The summer before I left for grad school, I found myself working at a tractor parts warehouse. It was not my preferred type of employment, but had the advantages of paying well for the area and providing the opportunity for plenty of overtime. (An unforeseen perk was that I learned to drive a variant of a forklift. I still list this as a relevant skill on my resume and have high hopes that one day it will actually prove useful.) That summer, I had decided that making money was more important than having a social life so I regularly spent 60+ hours a week finding the correct parts and packing them in boxes for shipment. Most of my interaction with the other employees occurred during breaks or when we happened to be looking for parts in the same aisle. As a result, I had plenty of opportunity for reflection. One of my common reflections included similarities between my current job and the career training I would be receiving the following fall.
There were several similarities between the tractor parts warehouse and the archives and libraries where I worked during grad school.
- Shelving. They had the same institutional gray shelving. The shelves in the warehouse were definitely much dustier, but I’m relatively certain that the same company produces both warehouse shelving and that used in libraries and archives.
- Missing items. Sometimes things got lost. Regardless of whether the missing item was a gasket or a book, it was always darned inconvenient when it wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
- Cataloging. Each part had a number and was assigned another number that corresponded to a place on a shelf. Often, metadata explaining the weight and/or size of the item was included.
- Content Management Systems. I’ve decided these suckers run everything. In the tractor parts warehouse, it tracked everything from the order number, items that had been ordered, merchandise available in the warehouse, and whether or not an order had been shipped. In school, I had exposure to systems for managing books (Aleph), websites (Drupal), and documents (CONTENTdm, PastPerfect, and others).
Toward the end of the summer, when I had announced my last day and reason for my departure, many people asked me about the degree I would be pursuing in the fall. Invariably, there was always a moment when the person asked some variation of the question, “What exactly is an archive?”
I have to admit that the first time someone asked me this question, I didn’t have a good answer. I’m sure that there are many people who are much better than me at explaining exactly what an archive is. In the years since then, I’ve come to realize that this question is a symptom of one of the biggest challenges facing archives today. How can an archive be relevant and useful if potential users don’t know what it is or that it actually exists?
I think that the archival profession has a lot of improvement to do in this area. The people I worked with were familiar with and enjoyed visiting other cultural heritage institutions such as libraries and museums. I think that if archivists want to continue to exist as a profession unto themselves and not be absorbed by some combination of the library, museum and records management professions, it will be increasingly important for them to communicate what they do and the value of their institutions to the public.