Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Friday, September 23, 2011

An Archivist Post

When I first was interested in going to library school I didn't even blink at the fact that library science programs were combined with archives and records management programs. (Okay, to be honest, I may not have even noticed at first.) Then a little further down the road I can remember thinking, this is kind of weird, and not really seeing why the two should be lumped together--especially with libraries (and library schools) moving in the direction of information science. Sure, librarians and archivists both like to collect stuff and keep it well organized, but can future librarians and future archivists really both be thoroughly educated in the same program, aside from a few variations in courses? Intrigued by this conundrum and the archivist profession in general, I gamely signed up to take an intro class into the world of archives and records management.

And now after a month I'm beginning to see the similarities. They are much deeper than "collecting" and "organizing" and, to me, are more about the service orientation that both professions share. Librarians exist to take care of the books, and other information sources, make sure they are available to the public, and that the public is armed with whatever tools and education they need to access and benefit from the information. Behind the archivist profession all the organizing and filing and preserving also contains a strong focus on perpetuating the materials' availability for future researchers, employees, and everyday citizens. At their essentials, librarians and archivists are both about the information and making sure it remains usable, understandable, and helpful for whoever needs it.

In my archives class we are (already!) submitting topics for our final projects. Trying to follow this 'public service' perspective, I decided to look into the role of archivists in remote regions and developing countries. One of the first places I came across online was the Endangered Archives Programme, supported by the British Library, which aids researchers, archivists, and librarians who have located important cultural archives currently in danger of destruction or neglect and strives to preserve archival material in countries lacking the resources and opportunities to undertake such preservation on their own. While the EAP does support the transfer of copies of the material to the British Library for safe-keeping, the originals--and copyright privileges-remain with a local organization.

Specifically I'm going to study the efforts of a project called Digital Himalaya run by the University of Cambridge. For the last decade Digital Himalaya has been involved with the unique complexities of preserving and digitizing a wide range of materials including photographs, film, sound recordings, fieldwork diaries, census information, and maps from the Himalayas, including Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and parts of Northern India. In addition to preserving materials, the project strives to fulfill the dual objectives of making these resources available to scholars and researchers worldwide and available to the local descendants of the individuals from whom the records were originally collected. I think the second part of their mission is really key. Without the drive to make archives available to everyone who might benefit from or appreciate them, the archive profession loses a huge portion of its purpose. What would be the point of keeping all that stuff, if the person to whom it might matter most never has a chance to see it?

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