What do archivists actually do?

Today’s guest blogger is Kathie Johnson, Curator of the History Collection for Kornhauser Health Sciences Library.


People often ask me what an archivist does – that is after they ask me if I am an archeologist, an architect, or an anarchist.  Even a history professor once asked, “What is it that you do, exactly?”  I right then figured out that if a history professor did not understand this, then there were probably few people who did.

Archivists are dedicated to preserving the historical record, whether the format be paper, artifact, film, audio, analog, digital, or any future medium.  This means one must: 1) work with donors [which includes appraising the collection]; 2) accession the collection and do all the necessary paperwork; 3) if needed, sort through the collection; 4) make sure the materials are properly stored for long-term preservation; 5) create some kind of inventory or aid for researchers to use to find things; 6) assist researchers when they come to an archives. With records that are electronic one must be aware that the technology will change and there must be a plan for transferring the information unto a new useable format on a regular basis. I am going to address 1-5 above in this blog and deal with #6 at a later time.

1) Working with donors can involve talking on the phone, visiting them in their home or workplace, meeting them in our space, or even going out for coffee or a meal.  This can be very delicate if we are asking an individual donor to trust us with items which may have personal or private family information, or special meaning to him or her. Representatives of businesses or organizations often worry about files that may show the group in a non-positive light. All types of donors frequently want the Archives to save every scrap of paper, which we could do if we had unlimited funds and an unlimited number of archivists. In today’s world, individuals, families, businesses, organizations all produce much more in the way of records than is necessary to preserve for future researchers.  It is the job of the archivist to figure out what should be kept and what can be disposed of.  This is where we do an appraisal – not a financial one, but one that hints as to whether the collection fits in with the other collections we hold and which items are important to preserve and what items really have no historic value.

2) Accessioning a collection means completing all the paperwork to take possession of it and record its legal transfer, volume, donor information, restrictions on use, condition, and temporary or permanent location.  Luckily, most repositories have developed a form or template to use for this purpose.  Donors must sign a “certificate of gift” giving legal ownership to the institution. In turn, the archivist also signs this document promising to care for the items. Filling out the accession form insures that all the necessary information is gathered in one place. (Usually this form is vetted by the organization’s legal counsel.)

3) What follows is a sorting through the collection – once if the volume is small, more than once for a large amount of papers.  We try to keep materials arranged the same way that the donor had done, but that is not always possible.  Many collections of personal papers arrive in a complete state of chaos.  Organizational and business records are usually in better order, but that order might have changed every time the person in charge of filing changed – that also must be determined.  After an initial or preliminary sorting, the Archivist can then tell if the order can be left as is, or if a new order needs to be imposed on the collection. Then the fun begins, determining the categories to assign (called series in the archival world), sorting the papers into these categories, determining what items can be discarded (advertisements, greeting cards with no message, blank calendars, cancelled checks are just a few examples of items with little or no research value), and 4) foldering and boxing the materials for the best long-term preservation.  Some items may require specialized treatment or care which requires even more hands-on work with the materials.

5) When all the papers are foldered and boxed (in acid-free containers), a listing is completed, along with a series description, a processing note and a short biography (of a person) or history (of a business or organization).  This work – called a finding aid or inventory – helps the researcher determine if a collection contains items that he/she wants to see.  It also tells the archivist exactly where those items are located, so that they can be pulled for the researcher.

As I hope is obvious from this outline, the work of preparing collections for use by researchers is time-intensive, which in turn equals costly.  Even if one uses newer processing methods which do not require as much time spent with each individual piece of a collection, the time commitment for all the other steps – working with donors, accessioning paperwork, preserving and properly storing materials, and creating a finding aid – is usually still about the same.  I also hope that this has helped you understand what we do, and why we do it.

As one of my colleagues often says, “How do we know what is written in the Declaration of Independence or what was said at Gettysburg by President Lincoln?” No one photocopied the Declaration and no one filmed or taped that speech (and even if they had, it would still have to have been preserved somehow.)  Someone had to preserve (see #4 above) the actual paper on which our Declaration was printed and someone had to record in writing and save the physical evidence which now serves as the historical record of the “Gettysburg Address.” What archivists do is not only helpful to students, genealogists, and scholars; what we do is one of the basic necessities to preserve a democratic republic such as ours.

One Comment on “What do archivists actually do?”

  1. Great post, Kathie! Thanks for the insights into your world.

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