Friday, May 8, 2015

Blurring Professional Lines

A while back a friend of mine asked how archivists could maintain core professional values while always collaborating with other professions.  It's an intriguing question, which had not occurred to me at the time.  Last year I wrote about  the differences between various branches of the information science world.   My main point was that the walls between us are largely of our own making.  There is a great deal of politics in the making of professions and sometimes that gets in the way of good ideas.

Yet we must consider the opposite point of view.  There are reasons libraries and archives do things differently.  Standards of description and access have evolved the way they did not just because people can't get along, but to meet the real world needs of practitioners.   In other words a certain amount of separation from allied professions is necessary to effectively do one's job.

But that's not really the point.  Not all collaboration is made equal and some partnerships are one sided.  Librarians, for example, vastly outnumber all other types of information professionals.  We've been around longer and our standards are more developed.  So "collaboration" between us and say archivists can easily look like the library is assimilating the archives.  It is worth pointing out that many university archives are already contained within libraries. So there is always the risk that in seeking to collaborate with our allies librarians may end up swallowing them.

I am not arguing for the very silos which now exist.  In an ever changing digital world, the boundaries between what belongs in a library and what should be in an archive is definitely blurring. A certain amount of collaboration is needed in order to operate effectively in the digital world.  So within the relatively safe confines of our offices, we absolutely should be reaching out to those across the hall and lend a hand on projects where our expertise could be of value.

My fear is that too much blurring of professional lines may render some information professionals invisible to the wider world.  If everyone who manages information looks like a librarian then we're all liable to be lumped together within the same organizational unit and forced to compete for the same money.   The same principle holds true for advocacy both within and outside our organizations. Archives probably face this problem more.  Many people don't really understand the difference between what an archivist does and what a librarian does.  If we blur the lines between us too much we risk creating confusion.  Worse, it could make archivists look redundant to cabinet level staff who do not understand the very real differences between information science professionals. The less clear those boundaries become, the harder it is to justify attending expensive conferences or asking for money for new personnel.

Ultimately what works within the processing room, may not in the board room.   Institutional politics have a very real impact on funding and staffing levels.  So while we should be working together to ensure the long term preservation of our cultural heritage, the never ending competition for dollars is more adversarial.  The library and the archives need to remain separate enough to be able to justify their continued existence but not so much so that we don't talk to each other.  It's a delicate balance. However my feeling is that those who are up and coming can walk the line.  We understand the values of collaboration well enough.   We also understand that there are bigger fish to fry.  Because while information science professionals debate what silo they belong in, Google continues its endless march towards being the only source of information people will ever want.