Interview with an Archivist

Recently, I was approached by an archival masters student from the University of Texas at Austin, Chido Muchemwa. Her assignment was to talk to an archivist to gain insight into his or her daily work and the general challenges facing the profession. Luckily the process went a little smoother than Christian Slater’s experience with his interview. (Is this reference too old? The early 1990’s was the golden age of cinema, wasn’t it?)

I was touched that she chose me for her assignment and I spent a good chunk of time considering her thoughtful questions. It occurred to me that we only sit down and contemplate the work we have done when we are asked these types of questions in a job interview setting, but perhaps this is a useful exercise to undertake while you are engaged in your current job. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on how I spend my days, on the challenges I face, and how I feel about the profession.

I thought I would share Chido’s questions and the answers I gave, because perhaps other archivists might find value in contemplating these insightful questions in the context of their own practice.

Question #1 – What are your principal duties as archivist (i.e. how do you spend your day) and to which of these duties do you invest the majority of your energy?

My days are quite varied, given that I am responsible for the entirety of the Archives. On any given day, I could be appraising a possible donation, selecting material to be accessioned, arranging and rehousing a new fonds, creating descriptions, digitizing records, uploading content to our online search portal, answering a reference request, performing research for a researcher or staff member, preparing a presentation for a speaking engagement or conference, developing content for social media outreach, managing web platforms like Historypin, creating an exhibit, supervising a contractor, liaising with suppliers, researching archival theory…and the list goes on.

I would say that answering reference requests and performing outreach tasks (speaking engagements, social media, preparing promotional material, etc.) take up the largest proportion of my time. However, this varies depending on the time of year and whether or not we have recently received any new donations. I make an effort to leave as little of a processing backlog as I can, but this isn’t always possible and things do pile up.

Question #2 – So I read that you basically started the City of Coquitlam Archives from scratch. Wow! That must have been such an exciting experience. Can you talk a bit about the best parts of such an enterprise and maybe the particular challenges.

A lot of credit for the Archives program here in Coquitlam must be given to our City Clerk, Jay Gilbert, who convinced Council that Coquitlam should have an archives. He put forward a budget request in 2012 to create an archives program as part of the City Clerk’s Office. I was hired in 2013 and I set about putting all of the policies and procedures in place, acquiring records, and creating outreach programs. I must also give credit to Heather Gordon (now the City Archivist in Vancouver) who managed some archival functions during her time in Coquitlam as the Records Manager. Thanks to her, we have all of our Council Minutes scanned and available online for researchers. She also hired a contractor to prepare a set of policies and procedures back in 2001, so I had something to start with when I first arrived.

Best part

The best part of my job is that I get to imagine the institution I want to create and then I get to make it a reality. I am extremely fortunate to have the freedom to build the Archives how I think it should be built. If I want to try a new outreach tool, I am free to do so. I know this is a unique situation and I don’t take that for granted. When I am having a frustrating day, I remind myself that I get to build something and make it my own. I know how rare this is. I do have an incredible amount of freedom, but obviously I am not alone in this. I have the support of several departments, including: the City Clerk’s Office, which provides strategic direction and a liaison with City Council; the IT Department, which has been incredibly supportive of my chosen open source archival management software; and the Corporate Communications Department, which creates stunning visual material for the Archives.

Challenges

When I first took this on, it felt like a monumental task. I came from Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, where I worked as a Government Records Archivist for four years after I graduated from my Masters program. I hadn’t truly anticipated what it would be like to suddenly be a lone arranger. I found the isolation difficult in the beginning, so I made an effort to build a professional network here in British Columbia. I toured around to the various archives in the lower mainland area and got to know the other archivists. They have now become some of my best sources of professional information. I have since formed the Lower Mainland Municipal Archivists Forum, which provides an opportunity for municipal archivists to discuss a wide range of common archival issues, share best practices and resources, discuss challenges, and discover areas of potential collaboration or cooperation. I also joined the Executive of the Archives Association of British Columbia, which helped me to widen my professional circle.

Question #3 – Are there any particular issues/problems/challenges with which you are grappling as an archivist and how are you dealing with/solving them? Are there principal sources you refer to or rely on to solve these issues?

The main big picture challenge that I think most archivists are dealing with these days is the concept of digital preservation. Recently, I attended the Digital Preservation Management Workshop run by Nancy McGovern and Kari Smith. I found the workshop incredibly informative and useful to understand the larger conceptual and theoretical framework around digital preservation and it gave me a sense of the importance of building the appropriate fundamental policy framework and workflows to enable a successful program over the long term.

