Archivists: World Shapers and Window Makers

Every archival document has the capacity to act as a source of knowledge about the past, but a very particular, precious, and unique source. Archival documents are the only evidential window we have on the action-oriented past, because they arise in the course of our acting in relation to one another and to events in the world.

–Terry Eastwood, “How Goes it with Appraisal?”

During my previous job as a processing assistant, I loved to view each record as a little window into another world.  I would stare into each photograph, letter, or manuscript and wonder.  I would wonder what those people in the photograph looked like before they became little black-and-white pictures.  I would imagine what the air must have felt like around them and how the politics during their period affected their lives.  I would wonder if they loved someone or something.  And I would try to connect all the records in a collection like worlds in a universe and sculpt a story with them.  I always wished I could jump right into the photograph or become the hand that was penning the letter.  I wished that I could see and feel this other world, this world whose only connection to mine was through a little window that I would soon place into a protective sleeve and then into an acid-free box.

This trip to the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh allowed us to jump into another world. We were not just archivists, silent documenters and preservers of the world around us.  We were making active decisions that both affected history and the way people would remember it.  Each picture taken, camera angle chosen, and question asked potentially provided a different view of the world we were in. In other words, we were world shapers and window makers.

As window makers, we were lucky to have guidance, experience, and a clear strategy.  We were under the direction of two experienced archivists, Dr. Mary Choquette (UMD) and Kathy Carbone (CalArts).  All of us had at least one year of library school under our belts and therefore had a foundation of the basic principles and techniques behind the archival process.  Lastly, many of us (myself included) had archival experience.  We worked as a group to come up with a recording plan that would most accurately represent the show, an oral history technique that would allow us to gain needed information from the interviewees, and a cataloguing and metadata strategy that would best describe our archives.

As world shapers, we participated in Fringe festivities, attended shows, and interacted with the subjects we documented on a daily basis.  We made friends, both with each other and with the CalArts folks we worked with.  We ate, drank, and traveled together.  And many of our memories will only be within us.  But some of them have been captured, and it excites me to think that one day, someone might go through our collection.  And that person might look through our photos, read our blog posts, or watch our recordings.  And she might catch a wonderful glimpse of our world.

Below are a few of my favorite windows:

About Heather Darnell

I am going into my second year of library school at the University of Maryland, studying archiving with a focus on music and sound librarianship.

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