This post, written by project research assistant Elizabeth Bassett, is part of a series of posts  we’re writing that 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!
Talking to Archivists (3): Redescribing the Profession
Talking to Archivists (4): Doing Emotionally-Demanding Research

Listen, “hold on to it, don’t drop it!”

The act of listening has been at the heart of our research with the archivist interviews. In the last post of this series, Jennifer discussed listening in the context of the research processspecifically, as a research activity that was emotionally demanding at the same time as it was a privilege for us as researchers. Similarly, a significant number of the interview participants discussed listening as a central, rewarding, but often difficult aspect of their own jobs. In this blog post, I turn our attention to what the interviewees had to say about the importance of listening in the context of archival work.

To begin, I’ll preface with the words of one participant:

“Understanding how to listen is a huge skill to learn. And I think of it not only in terms of listening to donors in that moment when I’m encountering the donor, but also listening to the records when I’m processing them. And… what are the records trying to say to me, and how can I describe them adequately enough that… you know, these records can speak to other people? So it’s that whole process of trying to honour throughnot just through the first donor encounter, but through the whole process of processing.” 

This quotation captures many of the themes that came out in these discussions. Interviewees explained that listening skills are essential to all aspects of the profession: from donor relations, to archival processing, to reference work. In addition, some participants talked about “honouring” records, creators, subjects, donors, and researchers by listening to their stories. There was a general acknowledgement that we, as records professionals, owe it to the records—and to the people involved in the records—to take the time needed for listening.

As one participant put it, listening is an important part of “getting it right… for them.”

Also central to the discussions were considerations of how to listen and respond with care, in all aspects of the work.

As another participant explained:

“It’s this outpouring and this sense of responsibility, that they’re giving me in essence their life story, and hold on to it, don’t drop it!

Listening & responding to stories

Hand-in-hand with listening, participants discussed stories as central to archival work. One archivist explained that “the role of the story keeper and teller is the one that sells archives to most people.” Some pointed out the unique positions they held for collecting stories that might otherwise go unwitnessed.

One aspect of archival work where the role of stories was highlighted was in appraisal and acquisition processes. Several participants expressed gratitude toward donors who were generous with stories (as well as with their records):

“I mean, it’s such a privilege to… be able— to be allowed into these people’s lives […] It’s not only just interesting on an intellectual level. It’s heartfelt at an emotional level that you’re being allowed to hear their stories.”

Beyond listening, many participants described feeling a sense of responsibility for capturing donor stories more formally in the archives—perhaps by taking notes or recording donor interviews—and some expressed feeling a sense of loss when this was not possible. A few archivists talked about strategies for incorporating donor stories into finding aids in order to better describe the materials’ significance to their creators. Participants were conscious of listening closely, both to the donors and to the records, and responding with care.

The challenge & value of taking time

At the same time as they expressed its importance, participants discussed the challenges of being an engaged listener in their day-to-day work.

When conversations turned toward actively listening to donor stories, a commonly identified challenge was justifying the time. Some participants recalled being invited over for meals, listening to stories about the records, and stories not about the records. As one archivist described:

“We’d go through one box, maybe two [laughs]. She had a whole house of stuff. Like a whole house. And… she always baked us muffins, and we’d sit there on her porch, and we’d look at the daisies, and we’d talk about stuff, and then… she wasn’t even talking about [her records] anymore. She was now talking about her grandkids.”

While there was a general appreciation of these experiences, some participants also talked about these types of donor interactions as separate from what would be seen as their typical responsibilities. One participant summed up: “I was happy to listen to it all. But I had to get back to work.

Another participant spoke about the difficulty of effectively communicating to employers that listening to stories was actually a valuable part of their work, explaining:

“So, let’s say I spent, you know, a significant amount of time with three people, none of which we took their papers […] if we had, that would have been time well-spent […] because we didn’t, that’s not time well-spent. It’s not a measurable outcome.”

Nevertheless, during the interviews, participants collectively communicated a reciprocal value of taking time to listen—a value that ultimately has beneficial outcomes for donors, institutions, and records professionals themselves:

For donors, it can be meaningful to have someone pay attention to and witness their stories.

For institutions, listening can result in stronger relationships with communities of donors and records users, as well as in more fulsome and accurate descriptions of records (and therefore, better access).

For records professionals themselves, interviewees described the heartfelt “privilege” of being let into people’s lives, the “sacred” and sometimes “healing” nature of listening to personal stories, and the “philosophies of life” that they learned from listening. For example, two participants explained:

“[T]o me, story is sacred and…  if it’s— if you’re telling a personal story or your family’s story, nobody has exactly that story that you are telling. It’s yours, and so you’re sharing it with me. […] And then to see that as a sacred activity.”

“[W]hether it’s work ethic or, you know, just taking time to look at a flower. Like, you know, I can… I can pinpoint specific donors and what they’ve— just the philosophies of life that I’ve been able to gain from them. That I’ve, sort of, taken into myself.”

The emotional weight of listening

Despite arguing for the value of taking time to listen, participants also revealed a more personal challenge: the emotional weight of listening.

One archivist described themselves as a “sponge for all of these stories” and recognized that it could become difficult to hold all of the stories on their own. This sentiment was echoed by others: one participant described themselves as a “vessel” for memories, and another specifically described themselves as a “repository for knowing about everyone’s awful sexual abuse stories.”

The general feeling was that this emotional weight of stories can make it difficult to carry them, but that the stories still deserved to be handled with care. As the one previously quoted participant explained, when a story is shared, we have a responsibility to listen, “hold on to it,” and “don’t drop it!

Supporting the story holders

Toward sustaining their roles as story holders, interviewees talked about the need for more support—including strategies for self care, opportunities for discussing their experiences with other records professionals, and better preparation from their archival education programs.

Going back to the quotation from the beginning of the post, one interview takeaway is that “[u]nderstanding how to listen is a huge skill to learn” and a difficult skill to teach. As an interviewee explained, “I think so much of that kind of thing comes with age and experience.” Some participants who focused on the importance of listening felt that it is difficult to learn how to listen before it is required of you in a real-world setting.

Nevertheless, participants had ideas for ways that education programs could better prepare new professionals for their listening roles. Examples include:

  • Turning to other fields, such as social work, for relevant training materials
  • Incorporating theatre games that require active listening
  • Teaching students to conduct oral history interviews
  • Encouraging the development of self care strategies

Participants also agreed that it would be helpful for the profession as a whole to openly acknowledge that, as a records professional, you may become that “sponge” or “vessel” or “repository” of stories—and that such a role carries with it a certain emotional weight.

This acknowledgement was seen as essential, as participants described listening to stories as central to archival work.

In the words of one archivist:

“[W]e are acknowledging the lives of people whose lives will not be acknowledged […] So if their people bring something to us and tell us their story, even if the thing is not something you’d actually want, you know that’s what we do.”

And in the words of another: 

“You need the story! You totally do.”


Note: This post is an adapted and expanded version of Elizabeth’s section of the conference presentation given by our research team at ACA 2021.