Ask a Consulting Archivist: Maija Anderson
26 May 2014 – Adina Langer
Editor’s note: We are beginning a new series on the Consultants Corner, Ask a Consulting Archivist. In the series, we will interview archivists about their careers, including how they first got started in consulting work, challenges they face, and current projects. We will soon begin similar series with consulting preservationists and curators/museum professionals. Adina Langer leads our first interview, which is with Maija Anderson who, in addition to consulting, works as Head of Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
How did you get involved in consulting?
I value the idea that everyone’s history is valid and important and that everyone should have power over their histories. As a university archivist, I’ve always been encouraged to contribute professional service by teaching what I know. I’ve always done mini-consults with anyone who has questions or needs a sounding board, just as a professional courtesy.
My first independent client was a collector of fine-press books. She had purchased some production files from one of her favorite book artists and wanted to make them presentable within her book collection. I think I was really lucky that my first client was a woman entrepreneur.
When I sent her a proposal and an estimate of my fees, she called me and said I wasn’t charging enough. She was kind but very frank about the impression it creates when you undervalue your work. Then she basically told me to go back to the drawing board and come back with something convincing. I was mortified at the time, but it was such a great lesson in retrospect.
Could you highlight a project and describe how you allocate your time on that project?
Right now, I’m working with a team to provide curatorial services for a local historical society. The society runs a small regional museum that volunteers have operated since the 1970s. It has a lot of potential but needs professional attention, particularly with respect to collection management and exhibits. The project is funded by a grant from their city government.
For this project, I’m working with two consulting historians with experience in different realms of cultural heritage. Our expertise and work styles are complementary, and it’s a great collaboration. We do have to be deliberate about how we allocate our time–there are three of us, we all need to be compensated, and we all need to deliver. One team member is the designated project manager and makes sure that we’re checking in with each other, tracking hours accurately, and sticking to a monthly budget.
I have a full-time job outside of my consulting practice, which means I have to be very disciplined about personal time management. I have job security that I wouldn’t have if I were doing independent consulting full-time, but I also can’t stay up all night to finish a project for a client if I have to be in the office at 8:00 am the next morning. I have to prioritize and be realistic about my workload.
If you have limited funding or time, how do you plan out what you will focus on if you can’t tackle an entire collection?
I have a strong bias towards dealing with the collection as a whole, regardless of funding or time constraints. I started my career as an archivist working on so-called “Hidden Collections” initiatives. In these projects, archivists work quickly and efficiently to deal with large backlogs of unprocessed collections. Collections are processed according to baseline preservation and access requirements, not to an ideal level of artisanship or scholarship. Some old-school archivists see this as Taylorization of the profession, but archives that are user-oriented and have collections of any significant size and diversity all do this to some extent. You’re prioritizing basic access to all of your collection(s), rather than detailed descriptions of a few things. Once you’ve met your minimum standard across the board, you can go back and focus on upgrades where it really makes a difference.
This is a pragmatic approach for consulting because funding from one phase of a project to the next can be uncertain. Regardless of time and funding limits, I want to provide a consistent level of access and preservation, which will give the client a strong foundation for the next phase of the project.
How do you gain (and maintain) intellectual control over the project?
Before a first meeting, I do background research on the client and the historical context for their collection. Then I talk to the client about why the collection is important to them. We discuss how to make the collection more useful and how to make sure it’s there for people to use in the future. Many clients focus narrowly on the value of the collection to their own stakeholder group. Part of what I do is point out the collection’s value to the public and explain how it will benefit them to approach the archive as a public resource.
The first pass at the collections is always a high-level survey. I just look at everything and take photos and notes. Once I know the full extent of what I’m dealing with, I can come up with a project plan that matches the available resources. Poorly planned archives projects tend to go off the rails right away–people get overwhelmed because they skip the initial scoping and end up with a fundamental mismatch between the goals of the project and the resources to complete it. Once you have established basic intellectual control of the collection, the next steps become easier to define.
What can archivists learn from the public history field?
Archivists will be the first to tell you that we’re generally really bad at communicating what we do–the value we provide to society. At the same time, archives are becoming increasingly community-driven and collaborative. I think public history, with its emphasis on community engagement and utility to lay audiences, can teach us how archives and archivists will succeed in the future.