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.
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!