We are what we say…

I tweeted about this a little earlier, but it stayed in my mind for a while today, so I thought it deserved a fuller exploration.  This is all very sketchy and not fully thought-out, but it’s something I’ve thought about before and don’t have any easy answers for.

I spent this morning curled with a cup of coffee and the Spring/Summer issue of The American Archivist, which I have been slowly working my way through.  This morning, I finished Jennifer Douglas and Heather MacNeil’s article applying genre studies to the calendars and inventories produced at the Public Archives of Canada, and Heather Soyka and Eliot Wilczek’s on documenting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Both excellent pieces, with a lot to think about.  For some reason, the thing that popped out at me from both pieces was the role of archival jargon in what we do and the way we present ourselves as a profession.

Douglas and MacNeil discuss jargon more directly, arguing that archivists at PAC used more archival jargon in their finding aids as they adopted a more “professional” attitude towards their work and an increasing differentiation from the historical profession (160-161, 166).  Using words like provenance and original order was a way for the PAC archivists to indicate a level of expertise about the records in their care.  The change in descriptive practices that Douglas and MacNeil describe (moving from calendars to general inventories) is clearly a move towards what we today consider “correct” archival practice, so as I was reading, I found myself mentally cheering the PAC for “getting it right.”  I also think that archivists, individually and as a group, do have a unique and valuable skill set for doing the work that we do, so I was also happy to see an increased sense of professional identity, expressed through shared concepts.

But on the other hand, adding this extra layer of professional jargon onto the PAC’s finding aids seems like an obstruction for users.  Now, in addition to identifying the records they want to look at, a researcher also has to puzzle through a description of evidentiary and informational value.  A valuable concept for us, but is it equally valuable for users?

So, issues of language and professionalization were on my mind as I read Soyka and Wilczek’s article.  One of the challenges to adequately documenting these two wars is the lack of records management capacity in the US military, with smaller military units relying on a person who has been assigned the job of keeping important records, on top of the rest of their responsibilities.  Soyka and Wilczek point out that these people who have been assigned this responsibility often don’t have adequate training in it or an understanding of why it is important, especially relative to the other things they have to do. (187-188)  They note that “army history doctrine and instructions generally describe appraising records and documenting activities as ‘collecting’ documents” (179).  A little thing, but Soyka and Wilczek realize that talking about “collecting documents” indicates a different way of thinking than “appraising records and documenting activities.”  The archival way of looking at this problem, reflected in the different way we talk about it, from my perspective (and I think from Soyka and Wilczek would agree) would be better – it would hopefully lead to better record keeping and a fuller picture of these two wars.  But is it necessary to explain functional appraisal and documentation strategies to the military personnel tasked with preserving records?  Can they get the general concepts without learning the jargon?  Does using the right words actually mean anything, other than a declaration that the person speaking is fluent in archives-ese and therefore a member of the club?

At work right now, I am working with a colleague to minimally process and create a finding aid for a large archival collection.  Several of my co-workers, who are librarians but not archivists, refer to the finding aid as a “pathfinder.”  It’s not wrong, and it’s actually not a bad description of what the document is – no worse than “finding aid,” to be honest.  But I still cringe a little bit inside whenever they say it.  Does it really matter?  Probably not.  Am I just being snobby?  Almost certainly that is at least some of it.  When I tweeted about jargon earlier, a friend from grad school replied that “acronym overload” is the worst.  Which I can definitely agree with.  But does that mean we should do away with jargon altogether?

Isn’t there some value in all using the same words?  So that when I say, “here is the finding aid for this collection,” whoever I’m talking to has some idea of what I mean, and some expectation that it will be similar to other finding aids they have seen?  Part of me thinks that yes, there is value to that.  (Even though I know that what users think of when they hear “finding aid” isn’t necessarily the same as what we mean.)  So when I hear people complain about too much archival jargon, part of me cheers along with them, but part of me also knows that we do have specialized skills and ways of looking at our work, and that is naturally reflected in the language we use.

This is one of those blog posts were I don’t really have an convenient conclusion.  The obvious answer is to use as much jargon as we want when we talk to each other (well, maybe within limits), but explain things in more simple terms when talking to non-archivists.  If only it were that easy.  I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about jargon and our professional discourse – let me know what you think!

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