• Libby Coyner

The Delicate Art of Being an Archivist: An Open Letter to Alice Dreger

Dear Alice,

I recently read your article "The Delicate Art of Dealing with Your Archivist," published in the Chronicle of Higher Education." I didn't recognize these people you were writing about, having spent over ten years now as part of the archives community and watching these folks doing the many aspects of their work (in addition to just reference): collecting, preserving, making accessible, and performing a lot of emotional labor helping us all to think critically about our documentary heritage. These are the folks spending their professional lives advocating for transparency among elected officials, amplifying voices of under-documented folks in the archival record, and developing practices for holding and providing access to peoples' stories in ethical ways - all for pretty pitiful salaries. In a time when we are having discussions about how our work is frequently made invisible by researchers and writers, you choose to boil us down to a few demeaning stereotypes, almost none of which acknowledge our intellectual contributions, and all of which describe our work as a service industry profession. (Incidentally, I spent many years in the service industry, working to pay my way through my graduate education that enabled me to become an archivist, and there's no shame in that work either). There's so much I could say, so I'll attempt to distill it down to a few points.

We do more than reference, and we are not strictly about serving you. Yes, we do serve patrons through reference work. However, did you know that archivists do a lot more work to make your research possible? For instance, did you know that we do the work to acquire those collections in the first place, and that they don't magically appear in our repositories? These acquisitions happen due to a lot of work by archivists building relationships with members of our communities and with elected officials (and often their administrative assistants). You may do work in government archives, not realizing how hard archivists in those institutions fight to get that material in the first place, both in terms of building it into records management schedules, and in terms of seeing that those schedules are enforced. You probably don't think about the work of my friend, a queer Latinx woman working to build collections that reflect the identity of folks like her, to insert their voice into history - in part so that her institution can fulfill its neoliberal dreams of documenting "under-documented communities." And then researchers like you will harvest the fruits of her work, claiming to have "discovered" something in the archives, ironically probably doing some "social justice" project. We also work to process that material and describe it so you can find it in our repositories. We digitize it so people can access it from anywhere, and accompany that material with metadata, also so folks can find it. And we build technological systems so that you can access descriptive information and digitized content from the comfort of your office. Most of the time when historians like yourself "discover" something in the archives, it's because an archivist has painstakingly processed it, preserved it, described it, made it accessible, and hand-delivered it to your reading room table.

While we're talking about erasing our labor, let's also talk about the gender issue in your article (and your work in general). Another conversation we're having a lot in our profession is one about gender. We talk about how the historic feminization of library and archives work has contributed to low wages and not being taken seriously. And we talk about how in our profession, we often see white male mediocrity rise to the top in leadership positions, and watch as women are not seen as professional or academic. Your article really emphasizes a lot of those stereotypes. Here's how you've broken it down. The archivists you've feminized are mostly lonely, pathetic, and submissive: the "mensch," someone who greets you like family and lets herself be led by researchers like you; the "distractor," a crazy cat lady who apparently relies on you for company; the "heiress," something of a princess character surrounded by precious things. And the archivists you see as male are entitled: the "snob," who thinks researchers are not worth his time; the "mooch," someone who attaches himself to researchers for bragging rights (um, okayyyyy?); and the bureaucrat, a government employee who is slow, phoning it in for the benefits, and probably works at a state archives (that character likely exists, but you'll never see him at the reference desk because he's been promoted to a position where he never has to interact with pleb researchers). It's no surprise that you'd throw women under the bus in your article, as you have a history of berating folks in historically-marginalized sections of the gender spectrum. (Folks can google Alice Dreger transphobia for more about that, I don't need to provide anything).

Really? You're going to play out that tired trope about the crazy cat lady librarian? I suppose this must make me the stereotypical "distractor," except that's not me at all. You see, when I was doing the bulk of my reference work, I was working at a state archives. If you know anything about state archives, you know they're some of the most underfunded repositories around. So while I was working a job that required a master's degree (I have two, thanks) for less than $40,000 a year, I spent my time not only babysitting researchers like you, but I also multi-tasked like mad. While I was at the reference desk, I was also answering reference questions via telephone and email, processing collections, putting collections into our database so they could be discovered by researchers, scheduling records transfers to the archives, creating exhibits and blog posts and social media to creatively share our collections, creating presentations that I gave at conferences, writing peer-reviewed articles for academic journals, and recording stats (because after all of that work, we still have to prove that our work is worth supporting). I don't have five cats, I have seven - and it's not because I'm lonely, it's because I have a fucking heart and have taken in animals who have been discarded by other people. The empathy that drove me to rescue cats is the same empathy that drove me to the archives field. I wanted to do work that meant that under-documented communities saw ourselves in the historical record, that we consider how communities get to represent themselves in the archival record, and to advocate for transparency of elected officials so that they can be held accountable.

I'll close with these sentiments. I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in History three years in for a variety of reasons, but primarily because it was a super toxic environment. This toxicity is reflected in your article. Rather than having any respect for what archivists do or learning how we do our work, you suggest that archivists are lonely, pathetic, submissive people who exist to serve you. We serve a number of communities, including our researchers, the people who entrust us with their histories, and our collective archives labor community. Where you see people who might make an easy target for a snarky piece of writing, I see the community that welcomed me in, showed me that you can be a tattooed queer kid from the woods of Idaho and can still define what "professionalism" looks like, and held my hand through cancer. One other thing - the close-knit nature of our community is that we are talking about this article, and we all now know who you are. I wish you continued success with your research, though I suspect that now this article has made the rounds, you might find fewer mensches and perhaps more ambivalent archivists who will give you boxes as you request them, but might not give you the mensch treatment. You know, because we're just service industry plebs.



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