Grunt work?

In a recent meeting, a coworker referred to the maintenance of website links and general upkeep of a website as grunt work. That phrase stuck with me, as it has a slight condescending tone, and my ears have been perked up lately to condescension about work that is routine, or normal, or necessary, as opposed to work that is exceptional, or genius. I came across this post about maintenance work in archives, and somehow the term grunt work seems to be a code for work that doesn’t matter as much, or work that is less to celebrate, less prestigious, less notable.

Scrapbook review for digitization planning

After a recent review session of some scrapbooks we may be adding to our digital collections, I was struck by how much work it takes to ‘surface hidden collections’ so to speak. It isn’t that someone single-handedly finds and and magically shares rare materials with the world – the magic is not magic like that of a magician. There is magic in surfacing rare materials in making them available, and it is that of the many hands involved in finding, describing, organizing, negotiating, meeting, clarifying, documenting, coding, and eventually sharing the work of all those involved. 

orra white hitchcock nautilis
Classroom chart on linen drawn by Orra White Hitchcock, Amherst College.

This fall, the American Folk Art Museum in New York had an exhibit of Orra White Hitchcock’s classroom drawings. In one review of the exhibit, it was noted that a curator discovered these drawings and shared them with the world. That Orra was somewhat hidden behind the prestige of her husband, the president at Amherst College. I love that these images are out in the world more broadly by this exhibit thanks to the museum curator, as I love the images and the work of Orra. But I am struck at the parallel to Orra’s hidden-ness by the fact that these works weren’t discovered magically by a curator, but were found because archivists and archives staff described and organized them, and the digitization team put them up in our online digital collections portal. None of this “grunt work” was mentioned in the review. And yet, the level of expertise, professionalism, and shared effort involved is worth prestige and notoriety.

“One could easily imagine a future in which Orra’s charts were never discovered, attributed, researched or displayed.” 

from The Story of Orra White Hitchcock and the Women Whose Modesty Hides Their Talent

One might say that the invisible work is so good because no one sees it, it feels like magic. Depending on the situation, this is actually a sign of ignorance, or negligence. If you pay attention, you see that what appears like singular magic is actually the result of the brilliance of many, and that what appears like singular genius is often betraying the work of others, or reveals the lack of ability to maintain and build or related to others.

Exemplary maintenance needs to be recognized, if not at the national level then at least in our local organizations. We need to correct the imbalance of prestige, power and money that favors innovators

Hillel Arnold,  Critical Work: Archivists as Maintainers
Ruby Slippers
Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers By dbking [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

So I guess this is my way of saying that grunt work needs reframing.  Less Wizard of Oz screens and microphones, and more dazzling red slippers putting in the miles.

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