Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What is an Archivist? AskArchivists day

June 9th is #AskArchivists day on Twitter. On this day, archivists around the world will be monitoring Twitter to answer questions people tweet directly to them by using #askarchivists at the end of their messages. I have signed up to be one of the archivists sitting at my desk waiting for questions. In preparation, I am tweeting about the event to generate interest. While thinking about this today, I wanted to tweet about what an archivist is. I'll talk more about this in a couple of paragraphs.

Last year, #AskaCurator was a huge success and has become a model for others in the cultural heritage fields to follow. #AskaCurator trended on Twitter, which means that so many people were talking about it that it became one of the most talked about topics of the day online. Because of its success, AskaCurator is currently nominated for a coveted Best of the Web Award.   I wrote about the event on the ArchivesInfo blog in a September post entitled "What We Can Learn from Ask a Curator on Twitter." I hope that my colleagues will review the page for some ideas. I think that this one paragraph is especially important:

"This brings up the question of how to educate about what we do on a more basic level. Someone referred to a page that explains what a curator is, though I don't think it gave a thorough enough view of the profession. I think if archivists attempt this that they should be prepared beforehand with a web page that describes archives and archivists in simple terms. People can be referred to it when necessary throughout an #askanarchivist day."

This morning, I searched for a good, thorough definition of "archivist" to refer people to. I cannot find one. The definitions of my profession that I found are either too simplistic or use jargon to describe what we do. The general public does not want to hear jargon and we are more interesting than a very short description can convey. Yet, the public will not want to read a long definition of our role either. If we wish to make "AskArchivists" successful, I think that we must start from square one and explain ourselves succinctly, but thoroughly. (How many of my colleagues get blank stares when they respond "I am an archivist" when someone at a party asks what they do for a living? How do you more thoroughly explain what you do without  watching those confused eyes looking at you glaze over?) So below is my quick attempt an explanation of us. Please feel free to add the important things that I leave out - no jargon please. Change my wording. Make it better. Make it more precise. Make it more interesting to better convey the excitement we feel about the collections in our care. Please, please be ready on June 9th with a fabulous explanation. Most people have a better idea of what a curator is than what an archivist is. This is our chance to help change that....

What is an Archivist? 

The Materials for Which We Care

Archivists are the people who care for original recorded information that tells about society. We work to retain materials that serve as evidence of human lives and actions. 
These materials are generally called "archives"and are used to write history, to review our past, to secure our rights, and to plan for our future.
The recorded information for which we care includes, but is not limited to such things as diaries,  photographs, business records, and birth certificates. These materials come in a wide variety of formats including written documents, audio /  visual recordings, and digital media.

How We Care for It

We care for archives using standards in our field that guide us in choosing, collecting, keeping, and organizing information with long term value. We care for materials in ways that help ensure that the materials themselves or copies of them last as long as possible. We work to make the information from the materials in our care available to those who need it by creating tools that provide easy access to their contents. We identify gaps in written knowledge and fill them by organizing or taking part in projects that record useful information that has not been documented and saved.

Where We Care for It

Archives are everywhere, documenting the day-to-day functioning of society.
Some archivists work in or for institutions that keep collections of records related to the organization's operations. Other archivists work in or for institutions that care for papers related to individual lives and communities. 
Some archivists work in small places such as local historical societies where they are expected to provide a broad range of care to materials.
Some archivists work with large collections in Universities or with government records where they focus on a particular task. 
Some archivists are employed in an institution where their collections are not the main focus. Such archivists keep the records of businesses, museums, medical institutions and others to support and document the work of that institution.

Add your comments below. I'd love to hear your thoughts. And / or take some of these ideas and add them to your own web pages in preparation for #AskArchivists day. 


  1. Such a marvelous idea!!!
    Here in Brazil, the Archvist's Day is in October 22.
    I wanna know how I can help answering?

    Best regards.
    Lyvia Archer

  2. Lyvia,

    Check out the AskArchivists blog for more info. http://askarchivists.wordpress.com/
    You can also follow #AskArchivists on Twitter