Monday, January 26, 2015

"Why are you an archivist?"

As part of the ongoing "Year of Living Dangerously for Archives," a call from SAA has come out for archivists to answer the question: "Why are you an archivist?"  Actually, it came out a few weeks ago, but it has taken me awhile to fully get my thoughts together.  I've found that the reasons why I am an archivist now are different than the reasons why I became an archivist.

Today was a day full of dialogue and campus-wide lecture at my institution.  The Day of Learning in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had the theme "Education for Justice: The role of education in the quest for justice."  It featured a keynote lecture by James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and many other books relating education with social justice.  Much of his lecture focused on a societal epidemic where history has become re-interpreted at the expense of cultural groups, which could be righted if people would look closer at factual and archival material.  As a follow up workshop, I attended a workshop hosted by a student organization that is dedicated to actively "fostering discussions and relationships that focus on issues of identity."  The students screened a documentary that recorded the historic events in 2007 that surrounded the campus of community members struggling to express themselves, understand each other, and make positive change for the future.  The documentary pulled on my institution's own history, alluding to the campus' ongoing struggles over 50+ years.

The reason why I became an archivist was pretty self-motivated.  I had a BA in history and while blindly trolling job ads to see what I qualified for, I saw an ad for a reference librarian at a historical center.  I hadn't thought of librarianship before, but I was interested, so I pursued it.  I did some volunteering/shadowing at a local college to get the feel for academic libraries and while shadowing their archivist, I kind of had an ah-ha! moment when prepping some institutional historic photos for a homecoming exhibit.  I enjoyed being a part of sharing history with others and I loved the methodical care that came with prepping and handling items.

But partially due to the events today, I'm realizing that there are other reasons why I'm an archivist.  I still love sharing history with others and methodically making order out of chaos.  But I also really enjoy being in an academic environment that facilitates research and scholarly discussion.  And, more of a recent discovery about myself, I love being an archivist because of the opportunity to document the underrepresented in institutional history.

To a certain degree, history is a pretty boring subject if you can't internalize why it is important.  And often, for some people, that connection to history is in the form of an emotional or sentimental connection: "My great-grandmother attended this school." "My father was the first black student to be a part of this fraternity." "My great-aunt taught here for 30 years." "My brother started a student organization for Asian American students."

I have been really drawn to try to document student life and student activity at the institutions that I've worked.  I think the student voice is often the one that is the hardest to capture, though it is usually the most coveted of resources within the repository.  Genealogists, family historians, alumni, Greek chapters, and social historians are often finding their answers to archival research in the student organized yearbook, newspaper, or the rare letter or scrapbook.  At the same time, I've been drawn to documenting the evolution of multiculturalism within an institution.  At my previous institution, I was really excited about collaborating with their diversity office to intentionally collect materials and fill in a large gap of the institution's history.  At my new institution, I hope to identify similar gaps and begin filling in the entire story.

In my opinion, the best part of being an archivist is to collect all sides of a topic and letting the students and researchers interpret them in new and exciting ways.  However, I fully believe that unless repositories have the whole story, we are sabotaging our future history lessons.  In light of this personal epiphany, I've decided that one of my goals is to make an intentional effort to track down some of the stories that have been quietly existing in the background.  Not only student organizations and voices, but also offices and departments that are key to the operations of student life and campus diversity.  I want to be sure that the history I'm collecting is representative of the entire community and not just an administrative viewpoint or a faculty viewpoint or a Greek student organization viewpoint, etc.

Truth be told, I've never had a lack of things to do in a small, liberal arts, academic archive.  There's always something to digitize, something to process, something to restore, something to preserve.  I also have some huge projects on the horizon and I'm still relatively new.  I don't want to make a lot of promises to myself that I won't be able to keep, but I do hope to make some connections and take some first steps to begin my own personal quest for justice in this educational environment.

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