Monday, February 27, 2012

The People and Their "Stuff" - What is the Point of an Archivist's Work?

An archival document showing human ingenuity at its best
I tend to remind people over and over that my work as an archivist helps tell people's stories, but I realized last week that to make a point, I've neglected the "stuff" of archives a bit and I need to clarify.

An archivist cares for the materials that are created by people - materials that tell their stories certainly, but materials that can also stand on their own in many ways. Archivists are not oral historians, genealogists, or even historians. As archivists, I would argue that our main focus is the "stuff" and not the people themselves. We care for archives and personal papers so that stories can be gleaned from them. We ensure that enough original items are saved so they adequately tell complete stories. Yet, we are more directly tied to the "stuff" and, at least on a professional responsibility level, more interested in what humans create than in the humans themselves.

What brought me to the realization that I need to clarify this? After beginning a web site redesign last week,I asked some friends for advice about what kind of imagery to use to highlight my work. A couple of them said that I should include more photos about people because "It's the stories about real people that [archives] is all about." It jarred me and got me thinking because I don't think that really is what it is all about.

As someone who is interested in the collections of museums, archives and libraries, I consider my work fitting within the field of "material culture." In short, "material culture is the relationship between people and things." (For more definitions see the web page for the Center of Material Studies at the University of Delaware.)  The things people create tell us about them and about culture, but they also stand in brilliance on their own. I think that the easiest example to use to explain this is a painting. (This is not a perfect analogy because an archival document is usually not a piece of art, but I think perhaps this can help make the point.) We can admire a painting because we know about the artist and see how it fits in the context of his other work. Or, we can admire a painting because it reflects a particular subject and time. Or, we can admire a painting just because it is beautiful and excites the senses on its own.

A document, an old journal, a map, and all the other materials with which archivists work show the brilliance of humanity. Yes, it is important to collect materials that reflect the individuals in a society. BUT, the materials we collect also reflect a sort of human artistry that goes beyond the stories of real people. From the feel of paper to the the poetry of words strung together to the encapsulation of ideas on a web page, the "stuff" humans create reflect a brilliance that is somewhat separate from the humans themselves. While we want to tell the human story, we focus on the various media used to convey that story. And while my work as an independent archivist sometimes focuses more on stories about people than their stuff, it is because I have chosen to go outside of the box a little bit. Other archivists will sometimes consciously go outside of that box too because, as I've said all along, the work of archivists, librarians, curators and the audiences we serve can be closely intertwined. The ideas driving each of our fields can benefit us all in the promotion of history and cultural knowledge.

But when it comes right down to a definition, the Society of American Archivists describe an archivist in this way: "An individual responsible for appraising, acquiring, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to records of enduring value, according to the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control to protect the materials’ authenticity and context." Indeed, archives work IS about the stuff.

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