For non-archivists: What aspect of archives do you wish you knew more about? What’s a mystery to you?

As noted in the previous post, 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:

Unlike the previous question (aimed at archivists) I didn’t get a lot of responses to this one, so I’m throwing it out there again. Historians, scholars, family history researchers, and all “civilians”! What do you want to know about archives? What should I make sure I cover in my new project?


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9 thoughts on “For non-archivists: What aspect of archives do you wish you knew more about? What’s a mystery to you?”

  1. Who appraises archival materials for insurance purposes? How does condition factor into appraisal? How do archivists go about acquiring new materials? (is it mostly through independent third parties? are there private auctions? is it a little of everything?)

  2. More responses from Twitter:

    – collections processing, sorting, discards, arrangement.

    – Culling and what gets thrown away.

    – Also: how the biographical section of a finding aid is researched and determined.

    – It took me long time to understand how archival catalogues work, which is completely essential to finding anything!

  3. And more from Twitter:

    – Indexing. How is it determined & is bias thought about when labeling for identification. Is there a universal system? (I ask b/c I often don’t pick right key words to look up things so I wondered if that was a problem in other archives.)

  4. Late to the game…

    The owner of our company is asking to start a library for our company. Many are telling me this should be an archive, not a library. The employees will use this as a resource, but I will be curating material for specific divisions of the company (blogs, articles, whitepapers, as well as internal documents).

    Question: What is the best book to read on the subject of archiving best practices and basic set-up?


  5. These are approximate questions from non-archivists I as an archivist have fielded in the past year or so, prompted by my “Ask me anything!” requests. Includes questions fielded by me at work as well as in several volunteer settings, and from academic friends who are too embarrassed to ask anyone else, so there are a number of different audiences included:

    How do you get stuff? Do you buy it? How do things “get into the archives?” This last question assumes, I think, that objects have agency, which they might.

    Do you ever worry about running out of room? What would you do if you ran out of space? This appears to be a concern for those who don’t know about the blessings of offsite storage. A related question involves why some things are onsite and some offsite and how this is determined.

    Are you only interested in “famous”/”important” people? I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately.

    Why do you make these [finding aids]? Sometimes followed by observation that they’re confusing or the questioner could not figure out how to use it, didn’t consult it, etc. The issue of “series” and “sub-series” often provokes bewilderment/feelings of defeat.

    Yes, but where is it? Asked after discovering a catalog record or finding aid, and assuming something is “broken” because the entire collection– or none of the collection — isn’t online. Researcher may have expended a decent amount of time trying to find nonexistent links to nonexistent digitized collection prior to asking question.

    How do you digitize really big things, like maps? As an aside, it is frequently assumed that most of my time is spent scanning when, in actuality, .05 percent of my time involves a scanner. I just made that number up, but I think it’s pretty accurate.

    Why did you digitize this and not that? Very good question!

    “Ephemera.” What does this mean? Other jargon questioned as well. SEE “series.”

    Why didn’t you/aren’t you/won’t you keep everything?

    Open reel tape, floppy and Zip disks, etc.: How to access if in archives? Answer often results in questioner being impressed/awed by archivists’ knowledge of obsolete formats, often formats once beloved by archivist, who then briefly feels ancient/nostalgic. Digital archivist in particular as modern day super hero of sorts.

    Personal archiving. Many, many questions. Lots of underlying anxiety about losing stuff, particularly the digital.

    How do I know which archives to approach about a collection I want to donate? How to differentiate between archives? Why is this collection here and not there?

    What are your qualifications? How do you get to be an archivist? Typically asked because questioner thinks it might be a potential ideal career, not because anyone’s competency is being called into question. Surprised to know that master’s degree is necessary. Sometimes surprised to hear I have no background in history. Surprised to hear I genuinely like people and became an archivist out of a desire to help people, rather than aversion to social contact and preference for inanimate objects.

    And, finally, my favorite:

    How did you find that so quickly? Typically asked in wonder after I find something on WorldCat. I then tell astonished researcher about WorldCat, ArchiveGrid, DPLA, etc. Related to frequent request to help find something very particular that researcher suspects is somewhere out there but cannot be found despite relentless Google searches. “Can you help me find [X]?”

  6. Why does the modern special collections world seem so confusing?

    I’m studying archives as a LIS grad student. My first bit of confusion was a seeming paucity of archival theory about personal papers / private manuscripts (“modern special collections”). The last sentence starts to allude to the confusion a newbie has, starting with the terminology. I suspect clarity and answers are out there but they are learned more in the field than in class. For example…

    I’m trying to place a family member’s papers in a repository (a good portion of which are already in one). The papers are late 20th Century and include a good amount of pop and low-culture themes. Imagine my surprise to find out that rare book dealers are the go-to appraisers & dealers in this field – which in this collection includes lots of punk-rock and hip-hop?

    University libraries accept the papers of prominent people, what are the rules and dynamics of dealing with an individual collector who is only prominent as a collector?

    Is there outreach to cultivate or educate dedicated amateur collectors to help crowd-source (so to speak) the saving and preservation of material history?

    I have loads more questions and they figure into a capstone paper I’d like to write.


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