Science fiction, Smaug’s Lair, and the powerful skill of archivists

October is Archives Month in the US. All month, lots of different archives will be highlighting the cool, the weird, the interesting, and the important things in their collections and the different ways they try to make these collections visible and available to users. Here on Hanging Together, we’ll be posting throughout the month reflecting on our work supporting archives and special collections over the years, and sharing bits and pieces from our work on the Building a National Finding Aid Network (NAFAN) project, a research effort that let us take a deep dive into the world of archives, archivists, and archive users over the past two years.

A black and white photo of an archivist sitting on the floor surrounded by many bundles of files tied in string.
Stuart Strachan, Senior Archivist, National Archives, examines files from the Prime Minister’s Department (1980), courtesy Archives New Zealand on Flickr.

Because there are no archives without archivists, I wanted to start the month off with a post focused not just on archival collections, but on the archivists who collect, preserve, and make that material available. As a part of our work on NAFAN, we conducted semi-structured interviews with end-users of archival aggregators. One of the great things about these conversations was hearing interviewees sing the praises of archivists and articulate the ways in which archivists are vital to their research process.

Our interview participants contacted archivists by phone, email, and talked with them in-person when visiting a reading room. They reached out to archivists for a variety of reasons including to get more information about collections with minimal description, to get help with discovery systems, and to understand access or reproduction policies. Of course, interviewees also contacted archivists for help in identifying collections relevant to their research, and this is where we heard about the unique value archivists bring to these interactions.

As one participant put it, “archivists make it their business to know what is in their collection.” (Family history researcher) It’s this knowledge of their collections and the context that they document that make archivists “enormously helpful” according to one interviewee, who went on to describe archivists’ knowledge in a really fun way: “Just the unbelievable individual and collective knowledge that that profession has is like out of a science fiction story of how powerful that is, that body of knowledge that doesn’t exist anywhere else.” (Professional researcher)

Participants also described valuing not just archivists’ knowledge of individual collections, but also their accumulated knowledge and ability to draw connections across the disparate collections they steward, a skill that can’t be replicated through keyword searches in discovery systems. One interviewee (delightfully) described why they found this important: “You think of Tolkien’s description of Smaug’s Lair where there’s just these vast treasures piled. And of course, he had no order and no sense of order, and that’s not true because special collections definitely has a sense of order, but the order does not reveal the treasures within … It’s the staff who work there and the people who are there that make connections and see things that you don’t know to ask about, that you don’t know the possibility of.” (Personal interest researcher)

Participants described this as particularly valuable when they weren’t sure where to start their research or had turned up flat in their own searches. Archivists were able both to point them to specific resources and help them identify different search strategies or paths of inquiry that might be more fruitful.

I’ve cherry picked some particularly enjoyable quotes to discuss just a narrow slice of what we learned from talking to researchers in these interviews. If you’re curious to learn more, I invite you to read our user interview findings. Happy Archives Month!

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