You may have seen archivists on television helping people to discover their roots in old records or talking to historians (or detectives!). But you might be wondering what archivists do the rest of the day. Even if you visit an archive – and we hope you will – a lot of what we do goes on behind the scenes.
In this post, we’ll give you a sneak peek into the daily tasks of the archivist. It’s important for you to know what we do because the materials we preserve for the future belong to everyone. These records don’t just tell us where we came from; they also contain evidence used to make current decisions that will affect our lives now and in the future. (For more on the value of archives, see our post “Why Archives Matter”.)
Knowing how archivists work can also help you as a researcher to use archives. Archivists use terminology and techniques that are unique to their profession. An understanding of how archives are structured will help you interpret and appreciate archival records.
To put our work in context, remember that at PAMA’s archives we take care of government and private records documenting places and people in the geographical area of what is now the Region of Peel. To get a sense of the scope of subject matter we deal with, jump to the end of this article.
Here’s a closer look at our core tasks.
Obtaining and assessing records
Appraisal, selection, and acquisition
Aside from government records, much of the archival material we acquire comes in as donations. We document every stage of the donation process so that donors and archivists know what, when, and how material is being given.
Archivists need to be selective about what material we accept in the interests of building a representative and cohesive collection. To do this, we team acquisition of records with appraisal.
If you’ve watched antique shows, you might associate “appraising” a collection with determining how much money it’s worth. Archivists do need to do this for insurance or tax purposes.
But archival appraisal is a much broader and more important task. Archives can’t and don’t keep everything from the past. Appraisal means making methodical judgements about what should be kept for the future (and why, and how) – all the while trying to make sure we aren’t favouring our own biases.
Because our appraisals decide what makes it into the archives, we determine which voices from the past will be heard in the future. That’s quite a responsibility!
Appraisal involves all these things:
- Visiting potential donors of large collections to see if and how much material should be saved
- Studying individual documents as we organize them (see below)
- Researching the background history and context of collections
- Writing reports documenting our reasons for accepting or declining records
- Reviewing documents to ensure privacy legislation is observed and copyright status is clear
Organizing and storing records
Accepting documents into the archives is only the beginning. Records are meant to be consulted, but they seldom arrive in a condition that is easy to use or interpret. Archivists organize and document the content of groups of records; by doing so they both preserve documents and make them useable.
One step is to arrange the material in a way that doesn’t disturb important connections, clarifies how the records were used, related, or collected, and makes it easier to navigate the records. Archival arrangements are usually hierarchical and involve divisions and subdivisions of topics.
As we carefully work out a way to structure a collection, we physically process the records based on this organization by sorting, filing, labelling and rehousing records in archival containers.
Arrangement isn’t just filing. In fact it’s so tricky that we’ll write another post on how archival records are organized.
How do you know which archival collections to use? Archivists have developed systematic ways to summarize collections – called descriptions—that give researchers snapshots of what they can expect to find in collections. Archivists need to choose their words carefully, thinking about the best way to capture important points about a collection; descriptions are a window on the content of the collection.
Descriptions form part of finding aids, or guides to individual archival collections. (You can consult finding aids in our reading room.) We also enter descriptions into our onsite database.
Of course we don’t and can’t often list every individual item in a collection. The description can tell you whether a collection is a good bet for your research, but there’s always work for researchers to do in discovering archival material relevant to their own projects.
For more, see our post on how archivists describe collections (it will give you some tips on deciphering finding aids too).
Preservation and conservation
Older records can be vulnerable in many ways, from 1880s brittle paper to 1980s unreadable floppy disks. We stabilize records by housing them in protective containers and storing them in climate controlled conditions. We also need to know how to deal with some conservation problems, like tears in paper or obsolete digital formats.
For complex or badly damaged records we sometimes need to call on expert conservators. We also selectively digitize records so that they can be viewed without handling the originals more than necessary.
Connecting people with records
Once we’ve made records useable, we can help people to consult them.
One of our essential functions at PAMA’s archives includes answering inquiries from four municipal governments. We’re frequently called upon to provide documents to governmental bodies as they make decisions about planning, legal, and other matters.
A large part of our day also includes helping citizens to use the records we’ve processed. Because we work so closely with collections, we’re a good resource when you’re wondering what directions to follow in your research.
We help people in all kinds of ways, from deciding what records to access, to deciphering old handwriting, interpreting unfamiliar record types, and using our microfilm readers.
Collaboration and outreach
Here at PAMA, we work closely with both the museum and the art gallery to help plan exhibitions on a variety of themes. We also plan our own exhibits shown in our reading room so that you can see fascinating groups of records up close. As time allows, we also sometimes provide presentations for community groups.
Like any other job, the archivist’s working day also includes lots of administrative tasks, like keeping statistics on archives use, registering archival researchers, ordering special supplies, supervising student interns, keeping our space safe and secure, maintaining our technological tools, and making sure the phones and emails are answered.
Over time, Peel has comprised all of these:
- A geographical area twice the size of post-amalgamation Toronto
- Seventeen municipalities
- Over 130 named communities as well as hundreds of old and new subdivisions
- About 140 cemeteries
- Hundreds of schools and churches
- Thousands of organizations and associations
- Tens of thousands of businesses
- Millions of residents
Every month we take in boxes of records from government and private donors, and we field numerous inquiries from people throughout the province and beyond.
The answers to these questions sometimes find their way into new records which then find their way to us. No wonder we have our hands full!
Taking care of archives can be a surprisingly busy occupation. We think it’s also one of the best in the world.
posted by Samantha Thompson, archivist