Monday, December 9, 2013

An End to the Curator-Scholar?

“Simply holding up three or four objects—virtual or otherwise—is no more telling a story than dumping flour, sugar, and eggs onto a table is baking a cake. You have to do the work of contextualization if you want the objects to signify.” — Erin Kissane, “The Scholar-Curator as Storyteller

Kissane’s essay, which I stumbled across on the Web, gets right to the heart of something gnawing me at the moment—a sense that an era of the resident scholar-curator (or curator-scholar) is passing away before my eyes. What gives me this impression? Am I correct in believing this is the case? Or am I unduly influenced by what I observe in my own surroundings or hear through the professional grapevine? Or did any such academic creature ever truly exist?

A first impression comes from my work. I no longer have the time (some might say the luxury) that I did in the beginning of my residency in archives and special collections to carve out moments during the workday to study a volume or body of work, become familiar with contents, illustrators, authors, paper, binding, typography, or the other accoutrements of a curatorial vocation. The only time I now feel justified spending in scholarly pursuit during a portion of the day are those moments associated with preparing a presentation (more often than not to a group external to the university)…or perhaps writing this blog. What is more often the case is that occasions for study, reading, contemplation, or writing are stolen from early morning, lunchtime, or late evening hours. It is difficult, however, during those wee hours of the day to examine a book, binding, or manuscript when the thing itself is safely nestled in the vault, far from whatever home workspace or bus seat I might occupy. It is less an issue when all that concerns me is text. Such can be retrieved and consulted almost anywhere, time, or place. But, if I need to examine an artifact as a part of my study, those moments are fewer and farther between.

Such was not always the case. By saying so, I acknowledge (or assert) that a sliding scale of expectations are placed on staff at certain points of a career trajectory. These expectations may differ among institutions, but my general impression is that professionals early in their careers are given more latitude, opportunities, time, and money—within their regular schedules—to apply themselves to scholarship, presentations, professional engagement or development. We want them to succeed in their work, bring notice to our institution, engage in the institutional mission, and attain tenure or continuous appointment (for those institutions still offering it). The expectations for productivity remain (and increase) after a certain career point is reached, e.g. tenure, but the latitude, opportunities, time, and money offered by the institution dwindle or disappear entirely. This void is filled by a new expectation: matured professionals will find their own creative ways to fill the vacuum left by a departure of institutional support. Their desire to study, write, think, or engage professionally is now on their own dime and time—unless they are very good grant writers.

A second impression comes from what I read in current job postings. For example, as of this writing, twenty-six positions in academic libraries with a focus on special collections or archives are present on the online job list of the American Library Association. Titles for these twenty-six positions include: research library fellow; instructor; special collections librarian; project archivist (temporary two year position); processing archivist (3); assistant department head; digital collections librarian; associate director for creation and curation services; head of special collections and archives (2); assistant archivist; cartographic reference and digital projects librarian; processing and public services archivist; librarian/curator of print materials; head of special collections; public service coordinator; archives and special collections librarian; catalog librarian; associate director/special collections; chair; department of special and area studies collections; public policy papers project archivist (say that one fast five times); rare books curator; curator…and librarian for East Asian Studies; research informationist and science informationist. Given this daunting list, how many positions include expectations we might expect of a curator-scholar, i.e. someone who is expected to read, write, and publish scholarly, peer-reviewed material (or even popular essays, for that matter) as part of their job?

I read each of the job postings and—given a loose or forgiving hermeneutic—came to a result of seven positions that met my somewhat nebulous criteria, slightly under a third of the list (and frankly, better than I expected): research library fellow; instructor; librarian/curator of print materials; archives and special collections librarian; associate director/special collections; rare books curator; curator…and librarian for East Asian Studies. My favorite line of text from one of these postings, the one that came closest to what I sought, was this: “to provide access to this dynamic special collection…by teaching, writing and speaking about this expansive resource.” (emphasis mine)

In my more caustic moments while reading the position descriptions I concluded that what most institutions are looking for are leaders, coordinators, collaborators, designers, overseers, and managers—not thinkers or writers who know something about the stuff to be cared for. These are positions, for the most part, more about providing access to the stuff, not a context for the stuff. We seem happy to leave the contextualizing to faculty, graduate students, and external scholars. We have dumbed down our collections by dumbing down the staff left to attend them.

