Not Dragon at the Gate but Research Partner: The Reference Archivist as Mediator
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In a keynote address given to the Spring 2000 Midwest Archives Conference meeting (hereafter Sawyer Seminar ), Francis Blouin set out the founding principles for this seminar as a dialogue between historians and other scholars, and the archivists who maintain documentary collections for research use. As became clear from the seminar conversations that ensued, the concept of “archive ” has a broader range of deanitions than those of us who are practitioners in the aeld might have imagined. What also became clear was that the archivist’s role in the maintenance of this documentation was not at all clear. Many of the participants, citing the derivation of the term archives “from the Latin archivuum, ‘residence of the magistrate,’” appeared to conbate past and present accessibility of archival documentation. For many, the concept of archives was a purely theoretical one: “In cultural theory, ‘the archive’ is endowed with a capital “A,” is agurative , and leads elsewhere. It may represent neither material site nor a set of documents. Rather it may serve as a strong metaphor for any corpus of selective forgettings and collections,” wrote one participant. The singular lack of interest in the realities of current archival practice and theory was demonstrated by the lack of attendance by these scholars at later seminar sessions on archival topics. Most disturbing, however, were statements such as “Foucault [in his Archaeology of Knowledge] provocatively warned [that] the archive is neither the sum of all texts that a culture preserves nor those institutions that allow for that record and preservation.”1 It is a useful warning to current archivists that such a perception still exists. We are only too aware that, through selection and other factors affecting the availability of texts for collection , we house only a fraction of history’s documents. Archivists also assume, perhaps naively, that our researchers have always subjected these texts to scrutiny and skepticism as to their meanings and origins. At the same time, Blouin and others challenged archivists with the “need to become more self-aware of our role as mediators . . . between records creators and records repositories, between archives and users, between conceptions of the past and extant documentation.”2 While I absolutely believe that the archivist has agency in the research process, I would characterize it instead as a consultancy, and myself as a partner in research .3 I will explain this more fully later in this essay. First, however, I have found that the buidity of the concept of archives, among those who use archival documents but do not claim archivist as a profession, is quite disconcerting . I believe a brief digression about the purpose of keeping archives is in order. I hope to show that much of what characterizes what I consider to be an archives also highlights the contributions that I, as a reference archivist, bring to the research partnership: my knowledge of the breadth of the collections, the nature of recordkeeping, and the contextual information that gives documents their “greater than the sum of their parts” meaning. The Repeatable Experiment Elizabeth Yakel, in her article “Thinking Inside and Outside the Boxes: Archival Reference Services at the Close of 36 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Not Dragon at the Gate but Research Partner The Reference Archivist as Mediator Kathleen Marquis ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ the Twentieth Century,” has put it most succinctly: “The enduring value of archives is partly that certain records can be continuing sources of knowledge.”4 While this may no longer be the scholar’s concept of archives, it is the foundation of all that the archivist works toward: the collection and description of documents to be universally available for study by anyone. The corollary most applicable to the reference archivist is that these documents should not be changed by their use but remain available for future generations to study, to use to gain new insights, and to make further comparisons. While some very real criticisms can be leveled at the varied processes of collecting over time, there are two distinct concepts here: whether every documentary collection is necessarily incomplete, and whether anything can be an archive. Blouin notes that “instead of directing the process of uncovering the past through available fragments, the archive is subordinated as one contested element in a variety of tangible and nontangible elements that help construct a sense, an image, a theory, or a representation of a particular past.”5 So, are we all archivists of our own archives? That does cast a different light on the guidelines for archival use: respect original order, remove nothing from the...


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