Monday, July 21, 2008

A Day in the Life of an Archivist. . . or. . . I read your mail.

Okay. Maybe not your mail exactly. But your parent's mail or your grandparent's mail or maybe even the mail of your great-uncle's second cousin twice removed. The point is—I read mail. Even those steamy love letters your great-grandmother kept in a box under her bed; nothing is off limits.

I don't just do this for fun or out of some odd desire to live vicariously through your letters. I don't covet the identities of others for a multi-level credit card scheme either, if that was what you were thinking. No, it is all part of my job; the job that they pay me to do.

Here at the Butler Center when I’m not laboring over this blog for you, the illustrious readers, I’m working as one of our Archival Assistants (sometimes known as a processing archivist). When I tell people where I work, they usually follow up with a variation of “what kind of job is that” or “so you’re a librarian.” My standard explanation sounds a lot like, “It is my job to take the boxes and boxes of stuff donated to us and mold it into a usable and researchable collection.” But that really doesn’t do the job justice.

Every day I come into work and immerse myself into someone else’s life. I sift through the documents, pulling them out of whatever dusty box they were stored in while in the attic/basement/closet/etc. to arrange and label them in archival quality files and boxes to help ensure their preservation. And I do all this to put together an image of what made this person tick. If it is a particularly large and/or time-consuming collection, I start to recognize family and friends in photographs and get pretty good at estimating a date and location for those that are unlabeled. Occasionally, my unlucky husband even gets to listen to me tell a story I discovered in the documents that day as if it happened to me.

I’m right there along with them for all the major events—birth, marriage, divorce, successful ventures and epic failures—and by the end I have a pretty good idea of who this person/family/organization was, whether it be a small fragment or an entire lifetime. Eventually I finish. Maybe it is a couple of days later, or a couple of months, or a couple of years even, but I finish. Then I put it down and start all over again.

This job is one of the most important jobs here, if I do say so myself (and I just did), but also one of the least understood and most overlooked. Now you must be asking yourself, “If your job is as interesting and important as you say it is, why doesn't anyone know about you, huh?”

In reality, we slip under the radar because we are good at what we do. We sit up here in our office (where we have the best view in the building, by the way) processing along, working our way through collection after collection. We are the behind-the-scenes people. We don’t use shiny and new technology. We don’t step out as the face of the Butler Center. We just keep working. And in the end, when someone comes in to look at a scrapbook from the 1930s or read those steamy letters your great-grandmother wrote, they can sit down and enjoy their research because we are content to silently sit in the background and get our job done.

Contributed by Stephanie Bayless, Manuscripts Department.


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