Gonzo Archivism in Practice

I know my title may conjure up memories of a particular blue Muppet, but I’m referring to gonzo in the journalistic sense. Gonzo Journalism, of which Hunter S. Thompson found himself an accidental pioneer, is generally characterized by the author’s “. . . participation in the activity being documented.”

But what does gonzo journalism have to do with archives, you may be wondering? This article is the result of my experiences with archives as I’ve engaged with them. In a way, participatory archiving can be an act of activism, given the context of some communities or collections. So, while pairing these two concepts together, I aim to share the experiences I’ve had throughout my transition from student to junior professional. Following the lead of a good friend of mine who’s also a professor: “I want to share [with my students] the resources I wish I had found sooner; when I needed them, they didn’t exist.” So here’s my #ProTip for navigating LIS education.

Hands down, the absolute best hack I’ve found for surviving your MLS/MSLIS is to find or develop your student cohort. If no one has thought of it, consider being the person to mention it! This may be as unofficial as a study group or it may be as formal as a dedicated Facebook group. It’s not a matter of academic integrity or inclusion – it’s a matter of checking in and seeing if we’re all on the same page. Our section of academia is still developing and I’ve heard from more than one source that the field – archives especially – is progressing so quickly that there’s a fairly large disconnect between theory and practice. The learning curve is constantly changing, which makes adaptability an essential skill. 

Having this arena to look around (physically or virtually) serves as a reminder that we’re in this together. My cohort has supported each other through more than a few outrageous projects and trying semesters. I may not have made it this far in the program without some of the brainstorming and discussions with my peers – everything from grading policies to program quirks to assignment help and, most of all, sharing experiences from our classes. Many of these students are in similar situations and almost entirely the same classes, but we come from many different backgrounds. For example, my LIS cohort includes students who studied English, History, Psychology, Gender Studies, Business, Criminology, and Linguistics, among many more majors. The diversity of experience represented in our talent pool can be very beneficial at the individual and group levels as it enriches our time in and out of our program.

Navigating an archival education can seem overwhelming and lonely, especially online or through a program geared more towards other aspects of information science. However, our field is also a particular challenge to teach as the textbooks are still being written. Thus, many of our instructors and mentors are juggling the current changes with the theories they learned while trying to navigate increasing red tape and educate us as the new generation of archivists. So, how is it that a task or system which has been functioning for centuries is only beginning to lay the foundations of their own professional education within the past 50 – or maybe even 30! – years?! Let’s examine this further…

From a historical perspective, the United States of America was a country without an archive between 1776 and 1934; and records are pretty essential to colonial nation-states and post-colonial countries. For example, Fernanda Ribeiro (2001) placed the emergence of “nation-state archives,” or archives as we now consider them, as an outcome of the French Revolution of 1789 – which also introduced the crucial concept of “fonds de provenance;” which emerged in the mid-1800s. So, our history has paved the way for us to build the foundation we’ve added to in recent years in archival education worldwide.

In 1947, the UK began formally establishing archival education programs. Canada’s University of British Columbia began offering a Masters of Archival Science degree in 1981 – ironically over 20 years before their national archive was officially established. In the US, however, archiving has largely been a hands-on, experience-driven field until the iSchool explosion in 2005. However, the iSchool consortium does usually focus more on the data and technology side of information than history or communication.

Additionally, graduate programs in archives were seen as terminal degrees until recently, as evidenced by Long (2011). Currently, the only archives-specific masters degree in the United States is offered by Clayton University in Georgia, a program which began taking shape hardly a decade ago in 2011. Although there is a growing student body and increase in academic programs, we still only have archiving certificates to add to an LIS education (or history or museology or fine art). So, we are stuck creating a patchwork degree to suit our multidisciplinary needs. Thus, while our field is still in such flux, the experiences we have in the programs we attend still contribute to the progress we make in archiving our society for posterity.


Bastian, J. A., & Yakel, E. (2006). Towards the development of an archival core curriculum: The United States and Canada. Archival Science, 6(2), 133-150. doi:10.1007/s10502-006-9024-4

Ribeiro, F. (2001). Archival science and changes in the paradigm. Archival Science, 1(3), 295-310. doi:10.1007/bf02437693

Long, C. (2011). Developing and Implementing a Master of Archival Studies Program: A collaborative effort of a State University, a State Archives, and the National Archives and Records Administration. Association for Library and Information Science Education, 52(2), 110-121. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/41308886.

Carady DeSimone is currently an online MSLIS student at Wayne State University and anticipates finishing her degree in December with an additional graduate certificate in Archival Administration. Prior to attending WSU and working in the Special Collections at Florida Tech’s Evans Library, she graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a BA in English and a minor in Theatre and served three years at sea in the US Navy. Her research interests include genealogy, linguistics, metadata, and digital humanities. You can connect with her on Facebook and Instagram at @gonzo.archivist.

Photo courtesy of Carady DeSimone.

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