My Archives is not yet in a position to be able to pursue a digital preservation program but I am now confident that I have the tools to be able to start laying the policy groundwork that will prepare us for the time when we might have the resources (both human and financial) in place.

The two most important sources cited by the workshop were:

  1. “Trusted Digital Repositories (TDR): Attributes and Responsibilities,” produced by the Research Libraries Group (RLG) and OCLC. TDR defines the organizational context for a digital preservation program. TDR embraces OAIS and demonstrates what adhering to OAIS will mean for an institution. You can find the report here.
  1. “Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System (OAIS),” produced by an international group of digital preservation researchers and practitioners convened by the NASA Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS). OAIS defines what is needed but not how to build it.  You can find the reference model here.

Question #4 – Are there ethical and legal issues you face or have faced? How were they resolved?  

Early on we acquired a collection of personnel records from a local company that operated for over one hundred years in the City and closed down in 2001. The records contain personal information that would not be releasable for many years according to Canada’s privacy legislation. We debated whether or not to keep the records or dispose of them because of the restrictions and their questionable archival value (they represent only a sample – surnames beginning with “L” and “M”). However, they do contain some interesting information about worker’s compensation claims and may have some use for a statistical study in combination with another series of the same records held by Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of British Columbia. We made the decision to process the records into our holdings, despite the lengthy privacy restrictions that must be placed on them.

Question #5 – So I looked at your LinkedIn profile and I saw that you had served as President of the Archives Association of British Columbia and served on committees for the Association of Canadian Archivists. Is being engaged with the archival community very important to you? If yes, why?

Absolutely, yes! The archival community is a connected group of passionate professionals who do this work because they care deeply about it. I see that part of the public service of my role extends to the wider professional community and that we all have a part to play in advancing the profession.

Question #6 – When you get the inevitable questions of “what does an archivist do?” how do you usually answer?

Great question and one I struggle with pretty regularly (as you will probably see on my blog, particularly in this post).

When someone asks, my short blurb tends to be, “I take care of the historical records for the City of Coquitlam and the Coquitlam community.” If the person is interested, I then explain that I determine the historical/enduring value of both community and city records and then I negotiate with donors, arrange and describe the records, and provide assistance to researchers. I explain that I also promote the archives and encourage people to use its services through various outreach activities like community events and speaking engagements as well as through social media channels.

Most people compare the work to what they understand more easily, which is the work of a librarian. I explain that librarians work with published material, whereas archivists work with unique, unpublished material such as photographs, diaries, business records, etc. This seems to clarify my role in people’s minds.

Question #7 – Is there any part of your job that when you decided to be an archivist you never imagined you would have to do?

I never really imagined that I would do as much personal outreach as I do in my current role. I started my career in a role with very little public interaction (Government Records at Library and Archives Canada). When I made the switch to the municipal level, and started the Archives here in Coquitlam, I didn’t fully realize how much of my job would be about publicizing and raising awareness of the program. Luckily, this is something I really enjoy, so it has been a pleasurable happenstance. I give presentations to all kinds of community groups, large and small and I have a display that I bring to community events like Canada Day and our Welcome to Coquitlam event that we put on for newcomers to the City.

welcome-to-coquitlam-2016
City of Coquitlam Archives Display during Welcome to Coquitlam, 2016 (Photo by author)

Question #8 – When you started working as an archivist was there a particular skill you wished you had mastered before, whether it be from school or outside activities?

Definitely! I wish that I had developed coding and technical skills. This is an area that will become increasingly important as we continue to exist in the born-digital environment. I wish that I had been taught or taught myself the fundamentals of coding so that I would understand things like xml schemas and other related technical skills. The vast majority of digital archivists have learned these skills because of a personal interest, rather than through formal training, largely because the formal training is simply not available in a meaningful, accessible way. I wish that I had had the interest and the foresight to begin to learn these skills earlier in my career as part of my personal professional development. However, there is so much to learn after you have qualified and begun working as an archivist. It really is a career that includes life-long learning.

 

Thank you very much to Chido for choosing me as the subject of her assignment. I hope she found my answers useful and I hope they might inspire other archivists to think about their own experiences.

Please also check out Chido’s blog, Curious Chido, to follow her quest to ask “why” in all sorts of circumstances.

 

Cover Image:

Still shot from Interview with a Vampire, starring Brad Pitt and Christian Slater (Warner Brothers, 1994)

 

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