The Society of American Archivists has an advocacy campaign, A Year of Living Dangerously for Archives, that is geared towards increasing awareness of archivists and the archival profession. There are several “calls to action” and the latest one is deemed a “high-stakes archival essay test.”
Archivists tend to be distributed into two camps: the serious and the seriously sarcastic (check out the Evil Archivist twitter. Truth is spoken there). We all have our own sense of humor and reasons for entering this field, but one has to have an off-kilter mindset and/or soul to willingly choose a profession that can concurrently be enlightening and enraging, informative and infuriating, social and asocial, thought-provoking and mindlessly rote (staple and paper clip removing, I’m looking at you). I think the only high stake in this test is the SAA’s ability to not spill their beer or wine (boxed, naturally, because it’s easily concealed in a Hollinger box) while they giggle their way through our ditties.
Some will take this challenge seriously and try to convince the world of an archivist’s value and worth.
I’m just aiming to make someone smile and smirk. This is my contribution.
You’re at your sister Jean’s wedding reception and notice that your grandmother is talking to the new in-law family, pointing at you and saying something that results in a look of alarm on their faces. (They’re from a family of accountants.) Your sister hurries over to tell you that grandma is claiming that you’re an anarchist, and asks that you please introduce yourself to her in-laws and tell them what you REALLY do. You sidle up to Minnie and Joe and say, “Hi, I’m Jean’s sister/brother and I know that Grandma has been telling you about me, but is a little confused. I’m an archivist and….” Provide the rest of your explanation:
“… hold on a sec,” I pause to grab a half-full glass from the tray of a passing bus boy and snap into “talking to the clueless trustee mode.” “I’m an archivist, not an anarchist. You know those old family photos that usually sit in shoe boxes in the closet or where ever, and the trunk of old love letters in the attic or the news clippings in a scrapbook that people often have?”
Minnie slowly nods in acknowledgement of the decades of mementos hidden away in her house and mind. Jean melds an uncomfortable potty dance with awkward fidgeting set to “Gangnam Style.” She motions for me to hurry because a bride can’t go to the bathroom without a retinue holding up her gown.
I take a swig and continue. “An archivist takes all that “stuff” and arranges it in something other than random piles in Buster Brown boxes. By arranging all that ‘stuff’ in a hierarchy,” I try to explain using hand gestures indicating a downward series of steps in the air, “we establish relationships between all that,” hand gestures intensify, “and are able to exert control over the chaos. Then we can save it in a meaningful fashion for the future.”
“Chaos?” asks Minnie.
“Anarchy is chaos. Archiving is control. Two totally different things. I control things to keep chaos at bay.” Their faces reveal their thoughts. I wonder about those buttoned-up conservative types.
Joe pipes up, “I’m stuck on your concept of “future.” What type of future?”
Jean’s potty dance intensifies; she knows this could take a while. We’ve been down this road before. Then, whatever was in that glass kicks in and “drunken idealist archivist mode” activates. An imaginary soap box appears before me and I proudly stake my claim.
“A future where records are accessible to everyone and data — permanently stored information in a variety of forms: audio, video, digital, photographs, love letters and old tax returns — is secured and protected from revision and unethical change. We archivists strive to preserve the past as honestly and accurately as possible so that we can guide researchers through the levels in our collections and develop strategies to find information elsewhere, wherever it may be. We do more than just preserve paper and catalog and uphold rules on access and photocopying, we –“
“Okay, that’s enough. They got it.” Jean cuts me off. She has seen “drunken idealist archivist mode” before.
“And we do it not with a black-clad fist, but with soft white cotton gloves!!!” I eek out before Jean drags me across the room and does a tight-knee run to the loo.
Joe and Minnie exchange a glance and nod in agreement.