I received a question last night that made me more uncomfortable than any question I’ve had in a very long time. I honestly didn’t know how to respond. This morning I brought it up to my husband and, after discussing it through with him, I decided how best to answer it. Here’s the question:
"I will be archiving some material at my local public library. Is there a simple how-to for newbie archivists? It's all volunteer there, so there's no trained archivists on site."
This may seem like an innocent enough question, but it’s not unlike someone who’s been in a major accident asking the doctor, ‘Is anything wrong?’ There is no right or wrong answer because there’s simply no way to know with the information that’s available at that point in time. Of course, I could have responded to the person and asked for additional information. But that’s not the issue about this question that makes me so uncomfortable.
Let me ask you this: would you hire someone off the street to do your family research? Or how about going up to a random person in a Library’s genealogy section and asking them? That person may or may not know anything about the Genealogical Proof Standard. I didn’t when I started researching my family in 1996. Heck, I didn’t know there was a GPS until 2011! I hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Shown Mills, Dr. Thomas Jones or pretty much any other highly respected professional in the Genealogical community. That’s not to say that I didn’t know how to find a family tree on RootsWeb or how to go to the Newberry Library to look up information in a book, but I had no concept of the proper standard for genealogical work.
Even more, I didn’t know how important it was to cite my sources. This is an element of the GPS that probably causes the most heated debate. But, as anyone who’s done genealogical research for more than a few years can probably tell you, there’s a painful lesson in looking at a key piece of information needed for a proof statement and realizing you can’t use it because you have no clue where that information came from. It’s a lesson that may not be learned for years, because the lack of a proper citation might take years to uncover in a large volume of research. The simple fact remains, you can’t just say that “Joe Smith is the direct descendant of Charlemagne” without some corresponding evidence. Well, you can say it, but that doesn’t make it a fact.
How does this correlate with the question? “Archiving” is not something you learn in a few hours. Just like genealogical research skills and best practices, it takes years to learn the intricacies of the best practices in Archival Sciences. And yet we are faced with the realization that, just like someone who is starting to look into their family history, there is the need to protect and preserve primary materials in places that don’t have the resources to hire a Professional Archivist. There are steps to be taken to get the process started, but there are also mis-steps that could create challenges in the future, or worse, the loss of information and/or materials.
So, just as there’s a need for Professional Genealogists to get the word out to new family historians about best practices and proper standards, Professional Archivists need to find a way to educate those who ask questions that cause that uncomfortable feeling. Doing nothing, not sharing the knowledge that can ensure the material will be stabilized to preserve it for the long term, won’t suffice. Locating reasonable resources that can point beginners in the right direction is essential to ensure a safe start for any Archives not created by someone trained in the Archival Sciences. Because, believe it or not, there is a LOT of science involved in working in an Archives. There’s years worth of information to learn, some of which is critical to the long term health of the material over which someone is now the steward. And, what may seem to be the best thing to do may indeed be the worst thing to do for a collection. Just like not citing sources is one of the worst things that happens in genealogical research. (To be fair, I’m admitting that I have lots of material in my research that does not have source citations. I’ve been researching since 1996 and it wasn’t until the beginning of 2012 that I started looking at the best practices of genealogy. But, I've learned the importance of this best practice and apply it to all my current research.)
As a trained Archivist who’s worked in a wide variety of Archives for the last eight years, I worry about the number of people being tasked with the responsibility of ‘archiving’ materials for public use, as is the person who asked me this question. Granted, this group may be forced into this situation by a lack of funding, but that shouldn’t stop the professionals in charge from seeking the assistance of a Professional Archivist to set the proper structure for their new Archives. They shouldn't be leaving that responsibility to someone without Archival Sciences education.
Fortunately, the Society of American Archivists is working on “Best Practices for Volunteers in Archives”, a document that, according to the website (http://www2.archivists.org/ accessed 18 March 2014), will go to the Standards Committee for review and be available in May 2014. In the meantime, for those who are interested in an answer to this question, I can direct you to several very good resources:
I wrote an article for Archives.com that explains, in layman’s terms, the process of ‘Processing’ material. You can find it here:
This does not answer the person's question, I know. I wish I could go to their location and help them get their Archives started. But I can't, so I have to be satisfied with providing what information I can that will help. Researchers generations from now may depend on what we do.