What Does an Archivist Do?

In the past few weeks here at Mennonite Heritage Archives (MHA) I have learned a tremendous amount about the roles, and methodologies of archivists. I have found myself, on many occasions, explaining to peers outside of my workplace what an archive actually is and what the archivist actually does. In answering this question I have found that my quick answer of “someone who maintains, catalogues, and organizes historical documents” to be incredibly simplified and in some ways inaccurate to what we do here at MHA. In trying to answer this question I have come to think about this role and question how I can fulfill it during my time here.

Although managing and organizing is an aspect of archiving, it is not the complete description of the archivist’s role. Archivists have the role of understanding the social, political, economic, and bureaucratic contexts in which historical documents were created. After creating an understanding of historical documents, often with a lot of detective work, the archivist can then make the historical records available, or restrict access to the public. The archivist can also choose to highlight aspects of the document to create a different understanding of the historical context or significance to historians and the public. This is what makes the archivist the bridge or gatekeeper to history in many ways. Our understanding of history is restricted to documents in which archivists have the power to keep, toss away, understand, share, or restrict. This power can be influenced by the institution or the social and political climate in which the archivist is in. These factors therefore, create ‘politics of memory,’ a term used by author Robert McIntosh to describe this complex role.

I have come to think about my own biases while cataloguing at MHA and how it affects my own politics of memory. I have also come to discover the scholarly conversations throughout the archive world surrounding politics of memory. I have come to discover that empathy, while is often the tool of the historian can also create a bias in the archivist. As I catalogue the works created by women in history and try to understand the context in which they were writing I find myself often empathizing with the challenges they faced as women. As author Michelle Caswell writes, “In the archival realm, we posit that empathy is radical if we allow it to define archival interactions even when our own visceral affective responses are steeped in fear, disgust, or anger.”

While radical empathy can be beneficial in understanding the context in which someone has lived, it can blur the line between yourself and the subject in which you’re cataloguing. Fear, disgust or anger that is directed toward the oppressors can create a different narrative within the archivist’s work and give a context that is inaccurate to the period. Radical empathy can also bind the archivist with the subject and with the contextual community in both the past and present. Creating an empathic bind can help us understand the historical context in many ways, but can also separate us from the context because the relationship between archivist, subject, the past and present constantly change over time.

I have also discovered the politics surrounding archives on a global scale. Nationalism plays an important role in the creation of archives. While many nations such as Germany have adequately highlighted WWII documents, a dark period of history for future generations to understand, others have had their history hidden. In an article by Vincent Hiribarren, the issue of ‘migrated archives’ is underscored, migrated archives are archives that have been moved from their original country of creation. Many countries with a colonial past such as the United Kingdom have moved their archives which would have been potentially incriminating, from their home in previously colonized countries such as Nigeria to the U.K. in which many were destroyed. In Hiribarren’s article, it is estimated that only 6-14% of the U.K.’s colonial archives still exist today. In cases like this, it becomes evident of the power in which an archivist can exercise in what they make available to the public, or what narratives can be created about a country or an individual’s history.

As we have seen, from these articles the job of an archivist is a complex one. Archivists are those who are documenting history, not only maintenance and cataloguing but creating a site of that preserves memory, identity, culture, and negotiates power dynamics.

By Katie Lynch, Archival Assistant at MHA
Supported by the Government of Canada, Canadian Council of Archives / Conseil canadien des archives‘ “Young Canada Works” program.