Archivists: What do you most wish people knew about archives?

I’ve got a another new project in the works, scheduled for an early 2015 launch. It will be about archives (of course) and targeted at the general public. I’m working on finalizing the scope and project goals at the moment, and I want to make sure I’m aiming for the right goals and including the right content, so last week I posted on Twitter:

Here are some of the responses I received:

That people know how much work “just scanning a photo” really is.

That archivists aren’t trying to hide interesting sources from researchers; that we WANT them to use the archives!

some don’t get the ‘point’ of what we’re doing, who we are serving, who has archives.

That it’s not all digitised, nor should it be.

Keen to find out about entry-level graduate jobs in archives & where to find them, as well as the transition from library work

That there’s more than meets the eye. Treat archives like an adventure. Adventures take time/effort/risk but are rewarding.

How we get our materials; that our collections grow rather than were given/purchased all at once; that we have contemp. stuff!

I find ppl are shocked when I post pics of tours I’ve been on (IE Recent tour of Hockey Hall of Fame Archives!)

that they are entitled to access the records. And frequently people don’t know how to do that. Or how to ask

That knowing the collection s/t was in doesn’t mean I can find it. Some collections are 300+ boxes! &How finding aids work.

That we can’t catalogue and/or index the contents of everything. Searching takes time and effort.

most archives are publicly owned and are a societal resource

that is pronounced Ar-kiv-ist 🙂 And no, putting a whole bunch of things on the web is not ‘archiving’.

I wish people knew archives are applicable to many disciplines, not just folks interested in “history.” My favorite recent illustration of this is Thomas Piketty’s use of historical financial records to in his econ book “Capital”

Would like to see archivists more involved in, benefitting from popular discussions about archive/archives [example:]

that we don’t just have ‘old stuff’ but are busy swiping history as its made.

that archivists don’t necessarily work in “archives” all the time-can be Inst. Repository,data curation, etc.

Also, we cannot digitise everything, digitisation is rarely preservation, digital preservation is more than storage

How do you decide which new materials to keep, and which to get rid of?


Anything to add? What do you most wish people knew about archives?


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12 thoughts on “Archivists: What do you most wish people knew about archives?”

  1. New comments from Twitter:

    – How to properly pronounce archivist.

    – The innovation and creativity associated with collection dev rather than the custodial archetype

  2. Archivists aren’t usually subject specialists with keen organizational skills. Passion and topical knowledge help of course but sometimes the technical experience trumps everything else.

  3. I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. Doesn’t technical experience include organizational skills? Do you mean organizing materials or skills at working within organizations?

  4. More responses from Twitter:

    – that #Archives are more about investment for the future than revelling in the past

    – Provenance

    – as an archivist collecting private archives: simply, that we exist and may well be interested in their records.

    – that archiving doesn’t come cheap.

    – How much decision-making goes into arrangement and how those decisions are made. What they see is often heavily curated.

    – We want people to access our collections! And we want to help them find materials.No need to apologize when you ask a question

    – You can touch the stuff in them.

  5. That we are (usually) not historians, nor are we wannabe historians. We want to support the work of historians – we don’t want their jobs.

    This may be related to what I think Alex is getting at, too – in most professional settings, archivists are most valuable for our technical expertise (which include organizational skills), not our knowledge of a subject area.

  6. People believe that somewhere in the archives there is a neat dossier on each person. They are surprised that that’s not so and that not all the records go to archives.

    People don’t know that archivists are usually overloaded and underpaid, and that there is a shortage of highly skilled archivists e.g. able to read old manuscripts.

    Archives are often seen as change-hostile. In reality they do amazing things on scarce funding.

  7. That sometimes (but not always!), using archives can be more work than using a library. It’s not always as simple as “find book, look in index, flip to correct page.” But you can get a lot more out of archives, for some questions. Basically, that this is the raw material of history.

    That we’re here to help you with that process!

    That archives are relevant to everyone. That archives are important for human rights.

    That we have reasons for being protective of the records – for making you use a pencil, for not allowing food. We’re not just trying to be mean to you.

    That we don’t mind if you think your reason for being here isn’t earth-shatteringly important. It’s important to you, so we’re happy to help you. No need to apologize!

    I had a student who’d come for a course assignment tell me, “I thought this was going to be really boring, but archives are so cool!” Yes! Archives are cool and we have the best stuff ever!

  8. That the solution to storage space issues is not to microfilm or digitize everything and discard all the originals.

  9. How to use a finding aid. Genealogists especially seem to have a hard time grasping what they are/how to use them/how to find them.

    Also, I wish people thought of archives as the go-to place to find what they need. I recently showed a bunch of genealogists how to use ArchiveGrid and they were astounded that all of these collections and archives existed- they assumed most of what was available could be found through their genealogy databases (FamilySearch, Ancestry, etc.)

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