Assignment 6: Personal Reflection

Before I took this class I did not realize how many things archivists have to think about on a daily basis. Having done some work in the history room at my library I knew there was more to archiving than simply storing documents, but I didn’t consider just how precarious and fragile all of the different types of documents are (both analog and digital), how important context is for understanding documents, and I was very unfamiliar with collections (I thought of archives in terms of single documents instead of groups of collections). This was the concept that was the greatest paradigm shift for me, as I would have gotten hung up on documenting archives down to every last individual document, but the Meissner and Greene article “More Product, Less Process,” together with the lecture notes on original order and provenance, have convinced me it is better to save my time for outreach and collection development, and to trust that researchers are willing to do some leg work to get what they need.

Another perspective I gained from this class is considering the interests of researchers, collection owners, and institution administration. Often times when I am working in the history room at my library I feel like I am doing the work for the sake of the work, and I don’t think about larger-picture tasks such as collection descriptions, community outreach and engagement, and even privacy concerns. Because the history room is in the lower level of the library, and it’s not open to the public, I am often the only one down there and I tend to lose this perspective; I can get lead into thinking the items are being preserved just for the sake of preservation, not so much because they are useful to anybody.

My favorite assignments were the Eric Theodore Carlson (ETC) records (The Abstract and Biographical Note) and the “Describe Archives in Plain Words” assignment. I like the ETC assignment because, while I did spend a good amount of time going through most of records word for word, I learned what information is most valuable to researchers (dates, broad subjects, document type (personal correspondence, military papers, etc.), and maybe some names) and what information is not necessary, and I can now apply this to future description work. Your insistence on short descriptions, along with the examples and explanation that researchers don’t actually want to have to read a lot when deciding whether something will be worth their time, hammered home the point. I liked the “Plain Words” assignment because it required me to describe archives using words that are easy to understand, which leads to greater understanding of the concepts. In order to accurately describe a concept or process using words you have a good understanding of requires you to truly “get” the concept or process. It also forced me to think about the services and benefits archives provide to the public, from research to ensuring that what happened is what is recorded and history isn’t edited. Thinking through the lens of your audience is a good way to remind you of what is truly important, and this can help make concepts clearer because you have the focus of audience usability to measure concepts against.

The one lesson I feel can use improvement is the one about the Archival Descriptive Standards. From what I could understand, they are basically an attempt at making archives everywhere use the same vocabulary and structure to make it easier for researchers to find and understand information no matter which archives they go to. However, there are so many acronyms and terms that are not often used in ordinary day-to-day interactions, such as this excerpt from the lesson: “EAD is a data structure used for encoding archival finding aids using XML (Extensible Markup Language). In addition to allowing a single archival repository to standardize and manage its collection descriptions, EAD and its resulting standardization of the structure of finding aids allows for the sharing, collecting, and comparison of finding aids across repository lines.” A person reading this has to remember what EAD stands for, has to think about what XML is, and they have to figure out what repository lines are referring to, and maybe even more. And this is just one definition, but there are three of them on the page! I think you can make it clearer by providing real-world examples from your experience, and go lighter on the acronyms when giving the descriptions (Archival Descriptive Standards in plain words, haha!).

Overall, I feel you have done a good job driving home the basic concepts, as you build on them with each new lesson. By the end of the course, I felt I had a good sense of what is important in archives (born digital materials are going to become more in-demand for preservation, digital preservation is arguably more complex than analog preservation, promotion of the work of archivists and the role archives play is essential for getting people to utilize them more and for convincing management to set aside enough of their budget for archives, and all of the people archivists have to consider when faced with ethical dilemmas). I get the sense from this class that as long as I keep the above principles in mind during my work with the archives, I will be doing a quality job.

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