I’ve now worked at the RAC for eleven years, which is long enough that several processes that I helped to define and put into place need to be re-examined and completely overhauled. This has been a thought-provoking (and to be honest, feelings-provoking) process, and has got me thinking a lot about what it means to acknowledge and deal with things that aren’t working.

On one level, this is a post about why change management is hard. Everything around us is changing at different speeds and in different ways. People, organizations, and things grow and decay on their own cycles, and correctly reading the symptoms of change in each case requires a great deal of attention and specialized knowledge. And all the time, our individual human selves are changing too.

But this is also a post about maintenance, specifically the maintenance of processes. Because change is everywhere and all the time, processes must evolve as well. Without intentionality those changes can end up causing friction rather than enabling; they are often workarounds or tweaks that solve an immediate crisis but don’t prevent its reoccurrence because they don’t address the underlying problem.

Bob Clark, our Director of Archives, calls these kinds of accretions “barnacles”, which I like both because I’m into delightful maritime metaphors but also because it has a couple of important resonances. First, it helps us step away from the moral judgment that’s so often part of change; the new thing is good, and the old thing is bad; or this change was good, and that change was bad. Change is change. Second, it helps us understand that processes need to be regularly maintained. Boats need to be hauled out every couple of years to have the barnacles scraped off and a fresh coat of paint applied. Processes do too.

Over the past couple of years, the Digital Strategies team has invested a significant amount of time in figuring out how to be good at maintaining software systems: we’ve defined what maintenance work we need to do, figured out how often we need to do it, and put documentation and automation in place. We haven’t really taken the same approach to processes though, so I’ve been thinking about what it would take to do this work effectively. So far, I’ve got more questions than answers:

  • What kind of methodologies and tools would help us here? Business process analysis is a whole discipline, but how does it think about this question of maintenance? Are user experience/service design methodologies useful here? Are diagrams and metrics the codebases and unit tests of process maintenance?
  • How do we bake this maintenance work into processes? Do owners of processes also own their maintenance, or is the maintenance specialized enough that it needs to be centrally managed?
  • How often does process maintenance need to happen, and is it consistent across processes or depend on the kind of process?

And finally, this is a post about debt forgiveness. At the Society of American Archivists conference in 2022, I had my mind blown by a presentation about “archival debt”, at term coined by Jillian Cuellar to describe “resources owed to address problematic legacy issues in an archival repository resulting from past practices, policies, and strategies that prioritized the protection and validation of institutions over democratic access and responsible stewardship.” Everyone who’s worked as an archivist has experience this debt in one form or another, and the panelists (their comments were recently published in the Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies) argued that, as a profession we are being crushed by this debt and need to find ways to forgive it rather than continue to attempt to negotiate with it.

I’m finding this particularly poignant right now as I wrestle with past ideas or decisions that seemed so great at the time but have over time become ineffective or changed beyond recognition. If we’re going to forgive archival debt, we’ve got to be able to forgive ourselves, and that starts with the humility to admit that we make mistakes, as well as the will to move past that failure and try again. This is especially true for those of us in leadership positions in archives.

In thinking about change, I often find myself coming back to the words Octavia Butler gives to her protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina in Parable of the Sower: “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.” There’s both a challenge and a comfort here: change is unavoidable, so we need to make our peace with it. At the same time, because change is everywhere and in everything, it’s not inherently good or bad. It just is.