If you’ve already read the post about our 30th birthday, then you know what Archives & Local History (ALH) is about and how we came into being. (If you missed it, read it here!) But what do archivists do every day? What’s the difference between archives, libraries and museums? How do you become an archivist? Read on to learn about the work of an archivist, and then we’ll answer some of those burning questions. Leave a comment if you want to learn even more!
A number of concepts and principles guide the work of archivists in many different types of institutions and collecting areas.
Some archives exist only to document their own business or organization, and they do not necessarily share information with the public. These might be corporations or nonprofit institutions with an interest in keeping track of their own history—products, services, events, ideas, or intellectual property. Some examples might be the Hallmark Archives, the Walt Disney Archives, and the Coca-Cola Company archives. Tribal archives and other community-based archives aren’t obligated to open their collections to external audiences. Government archives, which document activities at the local, state and federal levels, are considered public records in the United States. With limited exceptions (such as for privacy and security), archives can help hold democratic governments accountable “by the people, for the people.”
Other archives are collecting institutions, actively gathering cultural heritage materials. These are often academic or research-oriented, like universities, museums, historical societies, and some public libraries—like ALH at Douglas County Libraries. Each archive has its own mission, vision, and collecting policy, which help to define the subject area(s) the archive represents. For example, ALH collects materials relevant to Douglas County.
Even with all this variety, archives and archivists share the goal of identifying and gathering material with long-term value (including research value, intrinsic value, historical value, and more), and all are dedicated to preserving, organizing and describing this material so it can be understood and used long into the future. Archival collections are always aggregations of material (whether a few items or 10,000 boxes) that derive meaning from their context. They often lose historical value if they are split up or separated from the documentation proving their origins and authenticity.
“Antiques Roadshow” can help explain. During appraisal of the “1871-1872 Boston Red Stockings Archive,” the appraiser explains how the letter accompanying the baseball cards adds valuable context to the collection. The letter contained signatures and statements from the baseball players shown on the cards, adding personal information and personality to the collection. Individually, each card was valuable—but together, the collection was worth $1 million.
An archivist’s work revolves around the concepts of provenance (or custody history), original order (that the way a source organized their records has meaning), and respect des fonds (interpreted as “don’t mix collections from different sources”). While accepting materials into the archive (accessioning), archivists are careful to secure a solid paper trail and document the legal standing to share materials with the public. This also provides contextual description that will help researchers find and understand the materials. Another part of the accessioning process is establishing intellectual control, meaning we know what the accession consists of: how much material, which types of documents, the total number of boxes.
Whether digital or physical, archival materials are processed to ensure the broadest access. To protect and preserve materials, they are rehoused in pH-neutral folders and boxes; in the case of digital materials, they are ingested into our protected computer server and into Preservica, a program that preserves digital media and prevents the loss of important data. A major part of processing is description, which is how we tell the public what’s inside of the boxes and drawers of our storage vault. This may include writing finding aids to help users navigate large collections, digitizing curated materials, transcribing oral history interviews, and the ongoing work of maintaining updated catalog entries and collection indexes.
Once materials are processed, archivists may spend time doing outreach to engage with the public and encourage use of the archives. ALH does so through this blog, community programs, public events, social media, and its online presence, including digital collections.
And, of course, archivists also guide and assist customers. In addition to finding and accessing archival collections, archivists help customers use databases, understand available resources, and locate further sources of information if necessary.
A Day in the Life Of…
Archives Assistant Julia
My day starts with unlocking the workroom and vault. I check and record the vault’s temperature and humidity levels and review reference materials in the reading room to ensure everything is present. I catch up on emails and then I choose a project to get started on. On any given day, I may assist a customer with a research appointment, guide a volunteer project, conduct an inventory of existing materials, accept new donations, accession and process collections, digitize and upload materials to our online collections, evaluate paperwork, write archival description (like a finding aid or descriptive metadata for digital materials), prepare social media posts, design new reading room displays, maintain reference collections (like our newspaper clippings binders), or maybe write a blog.
My day starts with wrapping a shawl around myself because it is so cold in the archives! I look forward to customers stopping by and asking questions about properties in Douglas County, genealogy work, or materials stowed away in our recesses. Sometimes, I’m welcoming tour groups into the archives or giving community talks about what we do. Other days, I feel like Sherlock Holmes as I pore through records trying to find answers in documents produced a hundred years ago, or yesterday. If I’m lucky, I have time to review some of the archives accessions. I delve into the vault and pull out boxes containing photographs, floppy discs, or a cloth Good King Banana game board from the 1930s (yes, that exists!). My goal is to describe the materials I find accurately in the accession record. By providing detailed descriptions of the materials, I help customers find the accessions that contain the answers to their questions. If you want to find a map of Shamballa Ashrama from the 1960s, I’m your archivist! At the end of the day, I tuck all the materials I have removed from the vault back into their secure spaces, hang my shawl on the back of my chair, and go home, excited to see what discoveries I might find tomorrow.
Head Archivist Alyssa
My typical day starts with drinking a large amount of coffee (in a covered, spill-proof container, of course; we can’t risk any liquid accidents near the archives!). Then I deal with my seemingly endless emails. Outside of that, I might not have a typical day. Being the team supervisor means I spend some of my time on administrative tasks (budgets, ordering supplies, writing reports) and getting to go to a lot of extra meetings.
