It’s Not Every Day You Meet an Archivist

Hey Historians! It is not every day that you meet an archivist. In fact, many of us that do not do historical research never meet an archivist. There simply are not very many of them. According to United States Department of Labor there are less than 6,000 archivists nationwide. In Washington State there are currently 340 archivists, the third most of any state. (Bureau of Labor Statistics website) It is ironic that this small group of well-educated professionals is tasked with the preservation of 7 million Washingtonian’s records. Until recently this only included documents primarily on paper; today a variety of mediums are stored in archives including microfilm, oral histories, and born digital Excel workbooks. The birth of new forms of media has forced archivists to adapt to change.

Archivists work in a variety of different types of repositories. Some are parts of government agencies and others are departments within corporations. We tend to expect archives at academic institutions and in government buildings. However we may not expect to find them in private businesses and religious organizations. For example, the AT&T Information Center or ATTIC preserves both the three dimensional and paper records created by the telecommunications company. (AT&T video) The variety of different repositories offers the archivist the ability to work in a number of different settings with unique focuses. Although, at the same time, it requires that the archivist be trained to work in diverse environments.

According to the Society of American Archivists, “The primary task of the archivist is to establish and maintain control, both physical and intellectual, over records of enduring value.” (So You Want to be an Archivist) This is a big job. Archivists work collectively while also holding one another accountable to the standards of practicing the profession. The SAA has laid out those standards via their ethics and values statements. All of the ethics and values listed by the SAA are critical for the archivist to read, reread, and consult whenever uncertain.

The core value that is most compelling in our region is advocacy. The SAA encourages archivists to advocate “for their own archival programs and institutional needs.” (Core Values) This sounds familiar. Former Secretary of State Sam Reed advocated heavily for the Washington State Digital Archives. “Reed, quickly established himself as a strong and vocal advocate for a new digital archives facility.” (Born Digital, 8) You can see how advocacy by Sam Reed was an important element to building the first built-from-the-ground digital archive.

It is much easier to advocate for a cause that you are passionate about. The passion for archival work is evident in John Fleckner’s tone. He sees archivists as playing a critical role in society. According to Fleckner, archivists are “essential to the well-being of an enlightened and democratic society.” (Fleckner, 26) This echoes a similar statement by Dr. Larry Cebula in The Importance of Digital Archives. He claims that “archives protect our rights in a number of ways,” and that they “keep our leaders more honest.” (Importance of Digital Archives)

Fleckner’s letters are also offer excellent insight to the job satisfaction of an archivist. Fleckner acknowledges the challenges of the profession but ultimately he gives archival work a very positive review. Furthermore, Fleckner emphasizes the importance of networking and communication amongst archivists. He reflects positively on the value of the professional relationships he has developed with his colleagues.

One of the primary obstacles to archival work is security. Security measures were not sufficient in both the Sandy Berger case and in the case of purposely destroyed documents in Washington State. In the Sandy Berger case archivists needed to be more vigilant in their observation of Mr. Berger. They needed to have a higher level of control over the documents that he was viewing and over the notes he took. According to the findings of the “House Report,” “Archives officials allowed Sandy Berger to review highly classified documents outside of a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.” (House Report, 31) Furthermore the archivists should have never honored Mr. Berger’s requests to be left alone with the documents.

In Washington State the issue was a little different. Although the details are slim, the perpetrator was not an archivist but rather another type of civil service employee. This employee betrayed his commitment to the people he serves by destroying the documents that protect them. According to the article, destroying public records in Washington State “is a felony and can result in extremely serious penalties: imprisonment for not more than ten years, a fine of not more than $5,000, or both a fine and imprisonment.” (Be Cautious Before Destroying a Public Record) However no amount of severe penalties can recover the destroyed documents. Therefore employers of those with access to irreplaceable documents need to be diligent in the hiring process to maintain the security of our records.

Archives and archivists come in many varieties and flavors. They have been rapidly adapting to changes in media by adopting digital repositories. Archivists tend to have passion for what they do; they advocate for their cause. However, much like other public historians, they have to be very careful to maintain their values and ethics. The archivists in the Sandy Berger case may not have had the same public humiliation as John Houser, nonetheless the stakes are still very high. There is no room for sloppiness and absolutely no tolerance for intentional compromising of archival documents.


One thought on “It’s Not Every Day You Meet an Archivist

  1. I would have to agree with your concluding statement. It does not matter what position or rank a person has, or how many years of political service they have performed, it does not change the seriousness of the crime. Removing and losing docs as Berger did is not just suspicious, but completely immoral. As you stated, security for records such as these sensitive documents, must be superior. Maybe with lasers and automated turrets. That should be in the state’s budget.


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