Archives have a truly remarkable way of storytelling. They exist in the space between science and literature by taking a rigorous approach to selecting and preserving materials that can be combined to paint a picture of a specific person, event, or period of time. Archives are uniquely poised to play a primary role in this process.
Like many bibliophiles, I had a vision of an archive as a room filled with endless gray boxes full of immense treasures that were just waiting to be discovered. I had some experience with archives, enough to understand the challenge of the immense backlog of materials and the endless hunt for climate-controlled “storage space.” I have also had my fair share of intimidating experiences in archives, such as the time my use of a post-it was met with a mini-lecture in which I was effectively asked why I hated books and wanted to destroy them. Put simply, the archives are a place where the stereotype of the “stodgy librarian” is alive and well.
As I progressed through the course, my vision of an archive was challenged. I began to think of the archive as a dynamic collection of materials designed to tell that story. It became clear that the collection could be a set of documents that were born digital, or photos in both print and digital form. The collection could tell the story of a historic event – or they could be a contemporary group of items that were just recently created. The archivist role became a caretaker and facilitator more than a keeper. Items in the collection were cared for so that future researchers could find and interpret the materials. It became clear that a complete record was not necessarily required for every single item. The archivist needed to have a basic knowledge of the entire collection, but they did not need to be able to say “Oh, I have just the piece of paper that will answer that specific question – let me grab that for you.” It is OK if the researchers look through a box of materials that may or may not be fully characterized in the metadata. Also, while the archivist understood the collection, its contents and context, they do not make any “judgement calls” or exegesis. Archivists can tell the story, but it is up to researchers to say what that story means.
It has become clear that the work of an archivist is one of a balancing act. They must understand and accommodate a variety of sometimes competing interests. While the goal is to preserve materials for generations to come, this must be balanced with opening access and inviting exploration. Archivists need to work and understand digital mechanisms and standards, they must not necessarily believe “digital” is a panacea. Archivists have one foot in the stories of yesterday, and one foot in the research needs of tomorrow.
In preparation for a potential career within archives, I determined that it would be important to have a very robust toolbox! I would need to know which organizations had which types of collections and I should focus on the subject area and expertise of the individuals in my organization. To be effective, I would need to understand the mission of the library, the audience I was serving, and the broader intellectual community surrounding that focused group. I would want to be able to help a researcher find other archives that might have the types of items they needed (if they weren’t in my collection). I would want to be able to refer potential donors to other libraries who could handle new material appropriately (if I wasn’t able to do so). I would want to be able to direct a researcher to the appropriate area within my collection, including the “non-obvious” connections to other areas of the collection.
One of the paramount characteristics of an effective archive is transparency. This means being clear about what you will and will not accept. It also means making the “right amount” of information available to researchers who might want to use the collection (i.e. perhaps a full record is not always necessary). Transparency also means being ethical about the materials that you initially accepted, but determined they are not appropriate for full accession. Transparency also means being up front with the researchers, and letting them know what is and is not acceptable. This includes physical access, electronic access, and use of materials.
I found the concept of organization and “original order” particularly interesting (and somewhat challenging). I naturally tend to take a collection of materials, and begin to shuffle them around to make them more organized. For example, I naturally classified the materials in the Ted Carlson papers into series such as letters to parents, letters to others, professional activities, military activities and other. If I had the physical collection, I would have naturally started to re-arrange the items. However, you loose an incredibly valuable piece of provenance when materials are “organized.” Additionally, when I begin to re-organize materials, I begin to interpret the items. I impose my own sense of importance and order on items that were originally ordered by the creator.
Throughout my journey this term, my mind referred back to the archive tour. I visited an archive that I had been curious about, but never visited. My tour guide walked me through the public physical space, then sat me down and told me the story before showing me the processing area. I found myself intrigued by the tale – both about the subject and formation of the archive. Interestingly, at one point in the archive’s history, a researcher imposed their own order on a variety of materials. This complicated the final characterization of the collection and caused confusion. The current archivist was passionate about the story. He saw how the historic pieces fit together and his goal was to make the archives more broadly available. He could envision enhanced interpretation of the materials. Based on his invitation, I signed up to receive regular updates from the archives. I really think the Shermann Library & Gardens serves as a model of what could be accomplished by an archivist who understands the underlying philosophy and amazing potential of library archives. It inspired me to connect with archives and seek out opportunities to help make archives the dynamic heart of an organization or community.