Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I like to talk about libraries and archives and how different they are (hello?! They are A LOT different). Of course many of the differences are directly related to the amount of stuff that archivists deal with. We’re talking about millions of pages, manuscripts, letters, objects, and now databases, webpages, emails, IMs, etc. Librarians, on the other hand, put their feet down long ago, and accept only things that are either physically or digitally contained within themselves. Librarians don’t accept anything else. A bunch of letters from George Washington? No thank you! Please publish this first, give it a unique identifier, several subject headings, and a spine label. Then we’ll talk.

I sometimes feel as though archivists took on the responsibility of preserving all the things that museums and libraries simply couldn’t be troubled with. Archives are notoriously hodge-podge; indeed, archivists seem to take a kind of perverse pleasure out of having lots and lots of things in their possession that would make a librarian or a curator throw up their hands in disgust.

The uniqueness of all of these millions of pages of documentation have made it very difficult for archivists to come together on standards. EAD IS a standard, I suppose, although a very cautious one:

“Okay, we’ll standardize what we CALL things, but don’t tell us what goes under each name!” And the result was that while I call a scope and content note one thing, someone else may use the same tag for something different.

Then along came DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard), which is very nice and should be wonderful, but there a lot of archivists out there who don’t use it. Show me a librarian who doesn’t use AACRII at least to some degree.

I think it’s funny that while archives have been around in Europe since before the French Revolution, and the US has had archives of sorts since their own Revolution, archivists seem to have missed the boat, letting librarians (a relatively younger profession as we know it today) sail off to take the credit for preserving culture. They’re so much older than librarians in many ways, but librarians dove right into organization theory with a vengeance. While librarians spent the last century perfecting a system of cataloging books, archivists apparently decided that the 20th century wouldn’t do, and are now beginning the process in the 21st century. I just never understood why they waited so long.

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"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.