that time.  Still, I’m feeling good, so I’ll ride that out for a while.