The annual holiday this is Ask an Archivist Day is today! I don’t discuss my professional life often on this blog, but I am, in fact, an archivist. So if you have questions about my work or about archives and archivists in general, submit them in the comments or tweet me at @ArchivaLiam.
I work as a processing archivist in the Special Collections department of an academic library in Boston. My main responsibility is to take collections of material acquired by my library and make usable and available to researchers. Archival materials are generally called “records” when they are the documents of an organization (such as university or business), and “papers” when they are documents of an individual or family. The traditional term “papers” implies print material, but the collections I work with can and do include audiovisual material, photographs, born digital records, and websites.
The two main groupings of collections at my institution are Archives and Manuscripts. The Archives are the official records of the school focusing on documents related to every administrative area: academics, faculty, research, finance, human resources, and so on. We also collect the teaching and research papers of many faculty members and deans. Manuscript collections are donated to the library or purchased and are collections of records of businesses and individuals outside the school.
Archives and Manuscript collections are assigned to me for processing. Collections usually need to be physically processed for preservation, which means moving materials into acid-free folders stored in archival containers and other preservation tasks specific to format (Mylar sleeves for photographs, appropriate containers for audio and video formats, and extracting born digital formats from disk media, ensuring they’re fixed in format, and stored on a secure server).
Intellectually, collections also need to be arranged. and described. The archival ideal for arrangement is “original order,” which means maintaining the file structure used by the individual(s) who originally created the records. Sometimes stuff is just thrown higgedly-piggedly in a box and the archivist has to work out a logical order. Either way, collections are divided into series of different types of records. A faculty papers collection, for example, will typically have series of “correspondence,” “teaching files,” “administrative files,” “research files,” “speech files,” “outside work and consulting,” and “personal records.” Within each series are a number of files or items that the archivist indexes with file/item titles and the container where they’re located.
The archivist does a lot of “description” at the collection level, series level, file level, and sometimes even individual items to let researchers know what type of things they may find. A persistent argument among archivists is just how much or how little description to provide. A lot of description is time consuming and can reflect too much of the archivist’s biases. Too little description may lead to records being “lost” to researchers (and can be another form of bias). Regardless, a researcher will find some level of description in a “finding aid” or “collection guide” specific to each collection.
That’s a thumbnail sketch of what I do. If you’d like to learn more, all you have to do is ask!