This post, written by project research assistant Elizabeth Bassett, 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.

Talking to Archivists About Emotions (1): Introducing the Research
Talking to Archivists (2): Surprise, emotion!

Redescribing the Profession

In our last post of the series, Jennifer Douglas and project research assistant Christina Mantey discussed how one of the overarching themes of the interviews was that participants felt that their education and training programs had left them unprepared for the people-centric realities of their jobs. Many of the interviews highlighted that the profession describes itself in ways that are often at odds with the actual work. 

Emphasizing this discrepancy, one participant jokingly explained: 

“Well initially I thought I’d get a tower and a pointy hat and a beard and sit there unrolling my parchment for eons to come, so everything is just shocking.” 

Another reflected: 

“[C]ertainly I was taught that I was like, the god of archives. Right? Like, that I was the omnipotent decider of what the future looks like to people a hundred years from now […] and that’s terrifying.”

We’ve talked as a research team about the pressures, misconceptions, and harms that can be caused by language around neutral custodianship. At best, this language provides only a partial picture of the profession.

To add to the picture, this blog post turns its attention to specific language that the interviewed records professionals used to describe their personal experiences with archival work. Using metaphors and other resonant language, the interviewees provided some powerful redescriptions of the profession. Selections of their insights are provided here.

Language describing archivists 

Many of the interviewed records professionals compared their roles to those of other professions:

“Sometimes I feel [laughs] like I’m being a pastor in my role.”

“I think one of the most surprising things that I learned working in this job […] was how much of an element of ministry there is to it. I mean I’m not a religious person, but I know it when I see it.”

“[A] couple of colleagues and I have talked about how much you feel like a grief counselor working with donors.”

“We end up being information professionals, we end up being privacy officers. We’re the social workers. We’re the counselors. You know, we’re the rides to the events. We’re, you know, the displayers, we’re the exhibitors, we’re the historians.”

Others offered poignant metaphors: 

I’ve become kind of the sponge for all these stories.”

“I think when we go into the profession, we don’t think that we’re going to become […] sort of a repository for knowing about everyone’s awful sexual abuse stories.”

You’re a voyeur, you’re looking at things often that were never meant to be seen by anyone other than the people who were involved and there are times when that experience elicits a very strong emotion.”

“I just talk about, just being entrusted. So that [X] knows that his memories went somewhere. Like, went into another vessel and will continue. Maybe that’s—we can do as much as we can, within the constructs of our archival practices, but maybe part of our role just needs to be defined as that vessel.

Language describing archives 

When talking about archives, a significant number of participants took care to emphasize that records are intricately connected to the people who created them—that records are extensions of their creators:

These boxes, these are people […] and they are here and, you know, as long as you remember that these are people that you’re dealing with, then it’ll make it easier on you.”

“I always find that people are kind of like asking, like, ‘What happens? How do you keep it? Where is it kept?’ Like they’re very concerned about… the material being lost. And that, as well, too, it’s almost like they’re losing part of themselves.”

“So, she didn’t really have a relationship with her father, but she had this, kind of, piece of him.”

“When you think about it, the archives, […] it’s the only physical manifestation of the person. So it’s important.”

[E]ach case file is someone’s life, right?”

Others captured their experiences of working with records intimately tied to human lives:

“I truly believe the archive is a perpetual flashback. […] And I… I… had nightmares. I didn’t—I stopped sleeping.” 

“I try to encourage them to think about it as bringing somebody to… to life… through the records.

In the spirit of listening, which has been a central theme in our research, I am presenting these quotations here as they are instead of providing my own detailed analysis. For now, I will end with a few questions: What are the implications of reframing the profession using the language of these archivists?  What would it mean, for example, to frame archives not only as the “whole of the records” (etc.), but also as “pieces” or “physical manifestations” of their creators?

In a variety of ways, archival scholars and professionals have already begun to grapple with these questions (see the MIRRA project, Find and Connect, and Hobbs 2001*); our research confirms the importance of continuing to keep them in mind.

As always, thank you for taking the time to reflect. And thank you to the interviewed archivists and other records professionals for sharing your insightful descriptions with us.

*Hobbs, Catherine. “The Character of Personal Archives: Reflections on the Value of Records of Individuals.” Archivaria 52, (2001): 126-135.