Student Snippets


Thinking Like an Archivist

We are more than halfway through the semester and with a few days off for holidays this month, I think I can safely say we are in the home stretch. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Woo!

With my archives internship wrapping up, I thought I'd share some of my observations. First of all, this internship required some serious time management. It is built right into the Intro to Archives course (LIS 438) on top of a typical load of coursework, and it's a lot. I actually advised a classmate the other day not to take it, unless she was serious about archives. Because unless you've got all kinds of free time and not many daytime commitments, it will require some major sacrifices beyond the typical course.

That being said, I have loved all the course material (not so much the online format) and the work I've been doing for my internship. I have finally gotten some hands-on experience in an archive. It really is essential. I've heard several times now how archivists don't just work with a different kind of materials than librarians but that they actually "think" differently. This class, and the internship, is all about learning to think like an archivist.

So what does that mean? Well for my internship I was given a small collection of records to "process." The collection entailed about fifteen gray document boxes filled with file folders of institutional records from the 80s and 90s. There was some order and some disorder and I had to make decisions about what was important, what should go where, and whether I should take the time to rearrange/reorder. Of course I had to take some time to look in each folder and rifle through the materials so I could learn what was there, but how much time should I take? How thorough did I need to be?

In retrospect I realize that these expectations were not clearly defined, and I think (I know) I erred on the side of too much detail. I am a thorough and detail-oriented person by nature, and I wanted to "do right" by the collection by giving it careful and thorough treatment. For the sake of my internship and gaining experience and completing a discrete project, this isn't the worst way to go about things. But what if my repository has hundreds more collections just like that, all waiting to be processed? And what if my users can't access and use and benefit from those collections until they have been arranged and described, at least on a basic level?

This is one of the crucial aspects of the archival profession: effectively balancing the needs of the collection with the needs of users. There are donor relationships and donor wishes to consider, and many issues affecting access such as copyright and privacy. Archivists must balance their limited time and resources with the endless tasks that need doing and services that need providing. To me, thinking like an archivist means navigating all of these difficult decisions, judgements, and priorities to provide the best service possible. 

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