I had to update my personal information form at the dentist recently, and I smiled at myself as I wrote archivist under profession. I knew what was coming as soon as I handed the form over the counter. As predicted, the receptionist scanned the page to make sure every field had appropriate content, and said, “Archivist, oh, what’s that?”
What is that? It’s a lot of things actually. If we believe the entirety of the profession can be explained from scenes in popular culture, then I guess I find the answer to historical questions in archival records every time and save someone’s life doing it. I’ll tell you from experience, I have never rushed through archival records in search of clues to save someone’s life (every Dan Brown book turned movie, ughh) nor witnessed a researcher doing the same.
BUT luckily, we’re having a moment. We’re – as in archival professionals and as a professional field – in popular culture and the news lately, and I think all of it is great for people’s understanding of and learning about what we do and why it’s important.
Yes, I’m about to bring President Trump into this. How can I leave out the fact that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) of the United States is opening an investigation into the former President’s handling of White House records? If you haven’t been following this (it’s ok, I understand), US presidents are required by law to transfer their letters, work documents and emails to the National Archives. All of the records, not some, all. Trump is accused of taking boxes of records from Washington, D.C. to Florida, some of which are marked classified, and destroying others. Now NARA is asking the Justice Department for an investigation.
National Archives of the United States, Washington, D.C. Image from Bestbudbrian, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
How bada$ is that??? The National Archives taking on a former President. Archives are complicated institutions bound by laws and policies that we have to balance with the needs of our communities and stakeholders. Certainly in the L&A County Archives, we’re not chasing records down through investigations but we have laws and policies we must abide by too. NARA is using its power to ensure laws and policies are followed so that history doesn’t get rewritten by what’s missing or omitted from the record base. It’s hard to come up with a modern archive that’s more important to have intact than that of this particular former President. Scholars and journalists will be busy with this one for decades, I imagine.
On a brighter note, archivists are featured in supernatural thrillers now too. Netflix’s series Archive 81 tells this story: “An archivist takes a job restoring damaged videotapes and gets pulled into the vortex of a mystery involving the missing director and a demonic cult.”
Image from Netflix, accessed February 22, 2022
Ok, I know how that sounds, but there’s legitimate archival work being showcased until the demons show up. What’s important here is that the archivist gets entangled in this supernatural mess (also never experienced this as an archivist) while working to digitize analog media, something archives are compelled to do all over the world in their efforts to preserve the historical record. Finally, a pop culture reference to archives beyond the stuffy reading room and hurried flip through “old” books and texts. The work of digitizing records (photographs, diaries, sound recordings, old films, etc., you get the point) is not quick or cheap. Staff time is intense with this type of project and don’t forget maintenance costs – yes, even digital files require upkeep!
Examples of different media types archivists work with.
There are many other examples of archives in pop culture and the media (think genealogical shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots) that I don’t have space for here. And what does all of this have to do with our work in L&A County? Nothing really, except to highlight that we do a lot of different things to collect, preserve, and provide access to the historical record. I’m just happy to see that the profession is being noticed and hopefully better understood. That way, when I joke that I hardly use my teeth at work, I’ll get a smile instead of a dead glare from my dental office receptionist.