The Trouble…

17 03 2010

The stereotypical image of an archivist (if there is one), is of old men wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, sitting in musty rooms surrounded by piles of three-inch thick books and wads of paper or roles of parchment. Few seem to know what they do or why they do it. Many identify them as interchangeable with librarians, who, stereotypically at any rate, share certain traits.

As with many things, it is this stereotype which holds everything back. When talking to some of my work colleagues about what career path I wish to pursue, I have to talk simply about the job, “it’s someone who looks after old documents” I say. I suppose, in a nutshell, it the job is about looking after old documents, be it newspapers, tithe maps, photographs or anything else. Except it’s a little simplistic to say that that is what the job is.

It isn’t just about looking after these old documents, it’s about making them accessible to the public. It’s about making things easy for the researcher, be them passionate historians with a nose for details or a casual family historian who simply wants to know what their great-grandparents did in the war. Most of all an archivist is a link to the past, someone who will know about where to find the right information and how to weed out the bits you need without going through all the rest of it.

For me there is more. It’s about challenging those stereotypes, it’s about bringing the old records into today’s society and making them accessible, relevant and informative. I see people spending hours looking for a name in a 500 page long list of names. This isn’t how it should be. It’s off-putting, it’s tedious, and it’s long winded. And, at the moment it is how it has to be.

Yet the technology is here already, waiting to be used. Computers with large memories can hold tens of thousands of names, all ready to be searched for at the touch of a button. Websites such as ancestry.co.uk, or freebmd.org.uk can already help you look for people. And there is much more work going on all the time to bring archives into the modern world. Yet people still see archives as musty places, with shelves and shelves and shelves of information organised into some archaic system that is long since forgotten and rarely understood.

Archiving is not like that. It’s about exploration, it’s about learning and broadening your horizons. It’s about chasing down random things and tying up the loose ends. In many ways, it strikes me, it is a similar process to having a ‘wiki’ hour, just searching for something and then following the links on wikipedia, not knowing where you’ll wind up. It may not be sexy but it is interesting. It’s actual, living history you are looking through. You can read diaries from people in the 1800s. You can learn about their lives from censuses, newspapers, or random pieces of paper in other collections. You can take the learning about the past into a whole new sphere, one outside of history books, or university tutors. It becomes yours. It is your information, your hard work, and your results. There is a great deal of satisfaction to be taken out of piecing together the story or someone’s life, and tracing how their lives have impacted upon your own. Or learning about the history of a particular place through the photographs. There is, for me, something hugely satisfying about the whole process of exploration into the documents.

And yet we return to that stereotype. One which means few people really realise what archivists do, or why they do it. That stereotype which confuses the librarian (someone who looks after books) with the archivist (someone who looks after history). The trouble with the stereotype is that it is a tricky thing to shift. Archives, unlike museums or art galleries are not somewhere where you could go and lose a couple of hours, pretending to be cultural. But they are a doorway into history, and do have a really important role to play in society. Archivists are people who are trying to expand this doorway so that everyone can have access to their past, their heritage. Archives are a valuable part of any society to remain in touch with the past. Archivists manage this so this past is accessible to anyone.

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One response

18 03 2010
Brij

Aw, and I’d ordered you such a lovely tweed elbow padded jumper for your birthday!

I hope you included all this in your personal statement 🙂

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