Archivists and Cultural Heritage: Unexpected Synergies

Just before my unexpected October vacation I was given the great honor to serve as the keynote speaker for the Cultural Heritage Symposium held at the Library of Congress. There were an impressive array of attendees and speakers, many of them leaders in their field and all of them enthusiastic about cultural heritage.

The theme for my talk was building bridges and I spent quite a bit of time talking about issues relating to acquiring and providing access to cultural heritage materials. I also talked about the impact of outsiders coming in to collect and document tangible and intangible cultural heritage. One of the quotes I used came from Brien Brothman who noted in an article that Plato may have been correct when he warned us that writing may destroy memory for recording sanctions forgetfulness. (That is such a provocative quote to me.)

I also quoted Brian Cumer who said that “archivists have an incredible opportunity to shape cultural heritage in the way we organize records, provide access to them, and perform our role in helping to preserve the memory of events, groups, places and attitudes as well as other aspects that make up culture. This will require archivists to learn to think a bit like a historian, relate to other cultures like an anthropologist, understand emerging technological trends like an IT specialist and mediate between interest groups like a politician (a good one)!” And we need to make sure the training is available so that we can insure we can deal with all of these issues.”

Though SAA can provide some of this training to help us be the archivist Cumer describers, we can’t do it all. As I was preparing for my speech several staff members from the American Folklife Center noted that SAA was seen as a closed society, unwelcoming to anyone who didn’t have an archives degree or was not a certified archivist. When I informed the participants that I did not have an archives degree and was not certified I got a partial standing ovation. During the rest of the conference I felt a door had opened and there was opportunity for discussion, collaboration and sharing. Can cultural heritage professionals help us connect to the educational programs we need to be the archivists we need to be now? Can they provide ideas on how we can work successfully with communities where we have had limited success in the past?

I hope that the Cultural Heritage Working Group,  headed by Jennifer O’Neal (who gave an outstanding talk of her own during the Symposium) and Kelvin White, can help us keep this door open. We need to find ways to work together especially with the members of the libraries and archives section of the American Folklore Society to support each other and make sure we have the skills and resources to preserve and protect our cultural heritage.

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