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Aiming for Neutrality in Collections and Archives

By saarabi

In the article “Archives, Records, and Power: the Making of Modern Memory”, authors Shwartz and Cook explore the impact archivists have over power relationships, identity formation, and social memory through the acquisitions and preservations that take place in collections and archives.  The origin of archival use is important to understanding the framework of archives. Schwartz and Cook touch on the history of the archive saying, “Their origins lie in the information needs and social values of the rulers, governments, businesses, associations, and individuals who establish and maintain them.”  The authors go on to say this dynamic has been in place as far back as the Greek empire, and centers on power, specifically the power to shape history through what is preserved and what is omitted from a collection.

Though archives, and the people who work therein, are often positioned as neutral, they are very much a reflection of the needs and views of its founders. This is not a commonly-held or discussed reality of the field, at least to the common layperson.  Truth be told, up until reading these articles I had not questioned this widely accepted ideal of the archivist as being objective and without personal bias.  No matter how high ones professional standards are, it is nearly impossible to expect complete neutrality in a person – each of us has a background and experiences that form our views of society and our values, and it is extremely difficult to set these aside, or to know how our subconscious factors in.

Sometimes these biases are more evident, like which items are deemed worthy for inclusion in an archive,  and sometimes they are more subtle –  such as the way items are labeled and organized in collections.  In terms of the latter there are various factors at play that may hinder neutrality.  On a broad scale, the systems which are often used – Library of Congress Classification System and Dewey Decimal System – are shaped by Western philosophy and Christianity.  Holly Tomren points out in her paper “Classification, Bias, and American Indian Materials”  “the Dewey Decimal System is a top-down classification system … one need look no further than the 200 main class “Religion” to see that it is a biased system, where Christianity occupies numbers 220-289, and “other religions” are relegated to 299.”  Further, there are terms used in classification headings that are greatly biased, and, in some cases, culturally insensitive.  In Tomren’s paper she lists examples of these, one of which included “LIBRARY SERVICES TO THE SOCIALLY HANDICAPPED”, a result found when a Latina patron was searching for Latino access to library services.  Indeed, the manner in which organizational systems are designed can greatly reinforce the way groups of people, often minority groups, are portrayed in society.  As Hope Olson said in 1 from her 1998 article, “The problem of bias in classification can be linked to the nature of classification as a social construct. It reflects the same biases as the culture that creates it.”

Item selection and inclusion have a high impact on archives,  as Shwartz and Cook note, “Control of the archive..means control of society and thus control of determining history’s winners and losers. Verne Harris … has shown starkly how this has operated under the apartheid regime in South Africa and its captive national archives, and how this naturalized power may be different under post-apartheid conditions.”   Harris has a very specific vantage point on archives.  In his article “The Archival Sliver:Power, Memory, and Archives in South Africa” he sees archives functioning more as a “sliver” of social memory, not a fully encompassing, accurate reflection of periods of history.  While he does acknowledge the experience he had during that time in history was particularly extreme – including the government destroying public records to hide their wrong doings during the apartheid – he goes on to say, “I would argue that in any circumstances…the documentary record provides just a sliver of a window into the event. Even if archivists in a particular country were to preserve every record generated throughout the land, they would still have only a sliver of a window into that country’s experience.”  He continues that the record is: “…substantially reduced through deliberate and inadvertent destruction by records creators and managers, leaving a sliver of a sliver from which archivists select what they will preserve. And they do not preserve much.”  Harris’ take on this directly challenges the notion that archives are neutral spheres that purely reflect the reality of particular time periods.  It also shows that lack of neutrality in an archive can be on an individual level (the personal biases an archivist has), or on an institutional level (such as what records are being provided to archives by their creators, and what is being withheld or destroyed).  This is not to imply that archivists are purposefully engaging in deceitful activity, but to touch on the fact that archivists are human, and as such they operate within their particular, complex societies (and in which socially accepted norms and government agenda factor in) as well as their individual subconscious, which may lend itself to inconsistency in archival practices from one archivist to the next.  While this complicates the notion of neutrality of archives, just as importantly it touches on the fact that the way information is organized has the ability to constrain what can be viewed or accessed by the public.  Regardless of the intention, pieces that are left out of a collection, either purposefully or lost, can have a direct impact on the social memory of a country.

To be aware that archives are a part of  social construct, and that biases exist in archivists, is a strong step in moving forward toward a more balanced approach to archives.  It is important to recognize the limitations individuals and institutions have in presenting information, whether it be in context of classification systems, or attempting to fully encompass the reality of a period of history or a person.  In an assessment of archives and reality, Harris points out, ” if archival records reflect reality….They act through many conduits – the people who created them, the functionaries who managed them, the archivists who selected them for preservation and make them available for use, and the researchers who use them in constructing accounts of the past. Far from enjoying an exteriority in relation to the record, all these conduits participate in the complex processes through which the record feeds into social memory.”

