Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Days to Remember: December 7 and December 9

Quentin Massys, The Holy Kinship, 1509, Brussels Museum

This year the fall meeting of the Hall of Records Commission of the Maryland State Archives is on December 9, Saint Anne's day. One of my favorite paintings, appropriate  for this holiday season, is an alter piece dedicated to St. Anne by Quentin Massys, commissioned in 1507 for a chapel in St. Peter's, Louven, and installed in 1509.  I like to think that it or a description of it given in a homily, may have inspired a member of the Mynne family to name their daughter Anne, and she in turn inspired her husband, George Calvert, to found a colony in the new world.  Indeed, it is the primary purpose of an archives to provide reliable, accountable, sources of information about the public and private contributions of family members to the world as it was, and to provide a path to understanding what it will come to be.

Anne Mynne Calvert died in 1621, eleven years before her son received the charter to Maryland from King Charles, and is entombed at St. Mary's Church in a small village, Hertingfurdbury, outside of London. She lies there peacefully in marble, flanked by the coats of arms of her family and that of her husband, the Calverts, with their shields joined together in the mantle above.

Anne Mynne Calvert's Tomb, courtesy of Tom Coakley

If you look closely at the detail of the lower left of the center panel, of Massys's alter piece devoted to St. Anne, now in the Brussels museum, you will find the the buttoned cross of the Mynne coat of Arms that now adorns the Maryland flag and the tomb of Anne Mynne.

St. Anne, the mother of Mary and the grandmother of Jesus, is usually depicted with a book or books, and in this case is clearly dispensing learning through reading and quiet contemplation.  It is that transfer of culture through reading and reflection of the permanent records of the past that is the principal goal of an archives and the singular challenge of being an archivist. 

The problem is that there is a perception of a debilitating scarcity of resources for archives, and the increasing feeling by those who are archivists, or think they want to be archivists, that their days are numbered, much like those of the dinosaurs watching the Ark depart without them in this greeting card cartoon of Dan Regan's.

Cartoon for Hallmark Cards by Dan Regan

Just recently a humorous video appeared on the internet that carried with it a serious message of an additional widespread feeling of under appreciation for professional archivists and the work we do:

The unsettling reminder of how bad the fiscal situation may be appeared Sunday, December 5,  in the New York Times, as a front page article,  Mounting State Debts Stoke Fears of a Looming Crisis  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/us/politics/05states.htm. It was distributed the following day in a message from Governor Martin O'Malley to all employees of the State of Maryland in which he encouraged us all to "address these budget challenges and protect our priorities."  The Times article featured a scandal involving a failed incinerator in Harrisburg, PA which might yet lead to the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.  The photograph accompanying the web version of the article speaks with more than one meaning to me.  My son was instrumental in calling public attention to the corruption that infused the incinerator scandal..
Harrisburg, Pa., incinerator

When we permit the squandering of what fiscal resources we have through unwarranted hubris and corruption, and neglect preserving the records that make transparency in government at all levels possible, we are bound to get what we deserve.  When we fail to instruct our children and our grandchildren in the necessity of not only preserving the record, but also taking time to critically think and reflect upon it, we lose our souls as family and as a nation. The Governor is urging all of us to carefully shepherd what resources we have and to work hard to do better with less.   It is a hard pill to swallow, but one with a cure if we act wisely and in the spirit of St. Anne.

To the Governor's message might be added another front page New York Times article of December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, Top Scores From Shanghai Stun Experts. The accompanying table of international scores makes it clear, as the Governor has on more than one occasion, that as a nation and as a state, we must provide more than lip service to better educating our children and our grandchildren.  In doing so we as archivists also must assist in strengthening the message that archives are a critical source of useful knowledge and thoughtful contemplation, a vital resource intended to strengthen reading, writing, and analytical skills fundamental to the survival of our culture.

St. Anne reminds us how we can "protect" our archival priorities, if we work together to demonstrate the intrinsic cultural value of the records entrusted to our custody and care.

In practical terms, the Maryland State Archives faces some tough challenges ahead.  To survive and protect our mission as the chief source of reliable public information about the history of Maryland from earliest times to the present, we must constantly re-think how we go about preserving the historical record in as accessible and meaningful way as possible with a smaller, core staff of managers working with an expanded volunteer and short-term contractual staff.

All available management resources will have to be dedicated to

1) enlarging the base of functions and staff that are supported by dedicated revenue streams and not direct appropriations of tax dollars.  That will require raising public awareness of the importance of public archives and mounting a solicitation campaign for support not unlike the fund raising of public broadcasting and recent political campaigns that reaches out to the public at large for web-based donations large and small. It will also require more aggressive marketing of our scanning services and electronic archives  to government agencies on a fee basis that is competitive with the private sector. 

2) moving as much record material on line as quickly as possible at as little cost to the archives and the user as possible, following the Wikipedia model of relying on the public to assist in interpreting and adding value to the historical information in our care, as well as providing voluntary contributions to sustain it.

3) focusing staff time on income generating projects including private fund raising, grant writing, appraisal, and research projects designed to highlight the quality and importance of the records in the context of how they might be more effectively accessed by individuals and community oriented organizations.  Archivists, as much as they would like, cannot write the history, they can only hope to explain better the resources for historical and policy research, engaging the public in reading and writing about them, much like St. Anne is depicted with her grandchildren.

4) convincing the powers that be in government that it is in the economic best interest of the State to move all permanent electronic records at their creation into the joint custody of the Archives, if for no other reason than economies of scale, and true disaster recovery, while continuing  within the policies of the Archives a sensible program of timed release of public information that meets the policy planning and security needs of the public and the state.  By re-allocating to a centrally maintained, publicly owned electronic file system at the State Archives (sensibly distributed to more than one location), a very small portion of current public expenditure on privately owned, separate and poorly integrated paperless information systems that have proliferated in State Government, millions of dollars of current government expenditures could be saved while 'protecting' and sustaining the essential mission of the Archives.

5) seeking cooperative ways in which our storage and preservation needs can be met, without the large impact on the capital budget that we have already proposed.   By combining forces with other private and public institutions who have similar electronic information, book, and record storage issues similar to ours, we may well be able to build a safe and secure facility that will meet our storage and preservation needs for far less than seeking to go it alone.  An example might be to reduce our current capital budget request to encompass revitalization of an existing storage and reference facility that could serve both the State's archival storage needs and those of Baltimore City, in a way that also benefited the stability and future of the Maryland Historical Society.  Indeed it might be the first of cooperatively run regional storage and access facilities for permanent public records around the State that benefited and helped reduce the costs of county and local government record keeping.

The lesson of St. Anne to Archivists for this troubled holiday season is that our future as professional archivists lies in how effectively we enlist the grandparents of this generation in helping us reach their grandchildren and beyond with the stories and lessons to be learned from the often fragmentary records of the past. How we do that is up to us making the best of what limited resources we have.  If, as archivists, we are to shed the stereotype of the custodian pushing the crated ark of the covenant into the vast recesses of an inaccessible warehouse,

we need to help ourselves, and the public we serve by doing better with less, steaming forth like the Battle Ship Maryland at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. If so, we will emerge from the smoke of battle, resolute and capable of sustaining the fight for a well-informed republic based on a well-documented record of its past.

Photo #: 80-G-19949

Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941

USS Maryland (BB-46) alongside the capsized USS Oklahoma (BB-37).
USS West Virginia (BB-48) is burning in the background.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives collection