Questions for an Identity Crisis
While they mean one thing to professional archivists who study and train in the history, purpose, and practice of managing archival collections, to everyone else, archives are vague; they’re sometimes thought to be old boxes housed in dark damp basements (absurd!) in some outmoded library or museum or anonymous warehouse (this is not to say I believe libraries and museums are outmoded); or an archive is a term used to describe old files that we haphazardly label as our ‘Archives’ which get stored safely in some closet until we die and our loved ones find them while packing up our old belongings…
O.K. maybe that last one is a bit extreme, but it certainly does happen.
Perhaps there are many interpretations for what TRULY constitutes ‘archives’ and an ‘archivist’. I am not supposing to have an answer, but I do want to ask the questions.
I see a lot of similarities between how archivists are perceived today and how curators are perceived. The word curate is thrown around popular culture so much it is considered buzz worthy. We are told we are all the ‘curators’ of our likes and preferences (Tumblr, Pinterest, even Flickr encourage users to curate media and post it to their own personal pages to be viewed and shared by anyone).
But the problem is, curating, like archiving, is so much more than simply selecting objects because they are interesting or provocative – that’s more along the lines of editing. Like archiving, curating collections involves broad and specialized knowledge, research, contextualization, and writing about the historical, cultural, or social significance of the collection. Curators and archivists become experts in their collections because it is their role to understand, evaluate and preserve the value of the collections they are engaged with, and later to guide the public through the contents of those collections. The major difference (as I see it) is that curators interpret collections for the public whereas archivists allow the public to interpret. Archivists are urged to be as objective as possible (understanding this is impossible), or at the very least, transparent about their own biases, while working with collections.
This lack of a clear identity of what constitutes an ‘archive’ or ‘archivist’ is confusing (is there even a clear identity among professional archivists?). No one quite understands where the boundary of archival work exists and where it becomes something else. But maybe that is fine. The lines between archivists and other collection specialists are blurring regardless. Archivists must be flexible in what they do and how they define themselves and their repositories. And I’m happy about that, but many are not, and holding a rigid definition of what an ‘archivist’ or ‘archives’ is will only stifle the profession. We need to work together and not be afraid of change; our role will always be relevant.