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Understanding Archives and Archivists

August 20, 2010

I wasn’t going to write this post. I had talked myself out of writing this post after venting to a friend about the annoyance of librarians who disregard the work of archivists as others disregard the work of librarians. Plus, I try to keep a positive outlook on life and not get thrown out of whack by uninformed comments. And then I saw this, Post-SAA Howl (and the associated comments), which is making its way around the various archives blogs and listservs. So today, I’m going to write a post so those who haven’t studied or trained as archivists will be able to understand (at a very basic level) what archivists do and why archives are important. [Hint: if librarians don’t just put books on shelves, it would be safe to assume that archivists don’t just put things in boxes.] Then I promise to wrap up with some useful technology tools and tips to help you and your patrons.

Portelli wrote, “You teach nothing unless you are also learning, and you learn nothing if you don’t listen,” (p. 52 of The Battle of Valle Giulia). I’ve been listening to my fellow librarians for a while and learning from them and I think though, it is my turn to teach just a bit (I promise I won’t get too preachy on my soapbox). So first, some background: I, like a lot of archivists, was trained as both a librarian and an archivist (and, in my case, a historian as well). Lots of archives studies/archives science programs are part of library and information science programs, therefore a lot of archivists have MLS/MLIS/MSLS, etc. Archivists know what librarians do because we had to take all the required classes for library science too. We get it that librarians don’t just put books on shelves and a lot of us love working in libraries and archives. In addition to the library science classes we had to take archives classes too. A lot of us have also done internships or practicums in archives to get experience. So trust me, your local archivist can understand where you are coming from and can intelligently speak with you about library matters. (Just don’t ask us to catalog anything.)

Where the difference comes in is that librarians aren’t often required to take archives classes and therefore don’t know what archivists really do. And this is a problem because then archivists have to deal with stereotypes in the eyes’ of their fellow information professionals in addition to the rest of the world. So before you go telling your archivist that all s/he does is put stuff in boxes and that anyone could do it and that it doesn’t take someone with training and education in archival principles and theories, please read the rest of this post so you know what archivists do in the basement archives all day.

Archivists have been popularized as “keepers of memory” which is, like most popularizations, a huge simplification but we’ll start there because at least it isn’t a negative stereotype. There are professional debates about the role of the archivist and archives (which we’re not going into here), but here is the basics: archivists collect, appraise, preserve, arrange, describe, and make accessible records (these could be textual documents, photographic materials, ephemera, or objects) with lasting (legal, historical, social) value. Archivists don’t arrange archival collections by subject as is done in a library. Archivists maintain provenance (the Golden Rule in archives) which mean that records from a single creator stay together and aren’t mixed with other collections. There is also the principle of Original Order which says that archivists should keep materials in the order in which they arrived at the archives; archivists may or may not preserve Original Order depending on their training and philosophy.

Description means the writing of finding aids which I liken to MARC records on steroids. In finding aids, archivists can contextual the collection by providing biographical or historical information about the creator or organization responsible for the collection. Finding aids also can contain index terms that can be used in MARC records to facilitate access to the finding aids and therefore collections. Box lists are often created so researchers can get an overview of what is in the collection and which parts of the collection they will need to consult for their research. Because archives contain unique materials, collections are not described at item-level meaning it is up to the archivist to provide good enough access points so that the researchers can tell what is in the collection.

Which brings us to another important point, the archivist(s) at an institution are the only ones (usually) who actually know what is all in the archives because of the impossibility of item-level cataloging. This means the archivist is very important if you are doing research and a store of institutional memory in his/her own right. (It also means that you should really be nice to the archivist as a researcher because they can seriously help or hinder your research. For examples, check out Archives Stories ed. Burton.) The archivist, to be good at his/her job, also needs to have working knowledge of institutional and local history, at the very least, to help researchers and contextualize the collections. Because archives are often one-person shops, or very under-staffed, the archivist is probably also the grant writer, outreach coordinator, records manager, and exhibit coordinator for the archives.

Archives, in my opinion, shouldn’t be considered a luxury, but a necessity for every organization. Not only are they repositories for institutional memory (and great sources of material for publicity and exhibits when institutional anniversaries come around), but also important for retaining legally important documents for their organization/institution. Archives can also help build community identity and memory. They can be important historical resources for civil rights movements, for social justice. (See any of the work by Verne Harris or Randall C. Jimerson for examples.) Archives are not just something you throw in the corner in a dusty and rusting filing cabinet, they are centers of historical documents, places of power (see work of Michel Foucault, Terry Cook or Joan Schwartz), and a resource that keeps us from forgetting and holds people and institutions accountable for past actions. If more people understood the importance of archives, perhaps there would be more jobs for archivists and more funding for archives. (Wishful thinking, probably, based on the problems libraries are currently facing. But without understanding, I don’t think archivists have a fighting chance in these lean budget years.)

So all I’m really saying is don’t disregard the work of the archivist in the same way as many stereotypically disregard the work of the librarian. I know a lot of librarians that are appreciative and understanding of archivists and vice versa, but I also get far too many comments about how work in the archives shouldn’t be a priority and that professionally trained and educated archivists aren’t needed that I felt I needed to set the record straight. As always, I’m happy to provide heaps more information about archivists’ work and debates in the field if anyone wants it.

So go forth now armed with more knowledge and give the archivists a break. We’re working just as hard as the librarians and are professionals too. Saying hi, bringing cookies (as long as they stay outside of the archives), and hugs are almost always welcome too.

Now on to the technology good stuff:

You know how popular “working on the cloud” is now, right? Well, did you ever think to ask How Secure is Your Cloud Data? Check out the post and get informed, then share the information with your friends and library users.

For something fun and helpful, check out the Idiom Dictionary. This would be great to share with people learning English because some English idioms are just kind of crazy.

Oh, and not because it is in any way archival, but because it looks cool, check out turning paperbacks into hardbacks. If you want to make the project more archival, check out the comments–they are fantastic!

And, because it is Friday, have fun watching Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory explain how to play Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock:

Have a wonderful Friday and a lovely weekend full of relaxation, reading, and fun.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. martin smith permalink
    August 20, 2010 8:58 am

    Great article and nice blog

    If you require any information on paperless systems and also any social, technical and cultural aspects and have a spare minute take a look at my blog.

    great collection of TBBT vids

    https://spapaperlessproject.wordpress.com

  2. litbrarian permalink
    August 24, 2010 9:50 am

    Most. Tame. Rant. Ever.

    But definitely something more people need to keep in mind.

    • dwakimoto permalink*
      August 24, 2010 11:41 am

      Most people tune out rants so it’s best to be polite when pointing out misconceptions that annoy archivists to no end.

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