Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why researchers matter - redux.

Here is another reason why researchers matter.

Ever traveled to a library, archives or records center just to find out it is closed because of an emergency situation, a power-outage or some other logistical problem?  It has happened to every newbie researcher, and probably to many of the more experienced ones.  It is part of the risk involved in conducting on-site of research.

However, what if the place was closed because of a lack of funds?  This is occurring more often and in the case of Minnesota, it is not just one city or county, it is the entire state and all of its publicly funded research facilities.  This could easily happen to the research institution that you use most often.  It could happen because the state runs out of funds.  It could also happen if legislatures fail to adequately fund these institutions in the first place.

So, how do researchers matter in this case?  Well, it seems rather obvious = get involved! Let your legislators know, at the state and Congressional levels, that your institution matters to you and it must be adequately funded.  Tell them how and why you use it and how it impacts you, your family and your clients or whomever is the recipient of the data or information you discovered while researching.  It actually works.  I have seen it in action, all it takes is some time and a great deal of polite, patient persistence.

At my favorite research facility, the National Archives, researchers have been involved in many ways to help.  The most important contribution was several years ago after the archives was closed because of a water damage after a flood in the basement of the building.  It seemed that Congress just wouldn't give NARA adequate funding to make the repairs and stay open at the same time, or ever compensate them for any of the repairs retroactively.  The place was scheduled to be closed for at least four weeks and after re-opening was to have more limited hours than before.  NARA only needed $36-million, but (former) Archivist of the US Weinstein wasn't persuasive enough to convince Congress.

Realizing what needed to be done, the researchers formed a vigilante-committee of sorts, and charted a course of action.  The group lobbied congress, and had meetings with members of the appropriations committee(s).  After a short time, the researchers were able to get the ball rolling and believe it or not, Congress gave NARA the necessary funds to make the repairs, get the doors open and resume normal hours of operation.

I believe that researchers matter, not just as users of the institutions, but as players in the game.  If you want that place to remain open, you MUST be involved.  More interested parties will swoop in and take control, or the collection may even be auctioned off, or disposed of.  At that point, it is often too late to act, so do something now.

Should we just sell our entire cultural heritage to a for-profit corporation like or do we keep it alive locally at institutions that can be physically visited, where real research can be conducted using real items, documents and ephemera?