Archives: An evolving profession. How do you keep up?Elaine Penn
University of Westminster
Paper Presented at the 2007 Annual Conference of the International Council on Archives Section on University and Research Institution Archives, University of Dundee, Scotland, August 15, 2007
In this brief paper I am going to look at the value of CPD within the archive profession, as we face the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. I will use the Registration Scheme, run by the UK Society of Archivists, as one example of a potential way forward. What I cannot address in the time given, but I hope to at least to reiterate, are some of the questions already raised by colleagues during this conference - questions about our evolution as information professionals - where do we see ourselves in 20 years time? In 100 years time? Do we actually know where we want the archive profession to be going? And if so, do we know how to get there? These are the questions we need to be able to answer if we want to ensure the continuing survival of our species.
Yesterday we heard eloquent presentations on our Gen Y users and on the changing agendas to which we work, which have moved many of our priorities from being a research resource to a PR tool; and this morning, we heard about some of the necessary characteristics of the 21st century archivist. I am not therefore going to spend a great deal of time repeating what others have already said. We are all aware of the changing world in which we live and the impact some of these changes have on our work.
Records are evolving, from paper and parchment to jpegs and blogs. Yes, paper is still around and I believe it will continue to be for some time! But increasingly individuals and organisations are using new media formats to disseminate information. This is particularly relevant in the HE sector, where academics and students are very much at the forefront of online access (using web publication systems to disseminate reading lists and seminar papers, using on-line blogs and wikis). The question is: are we keeping up as a profession? I suspect the answer is probably not as much as we should be.
On Second Life - the on-line virtual environment - there are nearly 700 avatars who purport to be librarians, compared to only 23 archivists! For those who don't know, an avatar is a graphical character, whether human, animal or inanimate, representing the user or player in chat or other online environments. I am not saying we all need to sign up to Second Life and create our archivist avatars, but I do think we need to be aware that thousands of other people are doing just that and they are all creating virtual records as they do so. Are we going to 'archive' these records? And if so, how? If we, as information professionals, don't get involved in the debate and learn the technological skills necessary, not to mention the terminology, who will? Do we want to leave it to the IT specialists?
Users of archives are changing too, from local visitor to global net-surfers. How many times have we been asked - 'Is it available online?' Yes, I believe that personal visits to the repository will continue, but we also need to be catering for the many more potential users out there who expect to be able to access records remotely when and where they like.
Some interesting figures were published in a recent MLA report 1 which indicate that while 95% of library visitors and 97% of museum visitors accessed the library or museum website and visited the physical library or museum, over 55% of archive website users never visit the physical repository. Now we could probably interrogate these figures and give good reasons why (for example, our excellent enquiry services which mean users do not necessarily have to visit in person). But it certainly cannot be because everything is available online. At a time when remote access to information is high on all government agendas, we should be asking ourselves why, when compared to our other colleagues within the cultural sector, are our online users not translating into footfalls too? Some might argue these comparisons are meaningless as archives are very different to museums or libraries. The problem is that other people, including funding bodies and central government, are comparing us, so as a profession we need to be prepared to analyse and, if necessary, justify these sorts of statistics.
The changes to our work do not simply stem from technological developments. Archivists have moved from being strong-room custodians to on-line gatekeepers. Current political agendas which emphasize the rights of individuals to data protection as well as access to information have radically altered the environment in which we all work, regardless of national variations in Freedom of Information and Data Protection legislation. It is vital to know the law and how it affects you and your records.
There have also been changes connected to what I will simply call the 'Global War on Terror'. Certainly in London, many institutions are placing more emphasis on Business Continuity Planning and Disaster Scenario Management than ever before. This presents new opportunities for archivists and records managers to assist their organisations - provided they keep up to date with the latest guidelines, developments and terminologies in order to demonstrate to their organisations the importance of their involvement.
So this may all seem like an overwhelming task. How can we possibly keep up with it all? One first good step is Continuing Professional Development, or CPD. The UK Department of Trade and Industry (since renamed the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) gave an excellent definition of Continuing Professional Development as follows: 'CPD is defined as the holistic commitment to structured skills enhancement and personal or professional competence.' 2 CPD is essentially a personal development programme and can include anything from regularly reading professional journal articles and literature, to attending training courses in specific topic areas; or to coming to a conference such as this one. Each of us as professionals should be committed to maintaining our professionalism; and to acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to confront all the challenges we face.
There are some rare breeds out there who are extremely self-disciplined individuals, but for the rest of us, we can benefit from having a structure or framework for CPD - especially as there never seems to be enough time in our already busy lives. These structures also provide incentives and rewards by recognising our achievements - an important factor in any learning development. Some examples I've noted of such frameworks include the UK Society of Archivists' Registration Scheme; the Association des Professionnels de l'information et de la documentation Certification in France 3 and the Academy of Certified Archivists in the USA . 4 This is by no means an exhaustive list and there are many more in related sectors, such as the UK-based CILIP's Framework of Qualifications aimed specifically at those in the library profession. 5 Each scheme varies in terms of the actual process - for example, some include examinations, whilst others are based on providing evidence of activities undertaken over a period of time. But what they all have in common is that they serve to prove professionalism and add accountability.
