Professionalization of the Archival Field
posted April 21, 2014 8:39 AM by Gemma Doyle
One of the things that struck me only after I'd started the archives program at Simmons was how incredibly diverse the field of archives really is. I knew that there were small historical societies staffed with volunteers with little or no formal training, but until I actually began to take classes in archives I had never realized how much there was to study, and how important that information was for preserving the items in the archive to begin with. My LIS438 and 440 classes were peppered with stories like the one about the (untrained) archivist who cut photographs into pieces to file each person in the photo under their name in the files: many collections of letters which were broken up in order to be filed under subjects, rather than by provenance; all the letters from all the collections mixed together forevermore; collections where diaries, of all things, were cut up so that individual "important" entries could be saved and the rest thrown away (this was thought the be an extremely efficient use of space).
One thing that has been drilled into us again and again is the idea that there isn't one right way to be an archivist, but there are a lot of wrong ways to be one. Without a grounding in archival theory and practice, though, we wouldn't be able to make the distinction, which is what leads to the horror stories happening in archives in the first place.
While we've never talked explicitly about the professionalization of the archives field in class, it is the unspoken truth of why we're all learning the theory in the first place: because without a grounding in "archival principles" we would be working in archives and making the same mistakes. We would be the horror stories. That's the most important reason given for professionalization - to enforce the uniformity of ideas and standardization of procedures across archival institutions. This is especially necessary for archives because so many changes have been introduced to the field in the past few decades - and archival work is not a field that changes very quickly at all. MPLP as an idea is almost a decade old, and it is still sort of percolating through the archives world, and that tiny historical societies have probably not even heard of it, much less joined the debate about it. Beginning with a degree and continuing with the accoutrements of a professional field: conferences, scholarly journals and the like, ideas can be embraced across the different type of archives, debated fully, and contribute to the archival field as a cohesive whole, as even people from different sorts of archives - academic and corporate, government or nonprofit - can discuss the same issues with the same language and same tools at their disposal.
Besides the obvious advantage of standardization of the field, professionalization gives the field more respect, and possibly higher wages, and a widely-accepted ethical code across the profession.
There are, of course, drawbacks to professionalization. Cost is an issue - some archives, especially tiny historical societies, don't have the money to pay for professional archivists, so professionalization actually would tend to put those institutions in the position of needing to make tough choices about funding. Still, on the whole, professionalization is a good thing. As libraries have shown, creating barriers to a field pays off, though it may be quite a while until the archival field sees the fruits of that labor.