The annual Explore Your Archive campaign is now underway, with events taking place across the country. Each year the campaign, spearheaded by the Archives and Records Association, tries to help raise awareness of archival collections held in repositories in Ireland and the UK.
To kick things off this year I thought I would begin by answering a question that I generally get asked a lot, which is ‘So, what do Archivists do all day?’
Some are vaguely aware that the profession has something to do with dusty documents and white gloves, but beyond that it is a bit of a mystery to most.
As the majority of the work is carried out behind closed doors this is not surprising. So in the interest of shedding some light on the profession, here is just a quick look at what an archivist gets up to.
Firstly, yes we look after dusty documents and yes sometimes we wear white gloves but like most jobs there is a lot more to it.
Appraisal & Accessioning
One of the tasks undertaken by archivists is to appraise and accession new collections. Not all material that is offered to an archive warrants permanent retention, or sometimes it’s just that a particular collection does not fit in with the remit of the organisation. In Maynooth we try to take in items that support the teaching and research needs of the University and that fit well with our existing collections.
Once we decide to take in a collection, we need to do a quick assessment of the immediate needs of that collection. Some of the first problems that come up include; ‘do we have the resources to properly catalogue and care for this collection?’ or ‘what condition is it in?’
Collections can sometime bring uninvited guests with them in the form or creepy crawlies or active mould, so when we accession a collection, as well as recording the basic details of where the collection came from and what it contains, we also check for pests and note the condition of the material.
In order for collections to be made accessible to the researching public they have to be processed. We do this by writing an individual description, in the form of a short summary, for each series of documents or each item in a collection and by giving each document a reference number. This allows researchers to select the documents of interest to them from a finding aid. Applying the reference number to the document then allows staff to easily retrieve an item when it is requested in the reading room.
We also research the documents creators in order to better understand the collection and to help arrange the documents into their original order. If it is not possible to restore the original order of the collection, documents are arranged into the most logical order.
Once the documents are described, arranged and numbered, they are also cleaned by the archivist. This involves using preservation standard cloths and brushes to gently clean dust and loose dirt off documents. If a collection has been badly damaged by water, mould or poor storage and handling, we don’t attempt to repair documents ourselves but instead we bring in a conservator to assess the archive and make any necessary repairs.
Cleaned documents are then packed in preservation standard packing materials such as acid-free folders and boxes and transferred to a secure, environmentally controlled storage area.
Once processed, collections are ready to be made available in the reading room. A large part of the archivist’s duties involves dealing with queries from researchers, in the reading room, by phone and by e-mail.
Outreach & Digitisation
Promoting the collections and services offered by the repository is also a large part of what an archivist does. Putting on exhibitions of archival documents and giving talks and tours of the repository are great ways of creating interest in the collections. Increasingly digitisation is becoming more and more part of the archivist’s role. Many repositories make some or all of their collections available on line, which helps cultivate interest in the archives holdings.
Like any job there is also housekeeping and administration to be taken care of in the archive. Report and policy writing, ordering of supplies and equipment, and attending and giving training, are all part of the job too.
Finally, why is this work important?
We all create information, some disposable, but some of vital importance that needs to be kept, studied and understood. Archival documents are our collective memory. They capture this information and help us to both interpret the past and to move forward.