Sunday, March 27, 2011

(Un) Titled Archivist

Remember that post I owed you with an explanation of what I do for a living?  Here it is.  I figure I’d better explain it before I leave my current position for the new job.
I’m an archivist.  Huh?  What’s an archivist?  Not many people really know what I do…including my parents.  On our flight to Florida recently, I overheard my mom trying to explain it to her seat neighbor and I realized that she has absolutely no clue what I do.  I understand.  It’s not like little boys and girls everywhere are saying, “I wanna be an archivist when I grow up!”  (Unlike a former classmate/colleague who knew she wanted to be an archivist when she was in the third grade.  When I was in the third grade, I was still in the “I wanna be a ballerina, pet doctor, insurance lady” stage - but then I’ve always been a late bloomer.)
Before I tell you exactly what an archivist is and what an archivist actually does, there are four crucial points that I want you to take away from this post: 
1.      It’s pronounced ahr-kuh-vist.  Repeat after me – AHR-KUH-VIST.  Not archiiiiiiivist, with a long "i."  Not arCHIvist, like the herb.  AHR-KUH-VIST.  I don’t know why we’re not archiiiiiiivists with a long "i" or why we don’t work in ahrkuhves.  I don’t know why the English language is so screwy.  That’s just how it is.       
2.      Archivists are not librarians.  Some archivists work in libraries.  Some librarians work in archives.  Some archivists go to lunch with librarians.  But we’re different.  And I’m only going to say this once - I do NOT work for the Library of Congress.
3.      Yes, I’ve seen National Treasure.  No, my job is nothing like the movie.  And the size of the female lead’s office?  Gimme a break.    
4.      The patron saint of archivists (and okay, librarians) is St. Lawrence.  His feast day is August 10th.  My colleagues and I celebrate this day by feasting on cold-cut sandwiches at our favorite local deli as is the accepted custom to honor his memory.
So, what exactly is an archivist?  My brother thinks all I do is move stuff from big boxes into smaller boxes.  But there’s a little more to it than that.    
According to the definition on the website of our professional organization, an organization I probably should be a member of if I weren’t so cheap, an archivist is an individual responsible for appraising, acquiring, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to records of enduring value, according to the principles of provenance, original order (eye roll), and collective control to protect the materials’ authenticity and context.  Wow.  That’s a mouthful.
According to the National Archives' website (that's where I work!), an archivist is specially trained (expensive Master's degree) in preserving original paper documents, photographs, maps, films, and computer records - in the National Archives' case, these are the records of the U.S. government - and archivists help people obtain or access those records.

It's a bird!  It's a plane!  It's an AHR-KUH-VIST!

According to the tee-shirt that I bought specifically to explain what I do, an archivist is a person responsible for preserving, organizing, or servicing archival material.  And we get dirty.  (Well, that’s not on the tee-shirt.  That’s just a fact.)     
So now, “archivist” has been defined.  But what do I actually do? 
In my day-to-day job, I “process” records.  (I could get into the whole “processing archivist” versus “reference archivist” debate but do you honestly care?  I didn’t think so.)  “Processing” basically means that I “rehouse” and “describe” records to make them accessible to the public.  Rehousing is the “moving stuff from big boxes into smaller boxes” part (culminating in a perfect label on the outside of the smaller box – my specialty!)  Describing the records involves looking at the content of the material, gathering that information, and creating an “archival description.”  In the spirit of St. Lawrence, I look it as creating a great big sandwich menu.  We’ve got all these great sandwiches available and to get people to eat them, we’ve gotta let them know what kind of meat and cheese and condiments are on them…just hold the relish.  A lot of the records are like turkey on white – routine, dull, boring but still a little tasty.  Occasionally though, you get records that are like Whiskey River barbecue chicken sandwiches – so delicious that you have to share them with everyone and that’s what makes the job exciting!         
So, that’s basically what I’ve been doing for the past few years.  Sometimes it's boring, sometimes it's not.  Overall, it's been a pretty great gig.   
My mom asked me this morning whether I’ll still be an archivist in my new position.  Technically, no.  I’ll be an “archives specialist.”   But really, I’ll always be an archivist.  Just an untitled archivist.    
*I don’t dare speak for my colleagues or the entire legion of archivists.  If you talk to ten different archivists, you’ll probably get ten different descriptions of what they do.  This is just my version!