Volunteer Labour in Archives

A researcher working with delicate resource at The National Archives.  Wikimedia Commons.
A researcher working with delicate resource at The National Archives. Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the implications of volunteer labour in the archival profession and the challenges faced by archives that are completely volunteer run.  If you haven’t already go read “Implications of Archival Labor” by Stacie Williams. Williams’ work clearly outlines the problems wTith invisible labour in archives, the need for archives to advocate more effectively, and the need for us to talk openly about time and money.  Jarrett Drake, and Eira Tansey, and Allana Mayer have also addressed the cultural bias, volunteerism and privilege that is embedded in the archival profession.  We need to be having these discussions about precarious employment and the real costs of archival labour.

In the case of completely volunteer run archives – many of which have been operating on volunteer labour for their entire existence – how do you make the case that this labour need to be paid?  And how do you create a succession plan for the retirement of a volunteer archivist? The common answer is “document everything!” As Danielle Robichaud pointed out on twitter documentation is often lauded as a way to standardize practices but it is also often used as a way to continue with under funding and poorly resourced archives. Documenting everything doesn’t fix the problem of volunteer labour and at times it can actually work toward devaluing archival work – eg. “Well it’s all really documented in that binder so that any one could do it.”  Archival work is specialized and we need to acknowledge the fact that training (which can come in many shapes) matters.  The idea that archivists do their jobs because of a deep love for history/preservation makes me uncomfortable.  Many people do love their jobs and profession – but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be paid for their labour.

Volunteer and unpaid labour is also hugely problematic when talking about diversity with in the archival profession.  The profession is overwhelmingly white and is largely female.  When volunteering and unpaid internships are a core part of gaining professional experience and entry into the field you limit growth opportunities to those who can afford to volunteer.  Volunteerism and unpaid work is often tied to privilege and has a huge impact on limiting the field to those who can afford to work for little or no money.  Recently someone told me that they thought the best way to encourage more Indigenous people to enter the archival professional was to create volunteer positions specifically geared at Indigenous folks looking to gain experience.  If this is your strategy for increasing diversity you are doing it wrong and ignoring much larger systematic problems.

This post is more of a thoughts in progress post than anything.  The practices and circumstances in the archival profession continue to remind me of the advocacy work that needs to be ongoing.

Service, Professional Development and Privilege

coffee-break-1177540_960_720I’ve been thinking a lot about service expectations, professional development opportunities and privilege.  A lot has been written on the connection of conference attendance and privilege, conferences are expensive to attend and in the academic world that you often essentially pay to present your research.  If you’re lucky enough to have a job that includes a professional development fund your travel and attendance might be covered but for many individuals these expenses come out of pocket.  I’m very lucky (and privileged) to work in a place that has consistently supported my participation in conferences. I also have the time and financial stability to be able to attend professional development events and serve on professional committees without putting myself at financial risk.

I still think conferences can be valuable and have the potential to offer opportunities for connections with colleagues and skill building.  I really look forward to the NCPH annual conference for this very reason and I have been on the organizing committee of a handful of conferences. However there definitely needs to be a more open dialogue about the financial challenges associated with attendance that is faced by students, early career professionals, and those in positions of precarious employment. In the academic world there is a huge sense of urgency that you need to build your CV by presenting at conferences but the very people who most need to build their CV through conference presentations are the ones who can least afford it.  This sense of urgency is perhaps not a potent in the Canadian archives and library field but it is definitely still there – especially if you want to open career possibilities.

It’s important for conference organizers to think about what financial barriers their registration fees, hotel choices, and funding options place on attendance.  Room sharing, attending smaller regional conferences, and other creative cost saving approaches can help on an individual level.  As someone who lives in a region that rarely holds conferences related to my profession I understand the very real expenses associated with traveling for professional development.  But this is a discussion we need to be having on a larger scale and is something we need to consider when running events.  Creating opportunities for digital professional development, informal networking meetups, or running shorter less expensive single day events is one way to help with this.  Similarly, joining planning committees and organizational committees where you can bring concerns and alternative suggestions can help.

Conferences are expensive to run, I get that. But there also needs to be a way that we can acknowledge the implicit privilege of conference attendance and work to create more inclusive spaces.  This is particularly important for public historians and heritage professionals who work with communities and want to cultivate more community involvement.  If we want to build meaningful collaboration and diversify our profession we need to create spaces for that to happen.