Who is an archivist? Letter to the Editor of USA Today

Yesterday an article in the USA Today online edition referred to a man who collected child pornography as an “archivist”.  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/02/11/child-exploitation-dark-web-prisoner/22100993/ (note: content is challenging to read).
Dean DeBolt posted information on this to the Archives and Archivists listserv, and several members urged a response from SAA.  After quickly seeking advice on this, I prepared a brief letter to the editor focusing on what an archivist is and appropriate use of the term.   It was an opportunity to point out (in less than 180 words) what defines an archivist–and that is much more than being a “collector” of anything however laudable or objectionable.


I’ve submitted the letter, and am not sanguine about whether it will be published.  I also posted it in the “comments” section on the article, and it is showing up on Facebook comments.  For the future, perhaps having something on this order that has been discussed and developed with more time and attention would be a good thing to have in our “toolkit”.   Meanwhile, if you have other comments or thoughts, let me know.   Here is the brief statement I submitted:

To the Editor, USA Today

       The February 12, 2015 online article “Florida’s top child porn collector details his obsession” refers to this individual as an “archivist.”  This is an egregious misuse of that term.  An archivist holds a professional position with national and international standards of practice and conduct in accordance with a professional code of ethics.  The vast majority of professional archivists hold a baccalaureate degree, and most have one or more advanced degrees related to their profession.
        The Society of American Archivists represents more than 6,200 professional archivists employed by governments, universities, businesses, libraries, and historical organizations nationally.   Archivists identify the essential evidence of our society and ensure its availability for use by students, teachers, organizational leaders, historians, genealogists, and a wide range of individuals with information needs.  Our work support accountability, legal and fiscal needs, and accessibility to the voices and stories of the people and communities in this country.  A single individual gathering information of any kind is, under no circumstances, appropriately termed an “archivist.”

Kathleen D. Roe
Society of American Archivists, President, 2014-2015

13 responses to “Who is an archivist? Letter to the Editor of USA Today

  1. Brilliant. So glad you took the time to address this!!

  2. Excellent – thank you! I’ve actually thought about this in other areas and wonder if we don’t contribute to the misuse of the term “archivist” to at least some small extent. As much as we want people to understand the importance of what we do and to be involved and excited about it, perhaps we need to apply terms such as “citizen archivist” with more care? We know what we mean by it, but does everyone else? Just mulling – regardless, nice response to the USA Today article.

  3. Wonderful! It always amazes me when people don’t even know what an archivist is, even worse when they think they do and misuse the term. Thank you for addressing this.

  4. Well said, Kathleen! 🙂 But I do wonder about one thing – you say that ‘”A single individual gathering information of any kind is, under no circumstances, appropriately termed an “archivist.” ‘ I worry that this seems to do a disservice to amateur or other locally-based archivists, who do so much to help us in our work, to preserve materials that we might otherwise miss, and to generally allow for a more participatory culture of archiving.

    • Jeremy, I have similar concerns.

    • In the parameters of the 175 allowable words for a USA Today “Letter to the editor”, the point I was trying to make is that a “collector” is not an “archivist”. Collectors (which I do not consider to be an accurate term for those who work to document their communities) are focused on gathering together items with a focus they themselves have defined based on their own interest, and with little to no interest in most cases, in sharing what they have collected for use by others. Some may loan things for exhibits, or allow a user to review the collection, but use and access are not the imperatives they are for an archivist. So to me distinguishing features for an archivist are the acquisition of archival/historical records based on an acquisition/collecting policy that is defined by an institution/group with the intent of making those materials widely available to any and all users.

      The term(s) we want to use to refer to others who work to document communities, groups, topics to ensure that history/documentation survives are, I think, different from collectors. I have heard many side discussions about what to call people in that role–some of my colleagues object to the term “citizen archivist” because some communities feel that the word “citizen” implies that those without US citizenship are not “welcome”. Others are concerned that we argue so much for “respect” for archivists, then don’t express concern when it is used by or with people with no training, and sometimes evidencing bad practice based on lack of knowledge. Lots of opinions have surfaced, but sporadically and often not in an interactive conversation.

      I’d encourage all of us to have a more focused and direct discussion of how we define “archivist”, and what appropriately respectful terms we might use with those who play key positive roles in ensuring the identification of and access to a wider documentation but are not “trained” archivists. Perhaps a pop up session at SAA or at some of our regional archival associations? It would be great if there is interest in pursuing further discussion in a more formal setting–up to you all!

  5. Way to go Kathleen!! Thank you!

  6. Beautiful letter, Kathleen! The archival profession is diverse enough to make broad general statements difficult, but this is an excellent synopsis of some of our essential characteristics as a profession.

  7. Thanks so much for making this important public point. If you were to expand on this letter, you could add a sentence just before the final one: “By creating archival programs, institutions and organizations make a commitment to preserving materials of lasting value for future generations.” This recognizes the institutional nature of our profession and its commitment to long term preservation, both essential elements of our professional identity.

  8. I’ve noticed that the language of museums and libraries is becoming used in more general contexts (my current curiosity is the spread of “curate”) — I can understand the desire to find a “new word” that will help draw attention to a topic, but I wonder if we will lose the original definition of these terms as we apply them in unusual ways.

  9. We need to retain a sense of humor about language changes, otherwise we will become one angry profession. “Curate,” “archive,” “archives,” and many other words have taken on much more meaning then our profession would have preferred. As long as our profession communicates value to our institutions and society, I believe we will be okay even with these maddening reapplications of language. Reference to the “White House Plumbers” during the Watergate scandel never affected the value I place on the person who fixes my faucet. Our status as a profession should not teeter on the misuse of one word, and if it does maybe we need to consider how we communicate our value. Nevertheless, as Orwell effectively described over 60 years ago, language is political. Kathleen’s response is appropriate, but let’s move on. Lables can only confer so much content.

  10. Pingback: On the Permanency of the Internet, or Schock and Awe | Finding Aid

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