Archival balancing acts

Added over the other things I do, I've recently becomes an amateur archivist. Since my wife is working toward her MLIS, I have some access to methods and best practices advice, but also mostly extra places to exert my own research proclivities. The collection I oversee is an interesting one, at many levels, but today I'm focusing on the simple quiddity of it. Typically, the archivist makes practice detereminations in processing with respect to two principles: respect des fonds, or collection-level organization, and original order, or accession-volume organization. Ideally, this works best when your accession volumes come out of the subject's filing cabinets, or a related subject's filing cabinets (as for example the former president of the archive's founding committee). Here's where our collection gets interesting: we work in nachschriften, lecture recordings, sermon recordings, donations of related articles ... and I get them in bags. Now, in my own mind I am aware that each of these bags is officially an accession volume in its own right. However, I also know that half of the bags come to me from archive committee staff who go about acquiring random donated pieces whose value they find worth keeping. I am further troubled by the simple fact that it seems like there was an initial genuine archivist involved, and since then the people in my position, and the committee in charge, have cared little for archive best practices beyond item care. Organization is the real bug in my bonnet.

Here's the thing: I'm troubled precisely when I think of this as an archive. As one in the classic sense preserved by the profession. But that's not what its purpose is. The archive exists for use and evangelism purposes as much (if not more) than it exists for strict preservation purposes. It has been handled in varying ways according to the varying expertise of its paid fellows, but always with more emphasis in their job descriptions on making the archive serve to keep its subject in living memory. And organization should therefore serve to make the collection more accessible, which it can do. But doesn't always do. And we're profoundly backlogged, if thought of in accessibility terms, basic knowing what we have terms.

So I'm troubled again, because in my own mind, it would be so much easier if I could document exactly what we have at a base level, organize it by item classification, and make it accessible like a regular library. This violates original order, but how much original order we have, and from whom, and how much respect any given order deserves, are real questions at this point. If the subject's original order were present, in a given accession volume, that would be one thing. But we hardly have much from the subject himself. I think the family has that.

I'm tempted by the fact that online cataloging makes it possible to "organize" in an infinite variety of ways a collection that has no strict physical organization principle. But I'm also old enough and focused enough on the tangible that I want some level of strict physical organization, too! I want to be able to walk up to a box and know what's in it, not know what it is I want and then where it happens to be. So maybe I'm more of a librarian than an archivist. But really, I'm neither, I'm a systematic theologian, who goes through life rearranging things to make them work better. It's what I do.

So, no answer, just getting the state of my brain aired out a bit.


Popular Posts