Did you know that October is American Archives Month?
First celebrated in 2006, this month highlights the important role that archives and archivists have in safekeeping important records of enduring value.
This may lead some to ask a simple question:
Why do archivists get a month?
Read on to learn three compelling reasons that we should recognize the immense value these archives (and those who support them) provide us.
The Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt was said to have held nearly 400,000 papyrus scrolls at its peak—everything from the canonical texts for the Homeric poems to mathematical treatises.
Then it caught on fire by accident during a siege by the Romans led by Julius Caesar destroying great swaths of the building.
…And then it caught on fire again a few centuries later (though this time it was deliberate).
How much knowledge was actually lost over time is still up for debate but there’s no denying we lost many first-hand sources of science in the Hellenistic period.
Fortunately, today’s archives and archivists take great pains to protect the documents under their charge.
The Society of American Archivists (SAA), the Council of State Archivists (COSA), and hundreds of individual repositories work tirelessly to preserve records and information of “enduring value” and make them available to the public.
Protecting priceless records and historical material is much easier to prevent with modern fire suppression systems, state-of-the-art preservation techniques, technology advances, and a noticeable lack of raiding Roman armies.
In his book Archive Fever, French philosopher Jacques Derrida notes, “There is no political power without power over the archive, if not the memory”.
If you’ve ever struggled to remember what you’ve had for breakfast, you know that memory can be notoriously faulty.
Archives aren’t just records for the sake of keeping a record—they preserve important information and knowledge that has long-term historical value so perhaps we aren’t doomed to repeat past mistakes. Likewise, it is the job of nonpartisan archivists to ensure that these records are put in their proper historical context.
“Archivists can use the power of archives to promote accountability, open government, diversity, and social justice,” writes Randall C. Jimerson, Director of the graduate study program in Archives and Records Management at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. “No matter how complete or reliable the records are, the role of the archivist is crucial in releasing their power.”
This function of archivists has become even more important as electronic records have caused an exponential growth in the type and number of records, which is why October 10th also marks Electronic Records Day, which falls every year during American Archives Month.
Let’s take a quick pop quiz for fun. Question: How can you tell the difference between an Archivist and a Records Manager?
Answer: Their opinion on disposition.
Records and Information Management Professionals share a lot in common with Archivists. For starters, they’re both focused on understanding what records they have in their care and what value they hold.
Likewise, both must maintain a reasonable amount of access to the records under their care so their information can be put to use. After all, information that’s inaccessible may as well not be saved at all.
Finally, both roles protect records in their charge from theft, alteration, and damage.
What sets them apart, however, is that Records/Information Managers are always aware that records in their purview can and should be properly destroyed eventually while Archivists do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen (see also: Roman armies).
Although they are sometimes painted as two functions with opposing views on records; in the end, Records Managers and Archivists have a symbiotic relationship.
While Records Managers are usually tied to a singular organization or entity, it doesn’t mean that the records under their care may not eventually be passed to an archivist for long-term keeping.
“Archivists can also rely on records managers to be their eyes and ears in [early parts] of the records life-cycle,” notes certified Records Analyst Erica Seigrest. “Records managers are often more involved in business administration and policy development, so they may be able to provide insight into the function and structure of many records—down the road, this can help archivists document the context of records.”
So celebrate American Archives Month by visiting an archive near you…because who knows what treasures are kept there? (Well, the Archivist. That’s who.)
To learn more about the history and evolution of record-keeping (as well as how to transform your RIM program to be more adaptable and secure in the post pandemic world):
Register for our upcoming Oct 26 webinar, Information Management: From Clay Tablets to the Cloud and Beyond