Archives in the News: The Delicate Art of Stereotyping Archivists
Updated: Aug 20
The purpose of this blog is about examining how popular culture depicts archivists, archives, and all manner of in between. The reason being that there is a dearth of literature within the archival community about the subject, but there are plenty of movies, television shows, books, etc. that presume to know our profession, and our personalities, but only end up reinforcing stereotypes we constantly combat. So when articles like Alice Dreger's "The Delicate Art of Dealing With Your Archivist" are released into the mainstream it then falls on us, the actual archivists, to counter such condescending pieces with a dose of reality.
Dreger isn't the first researcher to delight in "revealing" some aspect of the archive no one's ever discovered nor is she the first to lament the short-comings of my profession and the lack of resources ready to serve her researching purposes. But while she's busy trying to quip about Mensches, Snobs, and Distractors she fails to grasp the enormity of an archivist's scope of work and diminishes our labor as if our primary goal in life is to prostrate before the altar of historical researchers in hopes that they might spread the word and deliver unto us a slew of new users. Sorry, but I've got shit to do and catering to your every whim isn't in my job description. I wonder which category Dreger would put me in?
The response from the archival community has been glorious with opinion pieces sparking renewed conversations about the actual day-to-day labor of archivists from every type of repository and institution. I'll give her this, Dreger hit a nerve. I have some friends and family who still, despite repeated explanation, do not understand what it is I do, so having an article like this come out hasn't helped that conversation at all. One of those pieces by Libby Coyner specifically outlines exactly where she concentrates her labor. Spoiler alert: everywhere. And that's not hyperbole. Libby, like many of us in the profession, operates either as a lone archivist or as part of a woefully understaffed team. Why so little staff? Because the institution may not have the money to spend or chooses not to spend money on the archives. In those cases, archivists have to make the case for their existence and why they deserve additional funding. That means spending time compiling reports on user activities and trying to amplify outreach efforts to draw attention to the benefits of archival materials. But that means something inevitably falls by the wayside, contributing to a growing backlog of unprocessed materials that might have been processed if they had the necessary staff. So, yes, there are many times when archivists lack knowledge of their collections and rely on users to help uncover and note those materials, but did Dreger ever bother to ask why? Maybe, if she took an interest in archivists beyond the Heiresses, Mooches, and Bureaucrats she'd know there's more to them and their collections beyond reductive prose.
For my own part, I work in a corporate archive and there is just as much time and effort put into catering to users as you'll find from university or museum archivists. For example, four years ago my company, Callison, was merged with another company, RTKL, after being acquired by a larger corporation, Arcadis. Prior to the merger, we were sitting at around 500 employees spread around the states, Europe, Middle East, and China. After the merger we ballooned to 1500. How many archivists did we have? Two, including myself. How many after the merger? Three, and our third person was hired less than a year ago. That's it.
Three people in charge of a massive amount of hardcopy and digital intellectual property. Three people who have to train administrative assistants, IT techs, and HR personnel how to process project documents and drawings because we can't be in every office. Three people trying to decipher years of poor recordkeeping practices with only a spreadsheet and limited knowledge from users available. Three people who've been trying to update a company retention policy for two years that keeps getting delayed because God forbid someone has to say yay or nay regarding the legal destruction of records. Three people who vetted and implemented a new knowledge management database and now have to justify the contract renewal when the annual fee is less than half of what we pay to store materials in one Iron Mountain facility. And that only scratches the surface of what pops up unexpectedly during the course of my day.
I don't know Alice Dreger, but I would hope she'll come to understand that her taxonomy diminishes my profession, my colleagues, and my labor. Perhaps instead of trying to stuff us into convenient yet simplistic stereotypes she'll do her research and gain some insight into archivists the same way she finds inspiration in historical records.