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January 18, 2007


One of the things I disliked most about being a historian was working in the archives. And what am I doing now? I'm working full-time in an archive. But being an archivist is totally different from being a reader. Being a reader is like being a long-term guest in your fusty great-aunt's house, while being an archivist is like having your own house.

Working at ICPSR, I have my own office (okay, it's actually a cubicle, but it is quite large) that I can decorate and dwell in. When I get in to work, I can take off my coat, get a cup of coffee, and settle in. I can leave personal items here overnight and I have a picture of my husband on my desk. As a reader at the various archives I used in London, I had to put all my stuff into a locker, taking with me only what I could fit into a transparent plastic bag. In the National Archives of Ghana, they didn't even have lockers or bags -- I just had to leave my stuff at the door, bringing in only notebook and pencil. And that was the other thing -- as a reader, I could only use pencils with no erasers. As an archivist, I can use pens, highlighter, erasers, whatever. As a reader, I hated not being able to retrieve documents myself (especially when the archivists didn't know where they were), and I resented the stupid rules about how many boxes I could have out at a time. At the Bodleian Library I even had to swear an oath not to light a match in the library. Maybe if they just turned the heat up a little, I wouldn't have to burn documents to stay warm! I'm also allergic to dust, which frequently made handling the documents unpleasant. As a reader, I couldn't drink water or coffee while I worked, and had to leave the reading room every time I got thirsty or had to pee, getting searched on the way out and having to show ID to get back in. What a pain! Here I have my water and coffee right on my desk, and the bathroom is just around the corner. As a reader, I was just a visitor: the staff treated me with suspicion (I wasn't even allowed to wear a jacket in the freezing-cold Wellcome Library because they thought I would try to smuggle documents out) and none of the other readers wanted to talk to me because they were busy doing their own work. Here I work with other people (nice people, who I like), and I can always chat with them when I need human contact.

ICPSR is also a very different kind of archive than the ones I used as an historian because we archive data rather than documents. Our data is all stored in computers, so readers don't come here to use it; they simply download it from our website. Furthermore, no documents means no dust and no boxes to lift, cart around, or shelve. It also means that preserving our data and its documentation is a technological problem rather than the physical problem of document preservation: rather than worrying how to keep paper from crumbling, we worry about how to maintain computer files that will still be useful when various software packages become obsolete.

But the best part of being an archivist rather than a reader is that I get paid more :)

Posted by eklanche at January 18, 2007 07:47 AM


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