Reasons for Being an Archivist in the Digital Age

In considering archivists as advocates and the ethical issues of their work we can create a preoccupation with the negative aspects of the profession, especially in discussing such matters with individuals preparing to be archivists or who are in the early stages of their careers. The aim is to identify what we need to fix in the archival community, mainly how to strengthen it so that it’s important societal mission can be carried out. It means understanding that the value of archives is not some set of principles based on a nostalgic longing for what documents used to be like before the dominance of digital systems. What follows is an effort to emphasize a set of positive aspects of archival work. It is a preliminary statement for discussion; there are other reasons that can be added to this set of reasons. An early draft of these reasons was prepared for use in my course on archival access, advocacy, and ethics. Given some of the challenging issues we were dealing with in this course, many of the students perceived my attitude about the archival profession to be a negative one. In this statement I tried to emphasize positive reasons for being an archivist (although some of the students still saw this statement as negative because it differed from their own presuppositions about archival work). There is, for example, a growing debate about the rationale for archives as tools for social justice and community memory (See, for example, Wendy M. Duff, Andrew Flynn, Karen Emily Suuramm, and David A. Wallace, “”Social Justice Impact of Archives: A Preliminary Investigation, “Archival Science 13 [2013]: 317-348 and Michelle Caswell, “On Archival Pluralism: What Religious Pluralism (and Its Critics) Can Teach Us About Archives,” Archival Science 13 [2013]: 273-292).

Essential Roles. Records are essential for institutions, governments, historical sites, and cultural organizations to function, be accountable, remember, and maintain their activities, knowledge, and places in society. This is the essence of the most important role for archives and archivists, and it is a role newspapers, courts, government tribunals, truth commissions, fiction writers, historians, and other entities and individuals remind us about daily. Archivists ought to stand ready to be interpreters to society about these messages, both sublime and transparent, but archivists should realize that, with or without them, messages about the significance of records are going out in a regular fashion. It is difficult not to read a newspaper, news magazine, or news blog without encountering some story that affirms the importance of records. Sometimes it is difficult to discern the particular role of archivists or the attributes of archival sources, but the opportunity regularly presents itself for archivists and related professionals to step in and explain what these are about.

Societal Mooring. Archival records are critical for enabling individuals and their families to locate themselves in a place (real and virtual), time, and culture that are all rapidly changing. Our digital, networked era has loosened our anchor in any one of these critical aspects of our culture. Cyberspace is not a space or place, even if lawyers have had to create it as a means to deal with legal issues. Such records provide both comfort and discomfort as they position us into the realities of the world. Real records reflect real events ad circumstances, connecting us to a history full of horrors, tragedies, surprises, greatness, happiness, and humor. Records can make us feel both good and bad about ourselves, offering us, with some effort, a glimpse into the truth of our past. The cacophony of voices we hear both literally (from movies, audio recordings, and oral traditions) and figuratively (from letters, diaries, receipts, and other textual documents) can be confusing, but, if listened to carefully, also can be illuminating. Archivists have the responsibility to build portals to these records and, in many cases, to interpret them for society. Archivists certainly have the responsibility to educate researchers, the public, students, and other professionals about the nature, uses, and importance of archival materials.

Community Foundation. Archival records are the building stones of community and communities are the foundation of cultures and societies. By community we mean everything from neighborhoods to professional groups, from indigenous populations to networked groups. We cannot understand ourselves or our worlds without archival records. Without archives, communities cannot exist. Archivists have had a long-term focus on communities, and they have recently sharpened the focus in new ways. Now, many archivists are working with communities to assist them to establish new kinds of independent community archives (rather than seeking to sweep up community-related records into their archives). While we recognize the many different forms communities can assume, archivists are far more tolerant of the definitions and methodologies and more committed to connecting with those who constitute the particular community. Some archivists have embraced the idea of citizen archivists, seeking to train and mentor non-professionals to care for their individual documents, without necessarily, except as a last resort, taking physical custody of them. Archivists have to develop new ways of supporting the diversity of communities in our society (For a recent collection of essays concerning new ideas about community archives, see Jeannette Bastian and Ben Alexander, eds., Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory [London: Facet Publishing, 2009]).

Changing Archival Documents. The nature of the archival record, or at least how we perceive it, is changing in profound and complex ways. It is both virtual and physical, fixed and mutable, visual and audio-visual, and artifactual and spiritual. Some archival sources are oral traditions, while some are ancient artifacts, and others flicker on screens. The broadening of the definition of the record has paved the way for more interdisciplinary thinking and work, leading to a productive harvesting of ideas about documents from many different fields. In past years archivists have often fussed and stressed about whether they could freeze and preserve in usable ways these new documentary forms. Now they seem to be more intellectually engaged in such work and its possibilities. Yes, archival work can be both intellectually engaging and fun, (although perhaps not as much fun as fondling ancient paper documents) with the added benefit that nearly any archivist at any level can make observations leading to contributions to our understanding of what makes a record archival. Positioned on the Internet, archivists also can present archival documents in new and engaging ways, from producing teaching modules about the nature of archival sources to directly making available a variety of documents.