I manage the ALH database systems (ArchivesSpace and CONTENTdm), making sure we’re all using the right vocabulary and metadata templates to describe what’s in the archives. Other times I might be out in the community, connecting with potential donors and partner organizations, or I could be crawling on my hands and knees in a dusty barn trying to reach an old trunk behind a rusted milk can to see if it’s full of books—like last summer when I spent some hot days at the Metzler family ranch collecting historic papers and photos. Variety is my favorite part of the job (notwithstanding the cobwebs in my hair).
As the curator for ALH collections, I spend a lot of time thinking about how our material is organized, where it has gaps in coverage, and what kinds of items are in similar institutions. I research collections management software and standards (this is about as fun as the cobwebs!) so that I can help lead the department in the right direction for long-term sustainability (hopefully!). I also wear my librarian hat sometimes and take care of our rare book collection. Recently, I’ve been updating catalog records and replacing call number labels (you usually find these on the spines of books, but we don’t put stickers on historical items). I find it immensely satisfying to see a whole shelf of books standing tall, in alphabetical order, with freshly labeled ID strips (think bookmarks with barcodes) peeking out of the tops at exactly the same height. That’s how you can tell I’m an archivist, even though I might be the only one who isn’t cold all the time.
FAQs (Fancy Archives Queries)
Q: How does one become an archivist?
A: There are different ways to become an archivist. Today, many have a master’s degree in Library Science with a concentration in archives, but this wasn’t always the case. Archivists have also come to the profession by studying history, law, languages and literature, museum studies, or specific types of media (audio, film, photography). It might depend on the type of archive, because someone managing a collection on the history of medicine or aerospace technology would need a strong science background. Experience with information technology can also be helpful, as the archival profession’s digital components are growing. Those with master’s degrees in any field may become a Certified Archivist through the Academy of Certified Archivists’ program.
Q: Why do archivists need so many cardigans?
A: Ideally, archives exist in temperature- and humidity-controlled environments so that collections don’t experience climate fluctuations, which can make them brittle or moldy. The temperature in ALH is colder than in the main library building, so our staff needs to bundle up. Despite spending many hours in these controlled environments, archivists themselves are not immune to becoming brittle or moldy.
Q: What’s the difference between archives, libraries and museums?
A: They overlap a lot and the fields are often referred to together as LAM, but there are some key differences. You can think of it, broadly, this way:
- Libraries manage published information resources. It’s tempting to just say “books,” but they also have movies, newspapers, e-books, maps, and more and more types of digital media, even equipment. Many (but not all) libraries house circulating collections, meaning you can borrow items and bring them home. General-interest circulating collections, including at DCL and most public libraries, frequently change or are updated when new books are released and old ones aren’t being accessed as much. Some libraries house subject-specific collections, reference collections, or local history collections—like ALH.
- Archives manage unpublished information resources, often called manuscripts, papers or records. These are either rare or totally unique items, created organically, which is archives-speak for when something is the byproduct of a routine activity. Authors produce manuscripts during the writing process (which, hopefully, result in published books). Businesses produce employee handbooks or meeting agendas in the course of their daily operations. People write letters to loved ones without intending them to be seen by a large audience—and this is exactly why they are useful primary sources for studying history. In short, archives document processes, while libraries collect products.
Another characteristic of archives is that they tend to be collections of material, not individual items, which affects the way they are organized, cataloged and stored. Because archival materials are irreplaceable and need to be preserved for as long as possible, they can’t be checked out of the library. However, public access is a priority for most archives, and items can usually be accessed with supervision at archival facilities called reading rooms.
- Museum collections share some principles with archives (e.g., concern for long-term preservation, the importance of provenance documentation, and items that are unique, historical or rare), but they traditionally house three-dimensional objects, artifacts, scientific specimens, works of art, or archaeological finds instead of the paper documents you find in archives. Though not technically a museum, ALH often refers customers to the Douglas County History Repository, which houses the county’s archaeological collections.
Sometimes, all three of these collections coexist in the same institution! Most academic libraries have institutional archives and a special collections department, and museums often have archives and research material related to the artifacts in their collections—things like archaeological surveys, the papers of museum staff or donors, or records of previous exhibitions.
Q: How does ALH choose items to collect? Are archivists just scholarly squirrels, hoarding everything in folders and vaults?
A: ALH can’t accept every donation. But don’t worry—we aren’t throwing donated materials away. Because we have limited space, new materials must be within our collecting policy to be accessioned in the first place. ALH’s policy says that collections should be from, or represent, Douglas County’s social, cultural or economic history. When donors bring us materials outside our policy, we usually point them to more appropriate repositories, like the Denver Public Library Western History Collections or History Colorado.
Q: When do I get to wear the white gloves?
A: Ah, the ol’ white gloves…it’s logical to think that wearing them protects archival materials, and it can—but not always. White gloves are not a great choice when handling brittle, easily torn papers, for example. On the other hand (punny!), they are a great choice to protect photographic surfaces from the natural oils on our hands.
Q: What is accessioning, and why do you “accession” a collection but don’t “procession” it?
A: You tell us.
Q: Does your vault look like that scene at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”?
A: No, our vault is much smaller and requires more spelunking. In the new Castle Rock library (under construction beginning in May), ALH will enjoy a larger and improved space. Thanks, DCL!
Thanks for tuning in. Our final 30th-birthday blog will go live on April 25, and will compile downloadable and digital ALH resources you can use from home.