What do archivists want?

I’ve been working on a more technical post comparing two vehicles for accessing archival materials online, but this question keeps getting in my way. It keeps coming up as I try to understand why individual archivists, archival organizations, or our profession in general isn’t doing . . . whatever it is I think they should be doing. I keep having to remind myself that I am not a typical archivist, but that begs the question what is a typical archivist?

Caveat: Yes, of course, you can’t generalize about all archivists or a typical archivist any more than you can generalize about women or Catholics or people with hazel-colored eyes. People end up in this profession for lots of different reasons. A lot of us don’t even characterize ourselves as being “an archivist” in our A*CENSUS results, just under half (47.4%) characterized their current position as being something other than “an archivist.”

But still, there must be common characteristics that run through our profession. A cynical archivist friend and I were talking about this, and this person’s answer to the question didn’t paint a very encouraging picture of our profession. And I admit, I can see a lot of evidence out there to support that opinion. So, to stave off this cynical view, I decided to open it up to the floor. I believe this may be the first post to be syndicated by ArchivesBlogs, so it will be interesting to see if any new people chime in to respond.

So, let’s break that question down a bit (and, yes, these questions are slanted, but that might actually get people to respond):

  • Who do archivists most want recognition from? Each other? Their employer? The larger cultural heritage community? Society at large?
  • What gives archivists the most personal satisfaction? Helping people find material that is meaningful? Working personally with the material? Sharing their enthusiasm about archival materials with others? Moving up within their organizations?
  • How do archivists measure success? By meeting internal organizational metrics? By processing collections? By serving people? By not taking risks or getting into trouble? Is avoiding a risk more important than achieving success?
  • What are we afraid of? Are we so risk-averse that we will always be two steps behind the rest of the world? As a profession, and as individuals, do we think that this is acceptable (or even desirable)? Is what we want most to be “safe”?

A real world example: I was somewhere recently where an archivist was asking for suggestions for how to publicize a collection of material relating to a somewhat obscure but historically influential 19th-century figure. Someone suggested she add a link to this person’s Wikipedia entry for her collection (a suggestion I brought up in a previous post on this blogs). She wasn’t inclined to do so; Wikipedia made her “nervous because people can change things.” So, the benefit that someone who is looking for information on this figure would derive from finding a link to her collection is outweighed by the (in my opinion) very slight risk that someone would bother to edit the entry for an obscure 19th-century figure? (If that is indeed a possibility.)

So what is more important: what we want, or what we fear? And, I ask again, what do we want?

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3 thoughts on “What do archivists want?”

  1. Pingback: @rchivista
  2. Really good question. Like yourself (whoever you are, mysterious ArchivesNext person), I am not a typical archivist. But this is a question I have actually been asking myself recently. I am an archives school graduate and PhD student. I have also been involved in archives research and teaching but I work in the field as an independent tech consultant, not at an institution processing collections or helping patrons. I actually get most of my job satisfaction from successfully implementing technology to support archival functions. If I am honest, I like technology first, then archival management, then history.

    Therefore I can’t speak for more traditional archivists and what follows is a gross generalization but I would venture to guess that the majority, if they stop to think about it, feel some sort of ethical responsibility to the records themselves, as witnesses or voices from the past. They are motivated by some subconcious urge to impart order on the volume of information which they are preserving. They are driven by this idea that one day their collections will finally be properly organized, if only they could waste less time on the reference desk! Therefore, I think the motivation is more inward that outward. I taught as an adjunct at archives school for six years and I can say quite confidently that almost all people who end up at archives grad school, myself included, have some obsessive compulsive traits, we just need to use our powers for good 🙂

  3. Yes, archivists have been far too timid and too conservative in their work and their role in society. Many have clung to the cultural mission and read conservation as meaning they must be conservative, invisible, impartial, objective, quiet, hidden, and in the stacks. In fact, the increasing scholarship on the meaning of archives and the archive indicates that archivists shape the documentary heritage even in the way they write finding aids. Denying that such shaping occurs doesn’t help them in their work or how they function in society. Put up the finding aids on wikis and let researchers contribute their knowledge to them! Most of all, however, recognize that the role of archives and the power of records resides in their value for evidence, corporate and social memory, accountability, and a host of other factors. To push these roles they need to be more outspoken and more involved in society, not looking back into their stacks or talking only to themselves.

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