Monday, October 4, 2010

Environmental Sustainability – How Does it Fit With the (8.9.10 Draft) of CORE VALUES OF ARCHIVISTS?

I would like to thank my friend and colleague Sarah Brophy for contributing this thought provoking blog post for ArchivesInfo. Thinking and acting green is often just on the periphery of what cultural heritage professionals do. Sarah gives us great tips for tying environmental responsibility to the professional actions of archivists. There is something for everyone here. (In consideration of my own specific professional interests, I especially appreciate Sarah's discussion at the end of this piece regarding collaboration and collecting wisely. These are good rules of thumb for everything we do!) - MM
Green is a team sport. It will take all of us – archivists, curators, administrators, educators and every other cultural heritage professional to make the field green. So, how can archivists be greener?
Well, green is so local, and changes so rapidly, that no one can know it all, and no one can tell others for sure how best to green their practice. So I find that the best way to manage the many options and changing parameters of green, is to articulate professional guiding principles and green guiding principles, and use the two to help triangulate a position on green practice. The Core Values of Archivists statement was created for that purpose: This statement may provide some guidance by identifying, both for archivists and for others concerned about archives, the core values that guide archivists in making such decisions and choices. Core values provide part of the context in which to examine ethical concerns.
So, how can archivists use their guiding principles, their Core Values, currently in draft version and available for comment until 10/15/2010) to help them make green choices? Note: For the philosophical, ethical issues, start at the top of this list. If you want less talking and more ‘doing’, scroll down to professionalism. In either case, if you wish to comment the Society of American Archivists regarding the draft Principles, please follow this link:
There are basic green principles to recognize:
1) Less is Best: when you must use something, make it and the processes associated with it as clean as possible;
2) Think Like An Ecosystem: everything is connected so any changes you make will create their own changes- good and perhaps not good.
3) The Doctrine of “Do More Than One Thing”: take advantage of the synergy of those connections to accomplish multiple goals at once but using a single set of resources; but watch out for bad unintended consequences and capitalize on the good ones;
4) Close the Loop: think through the whole process or the life cycle of the entire product to limit or eliminate your ‘footprints’.
Let’s have a look where the two connect. I have excerpted Core Value of Archivists here simply for space reasons.
Archivists engage in the essential functions of selecting, preserving, and making available the primary sources that document the activities of institutions, communities and individuals, either for legal and administrative evidence or as part of the cultural heritage of society.… The values shared and espoused by archivists enable them to meet these obligations and to provide vital services on behalf of all groups and individuals in society.
Access and Use: Archivists acknowledge that the principal purpose of documentary preservation is its use by anyone who can thereby benefit from the archival record. … Even individuals who do not directly use archival materials benefit indirectly from research, public programs, and other forms of archival use, including the symbolic value of knowing that such records exist and can be accessed when needed.
As keepers of the public record, archivists will be providing some fascinating reading and research material for future audiences interested in how we handled sustainability challenges. Just think! Anyone in the future – next year to next millennium – will be able to look at our responses to this situation, our research and our results, and make a more informed decision.
Accountability: By documenting institutional functions, activities, and decision-making, archivists provide an important means of ensuring accountability….Public leaders must be held accountable both to the judgment of history and future generations as well as to citizens in the ongoing governance of society. Access to the records of public officials and agencies provides a vital part of accountability. In the private sector accountability through archival documentation also protects the rights and interests of consumers, shareholders, and citizens. Archivists … maintain evidence of the actions of individuals, groups, and organizations, which may be required to provide accountability before the judgment of contemporary and future interests.
A big part of Green is measuring results. Archivists’ records will provide the accountability needed to manage and improve sustainability practices more rapidly in areas where measurements are poorly done, or are evidence of lack of effort.
Advocacy: Archivists promote the use and understanding of the historical record….Archivists may engage in discussions of the formation of public policy related to archival and recordkeeping concerns and help to ensure that their expertise can be used in the public interest.
Archivists can help us all understand how best to document sustainability successes, failures, progress and gaps, and how best to make that information accessible to all.
Diversity: ….Archivists embrace the importance of deliberately acting to identify (even create) materials documenting those whose voices have been overlooked or marginalized. They seek to build connections to under-documented communities…
I realize that this statement is directed to people, not to inanimates, but I’d say our environment has no voice, and that archivists’ work preserving documentation of Green practice, experience, information and debate can help provide that voice.
History and Memory: …. Archivists preserve such primary sources in order to enable us to better comprehend the past, understand the present, and prepare for the future. Understanding history requires knowledge and appreciation of context, which is thus a central principle (provenance) in archival theory and practice relating to organizing and interpreting primary sources.
Clearly archival activities have already have provided the historical information necessary for demonstrating climate change. From photographs of polar expeditions to farmer’s almanacs, the record is what’s demonstrating climate change. As a one-time Massachusetts girl fond of swimming at Walden Pond, it really strikes home to compare the flower bloom dates Henry David Thoreau recorded in his Journal with flower bloom dates in recent years and see, in my backyard, a clear example of climate change.
Preservation: …. Within prescribed law and best practice standards, archivists may determine that the original documents themselves must be preserved, while at other times the information they contain or their symbolic value may be sufficient. Archivists thus preserve materials for the benefit of the future more than for the concerns of the past.
Well, sustainability is all about concern for the future, but there’s another important concept here: we can’t save it all; we can’t sustain perpetual care for increasing collections. At some point energy costs for climate control, competing needs for space, costs of supplies, and lack of capacity for Information Technology (IT) access will drive hard choices about what to keep. That’s where Green practices and archival practices feel a bit like a rip current. Each institution will make its own decisions by triangulating archival principles and green principles. The questions and answers will be different each time, so no one can tell you which to choose; your principles must be your guide.