Stories and Storytelling. Although not always emphasized by archivists, archives are stories, some powerful, others quiet and simple, and some more controversial and especially revealing. Being able to read and learning to present these stories can be a great joy, especially as doing this stretches archivists to rethink everything they have been doing (such as preparing finding aids and building Web sites). We need to work harder to allow the stories to escape into space. Just a generation or two ago, archivists struggled to inform researchers and the public about what they held and what they were doing; now they can convey both breadth and depth about archival work and the potential uses of their records, in ways and with an ease unimagined not very long ago. Archivists have been working to advocate more effectively for their mission and work to the general public and policymakers, but all along it is the naked stories that could make this happen. In the archivists’ zeal to be professional or scientific (or, at least, consistent), they have lost sight of the entertaining and enlightening stories (and so has, therefore, the public, researchers, and policymakers — all of whom would benefit from the stories). But just as oral narratives were the precursor of archival sources, today these narratives provide a rich potential for new archival work and advocacy.

Analog, Digital, and the Future Possibilities of Archives. The increasing shift from analog to digital sources poses many profound and engaging challenges. How do we deal with the ample supply of legacy systems, while coping with the digitally born systems? What new opportunities will archivists have in working with the powerful digital records and information systems? All of these are exciting and interesting prospects for archivists and archival work. For at least twenty years, archivists (some, at least) have thought that the new digital systems, rather than being dangerous, will allow for the full-fledged expression of archival expressions and principles (A pioneering example is David Bearman, Electronic Evidence: Strategies for Managing Records in Contemporary Organizations [Pittsburgh Archives and Museum Informatics, 1994]). We should be able to build systems whereby we identify and capture records possessing archival value from the beginning point of creation, fulfilling in practical ways what the records continuum model suggests (a better model than that of the venerable life-cycle) (See Gillian Oliver and Florella Foscarini, Records Management and Information Culture: Tackling the People Problem [London, Facet Publishing, 2014]). But we need other models and, more importantly, more outlets for creativity, experimentation, and collaboration for building practical approaches to managing the contemporary world of Big Data. Rather than searching for pat answers and easy formulae, archivists can be laboring on interesting challenges, profound problems, and stimulating issues. It is an exciting time to be an archivist.

The Power of Records. Studies, from both within and from outside the profession, has displayed the importance of power, political and otherwise, in the creation, use, and maintenance of records over the preceding centuries down to the present (Here are some examples: Jeannette Bastian, Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost its Archives and Found its History [Westport: Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited, 2003]; Richard J. Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial []New York: Basic Books, 2001; Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice [Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009]; Estelle T. Lau, Paper Families: Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion [Durham: Duke University Press, 2006]; Kirsten Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala [Durham: Duke University Press, 2014]). While these displays of power are informative for understanding the nature of record keeping, they are also valuable for helping us comprehend how non-archivists view us and, sometimes, how archivists debate among themselves. Historians, political scientists, social scientists, cultural studies experts, literary scholars, and others have pulled back the layers of recordkeeping systems to expose the motivations and necessities of records systems. While some have disparaged the often heavy philosophical language of many of these kinds of studies, feeling that they have first to master jargon not always necessary for their work, many have utilized these other disciplinary approaches as a stepping stone to new ways of considering archives and archivists. Nearly any critical analysis of documents unlocks the potential for archivists to re-examine what they are doing in their repositories and to make contributions to our knowledge of archives. From studying the reasons evil and totalitarian regimes often create elaborate records systems to the manner in which some regimes eradicate evidence related to certain elements of society, the power invested in records and their control resonates clearly and profoundly.

Archival Knowledge. Building archival knowledge is both necessary and a wide-open playing field. Whereas people entering the field just several decades ago had only a few basic manuals, several journals, and a scattered research and practice literature, today they can draw on a much richer literature. Yet, it is also true that this literature is immature and fragmentary, at least in comparison to other information fields. As such, archivists, whether practitioners or academics, whether pragmatists or theorists, all have an opportunity to make important contributions to archival knowledge. In fact, one might say that archivists in the trenches have the best opportunity to make such contributions because they see and experience daily how records move into the archives and how researchers then use these records (if they use them). There is no more important responsibility for archival professionals, as a robust and strengthening knowledge is essential to the health of the profession and its ability to cope with and solve new and emerging challenges. An archivist must be in command of the field’s knowledge and in order to ensure a strong and relevant knowledge he or she must be contributing to its growth and use.

Fundamental to Humanity. Writing and the creation of documents is a fundamental, human activity, not as essential as breathing or eating, but pretty close. As such, one might argue that no matter how badly archivists might do in proclaiming the importance of archives, they cannot ever screw it up so badly that the public will dismiss entirely the archival enterprise. Archivists need to let the importance of archival records shine through, essentially let them speak for themselves. The idea that archives and archival work is some kind of mysterious, arcane entity needs to be dismissed and archivists need to embrace the basic societal importance of records as a basic human activity. While those who become archivists often testify to the difficulty they had in discovering archives as a form of reliable or useful work, the truth of the matter is that records and recordkeeping extend back to the beginning of history. Archivists are part of an ancient and honorable vocation, and they should reflect this in all that they do.

The Necessity of Being Creative. Because archivists are responsible for documents essential for maintaining societal memory and order, they need to pursue their mission and mandate in as creative a manner as they can. Here is a useful definition of creativity by Howard Gardner: “The creative individual is a person who regularly solves problems, fashions products, or defines new questions in a domain in a way that is initially considered novel but that ultimately becomes accepted in a particular cultural setting” (Howard Gardner, Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi [New York: Basic Books, 1993], 35). Does this require a new image? Mostly it necessitates archivists being creative problem-solvers, and this requires them to have a firm grasp of understanding both archival knowledge and their mission. What is commonly called thinking outside of the box can be stimulating and fun. For students, it can be good practice for them for first professional positions. More importantly, being creative is a way to be engaged with all dimensions of the field.




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