Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How We Talk About Archives

When archivists are talking to each other, there is much delight in old documents, in history and the heritage they are trying to preserve. Or to paraphrase from one of my professors, we're interested in "the neat old stuff." This direct access to documents from a different time creates a special frission of excitement, of a type that maybe only historians can understand. This is part of the answer of why archivists archive, at least for me.

This excitement and passion is usually sublimated when archivsts are talking to other people. These other people could be a government agency (who fund archives) or perhaps somebody who politely asked about your profession. In this case, a whole different presentation is offered. There is much focus on democratic accountability (which is certainly a good thing), helping organizations become "litigation ready," and how archives (or records management) can generally improve the efficiency of an organization.

I get the sense that the reasons expressed in the first paragraph are what drive many archivists but there is a sense that we can't tell that to other people. Why? My guess would be that the history argument comes across as asking people to indulge us in our geeky interests whereas the latter clearly shows benefits to others.

Has anybody else encountered this?

1 comment:

Kate T. said...

I guess my question to you would be, why should the government agency that's funding you care about what you enjoy? They're not funding an archives so that you can have fun with "neat old stuff." When you are talking to your funders, you should be emphasizing what benefits others are getting from your organization.

As far as how you describe your job in social settings, that's a personal choice. Some people may feel that there is more prestige in describing how their work benefits others (and by extension, society at large), as opposed to describing how much pleasure it gives them.

I would hope that there are archivists out there who enjoy helping people just as much or more than they enjoy working with the documents. I think a lot of archivists would describe what they do much more in terms of helping researchers than in being "litigation ready", but maybe that just reflects the archivists I know.

Interesting question!