Archival Education and Professionalism

Having now completed my first official year of graduate studies (woohoo!), I have been thinking how professional practices and standards are communicated to newbies like myself through LIS and archival curriculum. As a set of professions that facilitate and structure access to information, learning how to be a librarian or an archivist is clearly more than just knowing about reference and cataloging standards. For me, entering into archives is not only about developing the skills and knowledge to appraise, preserve, arrange and describe records of enduring value, but being able to demonstrate the value of these skills to our larger communities and advocate for the value of archives for addressing social inequity.

Archives and libraries share many similarities in our approach to organizing and creating access to information, so housing archival education programs within LIS departments makes sense in many ways. But archives and librarianship have important differences as well, and how this is reflected in LIS coursework has become especially interesting to me. Unlike LIS programs, which are accredited by the American Library Association, there is no governing body that accredits or provides oversight of archival education in the United States. The Society of American Archivists does provide guidelines for graduate archival programs, but it is largely up to individual institutions to justify how their curriculum supports the training and education of archival concepts and practices.

Is this a problem? Given the wide variety of environments in which archivists may find themselves as practitioners, maybe not. Although it is not possible to capture in depth all aspects of archival practice and theory in a single program or set of courses, what is increasingly interesting to me is how academic programs balance the unique knowledge needed for working archival environments with an academic core of courses, and how this reflects professional priorities.

The development of librarianship as a course of study differs from the development of archival studies in important ways. Archival education has developed as an outgrowth of academic history programs (starting with the origins of the SAA in 1936), and in many ways the curriculum remains similar to professional rather than academic degrees (like business or management degrees). You enter the program to learn the tools and tricks of the trade, which you will then adapt to the specific repository/collections/role you find yourself in. Concerns about the larger social context of records are acknowledged in the SAA guidelines, but in practice the majority of programs have no requirements addressing diversity and inclusion.

No doubt, many students entering into archives are looking to develop these professional skills and possibly switch career tracks, so the focus on developing practical skills and knowledge makes sense. However, what seems to be lost in the assertion of a “practical” education is the importance of why archives and archivists are important in larger social conversations about history and collective memory. Providing this context is fundamental to developing an awareness in archival students and scholars about the importance of engaging critically with how our practices and standards perpetuate or challenge larger ideologies that disenfranchise and marginalize social groups.

Thinking about how archival education is structured and what is and is not included has forced me to take a pro-active position in my training and education. Archives are important for many reasons, but studying how archives can and should support social justice movement and anti-racism within the profession and within larger society are issues I have had to go out of my way to find resources on and conversations about. It’s also worth noting that these are conversations that are happening within the professional community, with On Archivy and the Los Angeles Archivist’s Collective Acid-Free Journal as just two examples. Had I just stuck to the content in my courses however, I would not have encountered these critically important conversations on the ongoing relevance and shifts of archival practices in a variety of environments.

My concern here is not only that archival students are not really being introduced to these (very current!) issues in archival practice and theory, but that we are also not being prepared to meet new understandings of records and record-creating communities as archival records are being used to explore the origins and affects of systemic racism, sexism, and statism. For example, the Georgetown University archives have helped unearth the connections between slavery and scholarship at academic institutions, and through the efforts of a working group, led to the creation of the Georgetown Slavery Archive. While the archival profession has a poor track record of self-advocacy and promotion, it is precisely at moments in time like these where our expertise and collections are needed to address longstanding social inequity and provide resources for progressive social movement.

It isn’t so much a theory/practice divide here, but an extension of archival principles of access and use that is so important. The way I see it, the best way to advocate for our professional expertise and value is to directly engage in conversations about the role of archives in supporting the work being done in other disciplines and by social justice groups. As you move through your own program, archival or otherwise, how do you think curriculum reflects the emerging conversations and issues in your field? Is it unrealistic to expect coursework to these topics?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Ginny under Creative Commons  Share-Alike licensing.

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