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Diary of An Archivist: Defining Archivist

Posted by Emily Chicorli
9 September 2014 - 5:08pm


Teachers increasingly use primary sources in their classrooms, but do they discuss with students where the primary sources come from? And who takes care of the primary sources? Generally, discussions focus on the significance of the primary source, the relation of the primary source to a unit of study, the interpretation of the primary source and so forth.

The purpose of this blog post is to explain what an archivist is, and the primary roles and responsibilities of archivists so that educators can pass on this information to their students when they use primary sources in a classroom. Describing the role of an archivist and explaining how the primary sources used in classes have been taken care of over the years can be exciting for students. It can add an additional layer of critical thinking and understanding to their learning - as I will discuss in a future instalment of Diary of an Archivist- so stay tuned!

While it is difficult to come up with a single definition of an archivist, generally an archivist is an individual who takes care of records, which are the products of everyday activity. Records, sometimes referred to “archives” by researchers, can include, but are not limited to, photographs, films, letters, memorandums, meeting minutes, policies, diaries, electronic files, documentary art, and other forms of “recorded memory”. Generally, the records that make it into an archive (the physical building which the records are stored) are the non-current records of individuals, groups, institutions, and governments that contain information of enduring value. Archivists can work as a part of government, universities/colleges, corporations, museums, libraries, historical societies and other groups to preserve the memory and activities of those organizations.

Name Type Location Content
Library and Archives Canada Government - Library and Archive Ottawa, Ontario Governmental and private records.
City of Vancouver Archives Government - Archive Vancouver, British Columbia City government records and publications, private sector records, photographs, maps, plans, fire insurance plans, ship's plans, architectural plans, pamphlets, news clippings and artworks
Hudson's Bay Company Archives Governmental/Corporate Winnipeg, Manitoba Textual records, photographs, documentary art, cartographic records, architectural drawings, moving images and sound reels for the HBC and subsidiary companies
CBC Digital Archives Corporate Toronto, Ontario Video, film, radio, records, photos and other formats of records of programs and content broadcasted by the CBC
McGill University Archives University - Records Management and Archive Montreal, Quebec Institutional records of McGill; private records relating to McGill and Canadian history
Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archive Museum - Library and Archive Toronto, Ontario Historical documents relating to the museum, including manuscripts and photographs

When records reach an archive, archivists have many responsibilities to assess and preserve the records for future generations. Below is a brief summary of the major activities archivists perform when working directly with records:

1. When records are donated or transferred to an archive, archivists appraise the records with the help of those who originally received, created, and/or used them. Archivists have to identify which records have long-term value and work with the donors to transfer the records into the custody of the archive.

2. Once the records are in the custody of an archive, archivists arrange and describe the selected records in order to allow for the records to become available to the public (Not all records become immediately available to the public. Some records may have restrictions so archivists have to meet legal obligations of whichever jurisdiction they are in). At this stage, archivists analyze the records, which includes providing researchers with information about the donor through an outline of the person or organization’s life (sometimes referred to as a biographical sketch or administrative history), going through the records to determine the original order of how the records were created and stored by the original user, and working towards making this information available through guides, known as finding aids, or through online databases so researchers can access the information at the archive or online.

3. Archivists also have to preserve the records and apply preventative conservation techniques to records that are damaged or are deteriorating. Many records in an archive are the only copies in existence so it is necessary to take precautions and to slow down deterioration as much as possible. This can include removing harmful materials like staples from documents and replacing them with plastic paper clips that do not rust or tear paper, moving records from damaged decaying folders into acid free folders, cleaning the records from dust and debris, applying humidification treatment to folded maps, photographs and documents, making preservation copies of damaged documents, and more. If a record is severely damaged, archivists may have to call in the work of conservators, who are professionals specifically trained in preservation.

4. Once the records have been arranged and described, as well as physically processed (point number 3), archivists make all this information available to the public. Archivists may post the information about the records online in the form of a finding aid, or store a physical copy of a finding aid in the archive. Or, what is becoming more and more common is uploading the information and metadata regarding records to online databases in order to facilitate searching by the public. Archivists may also digitize some of the records and put them online so researchers can view them from home or their own personal devices.

5. Archivists have other important duties that include providing advice on the care and management of specialized media, like electronic records; providing reference assistance to the public; offering records management advice to organizations; and encouraging public awareness of the cultural significance of archives through various outreach activities to broaden the use of collections.

Archivists work closely with a variety of people in communities. Teachers are encouraged to contact an archive in their community to find out if there are records available to support the curriculum. Teachers can also access online databases of archives to search through collections and use as resources in classes (Not every archive has their collections online, the first step to finding out whether or not records are available online or not is to search the insitution!)

Now that you have a more in-depth understanding of what the roles and responsibilities of an archivist are, let us know how you might enage your students in better understanding how primary sources (i.e. records) make it to their classroom or computers!


Resources consulted for this post include:

“So you want to be an archivist?” Published by the Society of American Archivists.

“What is an archivist.” Published by the Association of Canadian Archivists. March 2004.