All Well And Good

May 3, 2010

One of the topics that led me to a career in archiving — perhaps out of fascination or perhaps out of dread — is the speed at which a culture can begin to view a pattern or idea as a set-in-stone, age-old tradition. The presidential pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey is spoken and thought of as if it were instituted along with Article II of the Constitution, but it was actually first performed by George H W Bush in 1989. The historical record preserved in archives informs us of What-Was, but, of equal importance, it reminds us that What-Is Wasn’t-Always.

Of course, though this area is of great concern to me, that does not mean I am immune to it, as I was reminded by a New York Times Magazine On Language column a couple of weeks ago (“Wellness”, April 12, 2010). I had had no idea that the term ‘wellness’ was relatively new and had been relatively controversial in its application. I had grown up with the word, and had even taken the required Wellness class in high school, a course that combined Health and P.E. I didn’t think much of it at the time — just another core requirement taught by one of the cadre of football coaches to suffer through — but in hindsight there was plenty of packaging going on. Chapter 1 in the textbook was a long form definition of wellness, and the class was continually sold as a great advance in teaching innovation (MWF we’re going to watch filmstrips about health and hygiene, TuTh we’re going to play ping pong or go bowling or something.).

All that Wellness, and yet still I was not immune to a short-sighted view of culture.

Lucky for me (and for you) I spotted a more interesting trail splitting off from Memory Lane. I’m still hacking my way through some of the undergrowth, but I began to consider archives as part of the health-wellness continuum of institutions. There are a number of factors that are considered to point to the health of an organization or industry. Finances, leadership, business models, investments, future prospects — all of the things that are included in Quarterly or Annual Reports to show that things are good and going to get better.

As the Blue Ribbon Task Force report on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access has made clear, there need to be new lines of argument developed to convince stakeholders and decision-makers that investment in preservation is worthwhile. Perhaps one of these new lines is how archives contribute to and reflect on the overall health, the wellness, of an organization. The maintenance of an institutional past through a preserved, accessible archive establishes a source of materials that can contribute to the achievement of an organization’s goals and missions while also developing a respect for the past and long-held traditions that can contribute to organizational pride, employee well-being, and guidance for the future.

There’s a general idea, on-the-ground as it were, that how one treats one’s family, friends, and material goods in one’s private life is a reflection on how that person might interact with or treat others in the public realm. Depending on how much you agree with the Supreme Court’s definition of corporate personhood, this might be a leap here, but perhaps, too, we could say that how an organization treats their archive and history might be interpreted by employees, investors, and the general public as a reflection of how the institution would deal with them. A high level of care and respect for institutional character and past may translate into a view of that organization’s high level of care for people and for producing high quality work. This may not be of direct monetary economic benefit, but it is certainly of social economic benefit that can contribute to the furthering of an organization’s goals.

These are just the rough beginnings of some ideas here. What’s more certain is that we may have gone to the well one too many times with unfocused arguments on why archives are important and preservation should be funded. Nobody would really disagree with that statement, but it doesn’t mean they would take actions to support it. Creating the prompts or incentives for following through with support and funding is where we need to do some focused cross-training in order to start help moving archives — and the culture — further up the wellness continuum.

—¬†Joshua Ranger