What We Save

How does a person choose what to save from history? What is the process that takes place to make that decision, and whose decision is it anyway, an institution’s, or does the public have an opinion? These, and many others, are all questions that have been answered in this week’s reading of Thomas Cauvin’s Public History: A Textbook of Practice. This week we covered how public historians play a part in the practice of archiving. Although, first of all, let’s discuss just exactly what archiving is. The term has three possible meanings according to Cauvin. Archives are “materials, the tangible sources of historical data.” (29) Archives are also the storage location of such items as well as the agencies that take care of the collections of items. There are different types of places that practice archiving. First, the more traditional sense, where there is an actual institution where one can visit and see items, such as a museum or a university, but more recently there has also been the creation of digital archives. These types of archives are more friendly for the public as it allows them more access to the items as well as a chance to have their input shared about the items through crowd-sourcing sites such as Flickr and Pinterest. Sometimes, however, problems arise when the public, typically unqualified and less academic individuals than professional historians, have too much access and input with the archives.

“Archives and museums cannot save everything. . .they typically only preserve 2 percent of records.” (31) So, what is the traditional method of choosing what to save? There is a selection process that is composed of three parts; planning, acquisition, and examination. Planning consists of composing a mission statement that outlines what the institution is looking to try and save. Acquisition, Cauvin states, is the process of “legally obtaining records, manuscripts, or objects. . .for a repository through gifts, purchases, exchanges, transfers, and field collecting.” (32) Lastly, examination is the process of appraisal of an object. Historians are equipped to understand these objects and their historical context in order to better understand if they are worthy of preservation. You can explore some of what goes through an archivist’s head and what their core values are here. Any object that is accepted needs to be recorded in detail, what is it, where did it come from, and why it is important, are just a few things that should be written down about each and every item.

Digital archiving is different from traditional archiving because, as stated earlier, it permits the public more access to the archiving process as well as allowing historians to be more open minded about what they can keep because no physical space is taken up, only digital space, which is vast. However, historians still go through the same process for digital archives as they would for traditional archives. Digital archives also play a part in preservation. Physical objects can deteriorate so steps are taken to slow down, stop, or reverse that deterioration. With digital archives though, nothing deteriorates, so as long as the proper technology is used to upload the material it will remain exactly as it was when it was first uploaded. The Washington State Digital Archives is an innovative digital archives where you can explore more than 8 million records including death, birth, and marriage certificates. Check out page 8 of this report and feel free to explore the site yourself here.

Archiving is extremely important because it allows us to preserve the past in physical objects. Archiving has changed throughout the years in more ways than one. As Cauvin nicely puts it, “in the past, museum history collections mostly focused on the expensive, unusual, fine, or emotionally meaningful artifacts. Today, more and more history museums collect and preserve the ordinary objects, representative of everyday life.” (40) We also now have physical AND digital archives, so an increasing number of everyday objects can be preserved along with more special ones. With this type of archiving we can begin to know, and present the public with more knowledge, the everyday life of the past, the “true history” of us all.

Explore what you need to know and do in order to pursue becoming an archivist with the Society of American Archivists as well as how archives can be used for research and the functions of archives.

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