Ask an Archivist

When people think of archives at all, they think of mouldering files in forgotten basements or top-secret government reports that shady agents go rogue for in order to PROVE THEIR INNOCENCE.

The truth is that real-world archives lie somewhere between those two extremes. There are definitely juicy, delightful secrets hidden in your local archives, but there are also a ton of super boring records and nasty paper cuts awaiting you. Before diving into archival research, you need to be prepared, is what we’re saying.

The purpose of this column is to answer your burning questions about archives — everything you wanted to know, from how to find photos of foxy ye olde men, to how to unearth the documentary proof supporting your pet conspiracy theory.

We’ll also answer some of your most pressing questions about how archives work. Like:

I’ve walked by my local archives hundreds of times. I’m not an academic, so while I’m kind of curious about the place, I’m completely intimidated. And with books and the trusty internet, should I even bother?

In short, yes! The wide world of knowledge and crumbly paper awaits you. You are not alone in your feelings of trepidation about crossing the archival threshold; unlike in a library, it’s difficult simply to wander into the archives and skulk around without drawing attention to yourself. I should know: during my first visit to the archives as an undergrad at university, I got confused and walked into a glass door. Personal and pride-related injuries aside, archives hold all kinds of delicious treasures just waiting to be discovered, and they need people like you — i.e., those who look at the archives’ building and wonder what’s inside, rather than those who look at the archives building and wonder if they have a public washroom and cafe (though don’t get me wrong, those are perfectly valid concerns) — to discover them.

Books are great (hurrah books!), but they tend to give the bigger picture view whereas things like letters, photos, diaries, and case files on underage servants (for example) provide the nitty gritty details that bring that larger picture to life. Sure, sometimes samples of this stuff are available online or in books, but those are just the ones that someone else just like you already found! So say, for instance, you know your great-grandfather fought in World War One. Interesting enough, but nothing to write home about. But did you also know that his military service file — which may be found in an archives somewhere — will tell you that he contracted syphilis while on active duty? Now there’s something to put in the family Christmas card next year.

I can sense I’ve piqued your interest, yes? You want to know more about the life of the ghost lady who haunts your local historic grist mill? Excellent! So now that you’re through the front doors, you’ll probably encounter archivists, a.k.a. the people who’ve made snooping around in other people’s private papers their career. They’re there to help, and aside from the odd cranky one recovering from an unwarranted attack by an over-zealous genealogist are generally more than happy to guide you through the research process. They know the collections really well and may even be able to point you in the direction of something no one else has ever looked at. Ducks’ feet? No problem! Dirt-dishing personal diaries? Right this way! An actual Nobel Peace prize? Follow me and bring your muscles, because that thing is pure gold and heavy.

Basically any archivists worth their salt just want people to use their holdings, so take advantage of that … get a research pass and get digging!

What’s up with the white gloves?

Okay, first, white gloves are SUPER controversial in the archival world. Seriously, if you want to get a room full of archivists riled up (and who wouldn’t?) ask them their opinion on white gloves. To answer the question, you first have to know the difference between an archives and a library (if getting a room full of archivists riled up is not enough and you want to actually drive them into an old-fashioned lather, say that archives are the same as libraries). Most libraries deal with books, which come in multiple copies. If you drop your library book into the bath tub and bring it back all puffy, the librarian is going to look at you sternly over her pince-nez, but she will not accuse you of destroying the building blocks of history, or tampering with one of the foundational safeguards of democracy.

Archives, by their very nature, contain unique items. As such, one of an archivist’s key duties is to safeguard and preserve them. That means mitigating the disaster caused by the great grubby unwashed pawing through lovely, pristine records. Which brings us to the gloves. Your hands are revolting … Just ask a clean person. When your disgusting grunge rubs off on the document you’re examining, not only does it soil the item, it can actually damage it. Maybe not immediately, but multiple handlings over decades will deteriorate the record to the point that it is no longer readable.

The tricky thing with gloves, though, is that slipping your hands into those cotton bad boys makes you much clumsier. Without the tactile feedback you get through actually touching a fragile document, you can end up being a little mini-paper shredder. Fine, your finger filth isn’t soiling the pages, but that doesn’t do much good if you’re now holding two pieces of the original manuscript of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken instead of one.

