Reading Response Week 5

Readings for this week:

The theme this week is archives and the people who maintain them, archivists. I am sure to the regular person when someone mentions archives they see an image in their mind of rows and rows of shelves filled with moldy books while the image of an archivist may bring to mind an old maid with severe features obsessively collecting and cataloging an ever increasing hoard of documents. Perhaps that those images reside only in my mind when I think of archives but in truth archives and archivists play a vital role in collecting, maintaining, and cataloging important documents and materials with the ultimate goal of making sure the materials they maintain can be of use to the public now and to future generations.

Even after death, an archivist carries on their duty…

Cauvin in chapter 1 makes the point that collection mangers which includes archivists and museum mangers have to be very selective in what they will choose to keep. Principally archives usually are repositories of records generated by their sponsoring agency, a good example would be the Washington State Digital Archive which maintains records generated by Washington’s state, county and city agencies and they usually have a clearly stated legal responsibility to maintain those records. This is not always the case and frequently archives and museums have to be carefully selective in what they decide to ultimately add to their collections. Space, time, money and effort are finite so mission statements “serve as a roadmap for strategic planning and collection to fulfill the needs of the given institution.”(32) Archivists have to be judicious in what they collect, how they arrange a collection, preservation of sensitive materials and in how they make materials available to the public and researchers. A important factor that archivist have to include about material descriptions is the metadata about the object. Cauvin defines metadata as “data about data: they describe the attributes of items and give them meaning, context and organization.”(33) This activity is described as being as a core function of these institutions on par with any other core activity such as preservation, collecting, or cataloging. The role of the public historian is defined by Cauvin as being intermediaries between archivists and communities, to help in managing the tension between “Use (Access) and Storage (Restriction).”(43) Managing conflicts of interest and adhering to a strict ethics policy for historians working at archives and archivists themselves is a tightrope. Ideally the goal for archives is to make their records or objects available to the public as broadly as possible but the challenges in preserving those items along with restrictions to their availability due to things like copyright requires a deft balancing act. Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s theft of classified material from the National Archives is a good case study on the challenges archivists face in maintaining control of sensitive materials. In short archives are not merely collections of disparate objects obsessively collected by archivists who are undiagnosed hoarders but carefully curated catalogs of items with the ultimate goal of making their collections available to the public and for their preservation for future generations. For more information about the core values and ethics for archivist can be found here.

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