On Being an Archivist

I wanted to be a librarian for many years before becoming one.  I was inspired by an article in the Providence Public LibraryProvidence Sunday Magazine about the Providence Public Library.  I thought, “How cool would it be to walk into that building everyday to go to work?”  When I finally took the leap and went to grad school, I decided to become an archivist instead.  I love working with older documents.  One of the things I loved when I was new in this field and doing my internships is that when I stumbled upon a cool original document while processing collections, I would immediately tell my supervisors, people who have been working in the field for twenty years or more.

I thought they would be ho-hum about seeing another cool document by a famous person.  But, No, they weren’t.

They got just as charged up about it as I did.  They all said the same thing, “Let me see.” When I did an Beyond god the fatherinternship at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, I had the honor of doing an initial survey on the papers of Mary Daly.  In her collection I found letters from Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis, among others.  When I told my supervisor, Maida, she got excited and said, “Let me see.”  I thought she would have seen it all by then, having worked in Smith’s archive for over twenty years, but she was impressed and curious and had to see.  The women’s whose documents I found might not mean much to you, but I grew up listening to them, reading their words, and learning from them.  They’re like rock stars in my world.

Recently while working in another archive where I supervised a couple of student interns, one of Jacques Derridamy students found a signed letter by Jacques Derrida, the postmodern philosopher.  You would have thought he had won the lottery he was so excited.  He had read a number of Derrida’s books and considered him a hero.  A few days later when I was surveying another collection, I stumbled upon handwritten thank-you notes Fear of Flyingfrom Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. That’s what I love about working in the archives.  We get to see and feel the documents of people we love and admire, and more importantly, preserve them so a researcher in the future can experience the same thrill  of discovery.

What’s an Archivist?

Welcome to my blog.  I am about to launch a personal history archives business and thought it would be a good idea to begin sharing my ideas in this format.  I’ve been thinking about starting this business for several years and find that the time is finally right to get it going.  I’m in the process of writing a book that will teach people how to archive their memorabilia.  It occurs to me that most people have never entered an archive or looked through an archival box of materials, never mind knowing how to store materials for long-term preservation.

Mass Historical Society

The archives at the Massachusetts Historical Society contain many original materials such as letters, diaries, and deeds.

What’s an archivist you may ask.  We are similar to librarians and often work in libraries but our jobs are very different.  It’s like the difference between a nurse and a physical therapist.  We work in the same field but what we do specifically is very different.  The basic difference is that librarians care for books, and nowadays, increasingly, digital materials and resources.  The books and digital materials that librarians care for can be found in many libraries throughout the region, the country and even the world.  There are multiple copies of these things. 

Archivist on the other hand, work with one-of-a-kind materials.  We work with the documents produced by individuals and companies often in their daily activities.  Many things can be found in archives but what makes them similar, is that all the documents are one-of-a-kind and cannot be found anywhere else.  These include diaries, ships logs, correspondence, art work, and original drafts.

John Adams by David M

Adams’ letters, diaries, and deeds, archived at the MHS, were used to create this biography.

Think of it this way:  One of the most recent famous books on John Adams is David McCullough’s book of the same name.  This book can be found in numerous libraries and in people’s homes around the country.  You may have a copy on your library shelf.  The copy of David McCullough’s book housed at the Boston Public Library will be cared for by a librarian.  On the other hand, the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, around the block from the BPL, has the original letters, diaries, deeds, bookkeeping records and other items belonging to John and Abigail Adams.  The archivists at the Mass Historical Society care for those documents. David McCullough used the documents in the Mass Historical Society to write his book, now found in many libraries.