Sunday, April 21, 2013

Why All Librarians Should Take an Introduction to Archives Class

This post furthers a discussion about the need for librarians and archivists to study the others' field.  In my last post, I presented the idea "Why All Archivists Should Take a Library Reference Class."
Any recognized gap between the fields of library science and archives management is becoming smaller. Yes, archivists and librarians handle different sorts of objects. Yes, each field requires its own specialized training. Yes, we often work in diverse institutional settings. ..Yet our materials take up the broad category of "information." And with the Internet, the diversity of our information does not quite make itself as clear to our patrons as maybe it once did. While it is important to maintain a distinction between primary and secondary sources, it is more important than ever that librarians and archivists learn more about the other profession's expertise to best serve our patrons.
In this post I consider the need for a librarian to take an introductory archives class.

This week, the Digital Public Library of America launched.
The Digital Public Library of America brings together the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them freely available to the world. It strives to contain the full breadth of human expression, from the written word, to works of art and culture, to records of America’s heritage, to the efforts and data of science. The DPLA aims to expand this crucial realm of openly available materials, and make those riches more easily discovered and more widely usable and used...
Understanding archives helps the
information professional better serve
their patrons.

This groundbreaking effort further unites the fields of archives management and librarianship. And while digitization of materials brings us closer together, it also makes it more important that we understand our differences. Information professionals should understand: a "record lifecycle," how we determine what materials are archives and what are not, means of providing access to archival resources, how archives reflect original ideas, and how archives reflect cultures and communities.

When I consult in public libraries and am pointed toward their "archives," I am often shown the local yearbooks and annual reports. These "collections" are archives by default. The local high school and town hall drop these items off and librarians add them to the collection. But a library's connection to archives should be much more than this.

Libraries, in my opinion, can and should be the information hub of any community. As such, they should be prepared to provide access to any and all information to help patrons. Some libraries may have archives on site. Some libraries may prefer to form stronger relationships with other institutions that care for archives more fully, such as historical societies. Either way, librarians should be well-informed about alternate materials that expand the narrow view offered in their collections. For while a book opens many doors to the world, there is still a need for other resources to fully understand the scope of ideas about that world. Providing access to true archives (beyond yearbooks and annual reports), objects, and digital information, as well as  connecting to patrons to experts should all be part of a library's overarching mission.

At the most basic level, archives can be used in libraries during story times to help illustrate narratives. Original materials provide real-life examples of what we read in books. Archives can be used to liven up book displays and to create posters and handouts that discuss information resources and out institutions. Archives or copies of documents and photographs can line our walls to provide a more local flare or community feel to our library spaces. This enhances pride in our institution, leading to better informed citizenry and support for our work.   [See the Value of Archives for more information on how archives can support your community work.] The use of archives enhances the work we do as librarians.

Going even deeper, librarians should better understand the research value of archives for patrons seeking information. Properly referring to archives as a reference tool begins with an understanding of their collection and use. One prime source of confusion that I must break through when I teach librarians about archives is that such materials are collected and described in groups. Archivists usually do not provide access to a single piece of paper at a time as librarians do with single books. Many of the librarians whom I help with their archives have trouble getting past this thought, but this is central to understanding the purpose of archives and their value as information. While publications are the culmination of an idea, archives are the pieces of a puzzle that form the foundation of ideas. Papers and recordings brought or kept together for examination help us to understand the workings of the mind of individuals and the functioning of institutions. Without a class or training in archives, this is unclear to most librarians and forms an unnecessary barrier toward collaboration with archivists and proper use of primary source material.  

In short, if you are a librarian, explore what archives have to offer. Build a connection with your local historical society or take a class in archives management. Linking primary and secondary sources rounds out the world of information, opens doors to collaboration between librarians and archivists and provides a means toward better understanding of the value of both archives and libraries by new potential patrons and supporters.

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