Friday, February 20, 2009

What’s Past is Prologue: The Role of Archivists


The role of archivists has always been in flux, responding to the needs of the information world and providing the unique skill sets that librarians, historians, and records managers may understand but do not hold. In his essay, “Dear Mary Jane: Some Reflections on Being an Archivist,” John Fleckner (2000) writes, “Part science, part art, and—when done properly—part showmanship, our ability to quickly understand and evaluate the record—especially when it is old, large, or complex—is a unique facet of our craft” (p. 24). He believes that archivists are colleagues to librarians, historians, and records managers, but are a distinct class unto themselves.

In the second chapter of Understanding Archives & Manuscripts, James O’Toole and Richard Cox discuss how archives were first developed, stemming from historical societies at the end of the eighteenth century, research libraries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the rise of universities, which have employed many archivists. A theme throughout their discussion of the profession is that archives reflect the culture and technology of the times. For instance, historical societies were established as part of the historical manuscripts tradition, which collected public records as well as personal papers. This happened in part because the development of the postal service created growth in correspondence.

In the United States, the archival profession first laid roots in the late 1890s within the American Historical Association (AHA), forming the Conference of Archivists in 1909. In the early 19th century, the fields of history and archives advanced enough that one organization could not serve both. In the mid-thirties, the National Archives and the Society of American Archivists were formed, providing a professional identity to archivists. This was an important vocational moment because archivists were formally differentiating themselves from historians.

The rise of social history, new repositories, and professional associations fueled an influx of archivists in the 1970s. Today, the profession is in transition, as Baby Boomers retire, to be replaced with Generation X and Y. The A*CENSUS, a comprehensive nationwide survey of the profession conducted in 2004, found that the amount of people working in American archives “has roughly tripled [since the 1970s], a direct reflection of this expansion” (Beaumont & Walch, 2004, p. 313).

From the 1970s on, another crucial development of the profession was standardization, which “had always been problematic for archivists because they placed such emphasis on the idea of uniqueness” (O’Toole & Cox, 2006, p. 74). Collection distinctiveness is the point where librarians and archivists differ professionally. Although libraries may house rare or special collections, the majority of their holdings are published monographs, which have copies around the world with similar cataloging. Archivists, however, preserve and protect unique records, without counterparts. Additionally, while archivists deal with records only, librarians deal with many types of material. Archivists are responsible for information within a controlled environment, and librarians routinely handle information that crosses many technological and administrative barriers in the course of its life cycle. Since archival content differs at each repository, archivists must employ some type of standardization or best practices to provide access and give meaning to the collections.

As the technology of the 20th century allowed more records to be kept, there also became the need to distinguish between records managers and archivists. Archivists work with the permanently valuable records of an organization that no longer needs them for business purposes. Archivists make records available to researchers to document the history of the organization as well as the larger society. Records managers work with records no longer needed for everyday use, which may be temporary, awaiting a destruction date in congress with local, state, and federal law, or permanent, awaiting transfer to an archives. Traditionally, records managers do not grant access to these records for research because the organization still has legal control of them, thus controlling access to the records.

Despite the distinct professional identity that archivists hold, the profession is not as well known as similar professions like librarianship. Archivists face complex communication challenges within and outside of their organization. The absence of a standard university degree and a distinct career path affects how others with limited knowledge of the field perceive them. In my experience, I often have to explain what an archivist does to those I encounter. “It’s kind of like a librarian or a curator,” I explain. “I process files.” This, of course, does not convey the enthusiasm, stimulation, and fulfillment I feel as I work with records of enduring value. O’Toole and Cox (2006) sum it up best when they write, “The transition from archival monks to archival missionaries is by no means complete, but archivists have come to realize the importance of sharing the excitement of what they do with those who use archives—or would do if they understood them better” (p. 85).

Works Cited

Beaumont, N. P., & Walch, V. I. (2004). A*Census: Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States. The American Archivist, 69, 291-618.

Fleckner, J. A. (2000). Dear Mary Jane: Some reflections on being an archivist. In R. C. Jimerson (Ed.), American archival studies: Readings in theory and practice (pp. 21-28). Chicago: Society of American Archivists.

O’Toole, J. M., & and Cox, R. J. (2006). Understanding archives & manuscripts . Chicago: Society of American Archivists.

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