Monday, March 08, 2010

Defining the historical moment

At what point does an object, an image, a concept, go from "same old, same old" to "quaint antique"? How many years does it take to make a classic? How long do archives need to hold on to stuff before anyone's going to want to use it?

This morning, a researcher plunged into the records of the North Pacific Pediatric Society (2009-002), becoming the first interested party to request the unprocessed collection of materials chronicling the history of the Society from 1919 to the present (literally; we received the meeting program from 2009 in a recent accrual to the records).

There were oohs and comments from the research table and requests for scans through the first couple of boxes, but then the excitement died away. By the 1970s, the group was talking about "the usual stuff," and so the motivation to continue leafing through the 30- and 40-year old records slowly evaporated. In those earlier meeting minutes and programs, the titles of presentations seemed quaint and amusing, the names of the presenters imbued with a faint air of dignity, if not legend. The more recent programs were unremarkable in content, the speakers more well-known and familiar.

So, is that how far back one needs to go? Fifty years? Is the "quaint line" a constant, like 25 years for classic cars? Or is it more contextual, based on the nature of the field being surveyed? In medicine, where knowledge (or at least information) is expanding at an ever greater rate, perhaps the line is at 50 years for an established specialty like pediatrics but at ten or twenty years for genetics and maybe even five years for robotic surgery? This field specificity is certainly one component of historicality (if you'll allow me to use that word), but as a reference archivist, it's not the one I most commonly see. Most researchers--amateur historians, genealogists, students, curious onlookers--perceive things as "old" largely as a function of their own age. Or their time in the field. Or the reach of daily memory in their unit/department/cohort. Even practiced historians have to work, to some extent, to overcome this natural bias.

This is not a revolutionary insight by any means, but it's one that we ignore at our peril. All of us: historians, writers, donors, senior faculty, junior faculty, but especially archivists (and all other workers in cultural heritage resources). Just because it's new to me doesn't mean it's new to a given researcher. Just because it isn't new to a given researcher doesn't mean it won't provide a younger researcher with a great insight. If one person's memory has assimilated, refined, and generalized a concept introduced twenty years ago to such an extent that the concept is perceived as "the same thing we're talking about today," that doesn't mean it is the same thing.

Which is all a rather roundabout way of saying that faculty input on archival collecting can only get you so far. That the importance and value of archival repositories collecting contemporary material cannot be assessed with modern metrics of usage. That just because you think there's nothing of value in your papers, doesn't mean fresh eyes won't find excitement and inspiration there.

(PS: Frankly, this 1999 NPPS presentation sure sounded quaint and amusing to me: "Finding Quality Resources on the Web"--but, that's just my age showing....)

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