Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Professional Associations and the Public Good: Irish Style

Every professional association in existence has some sort of statement about how it exists to ensure that it is fulfilling its mission by enabling it to pursue some sort of public good. Whether this is true or not hardly ever gets tested, because we all so willingly accept the rhetoric and because, as members, we want to believe it. It will be interesting to see how Anthony Clark’s comments about our National Archives will fare in the Society of American Archivists leadership, but given the long-term far too cozy relationship between this government agency and professional association I am not particularly sanguine that it will get much attention at all.

Recent experiences about professional associations often remaining silent are not new, of course, as Pat Walsh’s The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009), describing a politically charged case about the hiring of librarian in Ireland in 1930. Walsh documents the case of Letitia Dunbar Harrison, a Protestant graduate of Trinity College, who was initially denied employment for the Mayo County librarian position on the grounds that she did not have a working knowledge of the Irish language. As it turned out, the case was being about the hiring of a Protestant and a Trinity grad in a county that was predominately Catholic. As Walsh unfolds it in the book, the intensive media coverage also reflected other matters such as the then new Free State, ongoing tensions between national versus local control, and the efforts to draw on the Carnegie Trust to establish libraries throughout Ireland.

This is an excellent case study of an early controversy, a poignant one in that the central figure in the case, Harrison, has a very brief career and turns her back on the field when it was still one of the only routes for women into professional ranks. It also nearly coincides with the formation of the library profession in Ireland, occurring just two years after the establishment of the Library Association in 1928. Yet, despite this new association, it takes no public stand on the case. Walsh writes, “The most high-profile dispute involving libraries and librarianship passed by without the very organization that represented professional librarians speaking out on it. One could argue that the Library Association had ducked its first big challenge, either from a lack of unity or a lack of nerve” (p. 135). We have seen other professional associations in recent decades not speak out on critical issues, especially when concerning powerful institutions, and we have come to expect silence or statements of little more than general platitudes.

Thanks to Kate Manning for sending the Walsh book as part of my annual Irish Christmas present. I had no idea how timely it would be, and she certainly never thought I would put it to this use. This is a great read, even if current events don't add more relevance for it.