Week 2: We Can’t Save it All: My Thoughts on What makes an Archivist

Living in Bucks County, I’ve heard of many places that claim to have been used, traveled through, or inhabited by George Washington and his men during the American Revolution—in fact, the farmhouse I spent my early childhood in was one such place. Growing up, it appeared many of these places tapped into America’s “founder’s chique’” in order to fight for survival. These places, of doubtful importance, seem to captivate passersby who view the various locations with unquestioned reverence; as though they are the Stations of the National Cross. Some of these places, if they have museums, even contain artifacts one would expect to find of a local saint in remote monastery; a piece of Washington’s wig, a signature, or part of a tent. We, who admire, study, and preserve history, at times have a blindly-strong bond to tangible things related to revered individuals. “But of course, you must save Washington’s correspondence, this has value. His locket of hair, it’s Washington’s after all! And don’t forget a tent he may have used once, it has a  great story behind it.” We venerate objects and attach importance to them, following some deep cultural tradition, without asking why. Does this happen in some archives as well?

The archivist, in professional principle, seems different; he or she acts with logic. The need to preserve history and the strong connection to objects/data are met with the realities of an archive’s purpose. The archivist isn’t a relic holder and every item taken must represent a logical choice. The space and the resources of an institution are finite. Opportunity cost is as important as assuring the items you invest in have utility. In such an environment, you could not save Washington’s signature, or one would even ask “Does this archive need Washington? Or does this archive benefit from an acquisition policy that collects the writings of the Martha Ballards in history (a long overlooked diary of regular events from a midwife that helped Laurel Thatcher Ulrich write her famous book on Frontier Women’s’ lives entitled A Midwife’s Tale).” As Mark Green said in “The Power of Archives: Archivists Values and Value in the Postmodern Age”, Archivists have power. What they save dictates what historians can write and therein by the stories of the past we create.

I am embarrassed to say I’ve always thought of archives as though they were attics of objects and data; a place to store things of “value” for the life of the archives. Instead, I see the archives as a living institution that should change with the times and should work around the evolving interest of researchers. The value of the items within a properly-functioning archive not only have quantifiable value, but that value can shift as administrations or the public’s use changes. A good archive has a deacquisition and reappraisal policy. Just as we cannot save every place every historical “rock-star” was, we cannot save everything a creator creates. Or, in that case, even anything from a famous individual at all. An archivist is not an amateur collector and an archive is not a memorabilia warehouse.

Here is a valuable hypothetical: the archive is a place where the unusually-meticulous records of a historically-forgotten innkeeper — and who may have even housed Washington—becomes more important to history than any possession from the great Washington himself.


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