I Say Processing; You Say Cataloging: An Exploration of Archives in Libraries

As I am fast approaching the midpoint of my graduate program, I am realizing the importance of following my curiosities about the LIS field. One reason for this mindset is that my interests are not always explored in-depth in my coursework. One curiosity that I’ve been exploring recently is the concept of collaboration between archives and libraries, especially with regard to archives departments and local history collections located within public libraries. Although I am specializing in history and archives management in my graduate program, I have paraprofessional experience in a public library, and I have conducted research on the impact of public library services. In library school, with all the different tracks and specializations that are available, it can be easy to be oblivious to what is going on outside of your individual curriculum.

To get some answers, I read the book Archives in Libraries: What Librarians and Archivists Need to Know to Work Together by Jeannette Bastian, Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, and Donna Webber, published in 2015. This short book is directed at a library worker audience, an audience who might be less familiar with what archivists do. The authors cover key archival principles, different jargon among the two fields, ethical concerns, and the history of how both fields have developed, as well as projections for future developments. Throughout, there are several vignettes based on real interactions, or even conflicts, between archivists and library workers. In addition, there are excerpts of interviews from library directors and archivists. While reading this book, I got the idea to interview Jeannette Bastian, one of the authors, because 1) her bio mentions that she established and directed an archives in a public library, and 2) she is a professor in my program. How convenient!

According to the preface of Archives in Libraries, the inspiration for the book came out of real misunderstandings between library workers and archivists in the authors’ experience. When I asked her about this, Bastian remarked, “I think the misunderstanding has to do with librarians in particular not realizing that archives is a very separate kind of profession.” The characteristics that mark the archives as being distinct include focusing more on preserving collections than on users and service, which are more the domain of public libraries. Furthermore, a lot of the vocabulary that people from either profession use (e.g. processing vs. cataloging) can be easily misunderstood, an issue that is covered thoroughly in the book.

Even so, as William J. Maher, a reviewer of the book, has articulated in The American Archivist, archives are seeing a trend of “librarianification,” meaning that archives are adopting some of the practices of libraries in the hopes of making themselves more user-friendly. When I asked her to comment on this trend, Bastian said, “I think archivists tend to understand librarians, but librarians don’t tend to understand archivists.” This lack of mutual understanding stems from archives courses in MLS programs being considered a specialization, while every student has to take basic library courses. Bastian believes that the best course of action is not for archives to try to become exactly like libraries. On the contrary, “archival principles must remain intact, archivists must focus on being archivists.” That being said, at the end of the book, the authors present the concept of an archivist/librarian, an archivist who has library responsibilities and in general acts as an ambassador for the archives. Because archivists receive some training in general library topics in library school, if they continue educating themselves on both library and archives issues throughout their careers, this puts them in a position where they can exercise this role well.

Some of the areas of the interview where Bastian expressed a lot of hope about librarian/archivist collaborations were local history collections in public libraries and digitization efforts. “Unique materials will sustain libraries,” she said. “People in communities identify with their communities and want to know about their communities. People want information about themselves and their own town: history, genealogies, what their house looked like 100 years ago.” With regard to digitization, Bastian views it as a practice that “will drive everyone together. No choice. People want access, regardless of source. These conversations [between archivists and librarians] will have to happen more and more.” In the book, both local history collections and digitization campaigns are framed as ways of demonstrating a library’s value—economic or otherwise—to the community. When I mentioned concerns about the possibility that the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which provides millions of dollars in funding to libraries across the country, could be dismantled as a result of the new administration’s budget proposal, Bastian replied, “Just because the IMLS is threatened, I don’t think librarians and archivists should pull back. I don’t think anyone should be intimidated. There’s never a lot of money. It’ll swing around again.”

Since Archives in Libraries was published relatively recently, Bastian pointed out that it is “hard to tell” the impact it has had in work dynamics among archivists and librarians. In terms of cases where there is already a fruitful collaboration between archivists and librarians, she gave the example of the genealogy and local history department at the Cambridge Public Library. Although the symbiosis between these two entities is difficult to achieve, cases such as this are quite heartening. Dear readers, what examples do you have of successful attempts to bridge the gap between these two worlds?

Cover photo: a screenshot of the cover of the book Archives in Libraries:What Librarians and Archivists Need to Know to Work Together. 

Maher, W. J. (2016). [Review of the book Archives in Libraries: What Librarians and Archivists Need to Know to Work Together, by J. A. Bastian, M. Sniffin-Marinoff, and D. Webber]. The American Archivist, 290(2), 472-476.

Ayoola White is a history and archives management dual degree candidate at Simmons College. This is her first solo post on HLS.

2 replies

  1. I’m at an academic library, and my position is 50% processing and 50% cataloging in our special collections department. I like to think it’s been successful. They are still pretty different processes, but we do convert our finding aids to MARC and put them in Worldcat (we use Archon for our full finding aids), so there’s definitely some cross-over.


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