Employee in Washington National Records Center Stack Area, ca. 1968. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Implications of Archival Labor

If we want respect for our labor, we need to value it more

The following is a more complete set of notes from a panel discussion I participated in at the Organization of American Historians annual conference, Friday, April 8, 2016, in Providence, R.I. Participants in “Leading Together: Archivists and Historians Shaping the Digital Archive” included: Emily Drabinski, Long Island University; Cathy Moran Hojo, New York University; Juliette Levy, University of California at Riverside; Michelle Moravec, Rosemont College; and Bergis Jules, University of California at Riverside.


I want to share an anecdotal story about labor and archives. Last fall, I had an engaging lunch discussion with a visiting historian about her research, during which she revealed that she had not previously paid much attention to who (or what) was doing actual work in the archives until she found her book at a standstill because much of the material she needed was in archives that were severely underfunded and understaffed. She said at times, she was given boxes that had not even been surveyed, let alone arranged or described, and with no finding aids available in analog or digital format. Almost none of the collections she needed had been made available via digital means (including metadata). That was the first time, she said, that she had ever even considered that there are people who do this work daily so that she could conduct her research in an orderly, efficient manner. As we were eating at the faculty dining club, I compared her revelation to eating at a restaurant. “You could be at a really reputable place,” I said, “Where the head chef or owner has been profiled in all the best magazines and that name might be the only one you know, but there is a huge team of people in that kitchen who are helping get this plate out to you. You receive a perfect plate with the right balance of textures and flavors, but what do you think that plate looks like without the sous chef, the busboy, the line cook or the dishwasher?” This, unfortunately, is how many of our users tend to think (or not think) of archival labor. They are hungry for research or information in our collections, but very little thought goes into the team of people who make it possible: the collections management archivist, the manuscript archivist, the technical services cataloger, the digital archivist, the reference archivist, and most importantly, the people who actually process the collections. They go by many titles, but we’ll return to that momentarily. As a researcher, it’s easy to take all of those things for granted — that you would visit a research room, tell someone behind a desk what you want, and be given a sweet little acid-free gray box with all of the information you are looking for, perfectly organized by date, format, or subject. But how would we expect people to know? Archivists do a terrible job of advocating and informing people about our labor and the overall contributions of our labor to society. We seldom speak in terms of concrete concepts like time or money and speak instead of abstract notions like love and passion. And when it comes to asking for money, we tend to have a hand out as if we were Oliver Twist begging for the tiniest extra bit of gruel. “Please, we’re so unworthy, we just need this little bit to do our jobs.”

As a highly gendered profession — more than 65 percent women, according to the Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States taken in 2004 — there is a cultural expectation that archivists will work without complaint, for very little and if we are lacking resources, we will hire volunteers or unpaid interns to do the work. This renders the labor truly invisible, because people without job protections or benefits are unlikely to discuss anything about the work that is problematic, such as the transient nature of grant-funded archives projects or the fact that even within some of those grants, there are PIs who ask for money that doesn’t include relocation expenses or even a living wage.

When we talk about digitizing, well, anything, we have to be willing to talk in terms of time and money. Who are we asking to conduct this labor? Why? What are they getting out of it? And what is the end game? Are we digitizing something that is going to be extremely useful to a wide variety of researchers or users? Are we asking people to contribute to projects that might help their communities or even help them personally? Or are we just asking people to pad a university or repository’s bottom line and annual feel-good reports?

At my university, we employ graduate students to process collections. They are paid only around the national average minimum wage in a city that lacks affordable housing and is relatively expensive. The people with the archivist or staff titles, including myself, largely supervise that work and create scholarly work based on it that lends personal or institutional prestige. Our digital collections are created by people given titles as “technicians.” They have a highly skilled understanding of digital project workflow, technology and metadata standards, but may not have the MLIS. Or maybe they do, yet their value — as assigned by title designation — is classified as less important than staff or managers. Or they may be grant-funded employees with temporary positions who, because of the specifications of the grant, are not allowed to participate in any other department functions, such as professional development or scholarly projects unrelated to the grant. Which means they don’t necessarily have input or engagement in a department or system that is run on the backs of their labor.

We ask people, paid or unpaid, to use culturally biased metadata that benefits our colonialist and Anglo-based organizing systems and paradigms, as Jarrett Drake pointed out in his piece on the limitations of archival description and provenance. We ask them to work within our very limited hours — as most archives are open fewer hours than regular libraries, in spaces that may lack parking or reasonable accommodations for the disabled. Indeed, most of our job descriptions mandate that applicants be able to lift at least 40 lbs or stand for long periods of time. We ask them to work in spaces that have historically been cruel or closed off to them — especially if we are talking about city-based universities, many of which have contentious relationships and histories with their surrounding communities. And then we ask these students, interns, and volunteers to be grateful for the privilege. We tell them to apply for this privilege and we will bestow on them the honor of accepting it only if they “fit in,” as Angela Galvan concludes in her article “Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship.” If they make our gatekeepers comfortable. If they know the right jokes or listen to the right music or watch the right kinds of shows or perform gender identity in a subjectively acceptable way. And we expect little to no criticism for it.

I want to challenge everyone to question why? Why is this an acceptable way to express the value of our labor? And maybe this goes back to my original statement about the importance and value of our labor as archivists in society. Perhaps we are so terrible at advocating for the importance of what we do because to be good at that advocacy means acknowledging that the manner in which we conduct this labor is often times unequal, rooted historically in sexism, racism, ableism, and classism, and that will always present a challenge to the access we hope to provide.

What can we do to disrupt this system-based inequality? How best can we challenge our repositories to change this? It’s not all hopeless. We can build more equitable salaries into our grant proposals that bridge gender, racial and living wage gaps. We can accept that true archival practice means paying professionals for their time and quality, and that may mean we can’t clear as many backlogs, even using an MPLP standard. We can allow the people creating the research content access to our closed-off spaces and procedures and ask for their input into our processes and workflows. And we can and should engage those who seek to use our materials. Bring them into our processes in a real and tangible way. Lift up and make visible the employees who do the digital or processing work, allow them to benefit professionally from their labor in the same way that their managers do. This is a field that takes a lot of people to produce the highest level work. And to be clear, this does not mean that you get rid of MPLP, but it does mean hiring and paying well employees who know how to think critically and creatively. Those who are interested in doing more than reproducing the same exploitative systems and models. We cannot continue to conduct that work at the expense of those very same people, not if we want others to truly value what we contribute to the larger society. And that contribution should reflect our highest standards of fairness, transparency, and accessibility.


Stacie Williams is an archivist at the University of Kentucky who manages a paid internship program for undergraduate students.