Getting to Know the Archival Profession From Within

My relationship with the Library of Congress starts in January, in Wisconsin, where I am beginning my second semester of library school. A beloved teacher of archival studies, who has been with the University (and who has been teaching two of the three core archival courses at Wisconsin) for twenty years has just retired, bringing in two new teachers. One, the head film archivist at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, the other from the Library of Congress. The later ends up teaching archival appraisal, a class in which we read, and discuss, and read, and write, and read, and read. (This teacher’s syllabus is twenty-nine pages long, filled with archivists he thinks we should get to know.) It is in this class that I am first introduced to my colleagues, and the professional world of archives: its relationships, its openness, its complexities.

Over the course of the semester I spend time talking to this teacher about my interest in born-digital records, and bemoan my lack of practical, professional experience working with them. Let’s see if we can do something about that, he says. And, so, to the Library of Congress I go, where I spend my summer working as an intern on the Web Archiving Team.

In six weeks at the Library, I learned quite a bit about the ins and outs of what web archiving really was (and what it could be). But, I also spent a lot of time at the Library getting to know the archival profession on a personal level: person to person, process to process, idea to idea. While living and working in Wisconsin, I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from some of the profession’s best, and build a foundation upon which I feel free to ask questions, make mistakes, and take professional risks. Early on in my time at the Library, I went to an archivist with a question concerning born-digital workflows: I’ve seen how born-digital records are handled and processed by the organizations at which I work, but how are they handled elsewhere? The first archivist I met with spoke a bit about the ethical questions behind uncovering once-deleted files on born-digital media. But, the very next day, when I asked a different archivist about how he handles that particular ethical issue, he told me it wasn’t something he had to think about, and instead spoke with me about processing digital items in bulk, pulling as much content as possible from the media given to the Library.

To employees all over the Library, I kept asking questions, all of which were answered eagerly, with thoughtful recommendations including: Oh, you know who you should talk to about this? Oh, you know what I once read about this exact question? Oh, have you heard of this archivist, with this institution? You should reach out to them. And on. And this, I realized, was the most rewarding experience of my time with the Library. The Library, at least from the perspective of someone spending who spent six weeks within its walls, seemed to be a web of connected, passionate individuals, eager to share their knowledge with those interested in asking about it. It became a representation of the information profession as a whole: the way we stand connected, bound by our interest in the same field, in its materials, and in its people.

Just like the rest of the Library, the Web Archiving Team was comprised of talented individuals, interested in sharing what they know. And these individuals, in turn, help make up an archival profession that is vast, far-reaching, and eager to give. It happens in Wisconsin (where, picture this, fourteen students gather, on a dreary, cold winter evening, and join a video call with two people: one, their teacher, working from the East Coast for the week, and two, a human rights archivist, based in Austin, Texas; the conversation lasts at least two hours); in Minnesota (where a corporate archivist spends time answering questions, via telephone, asked by a brand new corporate archivist); and in Washington DC. And, so, this became my takeaway from the internship: the knowledge that I, fortunate enough to now be part of this professional world, could take what I learned at the Library with me wherever I went, and play a part in expanding that web of interconnectedness, of eagerness, even further.

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