Ask an Archivist
Although the buzz around Bey these days is about her lip synching prowess and Superbowl hijinks, this An Archivist is far more interested in the recent revelations about her sleek, sexy, state of the art, undoubtedly bootylicious archives.
If only we’d seen this ad a couple of years ago, we might now be worrying about how to digitally migrate all that Destiny’s Child concert footage and what metadata was most appropriate for Blue Ivy’s latest Instagram.
That got us thinking, here at World Archives HQ, about other dream archives jobs out there. I mean, the perkiest perk of working in an archives is that you generally do get to peek into some records that ordinary, mortal non-archivists never dream of. Granted, you can never gab about them because professional codes of ethics/illegality/donor restrictions/basic moral compass/ blah blah blah, but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be super cool to get the inside scoop on some outré rocker or perverse royal.
So here, in no particular order, are some pretty sweet gigs — although to be clear, I don’t think any are actually hiring.
1. Bruce Springsteen: The Boss has an archive.
Undoubtedly filled with authentic* records** of his earthy, strong heartland rock.
**Double pun and I wasn’t even TRYING!
Their archive made all kinds of news, and if I knew more about this band, other than that “Ripple” makes me weep and that Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream is the disgusting exception that proves the universally acknowledged truth of B&J’s deliciousness, I would make some kind of wise crack here.
Imagine all of all the juicy dirt still squirreled away here. We think we’ve got all the gossip, what with Henry VIII’s failed marriages, the crazy haemophiliacs, and Charles’s ill-advised tampon references, but just imagine what we DON’T know. If you worked here, you’d also totally get your own birth announcement from Wills and Kate.
Also, you might just be able to swing a “grace and favour” residence, which means you’d be living rent-free at Windsor Castle. I bet the cafeteria is amazing.
The Mouse has totally monetized the archives, but there still might be a few secret documents tucked away somewhere. If I worked here, it would be my life’s mission to find the precise location of Walt’s head in the deep freezer.
More commercial than the Disney archive, the Rolling Stones Archive is all about selling you merch so that you too can feel part of the incomprehensible mystery that is the Stones’ continued cultural relevance. Still, behind the scenes, the Rolling Stones’ archivist might have access to the secret of Keith’s longevity, Mick’s energy, and whatever it is those other two get up to.
Or, how about these people?
Maybe they’re evil, but probably not. The guy they’ve got as the “story-teller in residence” might be the kind of person you desperately avoid at the water cooler, lest he tell you about his latest trip to some Moroccan riad where he made beautiful love to a belly dancer in a room filled with sandalwood incense and scarf-strewn mirrors. Still, while they’re coy about clients on their website, I bet they’re handling some juicy celebs.
Or screw it, just cut to the chase and worm your way into the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas. They’ve basically got everybody. Dig up the dirt on James Joyce, find out what those sex-crazed pre-Raphaelites were up to, read Gertrude Stein’s letters, leaf through Norman Mailer’s musings, get major insight into some of the scandals of Hollywood past by poring over the Stella Adler collection, or form your own opinion on Lewis Carroll’s relationship with Alice. It’s all there!
A.S. Byatt was so concerned about the Ransom Centre’s aggressive acquisition practices that she based the villain of her great novel Possession on the Centre’s director (pro tip: when reading Possession, feel no guilt about skipping the pages and pages of ersatz Victorian poetry). Even the New Yorker has weighed in.
Obviously, there are some sweet gigs out there for the ambitious archivist willing to fast-talk her way out of the vault or the reference desk and into a pair of diamond-encrusted white gloves.
Is it necessary to keep the minutes of meetings that took place on the same project more than 20 years ago?
The project leader says it’s important for the history of the project. Is that right?
No one has looked at these minutes for over 20 years, and the project is still running.
Ooh, good question!
And, irritatingly, the answer to your question is, ‘well, it depends…’ Your question, in dorky archives-speak, is actually about what the right ‘retention period’ is for your project minutes. And retention periods are determined — for the most part — by you peeps, that is, by the people who create, use, and manage the records in question.
In some respects, records management is a lot like friendship. You get hugely valuable things from both. Records tell you what decisions were made in the past, who made them, and how thinking has evolved. Good friends keep you honest with yourself, teach you how to apply eye shadow, and empathize with you about how annoying your mother is while never actually saying that your mother is annoying. Still, the need for even the best records or the greatest friends might change. That’s when retention periods come into play and this analogy falls apart…
Retention periods (or retention schedules) are essential to good business practice. Basically, you should keep a list of the record types found in your office, with a note, next to each one, of how long it should be kept and whether, at the end of that retention period, the document should be destroyed or kept permanently (or archived).
The goal is to keep your records around only as long as necessary, and then to get rid of them — either through destruction (maybe not like this, though), or through transfer to an ‘archives.’ And your pretty little retention schedule ensures that everyone makes a consistent decision, and that you can explain when and why this or that document disappeared (I mean, imagine if they’d had a nice, short retention period on those Watergate tapes!).
There are tons of examples out there of people who totally got pooched because they failed to establish or respect retention periods. Remember that nail-biter at the beginning of Argo when those Embassy people are trying to destroy everything before the mob smashes its way in?? In addition to wearing the hell out of a boss shag haircut, Ben Affleck knows how to exploit the inherent thrill of a records retention decision.
Without knowing anything about your case, I would say that if the project is still running, and if the minutes reflect decisions about its management, that they probably shouldn’t be destroyed. You could, though, decide on, say, 5-year retention, and send anything older to deep storage. But first go back and make that bossy project leader defend his or her decision to hang on to this stuff: Okay, so the minutes are important for the history of the project … in what way? And what do you mean by ‘history’? Is it a good enough reason for their taking up precious space in the office? Are there legal reasons why they should be kept? You may be subject to laws or regulations that prescribe retention (although in the case of project minutes probably not, unless, you know, Manhattan ‘project’). Is the project responsible to a sponsor that may have guidelines?
Finally are we talking about minutes on paper? I’m assuming yes, for the older stuff, at least. If so, and if you have a space problem, you could consider digitizing them and managing them electronically. Not that e-records don’t come with their own headaches and all, but it does seem that these new-fangled computational machines seem to be sticking around…
“An Archivist” is a group of ladies who love acid-free file folders and the smell of vinegar syndrome in the morning.