Or perhaps dumbing down is not the correct phrase. It is unkind to many I hold dear. Instead, let me tone down my criticism by politely saying we have shifted our emphasis away from knowledge of collections and towards access to collections. We are successfully dealing with our backlogs. We can congratulate ourselves (and the substantial funding from generous grantors) for accomplishing this work. But I still think we have neglected our subject expertise in the process.

Kissane begins her essay by noting a quote from Washington Matthews, offered by Henry Wessells on his blog The Endless Bookshelf. Matthews wrote:

Someone has said that a first-class museum would consist of a series of satisfactory labels with specimens attached. This saying might be rendered: “The label is more important than the specimen.” When I have finished reading this paper, you may admit that this is true in the case of the little museum which I have here to show: a basket, a fascicle of plant fibres, a few rudely painted sticks, some beads and feathers put together as if by children in their meaningless play, form the totality of the collection. You would scarcely pick these trifles up if you saw them lying in the gutter, yet when I have told you all I have to tell about them, I trust they may seem of greater importance, and that some among you would be as glad to possess them as I am. I might have added largely to this collection had I time to discourse about them, for I possess many more of their kind. It is not a question of things, but of time. I shall do scant justice to this little pile within an hour. An hour it will be to you, and a tiresome hour, no doubt, but you may pass it with greater patience when you learn that this hour’s monologue represents to me twelve years of hard and oft-baffled investigation. (emphasis mine)

— Washington Matthews. “Some Sacred Objects of the Navajo Rites,” Archives of the International Folklore Association I (1898); scanned version available via Google Books.

It is the “twelve years of hard and oft-baffled investigation” that I value, which I believe brings a “value added” to the collections under our care as curators. I feel we are losing, or have lost, this value.

Last Friday I delivered a short informal talk about Dr. Philip S. Hench and his discovery of the “true” location of the encounter between Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty. It was a talk derived from experiences I had this last year in developing an exhibit. But it was also a talk that stemmed, in part, from research and reading done two years earlier about Dr. Hench and his trips to Switzerland. And it was a talk that ultimately arose from a long acquaintance with the Sherlock Holmes stories and the collections in my stewardship. Last Friday’s talk could not have been conceived or delivered without those long years “of hard and oft-baffled investigation.” My little presentation was a mere essay in the master’s craft I’m sure was present in Washington Matthews hour-long presentation on sacred objects of the Navajo rites.

My third impression, which I’ll not go into detail with here, comes from reading obituaries or tributes to those deceased or long retired from the curatorial world. (I am, after all, of a certain age when the reading of obituaries becomes a more frequent activity.) I am struck in those readings by the combination of scholarship, administration, and collection knowledge present in their world and absent from ours. Is this, indeed, a passing (or past) era? Or might we still have the opportunity, as Matthews did, of a certain “luxury” in the course of our work? “It is,” as Matthew noted, “not a question of things, but of time.”

1 comment:

Dave said...

A lot of what you said really resonated with me, Tim. Maybe I got out while the getting was good! You and I were fortunate to find a home in University of Minnesota Libraries Archives and Special Collections when staffing was built around subject specialists whose job descriptions called on us to do a little of everything in our corner of the world. The trend, for a long time, has been toward functional specialization where one is required to do one thing exceedingly well. You, I, and others like us have taken great satisfaction in the opportunity we were afforded. That satisfaction needs to be balanced with an assessment of whether the U of M's researcher constituency was well served by the value we added to our respective collections. I hope so.