An Archivist’s View, Part Two

By Bethanie

Hello, again! Earlier this week I discussed my thoughts and experiences as a student of archives and as an archivist.  This time I’d like to move from past experience to a discussion of the archives profession as I see it today.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to pursue a career in the archival field.  In the midst of economic and budget issues, archives have downsized in order to survive. Today, many archives are run by a single person. These archivists, commonly referred to as lone arrangers, take on all archival responsibilities.  They are responsible for acquisition, appraisal, arrangement, description, preservation and access. The lone arranger advocates both for their repository in order to promote use and to maintain proper security of their archival holdings.  Here at the State Archives of Florida, we’re fortunate to have multiple archivists that work towards these goals.  

R. A. Gray Building, home of the State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee

R. A. Gray Building, home of the State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee

Although staffing is a common concern, the role of the archive within society remains strong.  This is particularly apparent in the continual shift to digital.  Our culture’s increased awareness and participation in the digital sector is changing the process of records creation, storage and long-term access. In this sense, technology serves as a catalyst for constantly evolving archival operations.  Archivists have a commitment to preserve all mediums of recorded and collected information that they accession.  Technological advances constantly challenge the archivist’s ability to adapt to change. New mediums call for new means of preservation.  However, these advances also promote the archive within society through online dissemination and access. Technology connects the archive to a larger community.

I’m constantly reminded of these concepts here at the State Archives of Florida. I believe that Florida Memory is a prime example of the bond between the archive and technology.  Through the digitization and web design efforts of the Florida Memory team, the State Archives brings centuries old documents into the digital age.  The myriad online collections, coupled with the use of educational resources and social media, provide outreach far beyond what was possible pre-internet.

That being said, this shift does not negate the traditional archival collection and access methods. If anything I think it calls for an even more firm foundation within arrangement, description and collection management. The digital age expands our responsibilities as archivists.  Each format expands existing preservation concerns. File migration of born digital records, format and software obsolescence, and digital metadata programs will join the storage and environmental concerns of existing collections.

Now I find myself back at my elevator speech, so here it goes.  Archivists protect the historical and public records of the institution in which they work. These record groups are as varied as the archives that house them where they act as evidence of past events. By following professional guidelines and best practices we ensure their long-term preservation, appropriate arrangement, and availability for future users.  To quote Theodore R. Schellenberg’s The Management of Archives, “Use is the end of all archival effort.”  I agree with Schellenberg.  While we work at all stages, the final goal of an archivist is to provide proper access.  It both justifies and validates our continued existence.

Theodore R. Schellenberg, The Management of Archives, quoted in Mark A. Greene, “The Power of Archives: Archivists’ Values and the Value in the Postmodern Age,” The American Archivist 72 (Spring/Summer 2009): 33.

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!