Who are we?

"The archivist is dead long live the archivist"

Last week I attended my first Archives and Records Association (ARA) Conference in Manchester, where the main theme appeared to be how we identify ourselves as Archivists and how the heritage sector is changing. Ideas ranged from the definition of appraisal, search room experience, community engagement and skills. However the main topic of discussion was the role of the Archivist.

There appeared to be a move away from the traditional archivist protector of records and preserver of history with a set of core skills which stood them apart from the museum curator. In their place stands the postmodern archivist who is all things to all men, a heritage professional, throwing open the doors of the archive, engaging with the community and letting go of their control. By this they mean  allowing others use the archive how they want and not be told how it should be used or how they can access it.  

Looking into the theory is all well and good but what about the practicalities of being an archivist, how are these ideas applied.

Let’s put this into the context of the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection and a more practical definition of an archivist. In my career I have worn a few different guises as a cataloguing coordinator, project archivist and deputy archivist and have moved from traditional to sort of post-modern to somewhere in-between. Most of what was said at conference applied to local record offices who are becoming destinations for tourists like museums and facing different situations to a charity/specialist collection.

Here the role of an archivist is to preserve the history of the WVS, WRVS and Royal Voluntary Service and to make sure it is accessible now and in the future through cataloguing, digitisation, and a remote enquiry service and through working with colleagues managing our services. The Archivists are also there to support the work of the charity. It is not yet time for us to let go but we can still be innovative e.g. Voices of Volunteering and Hidden history of a million wartime women. These were projects which came from and where directed by the archives but upheld the values of the postmodern archivist and did them well; including community engagement (local, national, global) and providing access to records and information about the charity. We also hold what might be deemed a museum collection of objects and uniform but we care for them as archivists. We don’t yet have exhibition space to display these items but make them accessible through remote outreach such as our timeline. In this archive we are a mix of the two perhaps we should be called revisionist archivists not quite in the time of Jenkinson but pragmatic enough to change and develop when necessary. Essentially we don’t prioritise preservation or access but try to balance them out.

As with many things there is no definite definition of an archivist because it depends on many factors including where you work and the collections you work with. The Archivist is whoever we or our collections need us to be.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 12:00 Monday, 04 September 2017.

Labels: Archivist, Archives, Royal Voluntary Service, Heritage, Preservation, Access

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