What is an archivist? In 140 characters or less…

It suddenly occurred to me the other day that people are often surprised with what I do. More often or not people just do not understand what an archivist is.

In 2010 I travelled to the U.S. for the first time. It was mid-June and it was my first experience in a ginormous plane. And being incredibly uncomfortable for hours on end. Oh, actually I have experienced that many times before in various situations. Another time, another story. It was also my first time going through such a large customs and border control area. LAX is just crazy.

I was watching people get their fingerprints taken and I boggled at the invasion of privacy, but hey, I had just travelled 14 hours into the past to arrive in LA a few hours before I left. I was not going to argue. When the stern looking man behind the counter asked me what my occupation was I answered, “archivist”. His head spun around and he looked at me squarely in the eye – “activist?’ he asked. EEEEK! The last thing I needed was to draw this kind of attention to myself. Quickly I responded with, “records manager” and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

There is another famous archivist story of a similar event where archivist was mistaken for “anarchist”. I love this story so much I wish it were mine. I thought about it later when I retold the story and realised that I am an activist. When I heard the story about anarchist I realised I am that as well. Sometimes I call myself a renegade or avant-garde archivist. It’s something left over from my youth where my biggest goal was to be thrown out of uni for challenging the system. (Note that I did get a letter saying I was suspended for six months, but it was for the usual reasons – failing too many subjects in one semester – not for being cool and anti-establishment).

But what do I mean when I call myself archivist? Or activist, anarchist, renegade or avant-garde archivist? 

The honest answer is…loads. But I am not entirely sure what I do loads of. It is definitely something to do with recorded information, that I am aware of. And it is related to how it can be created, captured, organised and managed over space and time. But I am not comfortable with these explanations as I have just dropped them from the “beginners guide to continuum thinking” into this blog post.

One of the reasons why I started on this journey of self-definition was that when I was looking for an office during July I was shown a basement office with no windows. OH YES! And I told the woman I would NEVER work in that kind of place. Archives are not about basements.

Anyway, I thought I would ask the lovely people I connect with online what they think an archivist is. This is really a cheating way to get people to help me bounce my own ideas off them. On Facebook I knew that most people who would answer would be my friends. On Twitter I knew most people who would answer would be colleagues. And so it was. But the results were very interesting.

On Facebook some of the ways people described an archivist (in five words or less was the criteria) was:

Compilator of historic data

Create/maintain collections of records

Organizing information for retrieval / disposal

Stores precious information for easy access

Archivists are evidence providers

Stores material for easy retrieval

Warrior of important document safekeeping

Archivists restore retrieved documents thoughtfully

The great thing about these definitions is that they are all true!  My favourite words from this list includes: compilator and warrior.  But does this mean I have to say all of these when someone asks me what an archivist is? I also wonder if what we do is what we are. The answer seems clear…not always and its a bit more complex than that.

On Twitter colleagues were trying to fit definitions into the 140 characters allowed. An impossible task. Made more difficult by being so inside the job. The examples were great and I won’t repeat them here, but in the end the discussion turned to the inevitable – do WE even know who we are? The sad answer is – probably not. We are in danger of getting left behind in the digital world, or worse, being replaced by IT personnel who install Drupal repositories and ‘off you go’.

Added to this is that even in Australia we treat archivists and records professionals as separate roles. I am an archivist and as far as I am concerned I am a records professional. I am a records management consultant. I can tell you what records to create and why as much as I can tell you how to organise boxes of material (or network servers) that you think might be valuable in perpetuity. What is the difference? None. But other people think there is. Many many people.

The Twitter discussion ended up with a call by a colleague to ask archivists at our annual Australian Society of Archivists Conference to define what we are in 140 characters. It will be absolutely fascinating what will be produced as a result of the discussion. I myself cannot wait for my paper to be presented as I want to ask my colleagues to think about collecting archives in a whole new way. I hope that it will stimulate discussion and I will raise awareness of the role of the archivist as a cultural heritage professional.

But what is that role?

Ergh! I feel like we have come back to the beginning of this post! The idea of a role and it performance also raises questions in my head how we are defined not only what we do, but in what realm we work in. Social, political, legal, cultural. What impact does our slant on records have on how we are defined?

My goal as an archivist is to help preserve the small stories of cultural heritage and join them together to create a mass of stories that can be read and understood as a meta-narrative – possibly.

Preserve – When I say preserve it means I want to help people identify and learn the kinds of records that are useful for themselves to create, but will also perform a role later in understanding different areas of cultural heritage. That heritage might be related to content or container or something else entirely. Preserve also means to help people find ways to retain the cultural information they have created so that it can be used later – either in the near or far future. Preserve also means to make sure the information is retained in a way that makes it accessible and useful, not just making sure content exists. So, not just an image of a webpage, but information relevant to how the webpage was constructed and what information systems it was used in – what systems made it what it was.

Help – so when I say help I mean educate, advise, construct, create, identify, share and generally make noise about what it is that I am trying to achieve. At the moment I am trying to make as much noise as possible with my business. Yesterday I wrote up a proposal services for a small business related to software assessment of a new database. How is that being an archivist?  Isn’t it obvious? What information do they want to keep? What information should they keep? How long should it be kept for? Who should be accessing it? These are all records related questions. This is why software assessment is the work of an archivist.

Join – this is a tricky one. By joining I am referring to creating and linking archives. This means creating systems that can help people link their archives, as well as how to search, read and add to them. It means thinking about things like metadata and standards for data capture. Of course this is work for an archivist.

So, perhaps it is a little clearer on what I think (at least) an archivist does. The avant-garde archivist is someone who can see where recorded information can, should and is created and also helps to manage, join and preserve recorded information and its contexts over time. This is who I am. I use any way I can to perform this role. If this means looking at information systems, designing databases, evaluating technology, inspecting filing cabinets, talking to focus groups, writing risk reports and interviewing stakeholders then this is what I do. How I do my job does not matter, so long as I do with integrity and passion and an awareness that every decision I make, every bit of help, every way I envisage the archival future impacts and influences people, including myself.

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