What is an archivist?

An archivist is a trained professional, usually possessing a Master's degree in a sub-branch of the field of library science or in a sub-branch of the field of history. An archivist evaluates records for their long-term value based on the evidence they provide of daily activities, the information they provide about a society, or their intrinsic worth based on sentimentality or cultural norms. An archivist also preserves, arranges and describes records of enduring value to help ensure their longevity and accessibility.

An archivist is closely related to a records manager. An archivist sometimes performs the records manager's duties of caring for records from the date of their creation to the time they are ready for more permanent storage or disposition. A records manager creates filing systems and facilitates the movement of and accessibility of records during all the stages of their lifecycle or existence.

What are archives?

Archives are unique materials possessing enduring value. Archives include original documents or records on paper, photographs, digital media, sound recordings, and video recordings. Some common "archives" include diaries, ledgers, correspondence, civil papers, legal documents, and financial records. Archives are not necessarily old. Many documents that you create today may be considered archival and worth keeping forever. Alternately, many old documents may not possess any value as archives.

Many ephemeral items (created for an event and not intended to last forever) possess long-term value. These items include things such as brochures, cards, flyers, tickets, and pamphlets that are often found in archival collections and are cared for by archivists. Ephemera can be historically enlightening and are often rare (if not unique) because of their intended short-term purpose.

However, in general, archives are not-mass produced. Mass produced items such as books and magazines are generally handled by librarians. Similarly, unique artifacts are generally handled by curators in the museum field. It is worthwhile to note that there is much overlap among the materials handled by these three distinct professions. There are also similarities in many of the methods used to care for these materials.

How do I know if I have any archives?

The types of materials described above that are in your possession and that you want to keep forever are your own personal archives. In the archival field, we call these materials "personal papers." Many individuals have some confusion about what they should keep and what they should dispose. A professional archives consultant can help you determine what you should retain for your own sentimental purposes, what has family value and should be passed down through generations, and what items you may not want but are important to community history. An archivist can help you weed the gems from the paper clutter and encourage you to get rid of items with no current or enduring value.

Why should I care about my archives?

Archives provide a key to knowledge, memory and cultural identity. Archival material helps build bonds between generations. They can be used to teach children about their heritage. They help form our sense of self, helping us understand from where we came and how we got here. They help us remember loved ones after they are gone and their legacies. They serve as evidence, documenting our time and our story. They can be useful tools to keep us from making the mistakes of the past. Most practically, they are important for recording our possessions, documenting our accomplishments, and stating the truth.

Why would someone outside of my family be interested in my personal papers?

All history is based on the stories of individuals. Where once we wrote history based on "famous" people, we now recognize that every individual's life story contributes to the American story. Local repositories that collect archives, such as an historical society, have always collected the papers of those living in their towns. Other repositories may collect in specific subject areas and may be interested in the records of people from divergent backgrounds such as those working in specific professions, women, people of particular ethnic backgrounds, etc.

Archives repositories are most interested in full collections of personal papers rather than an individual document. They also value the history of documents and want to know when and why they were created. For example, a year's worth of correspondence between a mother and her son during a war would make a valuable addition to a research institution collecting papers about the military, women, or a particular era. One undated letter from a son to his mother is likely to have much less historical meaning. Furthermore, if in addition to the correspondence described above, the family also donated diaries, photographs and other personal archival materials, it would be a boon for research.

A professional archivist can help you determine if your material is appropriate for an archives repository and which institution's collection would be the best fit for your family history.

What does archival quality mean?

Archival quality is a non-specific and non-official term intended to denote materials that last for a long time. In general, we recognize that "archival quality" material does not contain unstable chemicals that will increase the deterioration rate of your valued items. Many companies use the term "archival quality" without care and without living up to any standard. For reliable storage supplies, look for items from a reputable library, archives, museum supplier. Safe storage items should say "acid free" and "lignin free." Photographic storage materials should also pass P.A.T. (the Photographic Activity test ISO Standard 14523.) The lifespan of any material is dependent on a number of factors including not only the composition of the original items and their storage supplies, but also on a number of environmental factors. No one can guarantee the permanent longevity of your items, but using true "archival quality" supplies will only prolong their existence

How long will my things last?

The top reasons for archives decomposition include: oxidation (air), acid migration (bad storage items), acidity of original items, climate, fungi, pests, light, pollutants, handling, and water. Due to the diversity of these factors, no one can pinpoint how long your things will last. However, the less acidic your original documents, the better your storage supplies, and the better the conditions of your storage area, the more likely your items are to last a long time. For example, modern newspapers are so acidic that no one can expect them to last long-term. Furthermore, items stored in attics and basements with highly variable temperature and humidity levels can also be expected to deteriorate relatively rapidly.