I am now going to look in more detail at the UK Society of Archivists' Registration Scheme - to give a brief overview of the scheme and what it involves. I am not advocating this is the best scheme or the only way of doing CPD, it is simply the one with which I am most familiar, although I do actually think it works well. The Registration Scheme has been in existence since 1996 and is for archivists, records managers and conservators. Candidates can enrol onto the scheme at any time post-qualification. The scheme is a personal programme of CPD, leading to a portfolio of twelve credits from three of four development areas. The development areas are: training courses, work achievements, professional research and contributions to the profession. The scheme takes a minimum of three years full-time (or equivalent) and throughout, the candidate has the support of a mentor. 6
There are many benefits from doing the scheme. For candidates, the portfolio provides evidence of their professionalism and a commitment to keep up-to-date and build on existing knowledge and skills. It can also provide useful reusable material when it comes to applying for promotions or new jobs. Mentors often comment that being involved in the scheme enables them to 'give something back'. In addition to being rewarding in itself, helping someone else's professional development also allows them to consider their own as well. Employers also gain by obtaining a high level of service from their employees and, for those within the public sector, it can be a valuable element of achieving awards such as Investors In People. There is also a wider professional context in which the scheme provides a framework and approach for individuals to undertake CPD, enabling reflective practice within the archive profession. These benefits of course equally apply to any of the CPD schemes previously mentioned.
My experience of the scheme, both as a successful candidate and now as a mentor is that you only get out what you put in. It seems surprising perhaps now that when the Registration Scheme was first introduced in 1996 there was a great deal of opposition from some within the profession. I do not have the time to go into the issues at length here, suffice to say that over the years this opposition has lessened as I believe individuals have realised the benefits of a structured approach to CPD. To date there have been 145 successful portfolios and there are currently over 200 candidates enrolled on the scheme and 200 mentors.
We know the courses cannot teach everything. In addition to the ever-changing technological developments, what about things like leadership training? Workforce diversity and cultural inclusivity? Lobbying and fundraising? (We heard yesterday about how many directors of archive services now spend over 50% of their time applying for grants). In answer to the question raised this morning about whether the courses ought to broaden their content, I would respond no. We would not expect the courses to teach these things, especially when there are excellent specialists out there already providing training. Rather, these are exactly the sort of development areas professionals need to learn post qualification.
So - I ask the question - is it enough? Are the schemes sufficient? Both the UK Society of Archivists and the USA Society of American Archivists have debated the issue of compulsory CPD in the past, with much-heated debate on both sides of the argument. I'm not going to go into the arguments at length here, but will simply ask: If we acknowledge the need to evolve and develop as professionals (which I hope we all do!); and if we agree that there has to be a basic standard against which professionalism is measured, and that to call ourselves professional we should meet that standard then, should CPD be compulsory?
An interesting quote from one of the leading commentators on contemporary archives and records management reads: 'In an era of constantly shifting social, cultural, economic, political and technological building blocks, archivists and records managers need to re-evaluate and re-affirm the substance of their professional and social mandates.' 7 Much of what Cox writes is, understandably, focussed on North America, but many of the social and cultural issues that underlie his work have significance worldwide. Cox argues in this recent volume of essays, that recent critical events like 9/11 have brought new prominence to the ethical dilemmas and tensions facing records professionals. I think it provides useful food for thought, and I believe that as a professional we need to be thinking about where we are going and how we respond to the challenges facing us all.
In conclusion, whilst preparing for the paper, I surfed the net looking for images of archivists, and predictably I found lots of bespectacled men and women wearing white cotton gloves standing in strong rooms surrounded by archive boxes. I also found several interesting 'archivist' characters on on-line games such as Dungeons and Dragons - usually caped individuals clutching parchment scrolls! But I think this image summarises best what I believe we do NOT want to become:
The Archivist is from A Netizen's Guide to Flame Warriors: 'an on-line guide to some of the belligerents one might encounter in a mailing list, bulletin board or chat room. The internet can be cruel and unforgiving and those who wander out into the battlefield would be well advised to know their enemies.' 8
We can only continue to fight the negative stereotyping of our profession by embracing the opportunities and challenges presented in the 21st century. As professionals we need to evolve or we will simply be left behind.
 Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, Taking Part: The National Survey of Culture, Leisure and Sport 2005-06
 D.T.I., Accelerating Change (2002)
 For more information, see http://www.adbs.fr/site/
 For more information, see http://www.certifiedarchivists.org/
 The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, formerly known as the Library Association, runs a detailed programme consisting of four elements which caters for all levels in the profession, from unqualified librarians through to Fellows. For more information see www.cilip.org.uk
 For more detailed information on the Registration Scheme, see http://www.archives.org.uk/careerdevelopment/registrationscheme.html
 Richard J Cox, Ethics, Accountability and Recordkeeping in a Dangerous World (London: Facet Publishing, 2006), 19.
 http://redwing.hutman.net/%7Emreed/warriorshtm/archivist.htm (accessed 06/08/07)