October is National Archives Month. That means an entire month dedicated to emphasizing the importance of archives and the work that archivists do!
One of the questions I get asked most when I tell people what I do is: what do archivists do? Archivists do a lot of things, but put simply – archivists maintain material for future use. Most people assume that archivists mainly work in libraries or museums and work with historical photos and documents. And while that is certainly the case for a lot of archivists, it is not the only career path. There are corporate archivists, who maintain financial and business records for companies. There are also digital archivists who work to preserve the ever-changing products of the digital age that we live in today. There can also be film archivists whose main task is to preserve moving image reels. Regardless of what field an archivist is in, the objective is still the same: make this material available and preserve it for the future.
And this material that archivists work to preserve in their repository can often connect to other archives or larger collections. For example, genealogists often use archival records to help trace their family history. So if someone finds a marriage certificate during their research, the application for that license is likely on file with the local government. Archival records can be a lot like footnotes in reading; they can open up unexpected sources of new information that you may not have even considered!
Archives can also serve as a collective memory for a group or organization. Women’s archives, LGBT archives, and Native American archives are just a few examples of specialized repositories that hold records pertaining to a certain group. The information found in the records retained by these archives serves as a powerful source of history and information for current and future citizens.
For government records, the retention of information provides transparency and accountability. Perhaps the largest sector, government archives contain some of the most important records. Deeds, maps, and correspondence are archived and can give insight into the inner workings of office and to even help solve legal debates and show paths taken to overcome obstacles.
Unfortunately, many archives are underused and underfunded. Many repositories rely on government grants and private donations to operate. Also, when budget cuts come up, archives are usually one of the first areas hit by the decrease in funding.
The goal for both the archival profession and the organization is the same: to preserve content with historical value for upcoming generations. Many called into the archival field have a passion to protect the unwritten history that does not show up in history books or classrooms. They want to give a voice to those that might otherwise be forgotten, so that others may know a more complete chronicle of the past. Theirs is a past that directly and indirectly bonds us all together, both as a people and collectively as the human race. This mission rings true with many archivists in practice today. Without the vital institute of archival repositories, many stories would be forever lost. Hopefully through outreach, funding, and determination archives will become a more present entity in society and not fall by the wayside. The history of today is the greatest legacy we can pass on to those that will follow.