Introduction to Archives

Archive material is a fabulous starting point – individual documents are like signposted roads, heading to a variety of intriguing possibilities.
― Sara Sheridan


Let’s take a few minutes to think back over the last 24 hours. Did you write any notes? Send any emails? Take any photos? Sign any documents? Create any artistic doodles or drawings? Document any official records of a work task or personal achievement?

Imagine if a researcher, 100 years from now, was interested in understanding more about you. They would potentially be interested in your answers to each of these questions and more. They would use this information to recreate your life for the last 24 hours. A library archivist works through the answers to these types of questions and works to preserve the items that would paint a picture. Think of an archivist as an academic professional who is working to recreate a picture of a specific time, place, person or project. They use physical and digital items to characterize something specific. The goal is not to interpret these items and activities – merely to document them!

In practical terms, this means an archivist identifies the items that would be most effective at painting a picture. They then work to completely describe each item (or group of items) that is selected for saving long-term. All the while, the archivist is constantly working to make sure the picture and all of its parts, are available for decades to come. This could mean working in climate controlled spaces, or protecting the physical embodiment of the item. When you really think about it, that introduces some complexity. One hundred years ago, we didn’t even have computers. Now, we all think about saving things long term as making them digital. Speaking of which, what exactly does digital mean? At one point in time, the general public used a tool called WordPerfect. Now, that software is a long-distant memory. The archivist uses best practices to ensure that items created today, with today’s tools and techniques, will still be accessible years from now. Each piece of the painting is important – and each piece has to be processed and prepared for long term access and use.

Of course, the archivist doesn’t want to hoard the picture they’re painting. The goal is to make the picture interesting, findable, and understandable. Let’s take each one of those individually. The collection of items was pulled together because they tell a story. That story could be about an individual’s life (i.e. personal papers), a specific project (i.e. medical research), a company (i.e. records, output, and marketing for an organization), or a time (i.e. the turn of the century). That story is the glue that holds the collection together – and it’s the key to making the archive interesting! Archivists tell that story, and they use the archives to engage others with the story.

Archivists also make the collection findable. This could mean a website that Google knows about. Additionally, it will likely involve partnering with other libraries and archives to share information about the particular items an archivist is preserving. It could mean working with the press to get the story out. Perhaps it means hosting events or marketing the story to the general public. Not only does this help a wider audience know about the collection, but it helps the archivist raise funding or collect additional resources to keep the archives running well.

The third goal was to make the picture understandable. For an archivist, this means providing context for an individual piece of the picture. Perhaps there’s a picture of folks enjoying a day on the beach. The archivist can make this picture more understandable by saying when the picture was taken, where it was taken, who was at the beach, and describing how this is a part of the story. Take that same photo, and show it to a conservationist. They will see not only the people in the photo, but the erosion of the coast, the birds flying in the air, and and the basic level of the ocean. Some of the same context is vital, but it is used in different ways by different researchers. In technical terms, this context is called metadata – and it is published on websites and in other systems. The metadata describes not only what the item is, but how it came to be in the archive and the history of ownership or stewardship. All of this context is crafted carefully, so computer systems and individuals can find, read and understand the story.

Archives really exist to tell the stories. The archivist works to make those stories available so that researchers can connect the potential of the future with the lessons and experience of the past. Archivists provide access, make the picture understandable through well-formed context, and helps others find pieces of the picture that tell the story. Each piece has value in its own right, but taken as a whole, the picture presents an irreplaceable resource that the archivist ensures will be available for generations to come.

When you visit the archive, you will begin your exploration of the materials by talking with an archivist. Through the conversation, the archivist looks to identify what you might actually benefit from seeing (i.e. the parts of the picture that would be most fulfilling), and then the archivist works with the archive staff to ensure you view the items. All the while, the archivist and archive staff would work to verify that future researchers could have access to those same items in the same order.

This is really the exciting part, because it’s during this process of viewing the items that you get to see the picture the archivist has created. You’ll probably use the documentation to make interpretations! This is where your input and expertise is invaluable to the archivist. You can share your findings with them. Let them know the additional pieces of the picture that you’ve found. Describe how this picture is a part of your research project, and share your publications with the archivist. This type of information sharing just might help the archivist begin to craft the picture of your life and the work you are completing!

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