Monday, June 22, 2009

Let's Talk About Archives...

What are Archives?

When I think of archives, images of dark lighting, dusty manuscripts and library basements come to mind. This is a limited and often untrue picture of the profession. Incidentally, while researching for this blog post I visited the archives of my local library and they were located on the top floor and had excellent lighting. To the outside observer what differentiates an archivist from any other library professional may not be clear. On the surface while a librarian handles published resources ie. books, journals, or magazines, an archivist deals primarily in unpublished manuscripts and records. This information includes, handwritten documents, electronic documents, still photographs, films, government records, census information, and personal records/histories. The mission of archivists is defined as “saving the permanently valuable records of individuals and groups, then organizing those records in a systematic and coherent way, and finally ( and most importantly )to making those records and the information they contain available to users. “ (O' Toole & Cox, 2006) This is definition highlights one of the central aspects of the profession. Archivists seek to identify, categorize and preserve records that have long term value. It is not simply holding on old documents for preservation’s sake but in order to store information that is deemed to immediate or long term usefulness.

What Does an Archivist Do?

The duties of an archivist can be divided in to three areas. The first area begins with the identification, selection and preservation of the records. The archivist must ascertain what a record is, who or what is it about, when was it created etc. The archivist must then make the decision whether the record contains information that should be preserved. This decision is based on the usefulness of the information and not on the nature of the content. The archivist must then acquire the information and aid in the transfer of the records. Archivists are also concerned with the preserving of the physical integrity of the records. This includes the repairs and maintenance of the records. The second area is concerned with the organization of the records. The archivist must order the documents in ways that make intellectual and physical sense. The nature of this organization will be specific to the collection. For example, government archives are often ordered according to departments and or specific divisions. Corporate archives may be ordered according financial quarters. Archivists must be clear in their descriptions of the order used so that information can be accessed easily. This leads in the third area of the profession, reference. Archivists must serve as guide to the content stored in the collection. Often times requests for information will be sent to the archives and retrieved by the archivist personally. Archivists must also set and enforce any restrictions to the access to the collection. Most collections are non-circulating and some do not allow the public to handle the materials to ensure the safety of the records. Archivists also take an active role in educating the public in what the collection has to offer. This can take the form of exhibits or outreach programs that will inform the public about the resources that are available to them.

What Are the Issues Facing Archivists Today?

Archivists are facing a number of the same issues that other library professionals are dealing with today. One of the largest issues is the growth of technology and the expansion of the internet. There are several aspects of this issue for archivists. One aspect is that there is a growth in the amount of records being created. In the past as literacy began spreading throughout society there was an increase in the number of records being created. There has been another large increase in records being created as the internet becomes more pervasive. There is simply more people putting more information out on the web. The archivist must sift through this information and make discernments about what content will have long term usefulness. There is also an issue of storage and preservation. As the internet and technology is expanding and changing everyday it can be hard to determine what the best way to store the information is. The question is raised whether it is important to save the medium itself or if it is merely the content that needs to be saved. Storage is also an issue. Storage is limited for a number of mediums such email. Information is deleted and overwritten routinely to save space. This makes it hard to keep complete collections. There is also an issue of timing. The internet has sped everything up. People expect to able to access information quickly and easily and this has not always been the pace that archivists have been accustomed to. In the past people mailed in their requests to the archives and there was an understanding the process took time. Now people are looking to email, IM or fax in their request and often do not understand when their requests are not quickly addressed. Archivists must strive to make their information more accessible to the public and find ways to keep pace with the current times.

There are also issues of security. Since 9/11 there is has been greater concern about what information can be accessed by the public. Government archives are losing some records as they become classified information. There is also concern that people can access information that may be located in archives that is not located elsewhere, that is dangerous. There are blue prints for old buildings, or chemical components for explosives that may be located the archives that have been excluded from more up to date records. People believe that this information may be used to plan an attack. There have been the attempts under the Patriot Act to access data on the requests for archived information. Archivists must tackle the same issues of intellectual freedom that other library professionals are face with.

Why Are Archives Important?

Why is it important to save this information and organize it for use? Most of it is just mundane, day to day info. Why should we be concerned about the minutes of a corporation or the diary of local mayor? This information is important because it gives intimate insight into creators of these records. Corporate archives will allow someone to track the struggles and achievements of the company over time. Government archives describe how policies were made and what issues were important to the people making those decisions. Personal histories help us create a collective memory of events and time periods. Archivists look over all this information and pick out the information that will be useful for us in the future. They are able to order it all in a way that users can access it effectively and efficiently.

Gracey, K. (2006). Reviews - Preserving Digital Materials . The American Archives , v.69 no.2.
O' Toole, J. M., & Cox, R. J. (2006). Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists.
Supple, S. (2007). Managing and Archiving Records in the Digital Era: Changing Professional Orientations. The American Archivist , v. 70 no.2.


Kate Van Auken said...

You bring up a great point about not only archiving physical materials, but virtual ones as well. I can't even fathom how to go about archiving web I got on the web and did a few quick searches. I found a blog at from May 2005 that talks about archiving websites. There is also on link on the blog that you can go to and plug in a website address. It will pull up in a very nice and neat order each time the website was updated. This blog also explains how to exclude your website from being crawled.

Holly said...

Thank you for this post- I really had no idea what an archivist did. I find the amount of work they are acquiring due to the rise of the Internet fascinating. It will be interesting to see how that changes the scope of their work.

anna block said...

This was a great description of the duties of archivists and the issues they face. One thing that you mentioned that is a huge aspect of the job is decision making. When I began working in the archives of our local history dept. as an intern I was surprised by how many decisions there were to make - from the relevence of an item, to how to describe it, to how to store it, to how to preserve it for as long as possible - the archivist is faced with so many decisions each day, and even as an intern working in the collections I had to develop this skill. Honestly it is exhilerating to be a part of the process. I love the inspiring description of archivists Michael gave at the end of lecture 13. In the GR local history dept. we always said that opening each new box felt like Christmas!

Unknown said...

I believe the archival librarian is becoming a much more prevalent position in the library world, particularly where digital archiving is concerned. I'm glad of this, not only because digital archiving is helping preserve and provide access to more people, but also because it brings the role of archiver to the forefront.

Lisa Rickey said...

Excellent entry! I'm glad you mentioned how archivists' jobs are changing with all the new types of records.
I'm an archivist myself, and I had to laugh when I read the first sentence about the dark, dusty, basement archives. Archives should have fluorescent lights (low heat) with UV filters (UV is damaging to paper & photos), and the dust should be kept to a minimum! I shudder thinking about things being stored in potentially damp basements, with water pipes and possibly rodents about! Eek!

Geetha Baddigam said...

Traditionally archives was meant to save valuable documents for posterity, however there were made available only for the visitors who visited the archives facilities. Because of the inherit value of these archives and with onset of internet online, now archives can be accessible globally.