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Librarian ≠ Archivist

April 20, 2011

Happy Wednesday! I hope you are having a good day. As you read this post, hopefully I will be happily ensconced in the archives at University of California, Santa Cruz doing research. (That is, of course, if Highway 17 hasn’t been closed because of an accident caused by someone driving ridiculously, but I digress.) I love researching in archives. Well, as readers of this blog know, I just love archives in general. Which is why, today, I want to once again re-emphasize that while complementary, libraries are not archives and librarians are not archivists.

So why have I decided to talk about archivists, again? Well, I was reading this article by Michael Stephens, Stuck in the Past. Overall, it is a fantastic article. We would expect nothing less from Michael Stephens and I agree with the need to adapt and evolve in our roles as librarians. However, there was one line that caught my eye and reinforced the fact that even some of the most brilliant and technically advanced librarians have no clue about the differences between librarians and archivists.

Stephens wrote:

Archives and rare books collections will always need librarians to curate and preserve…

To which I say, while I adore librarians, please get them out of my archives. Archives need trained archivists, not librarians. There are fundamental differences between libraries and archives that make it necessary to have educated and trained archivists overseeing archives. We need their expertise in the archives in order to have archives that are organized, respect provenance and are of value to researchers. Archivists are important, not only in managing physical archives, but in curating digital archives as well.

You may be familiar with statement used in many geometry classes: All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. A similar, albeit not as cut-and-dried statement about archivists and librarians can be made: (almost) all archivists are librarians, but not all librarians are archivists. Many archival science programs are now located in library science schools and thus many trained archivists also have taken the required library science courses to get their MLS or MLIS. So your local archivist most likely knows the basics of library science in addition to being well-versed in archival science.

However, in my experience, the reverse isn’t true. Many librarians have never taken an archival science course and don’t understand the profound differences between the two professions. While each is part of the larger field of “information science,” archival science is not equivalent to library science. I don’t think one is better than the other, but I do think it is foolhardy to try to say they are the same thing or that the archives is a specialty of library science. Archival science and the national society in the United States grew out of the field of history and the American Historical Society, not out of ALA and library schools.

So please, all I’m asking is to stop equating librarians with archivists. It is a disservice to both professions and both disciplines. Each has a lot to offer and we need to acknowledge the differences between the two. Just as librarians don’t just shelve books all day, archivists don’t just put things in boxes. Let’s work together to conquer the information world, not try to subsume the archives under the library.

That’s just my two-cents as someone who has been trained as both a librarian and an archivist and works professionally as both. Both sides are wonderful, complicated, and at times frustrating, but they are in no way the same. So please, in our professional discourse at least, let’s try to get it right on this count.

I’m off my soapbox now and will return later this week with some technology tips and maybe even some tidbits from my research trip. If you have a different view of archivists and librarians, please tell me in the comments. I always like a good discussion. Allons-y!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2011 9:13 am

    A very good point and one I didn’t realize until late into my MLIS degree (oh, how many silly things I must have said). I took a bunch of students on a tour of the Nixon Presidential Archives a couple weeks ago and we spent a full hour talking about the differences between archivists and librarians. The Supervisory Archivist there made the same comment as you: “while I adore librarians, we don’t want them messing around in our archives.” He mentioned how they were still recovering from one librarian’s attempt to “organize” the archives a decade before. =)

    • dwakimoto permalink*
      April 20, 2011 9:49 am

      Thanks, John! I think we’ve all said a lot of silly things on the way to becoming informed librarians and archivists. Good on you for talking with students about the differences between the two professions! 🙂 Have a great rest of your day.

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