Student Snippets


Explaining Archives to the Layperson

I've recently returned to Connecticut from a wonderful Christmas vacation with my family in southwestern Virginia. We were there for about two and a half weeks and I was able to meet up with a lot of old friends and family connections. With this came the opportunity to explain what archives is to people outside of the library community. Most importantly, I wanted people to understand why I find archives so fascinating, and why I consider it such a relevant and necessary profession in our modern age.

As you can imagine, this can be challenging. Archives isn't the only profession that is largely misunderstood and difficult to explain to outsiders. Even my husband has a hard time explaining to people exactly what it is he does at his job. During my vacation, I feel like I came up with a strategy that was fairly successful. It would have been easy enough to just give the usual spiel about documenting society, preserving history, connecting people with information, etc. and move on. But I wanted to engage my listeners, to make an impression on them, and to educate them. The best way I have found to do this is to have in your repertoire a selection of stories, examples, and case studies that will illustrate your definition of archives and engage your listeners. They are like gateways by which the "layperson" can encounter archives in a way that is relatable and memorable.

The two I used were from my readings in Intro to Archives. One "case study" is an illustration of how archives are employed in the solution of an almost inconceivable problem - how to successfully communicate the locations of radioactive waste burial sites for the ten thousand years that these materials require to become considerably less dangerous. This example was in an article we read by Kenneth Foote, cited below. The other is something that I heard referenced a few times in class discussions and literature reviews - the notion of a "digital dark age." If you don't know, digital dark age refers to a hypothetical future scenario in which the historical record and all that comprises it is inaccessible, because it's been created and stored using digital mediums, algorithms, software, etc. that are outdated, obsolete, or cannot be replicated. I've linked some articles below if you want to read more.

Framing my explanation of what archives is within the context of these examples lead to some interesting discussions. Granted, most casual acquaintances probably aren't looking for a lengthy exposition on the topic when they ask you what you are studying or what you do for a living. For something a bit more pithy and small talk worthy, The Society of American Archivists has this great little guide on "Crafting your Elevator Speech" here. As I've said before, I feel like each of us assumes the role of ambassador as soon as we become a part of this library/archives community. What will you say when it's your turn?

Foote, Kenneth E. "To Remember and Forget: Archives, Memory, and Culture." American Archivist, Vol. 53 (Summer 1990). 378-392.

Interesting articles related to the "digital dark age:"

Young, Lauren J. "Ghosts in the Reels." Science Friday. Retrieved from

Madrigal, Alexis C. "Future Historians Probably Won't Understand Our Internet, and That's Okay." The Atlantic. Dec 6, 2017. Retrieved from

Archives | Real World