Professionalism: As members of an important profession, archivists adhere to a common mission, accept an evolving theoretical base of knowledge, develop and follow professional standards, strive for excellence in their daily practice, and recognize the importance of professional education, including lifelong learning. They encourage professional development among their co-workers, foster the aspirations of those entering the archival profession, and actively share their knowledge and expertise. Archivists seek to expand opportunities to cooperate with other information professionals and with users and potential users of the archival record.
This is where traditional Green practice and archival practice meet: maintaining professional archival standards while adopting increasingly environmentally-sustainable practices and products. Reduce, reuse and recycle is a familiar mantra. Remember, ‘reduce’ comes first in the sequence because our ultimate goal is to reduce what we produce and consume and throw away, and to also reduce the impact of the things we do produce, consume and throw away.
What do archivists use the most? First, energy: energy to provide proper climate conditions. Where do archives fall in the Plus/Minus Dilemma debate about changes to rigorous climate control standards? I don’t know. All I can say is that it’s worth following the discussion. We can’t fit in that discussion here, but if you’re interested, follow this link to an overview
So what else do archivists use the most? Supplies. How much of those supplies have recycled content? Not much. The archival supply companies still worry that consumer archivists think recycled materials are lower quality than new ones. Just think, the one area where museums (archives?) are willing to spend money, to buy high quality, is in collections; but even in a place where we might spend more if it costs more (and we tend to think recycled will), we still won’t buy recycled-content archival storage supplies because we think it’s lower quality! Irony aside, lower quality is not the issue; the perception of lower quality is. Yes, the fibers in recycled material are shorter than those in virgin pulp. And yes this may cause recycled-content paper folders or boxes to wear out sooner. So, with all other archival needs being equal, recycled-content paper folders or boxes are perfect for those icollections items you access least often, that way the folders and boxes won’t be subject to as much wear and tear. with the least demand. This last sentence is confusing to me. When are you saying we should use recycled storage supplies? What do you mean by “items with the least demand”?
Shipping those supplies is important too. Whenever possible choose a local supplier, and please use the buying power of local museums to encourage that provider to green the inventory. If the supplier is unsure how, have a cup of coffee together and see what alternatives and opportunities you can identify together.
How about non-HVAC energy uses? The microfiche and microfilm machines stashed in the corner should be unplugged when not in use – the same goes for all the other appliances and equipment. What you use regularly should be put on a powerstrip for easy on/off nightly. If you’re a real greenie, you’ll unplug that strip each night, too. Give up the water cooler and the electric stapler and pencil sharpener. Keep your gizmo chargers in the drawer, not plugged into the wall. Pray for someone to give you a more energy-efficient flat screen monitor or laptop computer, and change to CFLs wherever possible. (Why are we praying for a flat screen monitor or laptop? Are they more efficient?)
Responsible Custody: …Archivists are judicious stewards who manage records by following best practices in developing facilities service standards, collection development policies, and other performance records and metrics. They are willing to collaborate with external partners when needed to preserve and make records available.…
This means being open to sharing facilities or creating collecting agreements that coordinate collecting and stewardship efforts that preserve appropriate materials without creating unsustainable collections.
Selection: Archivists make choices about which materials to select for preservation based on the needs of a wide range of potential users. The vast quantities of documents and records created in modern society, in both analog and digital forms, are far too costly to preserve in their entirety and much too unwieldy to search successfully for specific information or knowledge. This quantity makes it necessary to select which deserve and require long-term preservation and which may not….
Collecting wisely is a recurring theme of the Core Principles and Green Practice.
Service: … Within the mandate and mission of their institution, archivists provide effective and efficient connections to (and mediation for) primary sources so that users, whoever they may be, can discover and benefit from the archival record of society, its institutions, and individuals. Archivists seek to meet the needs of users as quickly, effectively, and efficiently as possible.
‘Quickly, effectively and efficiently’ in today’s terms often means electronically. Greening Information IT is an important frontier. Archivists should feel responsible for following the rapid developments in greening IT and adapting new best practices to help control and reduce energy consumption.
Social Responsibility: Underlying all of the responsibilities of archivists is their responsibility to a variety of groups in society and to the public good.... Archivists strive to meet these broader social responsibilities in their policies and procedures for selection, preservation, access, and use of the archival record. In doing so, archivists provide essential services to society.
Environmental sustainability is all about the public good. Environmentally-sustainable practices keep our institution in sync with our communities’ needs and concerns even as we fulfill our professional practice. As charitable institutions, as educational institutions, it is our responsibility to support and enrich our communities – locally and globally.
Oh, and here’s guiding principal number five:
5) Green is a Team Sport: you have the skills and knowledge to define Green practice for archivists. The field needs archivists to work as together – to create an Archival Green Team – that can move the field’s Green practice to where it needs to be.
Sarah Brophy is principal of bMuse: Sustainable Museums. She consults on green practice in museums and is the co-author of The Green Museum, and author of Is Your Museum Grant-Ready?. She is also co-Chair of AAM’s PIC Green, and an adjunct professor for the graduate Museum Studies Programs at University of Delaware and The George Washington University teaching The Green Museum. You can reach her at or


  1. This is a fascinating post that I will have to read a few times. At first, I wasn't sure how archives and sustainability could be connected. Sarah Brophy's comments on the Core Values of Archivists was particularly helpful. When you start adopting green practices, it can feel like your making little difference. But the difference is real -- and just imagine if every archivist, museum professional and librarian adopted these practices! Talk about a collective impact!

  2. Erica- I am so sorry to have missed your comment, but I to want to thank you for your encouragement. It cheers me to know that others will help create the momentum we need to improve things significantly.