Thursday, May 17, 2007

On Being “Stuff”-less

I’m an archivist. That’s my professional identity and I’m proud of it.

Yet in this project, there’s not a single collection for which I have responsibility. I don’t acquire papers and records. I don’t work with researchers. I don’t process or write finding aids. I don't digitize records or put together exhibitions. And I don’t supervise anyone who does any of those things. Everything I do is intended to help people who do those things, but it’s not quite the same as coming into work every morning and confronting my own personal mountain of boxes and folders or walking into a stacks area with the knowledge that as far as the eye can see it’s “mine.”

I spend a lot of time waiting for others to make decisions about their “stuff”: decisions before we survey, while we survey, after we survey. I can state my opinions, and provide information that will hopefully help, but in the end those decisions are theirs, not mine. In the meantime, I’m constantly thinking of ways we can do more with what we do have: more export formats for the database, more ways the data can be crunched, more potential linkages with other projects, more people to involve. Sometimes I feel like Jane Austen, with this project as my “little bit [two inches wide] of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.” (On the plus side, to get slightly more contemporary with my references, I do have Lloyd Dobler's preferred kind of job, one in which I don't have to "buy anything, sell anything, or process anything.")

But I find that in many ways, what I do now is what I’ve always liked most about being an archivist anyway. Sure I miss rehabilitating a disorganized mess of papers or finding that one perfect answer to a researcher’s query, but there is plenty to compensate. In talking about and finding ways to help others find solutions for some of the challenges in their repositories, I get to think through those challenges from different perspectives, some of which closely mirror mine, and some of which are vastly different. I get to see the insides of and know 22 different libraries, archives, and museums (and even more wonderful library, archives and museum professionals) in the span of 30 months -- more than many people see in an entire career. And I get to think a lot about my field, and all the exciting changes that are taking place in it, and the kind of archivist I want to be.

So being "stuff"-less isn't so bad. It may be a "small" canvas, but I like it immensely.

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