The modern archivist: working with people and technology

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.

image of control roomThis 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.


  1. Hi Lori and Jessica,

    I am pleased that the post has helped you in this way Lori. To be passionate about providing access to archives is great. I am in a fairly unique position, in that I attend a number of conferences that are focused on access and technology, rather than on archives. Sometimes I am the only archivist, and yet I firmly believe that there is a place for archivists within this environment – I really think our skills are very relevant. I think we should be ready to think of ourselves more broadly as ‘information professionals’, and seek opportunities based on this – to be part of a broader community.

    Technology does change quickly, but sometimes getting practical experience can help enforce the theory, even if it is only a starting point. I am a great believer in getting the principles underlying the practice, but for some of us this needs enforcing with concrete, hands-on practice.

    I wish you all the very best with your studies.

  2. This post appeared on the SAA facebook page today and it couldn’t have had better timing. I am currently at student working towards my MLIS and am having a hard time pulling everything I want together. I recently realized that the program is not satisfying all of my needs but I have been in a year already and hate to transfer and lose the credits/time/money. The ONE thing I have been passionate about is providing access to archives – and have taken all of the technology classes offered (they offer very limited archives specific classes). This post helped reassure myself that I am on a good track and that it helped restore my faith that there are people in the profession who “get it” – or rather there is a place for someone like myself in the profession. Ahh nothing like graduate self doubt creeping in.

    Thank you again though for your timely post – it did help to instill a bit of confidence today.

  3. “The archive courses can’t teach specific tools to everyone (such as EAD, or the more technical aspects of digital preservation), but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to do it yourself using the resources out there.”

    Yes, I agree. I think there always has to be quite a significant degree of self-learning. I actually left the archives profession for a few years in order to take up a position that would help me with Web editing skills, at a time when the Web was very new and exciting. It seemed the only way to learn more about it. I don’t think you need to do that now, but it is still about trying things out and embracing these tools and services rather than thinking about all the possible dangers and risks and keeping our distance. We simply can’t afford to do that.

  4. Thanks for the post, lots to think about. I think one of the important points for new professionals is to be confident about learning how to use new technologies. The archive courses can’t teach specific tools to everyone (such as EAD, or the more technical aspects of digital preservation), but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to do it yourself using the resources out there.

    This may even be an advantage for the younger of us, as we are self-taught technologists anyway -picking up messenger, wikis, digital music, online gaming and social media as it came along. I’ve just had to do this myself, as part of my new job is to write a blog – not something I’d ever been taught to do but I just had to get on and have a go at setting it up and writing content, based on what I could see working or not working on other sites. I’ve also never used twitter before a few weeks ago, and suddenly I’m seeing this whole world of content and communities that I had never taken seriously before.

    I think it’s natural to be wary of unfamiliar technology, but you’re right that it can only help us reach out if we learn from each other and give it a go.

  5. Jane,

    Great post.

    “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.”

    This is important, and a part of the reason I decided to return to study digital humanities just a couple of years after completing my archive studies.

    Your point about being a middleman is so relevant, especially in the context of sometimes challenging archival material moving into digital media. There are layers of mediation going on there that we need to be able to help archive users with.

    I, for one, am excited and it’s great to find that others in the profession are interested too.

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