What's an Archivist Anyway?
Over the years, I’ve gotten a wide range of reactions when I tell people I’m an archivist. One lady told me not to say that too loudly. To this day I don’t know why she responded that way, but I suspect she misunderstood me and thought I’d said I was an anarchist.
So what do I do as an archivist? Essentially, I read other people’s mail and diaries! The archival collections I work with consist of old letters, diaries, business ledgers, court records, and various other types of one-of-a-kind, unpublished documents. This is what distinguishes them from the collections of published books, magazines, newspapers, and maps that our librarian colleagues work with at the Missouri History Museum's Library and Research Center. The Museum's Library may have the only known copy of some very old, historical books and magazines, but usually other copies exist elsewhere. In contrast, each document within the Museum's Archives is an original that can't be found anywhere else.
Currently our Archives department consists of three archivists who care for over 3,000 unique collections. A collection can be as small as a single document and go upward from there—our largest collection is almost 2,000 boxes. Our oldest document is an illuminated manuscript from the 1400s created for Holy Week in Florence, Italy. Our best-known collections include the Clark Family Collection, which contains original documents from the Lewis and Clark expedition; the Charles Lindbergh Papers; the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company Records; the Chouteau Family Papers and Fur Trade Ledgers; and various collections regarding the Civil War. We also have many equally important collections regarding the everyday lives of average citizens from St. Louis and elsewhere in Missouri.
What makes the job tricky is its two primary—and conflicting—tasks: provide access to documents yet preserve them so they’ll exist for the next 100 years. One way we provide access is by processing collections, meaning we arrange the documents in a sensible order and describe a collection’s contents. We always write a basic description that provides a very broad overview of a collection's contents, but sometimes we also write finding aids that provide descriptions of each folder in a collection or, in some cases, each individual document. In addition, we provide reference services to researchers. Each day, one of us is in the Library’s Reading Room to assist researchers who visit in person, call in, or email. Last but not least, we’ve been digitizing documents from the collections and making them available on our website so researchers from around the world can access our manuscripts without having to book a flight to St. Louis.
As we provide all these means of access to our manuscripts, we must always keep in mind our responsibility to preserve the archival collections in our care. This starts with storing all the documents in acid-free folders and boxes, which themselves are stored in secure, climate-controlled spaces. We also ask, and expect, researchers to be partners with us in preservation. For example, when researchers come to see documents in person, we ask them to only use pencils so they don’t accidentally leave a mark on a document. Most important, we ask them to be gentle with the documents and care for them like the treasures that they are.
Helping researchers find answers to their questions and sharing our documents with them is a great joy. However, the balance between access and preservation can sometimes be difficult. This balance, along with some of our favorite collections, will be addressed in more posts to come during Archives Month.
—Molly Kodner, Head Archivist