I’ve recently read Kate Theimer’s very excellent post on Honest Tips for Wannabe Archivists Out There.
This is something that I’ve thought about quite a bit, as I work as the manager of an online service for Archives and I do training and teaching for archivists and archive students around creating online descriptions. I would like to direct this blog post to archive students or those considering becoming archivists. I think this applies equally to records managers, although sometimes they have a more defined role in terms of audience, so the perspective may be somewhat different.
It’s fine if you have ‘a love of history’, if you ‘feel a thrill when handling old documents’. That’s a good start. I’ve heard this kind of thing frequently as a motivation for becoming an archivist. But this is not enough. It is more important to have the desire to make those archives available to others; to provide a service for researchers. To become an archivist is to become a service provider, not an historian. It may not sound as romantic, but as far as I am concerned it is what we are, and we should be proud of the service we provide, which is extremely valuable to society. Understanding how researchers might use the archives is, of course, very important, so that you can help to support them in their work. Love of the materials, and love of the subject (especially in a specialist repository) should certainly help you with this core role. Indeed, you will build an understanding of your collections, and become more expert in them over time, which is one of the wonderful things about being an archivist.
Your core role is to make archives available to the community – for many of us, the community is potentially anyone, for some of us it may be more restricted in scope. So, you have an interest in the materials, you need to make them available. To do this you need to understand the vital importance of cataloguing. It is this that gives people a way in to the archives. Cataloguing is a real skill, not something to be dismissed as simply creating a list of what you have. It is something to really work on and think about. I have seen enough inconsistent catalogues over the last ten years to tell you that being rigorous, systematic and standards-based in cataloguing is incredibly important, and technology is our friend in this aim. Furthermore, the whole notion of ‘cataloguing’ is changing, a change led by the opportunities of the modern digital age and the perspectives and requirements of those who use technology in their every day life and work. We need to be aware of this, willing (even excited!) to embrace what this means for our profession and ready to adapt.
This brings me to the subject I am particularly interested in: the use of technology. Cataloguing *is* using technology, and dissemination *is* using technology. That is, it should be and it needs to be if you want to make an impact; if you want to effectively disseminate your descriptions and increase your audience. It is simply no good to see this profession as in any way apart from technology. I would say that technology is more central to being an archivist than to many professions, because we *deal in information*. It may be that you can find a position where you can keep technology at arm’s length, but these types of positions will become few and far between. How can you be someone who works professionally with information, and not be prepared to embrace the information environment? The Web, email, social networks, databases: these are what we need to use to do our jobs. We generally have limited resources, and technology can both help us make the most of the resources we have and, conversely, we may need to make informed choices about the technology we use and what sort of impact it will have. Should you use Flickr to disseminate content? What are the pros and cons? Is ‘augmented reality’ a reality for us? Should you be looking at Linked Data? What is is and why might it be important? What about Big Data? It may sound like the latest buzz phrase but it’s big business, and can potentially save time and money. Is your system fit for purpose? Does it create effective online catalogues? How interoperable is it? How adaptable?
Before I give the impression that you need to become some sort of technical whizz-kid, I should make clear that I am not talking about being an out-and-out techie – a software developer or programmer. I am talking about an understanding of technology and how to use it effectively. I am also talking about the ability to talk to technical colleagues in order to achieve this. Furthermore, I am talking about a willingness to embrace what technology offers and not be scared to try things out. It’s not always easy. Technology is fast-moving and sometimes bewildering. But it has to be seen as our ally, as something that can help us to bring archives to the public and to promote a greater understanding of what we do. We use it to catalogue, and I have written previously about how our choice of system has a great impact on our catalogues, and how important it is to be aware of this.
Our role in using technology is really *all about people*. I often think of myself as the middleman, between the technology (the developers) and the audience. My role is to understand technology well enough to work with it, and work with experts, to harness it in order to constantly evolve and use it to best advantage, but also to constantly communicate with archivists and with researchers. To have an understanding of requirements and make sure that we are relevant to end-users. Its a role, therefore, that is about working with people. For most archivists, this role will be within a record office or repository, but either way, working with people is the other side of the coin to working with technology. They are both central to the world of archives.
If you wonder how you can possibly think about everything that technology has to offer: well, you can’t. But that’s why it is even more vital now than it has ever been to think of yourself as being in a collaborative profession. You need to take advantage of the experience and knowledge of colleagues, both within the archives profession and further afield. It’s no good sitting in a bubble at your repository. We need to talk to each other and benefit from sharing our understanding. We need to be outgoing. If you are an introvert, if you are a little shy and quiet, that’s not a problem; but you may have to make a little more effort to engage and to reach out and be an active part of your profession.
They say ‘never work with children and animals’ in show business because both are unpredictable; but in our profession we should be aware that working with people and technology is our bread and butter. Understanding how to catalogue archives to make them available online, to use social networks to communicate our messages, to think about systems that will best meet the needs of archives management, to assess new technologies and tools that may help us in our work. These are vital to the role of a modern professional archivist.