By Christine Anne George
Not that long ago I participated in a workshop that brought together historians and archivists. While it was a very interesting exchange, there was one thing that was abundantly clear—the historians had a bit of resentment towards archivists because at some point, an archivist had blocked their access to materials they wanted to view. As a researcher, I completely understand the frustration. If I know that a document exists and not being able to see it could set back my research, I’m going to be less than pleased. However, as an archivist, I know that there are often larger issues at play—donor agreements, institutional restrictions, and even laws—that tie the archivists’ hands. As much as an archivist may want to assist a researcher, if there is a restriction in place, for whatever reason, the archivist has no choice but to deny access.
When I try to draw distinctions between archivists and librarians I always mention access. Archivists are the gatekeepers of history, charged with keeping the items of record. Librarians are conduits of information, championing opening access. In the simplest of terms, if a researcher wants access to something, librarians are more likely to say yes and archivists are more likely to say no.* But I was recently reminded of a particular instance where law librarians aren’t all that different from archivists.
You’ve been there. That moment you’re helping a pro se patron, an alum, a university faculty member, whoever. This is the person who wants access to whatever database. (My experience is usually of the Westlaw or Lexis variety.) Though every librarian instinct is screaming against it, you have to tell that patron that you’re sorry but you cannot give them access. Yes you understand that it is important for their research, but you still can’t. Perhaps you mention that there are contracts that limit access to the law school community. Then you quickly amend that to say the current law school community. No, you can’t make an exception. No, not even if they ask nicely. Certainly not if they take that tone. Well, actually, even if they let up on the tone, it’s still no. Yes they are free to speak to whomever they would like to from alumni affairs to the director, but there’s nothing you can do. You offer alternatives. Perhaps another database that has looser restrictions. Maybe the boo—ok no, not the books. No, you’re fairly certain no other librarian said that it was ok, but nice try. You know because you were the librarian they spoke to last week. No, your sole purpose in life is not to derail their research…
Librarians are not information hoarders. Librarians are information sharers to the nth degree. If anything, we’re information over-sharers. We want everyone to know. We make displays. We make guides. We post to social media. We give presentations. We will even interject into conversations we overhear to help give information—no? Just me? Ok. The point is that from the librarian side, it’s easy to see that if we are denying access, there has to be a reason, and the reason isn’t that denying access brings joy (at least I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t be for the most part). The reason may not be apparent, but it exists. From the patron side, it’s less clear. Librarians can do their best to explain the various restrictions—maybe put those presentation and guide skills to use—but it comes back to the archivists vs. researcher stand-off.
Maybe someday we’ll reach the point where all information is free and there aren’t proprietary databases. I won’t be holding my breath because I know what the likelihood of that is, but it’s nice to dream. Until that day, it looks like archivists aren’t the only ones uttering the dreaded, “I’m sorry, but…”
*I know that there are plenty of archivists championing opening up archives so that more people will be able to access collections and don’t want to get into that debate. I’m talking broad stroke generalizations here