American Archivists: Essential Links in the Information Chain

Archivists bring the past to the present.  They’re records collectors and protectors, keepers of memory.  They organize unique. historical materials, making them available for current and future researcher.

Archivist Lisa Lewis won an under-28-word Elevator Pitch contest for this pithy description of the meaning of archives.  And Lisa nailed it.

The role of archives and archivists is seldom explicit in today’s cacophonous brouhaha about secrets and secrecy, whistleblowers, privacy and access.  Though October is American Archives Month the media persist in keeping their focus on hot news rather than the complexities of a changing political, social, and technological information environment.   This is ironic since the media, like the legal profession, depend heavily on the work of archivists. – more than those who are neither journalists nor attorneys might realize.

Though the media and legions of attorneys depend heavily on robust archives, as most of us, tend to under-value the work of those professionals who meticulously preserve and make available the historic record of humankind.  Though some love to focus on state secrets and security, archival resources are ubiquitous, accessible, and, once one dips into the records, irresistible.

Just because it’s American Archives Month, consider for a moment, your archival options.  Though these are armchair accessible, take time to think about the process and the people who saw to it that the records were identified, organized, preserved and made accessible when and where you’re looking for it:

 

  • Are you or do you have a young person in your family who’s working on a History Day Project?  Check the primary resources that the archivists at the Minnesota Historical Society have spotted on the 2014 topic, “Rights and Responsibilities in History. http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/records/electronicrecords.htm
  • Yearn to re-listen to an interview you heard during the 2012 election?  Minnesota Public Radio doesn’t delete those tapes; then them at http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/
  • Are you a “birder” tracking that elusive rare species?  Archivists at the U of M Natural History archives identify, digitize and describe over 150,000 materials that document the early natural history of the State of Minnesota http://blog.lib.umn.edu/uar/naturalhistorymn/
  • Maybe you’re an amateur historian looking for a photo of your hometown’s main street, a public building or a typical farmstead in Stearns County. Check out Minnesota Reflectionshttp://www.mndigital.org/reflections.  The collection brings you 135,000+ images, maps and documents from more than 150 of the state’s cultural heritage organizations. The Reflections tutorials offer tips on a range of archives-related topics, including saving a personal collection.
  • Do you want to know more about Ramsey County buildings, churches, businesses, neighborhoods, community leaders?  Visit the Ramsey County Historical Society at the Landmark Center or check their website: http://www.rchs.com/library_archives.htm

Obviously, this is an appetizer.  These are but a few of the archival collections of particular interest to Minnesotans.  Though the National Archives (http://www.archives.gov) can be overwhelming as starting point, they will soon entice you to explore paths, places and people you had never imagined.  Drink deep or taste not of the archival stream.

And, if what you want is to sense the spirit of archives and the work of archivists, you might want to spend a few winter evenings immersed in Une affaire d’amour and dust”, the memoir of Arlette Farge, recently translated as The Allure of the Archives.   Farge’s words speak for many archivists:

The first illusion that must be cast aside is that of the definitive truthful narrative.  A historical narrative is a construction, not a truthful discourse that can be verified on all of its points.  The narrative must combine scholarship with arguments that can introduce the criteria of truthfulness and plausibility.  The poet creates, the historian argues.

Bottom line, there are hundreds of archival treasures in counties and cities, historical societies, corporations, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, museums, the media, churches and more.  The work of the archivist may be invisible – until you want to dredge up a record or a fact.  Whether your information need is to write a book, trace your family history, learn about the history of your house or settle a bar bet, chances an archivist has had a hand in preserving the record.  If there was no archivist involved, you probably won’t find the information you so desperately need.

 

 

 

 

 

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