Why Archives are Awesome: A Top 5 List

by Courtney Butler, former Head Editor, INALJ Idaho
previously published 7/12/13

Why Archives are Awesome: A Top 5 List

courtney butlerThis past week I began an internship with the Missouri State Archives – the very last stepping stone before receiving my MLS with a specialization in Archives and Records Management. Though graduate archives programs have undoubtedly improved greatly in the last several years, they still continually struggle with things like having enough students to keep schools from cancelling classes. While I would like to go into further detail about that in another article, I wanted to start off on a super positive note.

Thus, this post is going to focus on the top 5 reasons why I think archives are awesome. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I didn’t get into archives as a profession because I thought it sounded cool. I got into it because I landed a random summer job in one and it turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. And so without further ado, here is the list of my favorite things about archives:

 1.     Everyone can find personal connections

Courtesy of Missouri State Archives

Courtesy of Missouri State Archives

The very first year I worked at the Missouri State Archives I had only been there a couple of weeks when I happened to notice a poster hanging up in the hallway that looked incredibly familiar. After closer examination it turned out to be none other than my very own grandfather, who had passed away almost 15 years before.  No one in my family had any idea that the state archives possessed this photograph, and it was beyond incredible to find out.  While just happening upon such a gem while walking through the hallways is probably pretty rare, just about anyone can track down a treasure trove of information about his or her family if they just look in the right repository.

 2.     The items are all (mostly) unique

Books are precious to librarians. There’s no doubt about that. However, the great thing about books is that if one is lost or damaged it can almost always be easily replaced (with the exception of rare and discontinued works).  Archival materials aren’t like that. If something is lost or destroyed and there aren’t any more copies then it’s gone forever. It’s for this reason that even the most mundane records always seem a little more valuable to me and really fascinating to work with.

 3.     Archives are a clear window to the past

Have you ever wanted to live in a different time period? Or even just wondered how people actually lived “back then”? I am enamored with people of the past. One of my favorite things I run across when working with records is descriptions of people. Sometimes it’s army records that list height, weight, eye color, hair color, etc. Sometimes it’s actual photographs. Sometimes it’s letters or diaries or official accounts in journals. Regardless of format, I adore being able to see and know the way people dressed, worked, and lived in times gone by. You can find this information elsewhere, but it is plentiful in archives.

4.     Each reference request is a new mystery to be solved

Archival reference requests are not totally different from library reference requests. In both cases patrons are seeking information and it is up to the reference professional to figure out exactly what the patron is actually trying to find and then consult a myriad of resources to find the answer. However, archives reference requests are fun because it requires trying to piece together the past. A huge number of requests I personally worked with would say something along the lines of “My grandfather lived in ____ County and died in ____. I think he was born in ____ or _____. What else can you tell me?” These were my favorite. I would immediately head towards birth records, death records, marriage records, and census records. There might also be information in land deed records or military records or sometimes even prison records. There were a ton of places to look and the whole time it felt like I was getting to know each new person. The types of reference questions archives staff receive vary widely, but it always requires a fun and intriguing search for evidence.

5.     The stacks are a great place to hide

If you’re anything like me, no matter how much you love doing reference work and interacting with patrons sometimes you just need to take a break. In libraries sometimes you can go re-shelve books or wander around in the stacks, but there’s still patrons meandering in them too that can and will stop you and ask you questions. Archives stacks are amazing because they are patron free. They are quiet and cool (hooray for temperature and humidity control!), and there’s always work to be done – but none of it involves working directly with the public. Some archives staff are very specialized and don’t have the option to move back and forth between departments, but if you’re lucky enough to have that flexibility and you’re the type of person who occasionally needs to step away, it can provide the perfect balance.

And there are, of course, many, many more great things about archives. Thus, if your favorite things differ from mine I would love to hear about them in the comments!

  1 comment for “Why Archives are Awesome: A Top 5 List

  1. Steph Routhier Perry
    July 12, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks for this post! I’m starting my MLIS in the fall with an archives & records management focus and I can’t wait! I did an internship in our provincial BC Archives and I loved it for all of the reasons you mentioned above. Wandering around in the stacks, getting lots of work done on my own and making amazing discoveries every day, was a big part of the reason why I am choosing this concentration. I’d constantly have lists running of all the wonderful materials to revisit at a later date, but the list just kept getting longer, not shorter :)

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