In this installment of our Ask an Archivist series, History Factory Marketing Manager Sam Grabel spoke with Jen Wiley, C.A., HF’s senior manager, consulting and reference, to learn some archival basics and clarify misconceptions about the industry.
Jen Wiley: An archives, in its most base sense, is a collection that’s relevant to an organization or person — or whatever scope you define — that has both historical value and informational value. The most important part of that is that both of those things have to have continuing value. So, it has to be something that is going to have longevity in how it applies to the organization or the person. A lot of archives are alive and continue to collect things as they go. So that means that sometimes that perspective changes over the course of the life of the archives.
There are also archives, especially with personal collections, that start when that person is no longer here — whether they pass from this life or move on from an organization. And because of that, there can be a much tighter definition of what that collection is going to look like. But we all just have to be flexible and willing to work with whatever the collection is to figure that out.
JW: An archives is the collection and the archive is the place, is the easiest way to differentiate. An archive can be the actual building, it can be a repository, it can be a room. But the archives, with an S, is the actual collection.
SG: So, when somebody walks into the archive and is looking to explore the archives, how do they go about finding things?
JW: Well, hopefully you have an archivist who knows the collection. A lot of our job involves trying to make a collection usable, regardless of whether we’re the person who created the actual system. We have a thing in our industry about not wanting things to go away if someone gets hit by a bus. If only one person knows the system of arrangement and where things are, that’s bad.
We do have standardized and systemized processes that help us figure it out. We have set hierarchies that have systems of arrangement built into them in a categorical sense. And we document everything. The No. 1 thing about our guides is that we document everything. We have our systems of arrangement that help us find items quickly. We also catalog items in a way that they’ll have numbers. Everything’s very carefully recorded and described so that we can easily find what you’re looking for.
We work with clients to find out what the correct tags are for them, because a term that makes sense to us but doesn’t make sense to the client is a worthless tag. Additionally, we go through a very long process when we first get the collection to group things together that are similar, whether it is similar types of material by subject or similar types of materials physically.
So, in summary, how you find stuff is that you take very painstaking steps while putting the collection together, so that later, there is no pain in finding the item. We do a lot of heavy legwork before a group of items officially becomes the archives.
SG: You mentioned that we group similar types of materials together. What types of materials do we collect?
JW: We collect anything and everything. I used to describe it like that when I was earlier in my career. I would describe it like people would just like take a drawer and empty it into a box. While we will collect a lot of different materials, we do work with our clients to really figure out what is of the highest value.
Basically, we run the gamut in what we store. We collect all types of materials across all multimedia, depending on what the clients are interested in keeping. And then also we’ll make recommendations on what to keep based on what they will give us to assess.
JW: First of all, archives are not museums and, while there’s a lot of stuff in archives that could seem very boring, it’s not all about just that product. It’s the process of creating that product, launching that product. And so that can be a lot of correspondence, it can be a lot of reports. But people love — to use one of our History Factory terms — golden nuggets. The first thing that happens when we reach out to clients about starting to collect objects for them is they send an item — a T-shirt, for example — from the event they hosted. To them, the end product is what matters.
But our response is, “Do you have anything about the event that you hosted?” Because we are trying to have not just historical items, but informational items. We need the rest of that background information to give the event context because 20 years from now, 50 years from now, that end product is no longer going to have the impact that it does today without all of that information.
The other thing is that we’re not gatekeepers. And a lot of people have this misconception that we’re locking things away and keeping it from people, but our job is to make things accessible. We want to use the archives; we want clients to come in and research and pull from their own history for their work today and in the future. Technology and remote access are helping us to achieve that — stay tuned for some big announcements from History Factory on that front in the near future.