May 13, 2014

Seeking Diversity and a Unified Field

When I was an undergrad there was a certain lament felt by various factions of the English department over the belief that teaching was becoming more difficult because there was less and less (perceived) cultural common ground among students and between faculty and students. In the past, they felt, it could be assumed that most students were coming in with at a least a basic knowledge of things such as the christian Bible, American history, maybe some classical Greek and Roman literature, and other canonical or popular works. With this presumed commonality, texts that may allude to such works could be easily dived into and discussed. Some felt, however, that it was becoming the case more and more that this was not true anymore. Whether due to the vast expansion of the number of works available and what was considered popular or worthy of study, or a shift to a more diverse cultural background in the student body, or the constant fluctuation of authors falling in and out of favor in the academy, or changing high school curricula, certain professors were finding that they first had to start classes by laying a groundwork of understanding that was not necessary before. They had to actually teach the Bible before they could teach the Bible as it pertained to or was the source of other works or historic moments.

In my own Adams-addled mind (Adams, Henry. One of those lamented, left behind authors.) I see this as an issue of the eternal conflict between Unity – what the mind craves and what the fuzzed memory of nostalgia enforces — and Multiplicity — what reality is and has been. At the turn of the 20th century this concept was expressed by Adams as the Virgin and the Dynamo (culture driven by religion versus by technology). Now that I think about that, it is a highly problematic dichotomy (well, at least highly problematic in ways I had not considered before). The Virgin — Unity — is representative of a cultural structure — Western christianity. The Dynamo — Multiplicity — is representative of a technological structure — influential on culture but not specifically tied to any single one.

I can see the argument that this reflects the replacement of culture with technology — certainly a theme in the modern age — but what such a dichotomy ignores (or actually denies) is that cultural multiplicity existed in the unified age, even in western Europe. Yes, one could maybe speak to this as the splitting of a particular cultural group, not widely applicable across the globe, but that would still be placing things in a vacuum and ignoring the influence of other cultures (i.e., via the outcomes of colonialism, immigration, and consumption) on what might be considered the primary culture of a region.


To bring things to the present moment, perhaps, then, one of the problems with understanding digital and internet culture is that the reality of digital has deconstructed the idea that technology is a single structure affecting all cultures in the same manner at the same time. Rather, technology is accessed and exploited in different manners by different groups. Because of the interconnectivity of the internet we can now be exposed to those multiple expressions with a degree of ease not possible before — expressions that existed prior to our awareness of them but that now are an inescapable part of our field of vision.

In a rambling kind of way, I suppose what I am circling around is essentially that idea: Multiplicity is not new. What is new is the broadening awareness or more public acknowledgement of its various instantiations. What is also new is the existence of the structures that enable such awareness. In more contemporary terms, I suppose I am talking about diversity, currently a major issue in the archival field. However, what I am not (only) talking about is diversity in an affirmative action way. To piggyback on another archives issue, the diversity question is a jobs question. Just as the archival field needs diversity in the workplace in general, we need diversity in the profession, we need diversity in the type of collections and materials we handle, and we need diversity in the places that new and veteran professionals are looking for work.

Let me restate that more simply: The field needs diversity, and we need to diversify. The responsibility for that is on organizational structures within the field (the workplace and professional organizations), but it is also on the individual self to attain or embrace that diversity where it is possible or where it makes sense. A sense of professionalism and a more focused voice for advocacy are important for the field to grow, but so is the need to recognize the many people, materials, and institutions that represent, maintain, and provide access to the historical record, even if not representative of The Archive. Though there may be a Platonic ideal of what an archive is, in truth there has never been a singular expression of such. Missions, budgets, collection types, relationship to a parent institution, audience,and any number of other factors have always led to a diverse set of practices and a diverse set of uses of collections.


Okay, there was an awkward phrase in that last paragraph, because, in most cases, acceptance of diversity should not be an open question of “where it makes sense”. It should just be. However when institutional issues of collection management are merged with those of organizational policy and personnel one runs up against the inevitable issue of budget/infrastructure/workaday-life actualities that tend to inhibit one’s ability to diversify — or imagine diversification — in certain ways.

But is this a valid excuse? In a way, this is often one of the flag issues in the disagreements seen in the profession over jobs and over diversity. One faction brings up the challenges of budgets and institutional blocks, which another faction may see as ultimately invalid excuses. This may often be classified into a talking the talk versus walking the walk confrontation, in spite of the dedication or actual feelings of those involved.

The question then becomes, is “merely” talking the talk always bad? Is that distinction the “keeping it real” or being true rock and roll of archives? In some cases I would say yes, walking the walk matters. The recent issue with ALA’s scheduled conference in Florida and the concerns that the Stand Your Ground law there goes against the stated diversity policy of ALA comes to mind. On the other hand, I have worked with many archives that are dependent on part time or volunteer work and where funding greatly relies on grants or donations, and more comprehensive support is years down the road, if it comes at all. It would appear that much of the vitriol over low salaries, the use of volunteers/unpaid interns, and lack of diversity is aimed at the larger institutions that would seem to have the budget to address such issues (or at least the potential access to budgets), and broader institutional hiring practices should better support archivists. The conversation and the demands for solutions are pointed at these institutions.

In a way, though, I can see this as causing small regional archives, historical societies, museums, and other record repositories to feel unfairly attacked and left out of the conversation. Where does a historical society open 1/2 a day a week and with an operating budget of a few thousand dollars fit under the argument that all internships should be paid or volunteers shouldn’t be used?


This then becomes another rabbit hole of the diversity question, the diversity of collection/organization sizes and types. Multiplicity begets multiplicity begets multiplicity. It is why the center of the gyre cannot hold — not because Unity is ending and things are falling apart, but because Unity was never a possibility and the circling arms of culture and ideas spin and ripple and decay and form anew. The argument for diversity is unending because diversity is infinite. When one seems to have reached a stasis, the ground shifts and one may turn either to fear or to acceptance. At times that fear is anger and intolerance. At times that fear is weariness and inelasticity. Growth in humans is finite, otherwise it is cancer. Change is not finite. Where is the edge of what one can accept? How far can one follow a ripple outward until saying, I’m good right here, thanks, you go ahead?


The shifting ideas of how things should be done runs perpendicular to and rams up against how we (either canonically or individually) used to think things should be done (and how things are actually done). At some point, the tracks begin to run parallel until they merge, but that transition is long and not always forward moving.

Where does this leave us as professionals and as humans then? Though one may want to embrace Multiplicity, the mind can often finds itself drifting back to Unity. Why? Because it seems right? Because it seems neat? Because chaos is unpleasant? Because it is difficult to move forward in a void if there is no thread to lead us?

Though we may wallow in our baser urges, can we achieve more? Or is the desire to want to achieve more an acceptable first step? Like the Levels of Preservation, should the fact of moving towards the (unreachable) ideal count as a sufficient effort…as long as that level is maintained and one continues to strive forward? Are our best practices our selves, or rather, are our efforts our best selves?

In truth, we can always improve, but not wholesale, only in steps. Some steps forward, and some steps backward. Large steps and small steps. What matters is that we take the steps and continue up the hill.

Joshua Ranger

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  1. Quincy says:

    Glad you are bringing this up. I try to encourage diverse volunteers by adding value to the internship, so that the volunteer gets skills that can increase their paycheck (and link them to any projects I have, even if lower-paid ones). And I try to keep my own living expenses quite low so as to decrease hierarchy. But true, my kids don’t think this way…yet!

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