Collective Individualism

January 22, 2010

New York Times Columnist (and fellow Oregonian) Nicholas Kristof was interviewed on WNYC’s On The Media last month about his approach to being what they termed an “advocacy journalist.”

The gist of it is, advocacy seems to be much more effective when approached as the story of a single individual, that the desire to give aid or help dampens when faced with too many people to think about. I was reminded of a section in Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being where she writes of the difficulty of trying to comprehend the thousands of deaths caused in a South Seas ferry accident. Overwhelmed by the numbers, she experiences more pain over not being able to feel for their suffering than she can muster for their actual suffering. However, as the research study Kristof cites suggests, that decrease in sympathy and the impetus to help doesn’t even need that many people to start taking effect; it begins when the number of people rises to two.

Now I’m not sure if we should be patting ourselves on the back or preparing a suit for copyright infringement, but Kristof’s take on the issue is the same as the base building block of our YADA! initiative — to tell individual success stories about archivists as a means of advocacy and of inspiration to others.

But seriously, it’s a widespread concept used across many sectors in various approaches. We chose to tell success stories because there seems to be plenty of focus on the opposite as people get caught up in the list of problems laid out ahead, almost inversing the old quote about success having a thousand fathers. Making people aware of the challenges faced in media archiving has its place in garnering support, but maintaining that backing and further encouraging its growth means showing the positive results of support.


I think the idea expressed by Kristof and in the study can be extrapolated out to other areas of conceptual disconnect. We’ve written before about using specific examples or designing smaller scale, more quickly accomplished projects when starting out with your advocacy efforts to administration or funders. It can also be a way to not feel overwhelmed by 100 Paige boxes full of generic blank audiocassettes, by finding ways to think about them as “individual” segments to be approached one at a time. Every piece of media has a story — both as an object with a history and as content — but that’s something that can be lost when faced with the masses of reels and cassettes and unorganized file structures. Maybe stepping back to “listen” to and relate the individual stories of our media will help us better be able to listen to our media content into the future.

—¬†Joshua Ranger