Sunday, March 3, 2013

Working in Archives

Finding similarities, understanding differences . . .

I have been working as a full-time archivist for just a little over a year and a half now. All my days are so full, and there's definitely less time for blogging, but I am going to try to come back here more often. You see, I still believe there is more in common than not between museum collections management and managing archival holdings. But there are differences, and I am learning about them every day.

As an archivist, I:

  • preserve and present cultural and institutional material regarding a site and specific subjects. 
  • work directly with donors and depositors of materials to ensure I have all the details on what they want to donate or transfer to the archives.
  • enter our holdings' details into a database, using a specific set of standards.  
  • diligently digitize materials - archival materials work very well online, and digitizing them makes our holdings so much more accessible.
  • provide access to researchers and stakeholders who want information or details on what is available in our archives.
  • demonstrate an understanding of our holdings through interpretive and social opportunities, where appropriate and requested.

These fundamentals are not much different than what I would do working with a museum collection. And I have to say I really love it in the same way when I am able to make a personal connection between an individual and the material I care for. It truly makes my day to answer someone's research question/provide the best photo/ find the document they've been looking for.

Now what am I learning about working in archives? LOTS!

The archives world:

  • is, in Canada at least, undergoing a transformation that is challenging and upsetting archivists. The cutbacks at Library and Archives Canada and the lack of communication around what is going on in our national repository is, in all honesty, creating fear for the future of the profession.
  • it is important to get your lingo right, and there is a huge sensitivity that if you don't know it, you aren't a 'real' archivist. From what I have seen, this challenge makes for timid professional interactions.
  • is debating over process and product. Archives everywhere are suffering large backlogs -- how do we get through all the stuff? Is sorting, arranging and describing to great detail / the item level even possible? Or is access more important than this: should there just be a general description of material, and make it available to a researcher even if it has not been completely reviewed? This is a huge control issue, especially with the desire to get more materials digitized and online. 
  • has a divide within the profession regarding sharing materials online, and it is something that affects archives more than museum 3-D objects because this IS their holdings they are putting up there. Some institutions are freeing things completely, some put copyright/ownership stamps on their images, and others are still figuring out their strategy. There are those who want it all out there because access to materials is key to survival, and others that say if we give it away, it's gone forever. Both camps have their point: there needs to be balance. This point is especially challenged by social media usage.
So much to learn and understand! And so then what is the bottom line for me right now? I enjoy being challenged as an archivist, and completely embrace needing/wanting to learn more about this profession. 

Stay tuned for more regular updates where I intend to continue to muse about museums as well as analyze archives!

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