Speaking Archives


by Stephen Plotkin, Reference Archivist

There is a rueful thought that, in one form or another, crosses the minds of all archivists at some point in their careers:  These things I take care of – these documents, these files – have more of a voice than I do. Scholars, writers, journalists, lawyers, individuals with personal interests – the list of archives users goes on and on – all ensure that archives “speak” from the past to the present.  This is as it should be. When the archives in their care are not being used, archivists tend to think they are falling down on their jobs.  But sometimes we want the chance to explain what we’re about too.

Because archivists (and this can be extended to all the curating professions) have a unique perspective on the materials in their custody.  That’s an easy thing to say, and so it requires some explaining.  What it doesn’t mean is that we necessarily have a greater knowledge regarding those materials.  Archivists and curators can be scholars and experts, of course, but the majority of us aspire simply to know enough to help the full range of users of our collections, including the scholars and experts.  What it does mean is that in addition to their information value we are especially attuned to the physicality of the materials. We are concerned with the shape they are in, in different senses of the word.  We want to know about their physical condition, good or bad, damaged or whole, fragile or strong.  But we are also concerned with the shapes that archival records have as series, collections, and record groups.  Is there a form to the materials?  Does it make for a cohesive whole?  Does it need to be tweaked?  Does it (in certain unfortunate situations) need to be imposed?  In fact, for office-bound personnel, we spend an awful lot of time working with our hands – moving, flattening, unfurling, unfolding, unfastening, and re-arranging.  There is as much of craftsmanship as there is of profession in the profession of archives.

That is the perspective of a working archivist, and the perspective of a working archivist will be where this blog comes from, but we don’t intend to make it our only subject.  Everybody needs to get away from their job sometimes.  The archivists in question work at a relatively recent historical manuscripts depository, so that will be another influence on viewpoint, but we hope to look beyond the limits of our institution to general questions about archives, to the work of our researchers, to the future of our profession.  On the other hand, sometimes we are going to talk about the stuff in our holdings because we have some very cool things here.


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