Today, archivists across the US took to Twitter to answer questions from the public. Like the recent #AskACurator Day, the #AskAnArchivist event allows experts from cultural institutions to share professional advice, rare stories or facts, and images of artifacts that might not be on display. No question is too silly or too practical, according to the Society of American Archivists, which organizes the event. The result has been a series of informative and hilarious insights into the roles of those charged with preserving our histories.
Since the works that archivists care for generally remain behind closed, highly protected doors, it’s difficult to grasp just how large archives can be. Collection size was a common question, and the archivists’ answers really emphasize the real estate that’s necessary to hold centuries of records. The Library of Virginia also tweeted a photograph of its highly organized department, giving a helpful visual sense of the space that history occupies.
Of course, as collections grow and real estate prices climb, finding additional space is an issue. To make room for future acquisitions, archivists are sometimes faced with the difficult, delicate decision of getting rid of material. The US National Archives — “the nation’s record keeper” — actually keeps just 1–3% of all federal documents forever.
We imagine that space would be especially difficult to manage when you have massive records, such as this petition to establish a department of roads, which dates to December 20, 1893. One of the largest petitions in the US National Archives, it’s over six feet long, with about 150,000 signatures. Congress in the Archives notes that Colonel Albert Pope, the father of the American bicycle, organized and funded the petition, which eventually led to the creation of the Federal Highway Administration.
Archival work, though, increasingly involves the preservation of digital material, and while those jobs pose fewer challenges regarding space, they do introduce new concerns. One person asked about such future challenges and how archivists are preparing for them.
But there are already plenty of challenges when dealing with physical objects, from the environments of archival rooms (mold is a pesky enemy) to the material or structure of an artifact — which can be quite unusual.
One of the greatest aspects of #AskAnArchivist Day is that it takes place online, offering archivists a chance to show some little-known artifacts from their collections that they personally enjoy.
And of course, it’s the perfect opportunity for institutions to spread word of some of their most ridiculous or unique objects.
Once an archivist, always an archivist?