  1. Olson, H.1998. Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing Classification Systems for Marginalized Knowledge Domains. Library Trends, 47, (2)

Alleviating Burnout and Alienation Through Support Groups and Mentorship

By saarabi

In Marcia Nauratil’s The Alienated Librarian 1 the author delves into the work toll on librarians, focusing on the psychological element called burnout.  In the book researchers Ines and Aronson describe occupational burnout as a state of, “physical depletion, by feelings of helplessness, by emotional drain, and by the development of negative attitudes toward work, life, and other people.” Burnout is often a gradual shift that occurs in a worker after being exposed to the stress and strain of interacting regularly with the public over time. While stress is not readily associated with librarianship, Susan Casey cited a 2006 study that provided interesting results: “In 2006, the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology was presented with a study concerning levels of job stress among firefighters, police officers, train operators, teachers, and librarians. The study was approached with the presupposition that librarians would experience the least amount of stress. Surprisingly, the findings showed the opposite. Although there were many categories used to calculate stress, librarians ranked the highest in the level of perceived stress overall (Saddiq and Burke, 2006).”
The symptoms of burnout vary from the physical – ulcers, coronary disease, high blood pressure, to the emotional – depression, irritability and loss of self esteem. As Nauratil observes, “Burnout librarians are likely to experience negative changes in their attitudes, becoming cynical about their work, and hostile toward the library and its constituency.” These negative mental and emotional symptoms also often bleed into the personal life of a librarian, and can take a toll on the relationships the librarian has with their family and friends.
One of the more extreme effects of burnout is librarians quitting the field all together. As Nauratil observes, “Some librarians have left the profession entirely, deciding to try their luck at running a craft shop or raising horses.” For those who choose to stay in the field there are ways to deal with their burnout symptoms. Though many scholars view organizational change as one of the more effective shifts that can take place to counter burnout in librarians, this is not always an option. Nauratil acknowledges this in saying, “Despite empirical evidence that democratizing the library can be of substantial benefit to employees and users alike, implementation has proceeded at a much slower pace than in the private sector. Few public libraries in North America have embraced participative management.”
While Nauratil is not optimistic about many of the other strategies at hand to deal with burnout, there are various avenues that can be explored. These are grouped into collegial and individual coping mechanisms.  Unfortunately, none of the latter coping tactics have  been shown to provide a long-term solution to the problem of burnout.  Furthermore, in Nauratil’s findings, “there is some evidence that secondary and tertiary coping strategies are not only ineffective but actually harmful. In a study of managers and medical professionals…both secondary and tertiary strategies were associated with an increase in psychosomatic symptoms.”
Conversely, it is widely held that collegial coping has proven effective in managing stress in the workplace. This coping strategy is broken into two areas by Nauratil. One is socioemotional, which the author defines as, “the sharing of social reality – the external validation of one’s perceptions.” The second is instrumental support, and is described as, “…more concrete forms of collegial assistance. These include sharing information, insights and advice…”
On the topic of burnout in the library sector, suggests support groups as a tool for combatting work related stress: “Professional library associations are a wonderful resource where you can find all sorts of support and mentoring as well as opportunities to cultivate and use your unique talents and skills.” In professions where the worker is interacting with the public on a daily basis and, as such, burnout is a likely possibility, support groups and mentorship have been shown to have positive results. In a 2002 article on burnout in the Journal of the American Medical Association 2 suggestions for promoting well-being in physicians included, “…a mentor program, in which senior physicians guide and support junior members in their career development and in balancing their personal and professional lives, [and] confidential support groups that meet monthly on a voluntary basis with group generated topics and facilitation by an outside professional.” To echo the findings in the study in the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology – that the levels of stress in librarians are ranked as high as those in the medical filed – it seems a fair conclusion to draw that the JAMA study on promoting well-being is also applicable to the field of librarianship.
There is a support group for librarians, where the main focus is obtaining a tenure track, at the Sterling C. Evans Library at Texas A&M University. In the article “Academic Librarians and the Pursuit of Tenure: the Support Group As a Strategy for Success”, Jeannie P. Miller and Candace R. Benefiel write, “The establishment of an informal tenure support group can provide an outlet for discussing common concerns and channeling participants’ energies toward finding effective solutions. The atmosphere of caring and sharing that results form a support group can remove one more hurdle …and increase the productivity and success of each member.” The positive effects for the staff that make up this specialized support group are a good example of the benefits of the collegial coping mechanism, and the findings are equally relevant to that of a non-specialized library group, in either the academic or public setting. Miller and Benefiel go on to say, “Many of the group members also commented on positive elements in participating in the group, citing feelings such as: being able to share common experiences and anxieties, which made them feel less alone in the struggle; enjoying the opportunity to meet colleagues from other parts of the library, networking and learning their concerns.”
In The Alienated Librarian Christina Maslach, an authority on burnout syndrome, cautions, “…against the danger of group meetings degenerating into ‘bitch sessions’.” There are other concerns, as well, which include burnout being perpetuated between colleagues, or members of the group-mocking patrons of the library.  Though these are valid issues, the effectiveness of a coping strategy is largely based on the person(s) specific outlook, and the way they approach stress and possible solutions.  As Nauratil concludes,”Whether staff support groups ultimately help or harm depends on how they are are structured. ‘If the feelings of members are accepted and they are helped to go beyond the expression of feeling, to formulate constructive attitudes and behaviors for dealing with problems, the support group can be a powerful method for alleviating burnout.'”

  1. Nauratil, Marcia J. (1989). The Alienated Librarian. New York: Greenwood Press
  2. Spickard, Anderson, Jr., Gabbe, Steven, Christensen, John, “Mid Career Burnout In Generalist and Specialist Physicians”, Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 2002, 1449
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