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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Unsung work of archivists

It's extremely gratifying to see a substantial article in the FT Magazine apropos of the about-to-launch digital archives project at the Wellcome Library on the history of genetics: “Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics”

However, as an archivist who has been closely involved with many of the collections included in this project, I do wish a line or two could have been given to recognising the absolutely essential professional archive work that had been done, over a period of several decades, leading to the circumstances in which these collections were actually available for digitisation.

Archives of individuals or organisations don't just migrate into the stacks of a collecting repository: there is a process of negotiation with the people or bodies who created those papers, or into whose hands they have fallen, and this can take time and diplomacy to ensure that the transfer happens to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

There's then the overlooked process by which those papers are sorted and organised and described so that they are usable by researchers. It's not just journalists who think that this just somehow happens rather than being a rather time-consuming and intricate job without which it would be pretty much impossible to locate things within a morass of documentation.

Most archivists, I surmise, would not appreciate a 'Hug an Archivist!' Day, but I think the profession as a whole would like a little more recognition of what it does.

Archivists who have seen people using well-catalogued archives in acid-free folders, ordered via a sophisticated online ordering system, in a clean well-lighted search room with facilities to use laptops, scan documents, and use digital cameras, are less than patient when the tiresome 'piles of dusty archives' trope is invoked by individuals who have actually consulted any archives they reference in the afore-mentioned conditions, and have probably never gone into a damp crypt and observed teachests full of precious records covered with waving fronds of white mould like something out of a horror film.

And are also made to laugh, then bang their heads, at accounts of 'hidden treasures' found exactly where one would have anticipated their being in an archive.

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