"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
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.