So, the debate rages on — do you let unclean researchers rifle through the records, rubbing their sickening finger oil all over the precious documents, or do you force them to wear white gloves, which make them more liable to rip or tear a document and do very very bad mime impersonations? A lot of archival repositories have tried to find a middle ground … Use gloves only when touching photographs and film, which really do go kablooey with too much handling, let the glove-wearing slide for most textual documents, and keep a sharp eye over your pince-nez when anyone’s got their mitts on something really precious.

And, what’s up with all the PAPER? Didn’t we go digital in the last millennium?

It’s true that we archivists love us some paper. All silky to the touch and smelling like trees. Well, to be fair, half of us love paper. If the glove/no glove divide isn’t enough, archivists fall into two bitterly divided camps of ‘keepers’ and ‘thrower-outers.’ Or, if you prefer, hoarders and neurotic crazies. But no matter your archival persuasion, chances are you’d choose a box of paper over a box of floppy disks any day. Here are a few reasons why:

1. It turns out there IS such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Here’s the thing: you know where you are with paper. Someone writes a letter with their flouncy fountain pen, and presto, you have one letter. Only one decision needs to be made (keep it or throw it out), one set of things needs to be done (preserve it or destroy it) and then we can move on. Not so with electronic records (‘e-records’, in the biz). Remember when they said the digital revolution would lead to the ‘paperless office’? Never have we been so hoodwinked. Rather than reduce paper consumption, the personal computer led to an explosion in paper records. People printed crap with abandon. Eight times over.

2. Digital messes with your head.

Another tricky thing about e-records is finding them. It’s the intellectual equivalent of herding an army of imaginary cats, or the whole world suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. Let’s take the example of everyone’s de facto e-records archive, the internet. We thought that the internet would be our Room of Requirement, but instead it’s turned out to be the Lestrange Vault at Gringott’s: while there is definitely precious treasure in there, it’s hidden under piles of shiny, worthless, ever-multiplying trinkets. The internet promised us unlimited room for storage, and, therefore, scope for discovery. But our brains don’t actually cope very well with infinity. How do we look for something in a pool whose limits we can’t even imagine? Archivists hate it when you feel lost or like you’re navigating without a map (it means we’ve done our job badly). We get twitchy about e-records because their organization is (often) not logical or hierarchical.

Instead, nowadays everyone just uses Google to find stuff. This means that we all know exactly the same 10 (somewhat random) things about any given topic. This upsets the anal-retentive archivist. You, the researcher, have probably missed out on some gems that are of specific interest to you. More importantly, we suspect that this new way of seeking and acquiring knowledge is changing our brains, changing the way people process and understand information. That’s not necessarily bad, but it certainly is a huge shift in human intellectual interaction. We’re not so big on change: we like cardigans (re-boxing can be chilly business), and cardboard containers (plastic ‘off-gasses’ … serious), and mint-green pumps.

3. Bits & Bytes are scary and hard.

More accurately, they’re unpredictable. If you forget a box of letters in your attic, with a bit of luck, 200 years from now, someone will find it and still be able to read them. But that box of 5.25 inch floppies (remember how adorable those things were? With that giant arm you had to fold down on the computer to keep them in place?) Forget it. Even if — by some miracle — the data on the disk hasn’t been corrupted, most people don’t have the hardware to use it. Also, you need to be running WordPerfect 1.0. The DOS version.

We have no idea what’s going to happen to those bits and bytes a hundred years from now; this world is brand new. In fact, most experts agree that the late twentieth century will be a bit of a black hole in terms of collective memory. None of us really knew what we were doing, a bit like that time when doctors got everyone with a cold addicted to heroin, or when people decided it would be a good idea to line pipes with lead.

Obviously, digital is the future. And archives around the world are doing super cool things with e-records. But if trying to figure out how to acquire and preserve digital records is the Holy Grail for archivists, to be honest, right now we’re more Monty Python than Indiana Jones.

An archivist” is a group of ladies who love acid-free file folders and the smell of vinegar syndrome in the morning.

Image by Antonio Abrignani, via Shutterstock

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