An Archivist’s View, Part One

By Bethanie

In the spirit of American Archives Month, we’ve decided to discuss the role of the archivist in a personal fashion.  That being said, a brief introduction is in order.  As you can tell from above, my name is Bethanie.  My presence on Florida Memory up to this point is with the series of blog posts on the Koreshan Collection.  I work at the State Archives as a Project Archivist where my main responsibility is arranging and describing the aforementioned collection.

Each archivist comes to the field in a different way.  Some seek out the profession directly while others happen upon it. On the whole, I identify most with the former rather than the latter method. What follows are my thoughts, opinions, and experiences as an archivist; my metaphorical archival soap-box. 

A portion of the Koreshan Collection

A portion of the Koreshan Collection

So, what is an archivist? Or, more importantly in terms of this post, what does it mean to be one? One of the first bits of advice I was given when I started as a student in an archival education program was the importance of an archivist elevator speech. In other words, a 20 second speech designed to explain and justify my role as an archivist to anyone who asked.  Fast forward two years, and I’m still working on it.  I suppose part of my problem is in my inability to condense my thoughts.  A much easier, though longer, way for me to explain begins with my experience.

I decided I wanted to be an archivist while at my internship for my history degree. I worked in a historical society in Western Pennsylvania where I transcribed correspondence written by a member of an expedition to the North Pole.  I enjoyed learning about the early 20th century through one man’s life in letters.  Needless to say, I was hooked.

Next step: master’s degree.  Fortunately, I lived within an hour of a university where an archives specialization in the Library and Information Science program was offered.  Thus began my archival education.

Theories and best practices, arguments and discussions.  Debates over Sir Hilary Jenkinson and Theodore R. Schellenberg.  Functional analysis vs. Macroappraisal vs. Documentation Strategy vs. countless other approaches to appraisal. Drills on provenance, original order, and a determination to always, always respect des fonds.   I, along with my classmates, spent many months in a theoretical think tank. After a long class of discussing a topic ad nauseum, we’d eventually come to the same question: why?

Enter, experience.  While interning at a university archive and participating in collaborative projects with a local museum, the endless discussions started to make sense. Their relevancy beyond the classroom became apparent as we applied best practice and theory to the task at hand. 

As a project archivist I draw from my education and that of fellow archivists daily.  It’s a constant back-and-forth activity.  There seems to be a divide between a concentration on theory and on the reality of everyday archival operations. I think the truth of the archival profession is somewhere in between. While theory and practice are necessary in the archival sphere, theory requires experience in order to be fully appreciated. Of course, that’s just my point of view!

Stay tuned later this week for my thoughts on the archives profession today!

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