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.

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