This post, co-authored with project research assistant, Christina Mantey, is part of a series of posts we’re writing over the next few weeks that will explore some of the emerging themes in our research on the emotional dimensions of archival work. We’re calling this series “Talking to Archivists” because it reports on our analysis of interviews with 29 archivists and working professionals  on grief and other emotions in archival work, on their preparedness for such work, and on resources that support it.

Checking out codes

In our last post, we described the iterative coding work we’ve completed over the last year. Our next task in this process is to continue to analyze the ‘data’ within each code to look for further patterns and themes, and to determine how codes can be refined and understood in relation to each other. During this process, we expect to combine some code categories, to rename or redefine others, and to identify significant themes, ideas and concepts that can help inform our understanding of how emotion is involved in and impacts archival work. In some of the next few posts, we’re going to dig into a couple of the codes as they stand now to give a sense of what the archivists and records professionals we interviewed told us about the emotional dimensions of their work.

Feeling surprised and unprepared

“It was a bit of shocker to me that this was a component of my work. Certainly I don’t remember it coming up when I was studying.”

When participants described their experiences of grief and emotion in the workplace, they frequently described feeling surprised and unprepared for the emotional dimensions of archival work. This is a theme we’ve discussed in conference presentations and elsewhere on this blog, but it still seems like a good place to start our discussion of codes in this series – to begin with the acknowledgment that the emotional dimensions that were the subject of our research are – or at least, have been – underemphasized in archival education and professional discourse and therefore may come as a surprise when they are encountered on the job. ‘Feeling surprised and unprepared’ was a code that emerged during our multiple readings of the transcripts and we applied it in 21 of the 27 participant transcripts we coded.

When we look at responses tagged with this code, we find a substantial list of aspects of archival work that were surprising including, but not limited to:

  • unexpectedly coming across traumatic records
  • repeatedly coming across traumatic records
  • realizing that record groups that weren’t explicitly identified as ‘difficult’ records could still include difficult material
  • becoming emotionally involved in records processes (or not being able to remain an objective observer) and being unsure whether this type of involvement was ‘allowed’
  • feeling emotionally connected to records subjects
  • encountering intimate records (e.g. records that reveal affairs, mental health challenges, etc.)
  • bearing witness to and responsibility for people’s stories
  • working with donors and their emotional reactions
  • working with dying donors
  • working with grieving people
  • doing reference with people and communities who are emotionally connected to or impacted by the records, or who are experiencing trauma
  • working with people, generally!
Working with people experiencing emotion

“I think that’s something that my archival education did not prepare me for. The idea that I would be…that emotionally involved with people who were very emotional about their records.”

Working with records involves working with the people who create and use them and this in itself was surprising to several participants, who expressed the emphasis in their archival education on records and records processes rather than on people.  Participants sometimes associated their feelings of surprise with the emphasis their education or training had placed on the objective, record-centric stance of the archivist, which left them feeling unprepared for times when it was hard to practice objectivity and/or for all the different types of interactions with people that are part of the job.

“It wasn’t something that I’ve really considered, I mean I knew going in that the records related to the wars were not going to be a good time, but the impact on community was a bit more of a shock. I had assumed that, I think just because of the academic background of how I got in here, the assumption was that these are researchers, they’re going to be removed, but they’re not, there’s a very intimate relationship with these materials.”

Working with donors

Working with archival donors was an aspect of work that participants particularly described feeling inadequately prepared for, and that could easily become tangled up in all sorts of different emotions. Several participants described feeling unprepared for the intricacies of donor relations, referring to experiences working with upset individuals, and working with people who were dying and/or grieving. 

“[I]t’s surprised me in how profoundly it has affected me, in doing donor relations. In the last 18 months I’ve dealt with three deathbed donors […] and I haven’t had any direct experiences with death at work until now.  Working in archives, of course you’re dealing with a past, and people in the past are dead (laughs), so it’s not really a surprise, I’m fine with that, I’m comfortable with that. But it’s dealing with people, dealing with families, in grief that I’ve been surprised how unprepared I am for that part of my work as an archivist. Whether they’ve had a terminal illness, and you’re dealing with grief prior to death, or post-death grief.”

One participant described the way she felt after meeting with donors partway through her arrangement and description of the records they’d donated, calling attention to the unusual relationship an archivist can have with donors who they know in limited but also sometimes very intimate ways:

“It was really weird to feel connected to these people that I had read about, but still not know them at all…I felt like nothing prepared me for that. Afterwards, I felt so raw and unprepared in having to bear their grief.

Some participants even expressed surprise at feeling surprised by the person-centred nature of archival work.

“I did not expect that, those really real encounters. But of course it makes sense that it would be that way. Records don’t change hands without some kind of trigger. And often those triggers are not necessarily happy ones.”

On needing to be prepared

“That was a big reason I wanted to be in this study, because I do think we have to find  a way to get people ready for it. I think it will just help us work better with the records, and I think it will help us work better with people who are creating these kinds of records and witnessing them. Even if we’re not there with them when they witness it, we need to understand how they might react to it and be prepared. Yeah, and I don’t think we are. Not really. You might have some individuals because of their own experience, but I think across the board, we’re not really ready for it.”

Recognizing the strain and stress that feeling unprepared can cause, participants emphasized the importance of better preparing archivists for the emotional dimensions of archival work. Some reported feeling that their archival training or education had sometimes seemed to be in direct conflict with what they encountered on the job, especially when it came to working with people in emotional contexts; as a result, they could experience feelings of failing everyone (supervisors, past professors, donors, records subjects, etc.) or of being an incompetent archivist because they were both unprepared for the realities of working with people and felt unable to perform archival tasks as objectively as they’d been taught.

Participants talked about not knowing who to talk to for advice on these matters and about feeling hesitant to reach out, especially when they were new to the field, for fear of seeming unprofessional or incompetent. Some also mentioned concern that talking about the emotional dimensions of archival work might affect the way they were viewed as professionals and for new professionals especially, their employability. Many participants identified the need for safe spaces to talk about these issues and to process their own emotional responses to their work. (For archivists and other records professionals looking for a safe space to talk, check out the Trauma-Informed Community of Practice online forum set up by Nicola Laurent, Kirsten Wright and Michaela Hart.)

What does an archivist do?

Our review of how participants talked about being surprised or unprepared for the extent to which emotion is involved in their work revealed some of the ways that the work records professionals actually do is different from perceptions they held of what the job(s) would be like. In our next post, we’ll continue to explore perceptions of archival work and ideas about professionalism in the workplace and in education by looking closely at the language interview participants use to describe the profession and their own experiences of working in it.