Archives Month, Part One: What is an Archivist?

The concept of American Archives month began in 2006, sponsored by the Society of American Archivists – since then, archivists around the country have used the month of October to reach out to their communities and constituents to describe the value of archives and archivists. Today’s post will feature thoughts on the value of archivists; check back later in October for another Archives Month post on the value of archives.

“You’re a what?” This is the typical response I receive when I tell someone that I am an archivist. There was a time in my life when I cheated and replied, “librarian” to the standard: “And-what-do-you-do?” In reality, I am not a librarian, I don’t have a librarian’s skill set, and while many of the functions of our jobs are similar, we do not perform the same job.  Answering “librarian” just felt so much easier, as most people already have some sort of preconceived notion as to what a librarian does. (Caveat: I’m not saying they have the correct notion, librarians!) “Archivist,” on the other hand, is mysterious and perplexing to many. My cousins caught my grandmother telling her hairdresser that I was an archaeologist. (Her defense: “Well, it sounded more interesting.” Thanks, Grandma.) But Grandma’s confusion highlights a good point for me– I need to be able to describe my work to a variety of people, and I need to be more proactive about explaining what it is that I do.  In one of my first classes in grad school, the professor suggested that we think about how we would answer the “career” question to someone sitting next to us on an airplane – someone we did not know anything about, and who did not want a two-hour lecture. You, my audience, are that airplane seat compatriot today.

Processing at the Filson circa 1933

I am an archivist. You are familiar with librarians’ work?  Providing access to books, audio-visual recordings, journals, and other information through in person assistance, online library catalogs, recommended reading lists, etc.? My work entails similar functions, but I usually do not work with items that have duplicates readily available.  I work with mostly one-of-a-kind items – correspondence, photographs, diaries, contracts, voice recordings, digital files - records capturing personal, community, and organizational history. I work to provide access to yesterday’s world for today, and to capture today’s world for tomorrow. I write descriptions of this material so that it can be discovered. Through descriptions, as well as phone calls, emails, and in-person discussions, I provide connections between users and primary source material. I select documents to preserve for the future; I determine whose papers to collect, and what portion of the tidal wave of records created daily is worth preserving for the future. I provide accountability – I document functions, activities, and decision-making to ensure transparency and answerability. I embrace the importance of diversity, and seek to document the broadest range of human experience possible within my institution’s mission. I believe that I have a responsibility to society, and while I serve the needs of my institution, I also keep in mind that the archival record I am preserving is part of the history of our entire society. I believe that I provide an essential service to the public good, and I am proud of my profession.

Happy Archives Month!

Jennie Cole

Jennie Cole is the Manager of Collection Access at The Filson. She has a MLIS with a specialization in Archives from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in History from the University of Louisville. Jennie’s research interests in the Filson’s collections include women’s history, Camp Zachary Taylor, and Speed family of Louisville.

13 comments on “Archives Month, Part One: What is an Archivist?

  1. Amy Jackson

    That’s the clearest description I’ve heard or read yet about what an archivist is – thanks!

    Reply
  2. Kate B.

    Thanks for posting this! I feel like I never fully understood what an archivist does, and I must admit that I kind of lumped archivist in with librarian for lack of understanding. Now I know better!

    Reply
  3. Nina M. Osier

    Thank you for explaining this so well!

    Reply
  4. Karen

    I’ve been struggling with the my service statement I need to prepare for my reappointment dossier and this post, which I found via Nathan Tallman’s post to the Archives listserv, has really helped me. I hope you don’t mind if I try to incorporate some of it into my statement.

    Reply
  5. Melissa McCarthy

    That’s a great description! Would you mind if I borrowed it (with proper attribution, of course!) for training purposes? I do a lot of training for new archivists, mostly volunteers, who have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: What is an Archivist? | Archives of the City of Kingsport

  7. Brianne Wright

    Great description on what an archivist is. I laughed about your grandmother telling people you were an archaeologist because it sounded more interesting. I worked as an archaeologist before I became an archivist, I have to say that I personally find being an archivist more interesting.

    Reply
  8. Jennie Cole

    Thanks to everyone who has commented here. I appreciate the positive feedback. Please feel free to use this in whatever way it will be useful to you. A source that I consulted and found very helpful was the draft copy of “Core Values of Archivists”[available at: http://www2.archivists.org/news/2010/comment-on-draft-values%5D. If you have a few minutes, give that a read-through (and send SAA Council some comments on it as well!).
    Brianne – thanks for validating the exciting nature of the archival profession vs. archaeology. I’m telling Grandma.

    Reply
  9. Kathleen O'Connor

    Jennie:

    Thank you for such a great description.

    I ,too, would like to use it with proper citation for my clients to understand what and why I recommend certain actions. And I have been at this for more than 25 years , its never been easy to explain what I do and why its exciting.

    Kathleen O’Connor, MA CA

    Reply
  10. Deb Schiff

    That’s an excellent description. Thanks so much!

    Reply
  11. Sharron Clemons

    Thank you for explaining this so well!

    Reply
  12. Latoya Bridges

    That’s a great description! Would you mind if I borrowed it (with proper attribution, of course!) for training purposes? I do a lot of training for new archivists, mostly volunteers, who have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.

    Reply
  13. Nona Mills

    Thanks for posting this! I feel like I never fully understood what an archivist does, and I must admit that I kind of lumped archivist in with librarian for lack of understanding. Now I know better!

    Reply

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