Marshmallowing The Troops

March 25, 2010

Little known fact: I was a middle school Chubby Bunny champion. A moment of pride? Perhaps not, but when my only other award to that date was 2nd Place Most Interesting Cake in a Cub Scout cake bake off, I was eager to win something.

I have little doubt that the stirring Chubby Bunny competition has since been banned from schools nationwide and any record of it relegated to school newspaper archives…though I hope in my case it hasn’t been (I have never claimed that all archival materials are entirely benign or significant). For those unfamiliar with the particulars, the competitors in this event vie to see who can pack the most marshmallows in one’s mouth while maintaining the ability to fully vocalize “chubby bunny”.

Like I says…

I guess I have marshmallows on the mind (though not on the tongue) in part because I’ve almost made it through another October to April confluence of my formerly beloved holiday themed chocolate covered marshmallow treats (May to December romances ain’t got nothing quite so bittersweet as that relationship). The other reason is because I caught this little (Stay) puff piece on YouTube about The Marshmallow Test, an experiment where young children were presented with a marshmallow and then given the option of eating it or of waiting 15 minutes and then receiving an additional marshmallow:

Two things immediately struck me about this experiment — besides, that is, the memory sensation of gooey sugar melting on my tongue. First was the fact that in the original experiment referenced by the news story the children were tracked to age 18 and it was found that those who waited out the 15 minutes were more likely display the greater levels of self-discipline and focus that lead to life success than those who did not. I think this speaks very well to the idea that the ability to plan and conceptualize future events and goals is an integral part to one’s overall wellness or success. Second to stand out was the association in the results of the test with the idea of instant gratification, of the mindset that what can be gained now is worth more than a greater, extensible future gain that results from more immediate short term investment.

This mindset is a major hurdle in the advocacy and support for archiving and preservation funding. As the excellent Blue Ribbon Task Force report Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information points out (Read it!, there is great economic and cultural benefit to the preservation of materials. However, despite those benefits, there has been an overall lack of clearly defined statements outlining the value of preservation in ways that sufficiently incentivizes organizations to fund that work.

We feel it in our bones that preserving the cultural and historical record is important — that is why we became archivists in the first place — but the Big Idea capitonyms that drive us (History! The Future! Culture!), while important rallying points, often result in vague arguments for why it is Important to Preserve this Valuable Material. This passion is good, but when an organization is faced with mandates to increase revenues or cut budgets, they are going to grab that marshmallow off the plate, floor, or wherever they can find it in order to attain immediate goals, regardless of the feast of unseen marshmallows down the road that initial fluff could engender.

Our responsibility now is to articulate the reasons why the short-sighted approach to sustaining the use and quality of archival materials is wrong and what the quantifiable benefits of preservation are. These are not necessarily monetary benefits. Economics is a social science, and there are institutional benefits derived from reputation, from fulfilling mission statements, from providing education, and from other identifiable, classifiable achievements. It’s important to point out that this issue will not be addressed solely on an institution by institution basis. The bottom line is the bottom line. But there will also be the need for the incentive provided by a strong Public Policy that outlines practices, gives support, and develops the infrastructure or reasoning that enables organizations to adopt long term preservation strategies. The Blue Ribbon Task Force has hacked a trail through the brush. It’s our time to build on that.

— Joshua “chumby bummy” Ranger