Why I am an archivist

The fourth challenge in the “Year of Living Dangerously for Archives” brings the focus to each of you: Why are you an archivist?

In past months, the calls to action for the “Year of Living Dangerously for Archives” have focused on the value that others find in archives. Now it’s time to talk about the value WE see in what we do. Whether you came into this profession intentionally, by way of a related profession, or by some unforeseen path, there’s a reason why you’ve decided to stay or to pursue a degree. Please take a few minutes (now!) to think about why you’re an archivist–and share that with us. http://www2.archivists.org/living-dangerously/why-i-am-an-archivist

I firmly believe in not asking people to do something I would not be willing to do myself, so let me start this conversation by telling you why I am an archivist. Mine is just one perspective, one answer for one person. I look forward to hearing your stories.

During my sophomore seminar for history majors at Michigan State University, my amazing professor, Dr. William J. Brazill, Jr., challenged us to read R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History. I was immediately and irrevocably hooked by Collingwood’s assertion that to study history, one must view it through the context and perspective of those who were living the events. Shortly thereafter I started a part-time job at the State of Michigan’s Archives. What an amazing opportunity it afforded me to work with the documents that in fact provided just those perspectives. Through the inspired leadership of Geneva Kebler Wiskemann there, and later Dr. Philip P. Mason who led the Wayne State University archival administration graduate program, my encounters with archival records brought to fruition the opportunity to explore context and historical perspective.

In particular, as a proud member of a “blue-collar” family in Detroit, working with government records gave me an incredible experience with, as Carl Sandburg termed us, “The People Yes”—not the famous politicians or literate, privileged men and women of the 19th or 20th century, but those whose experiences are the foundation and substance of this democracy. For me, archives are the opportunity to give voice to Dick Nichols, a copper miner in the Keweenaw Peninsula; Dana Chase, a fosterchild plowing fields in the Maumee Valley; Isabel González who migrated from Puerto Rico through Ellis Island; or Ada Grace Fellers, a farm wife turning 50 pounds of flour into home-made noodles. Their voices are real and compelling. Being able to help bring their experiences, perspectives, and contributions forward is for me an essential responsibility and unparalleled opportunity.

That leads to the other reason I am an archivist—because, as I’ve said in other forums, archives change lives. Encounters with the real experiences and actions of people from whatever position, life condition, or perspective can change minds, provide comfort, foster a sense of belonging; it can change the course of public policy, educate and inform the body politic; or it can simply share an amazingly good story. Whatever the scope or nature of the result, archives make a difference. It is an honor to be able to share the incomparable gift of archives with others.

That’s why I am an archivist. What’s your story?

5 responses to “Why I am an archivist

  1. I have nearly always been interested in history. I grew up reading the Landmark books and was fascinated with history as I spent my 8th grade year in Paris. I majored in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and moved on to teach History in private high schools. Concurrently, I had worked in the Yale University Library system on vacations throughout high school and college. After moving back to Wisconsin, as my wife was pursuing a PhD in Neurophysiology, I eventually gravitated to Library School. With a History degree, I was directed to the Archives Program under Jerry Ham, where, as a student worker, I worked on the NBC papers, Richard Revere’s paper’s and Clark Mollenhoff’s collection, as well as many more. However, in addition to my interest in archives, I developed a real love of preservation while working at the archives. This led to a five-month internship at Yale University and a continuing involvement in preservation. One of the real benefits of my training and professional positions has been that with a library degree, archives training, and preservation experience, I have been able to work with archivists, librarians, municipal and state agencies, and museum curators on a myriad of projects that are not limited to one discipline. As the Preservation Specialist for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this has allowed me to cross many traditional boundaries in pursuing our goals and programs. My archives training and experiences have put me in a position of advocating for archives and records throughout the Commonwealth. For me, being an archivist is only one of the assets that I am able to bring to my position.

  2. Pingback: Unafraid | NixoNARA

  3. Pingback: Why I Work in Archives | library blerg

  4. Barend van der Merwe

    I dreamed of working in archives and never thought I would get the chance. When I got the call for an internship, I grabbed the opportunity. The rest is, dare I say, history, and it is the most rewarding career. The African archivist is facing exiting times ahead!

  5. I had the distinct pleasure of knowing and working with Dr. Brazill and Dr. mason. They inspired me too. Sadly, both great men have passed away. Their legacies will live forever.

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