What’s an Archivist, Anyway? and Other Thoughts

Hey folks. My name is Perri and I am a 3rd year HiLS student. My interests in history have carried over to archives, and as a result, I’d like to work in an archive that has Spanish-language or human rights-related collections (or maybe both, if I’m lucky!) Currently I work in Special Collections on campus, and for the National Park Service.

In my spare time, I like to… ha! Just kidding, I live in grad school now.

I sometimes feel that the most I’ve gained from my time in grad school is a sense of how monumental the task of an archivist is. Combined with the oft-heard “so what is an archivist, anyway?,” it can leave emerging professionals like ourselves wondering how we can ever *really* make a difference. But what I have also learned is that having that mindset is problematic to begin with. Owens addresses it well in his 12th point: “Highly technical definitions of digital preservation are complicit in silencing the past.” Along that same vein… thinking that I, with my exclusive archival training and education, have to be the one to do all of the “saving,” is a problem from the get-go.

The key, I think, is for us to keep an open mind about not only our role, but the role of others in preservation. Just as in a physical archive, if patrons continue to feel themselves excluded from the process of preserving history, they will take little care to aid our jobs as professionals. Those of us who do have a background in archives can’t think of ourselves as gatekeepers, but rather focus our efforts on diversifying and expanding the idea of who gets to be “in charge” of preserving history. Bertram Lyons’ article does a great job of capturing this idea, encouraging an expanded view of what can and should be documented and preserved in the first place.

All that being said, I think my two biggest takeaways from this week’s readings are that a) technologies change too fast for archivists alone to keep up, and b) doing something about preservation is (mostly) always better than doing nothing. It certainly seems like there are many people thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of digital preservation… just the fact that we’re taking a class specifically dedicated to it makes me think that talk of a “digital dark age” is just a tad bit dramatic.

3 Replies to “What’s an Archivist, Anyway? and Other Thoughts”

  1. Hi Perri!

    What an interesting proposition — I had never considered the roles of those outside the world of archivists as having a role in digital preservation. How do you see this working? Is it in conjunction with archivists that those within their organizations preserve their digital materials or is it to train/provide resources to those without archivists or through volunteers/crowdsourcing for smaller institutions?

    In any of these scenarios, a complete digital dark age seems like only a far-fetched nightmare rather than a foregone conclusion.

  2. Hey Perri,
    That 12th axiom from Owens resonated with me as well. I definitely get pulled into a sort of anxious, circular thinking about how I’m going to make an impact in my career and somehow stand out in an archive or museum. But that, of course, is not the true point of the work that we do. And like Owens writes, overuse of technical jargon and requirements only obscures and dissuades people who are not “experts” to access collections or get involved. I agree that keeping an open mind is key 🙂

  3. “In my spare time, I like to… ha! Just kidding, I live in grad school now.” Same here, glad I’m not the only one!

    Perri, I like when you said, “Thinking that I, with my exclusive archival training and education, have to be the one to do all of the ‘saving,’ is a problem from the get-go.” You argue that it is important for archivists to partner with people outside the profession for help preserving the past. In saying this, I appreciate that you also suggest that as archivists we need to be mindful of not adopting an elitist attitude.

    It seems like archival jobs are becoming more and more exclusive. There are more applicants than there are jobs, and sometimes its not even enough to have a Masters degree (or two). Most job postings also expect experience, which often takes the form of unpaid or poorly paid internships, making entry into the field even more difficult, especially for people without financial support. I’m not sure what the solution is to this problem, but I think it’s important to make sure that the archives profession becomes more open and diverse, and that we guard ourselves against becoming ensconced in our ivory towers.

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