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Learning about Archives: Day One at the Burke Library

July 10, 2014
Shelves of Archival Boxes

Shelves of archival boxes. Wonder what’s in them!

A shorter version of this post (marginally less giddy) appears on The Burke Library Blog.

First of all, why haven’t I taken an archives class yet?

I went merrily along my digital library way through my classes at Pratt, and everyone I met who was studying to be an archivist was very nice, and their classes sounded interesting and… I did not take the intro Archives class. Maybe I thought:  since I didn’t have a background in archives already? Since I have (admittedly flexible) notions about special libraries and academic libraries, rather than the predetermined plan to work in archives that the archives-class-takers seemed to have?

And then I met Brigette Kamsler at a networking event at Pratt.

And she was really nice when we talked. And she was generous enough to suggest that I become an intern with her, despite my utter lack of a background in archives. She gave me a list of things to read, that have been a really good foundation, helping me understand the theory behind archives. Almost as if I’m catching up, and taking an archives class as I read and discuss. So it’s a start. I have a lot of catching up to do, though.

At first, I was churning through the readings, feeling a little overwhelmed, like I was stuffing my head full to bursting with new concepts. But then it dawned on me: these are variations on themes and language that I read about in my introductory library science classes (when I was also a little overwhelmed and overstuffed with new concepts).

Some of the readings are, of course, going to be laying out the ideology, including justification for what an archivist’s position is, why things are selected to be preserved… and some of that sounds similar to what I’ve read about the hows, and whys, and theories of how librarians operate. So reading about archives theories started to make sense. There are readings about why archives and archivists are important, designed to inspire the work that gets done.

Useful reminder that it’s not just a job– some of these readings sound like they’re designed to inspire a personal calling, and some of them speak to the archivist’s place in an organization, whether library or otherwise. Useful when it comes to bottom-line time and the time to argue for the necessity of a position.There are readings that lay out the theory of what a collection is for. The ideology driving Brigette and the Burke seems to be: the collection is for making sure what’s there can be used, as opposed to having the collection be about preserving things for posterity under lock and key. Which makes sense.

And then there are specific procedures for processing a collection, for seeing what’s together in boxes and making finding aids so that others can know about them. As I said to Brigette, I think I want to go through those readings more slowly, with an actual box to explore, so I can see examples and relate them to what I read.

Today was my first day. Off I went to the Burke Library, avoiding getting hopelessly lost on the way to the archives office only by the grace of bumping into Sarah, my fellow Pratt student, and fellow intern, en route. (Going to and from lunch may have included the scenic route, landing me in a corner of the basement I’m pretty sure was on the opposite side of the quad.)

Today was about getting set up on the computer, writing my introductory blog post: “What do you hope to learn at Burke?” “Short answer: everything!”

Brigette gave me a tour of the archives and introduced me to all her colleagues. There is a staff of eight, a statistically improbable number of whom are named Elizabeth. I will likely be working with Brigette the most closely, learning about archives (yay!) and then also working with Elizabeth the librarian (I believe I’m Elizabeth-the-Intern for disambiguation purposes) on publicity and social media outreach. The first thing Burke!Elizabeth wants to do is talk about social media strategy, and have me look for similar cultural institutions, like special libraries, to see what they’re doing to showcase their collections online.

I made sure to ask about who’s likely to access the Union Theological Seminary archives remotely.  Someone researching a specific mission, or missionary, or a specific scholar, and wanting to know about personal papers or organizational involvements (like the history of a hospital that has missionary origins) as well as those researching specific theological traditions. Historical records for missions founded overseas can end up in the collection. I know I need to refine my understanding of who’s likely to be searching remotely, so that I can make sure the social media and blogging I do use keywords that are useful.

So today was fascinating.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2014 8:21 am

    Poking about in archives reading about the past–ooh, sounds lovely.


  1. July 3-11, 2019. LI | Jpw2013

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