Monday, March 22, 2010

Using Theory to Ground Practice

I recently had a fellow archivist tell me that experience is more important than theory when caring for collections. I agree with her about the importance of an archivist (or curator) learning about her community and becoming familiar with collections. The archivist also must have a very visible presence within that community, learn to deeply understand its unique culture, and develop a relationship with community members to develop mutual respect and understanding. However, I think it is just as important to be grounded in theoretical roots to properly care for historical materials.

I recall the use of the term “book smarts” being used in a derogatory way by people throughout my life. i.e. that person has book smarts, but couldn’t run a business, make something valuable, or just plain cut it in the real world. If we devalue a theoretical foundation for our work, upon what should our work be based? When do we know that we are doing a good job? How do we know if we can do things better?

Archival theories gives us a place to start. We work to establish our repositories using tools handed to us by the people who came before us. It is important to apply knowledge learned by activity to these theories, to bend them so that they suit the unique cultures of our institutions and communities. Our experience may show us that a theory fits our particular situation or that we need to back away from certain ideas to adjust to our given circumstances. It is beneficial to return to theory once in awhile to determine if our applications and modifications are working or if we need to re-evaluate what we are doing.

I have been deeply entrenched in the study of developing collections for the past year as I have had an article accepted for “History News” (due out summer 2010) on the subject and a book due out later this year. My mind is stuck on a theory that seems to carry much value, but has not been adequately tested with the types of organizations I assist. I have written extensively about community documentation with the hope that archivists, volunteers, and others working with cultural materials will more closely examine it to see if it benefits the work we do or if it can be altered to work better. The term “Community Documentation” is grounded in earlier theories of appraisal. As we consider the best ways to create a documentary record of our community, we must consider appraisal theory that helps us decide what to keep, what to discard and why.

Here are some points to consider about theory in general:

1. When we set out with a goal to build collections, organize or provide access to them, what theories do we rely on for assistance. How do theories help us getting started, develop and change as we go?

2. How can we apply theories that have been used in the past to our own unique situation? Which theories best match our circumstances? Are there new ways for us to apply them?

3. Have we gained a big picture perspective of our collections and their place in a larger world of archives? How can theory help us better give our work a wider meaning beyond our own institution?

4. How do we know if our collection development, outreach, strive for accessibility, etc. is successful? Are there alternate theories that can be applied that we haven't considered to this point that may help us see our successes and our failures and so that we can lean on our strengths and improve our weakness?

My point is that we should not discount or devalue theory. Remember to re-read your theory books once in awhile and keep up with professional evolutions of ideas. Theory is not static and the sharing of our experiences will help further research and thoughts about what we do. And, after all, isn’t evaluating and basing decisions on past experiences what the history professions are all about?

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