what we do

When Hats Collide

First woman jury, Los Angeles (LOC)

Originally uploaded by The Library of Congress

As the lone full-time staffer of a tiny library with big ambitions and significant collections, I wear a large number of hats. Sometimes they war with each other. It’s hard to tell which hat is the Top.

Take this week, for instance. In the archives is a tattered Alaskan flag which was brought to the summit of Mt. Vinson, Antarctic for the first ascent in 1966. The flag was subsequently lost, and then retrieved by another expedition, and by a circuitous route involving much research and several countries returned to a member of the original summit party, who then donated it to the institution for which I work. Another mountaineer asked to bring the flag back with him on a reunion mission to the same peak this week. I carefully packed it up and wrote “fragile” all over it and handed it over, never thinking he meant to actually carry it back to the summit and unfurl it. Yesterday I read that that was the plan. The hats immediately started hopping about as if there were rabbits under each.

My conservator hat anxiously says the flag should never leave its foam bed in the archives so that it can last several hundred more years. My curator hat says that it’s a great story and an interesting kind of living history exhibit, vastly improved by its new associations.

My pragmatist hat says it’s an interesting thing, but only a thing and if the human carrying it is safe then it will be safe, and if neither is safe then we’ve got bigger problems. My flat out curmudgeon hat says “mine mine mine do what I say!” My library marketeer hat (similar to a mouseketeer hat?) says that we can get a lot of publicity mileage of it and none of that is bad.

My teacher hat says do what I say not what I do, because if everybody sent their archives into space or to high altitude, our cultural heritage would be in shreds. My renegade hat (or maybe beret?) says screw it, it’s really cool and things are made to be used not hidden. My preservationist hat says I’m entrusted with these things and need to keep them home and safe no matter how compelling the argument. My registrar hat says it’s just a very unusual type of temporary exhibit loan.

That’s a lot of hats talking. And the fact of the matter is that the flag went to the Ice and will come back no worse for the wear from its big adventure, enriched by a greater history – and if not, well, I made a mistake. I’m curious – what would you do, those of you who are not curtailed by traditional collection management policies? Next time someone wants to carry a one-of-a-kind item on a meaningful quest, should I send it?

UPDATE (1/13/11): I just read this post on Dan Cull’s blog that illuminates, I think, some of the rabbits under my hats.  These two thoughtful people are always worth reading, and I am very glad to see that Kevin Drieger is blogging again!