Celebrating American Archives Month: October 2013

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central Library

Celebrating American Archives Month: October 2013

An Interview with DC Community Archivist, Derek Gray

Celebrating American Archives Month
Oct. 1-31, 2013
American Archives Month
Imagine yourself sitting next to a friendly stranger on public transportation and you innocently ask them, “What do you do for a living?” The friendly stranger replies with enthusiasm, "I'm an archivist!" You then stare at them with a blank look on your face. "Say what?"

Meet DC Public Library’s Archivist, Derek Gray.

Derek Gray Archivist photoSo Derek, please answer the burning question that’s probably on our readers’ minds: What is an archivist?
An archivist works to maintain historic records for research value and use. The two most important concepts in this profession are access and preservation. In other words, we make sure that the historic record is cared for physically to enable it to be accessible by the public for a long period of time.
 
Archivists work in all different types of environments with different types of records: libraries, museums, historical societies, organizations, corporations, even the military. There's even an archivist for the Walt Disney Company and World Wrestling Entertainment!

And even though President Barack Obama is still in office and has not decided where his official library will be located yet, government archivists are already hard at work collecting and preserving the records that will document his historic administration. And I read a few months ago that Beyoncé has her own archivist! So, we’re everywhere!

OK now that we know what an archivist is, what is an archive?
There are two definitions. An archive is a collection of historical records that have accumulated over time. It is also the physical space where these records are kept. 
 
Would you say that the work of an archivist is related to, but distinct from other professionals such as a librarian?
Yes and no.

Libraries are one of the many places that employ archivists, but the archivist usually works in a special collections department within the library. The librarian and archivist are different because of the materials we work with.

Think of it this way: You would go to a library for information from books and periodicals. You would go to an archive for information from unpublished manuscripts, reports, memos, photographs, audio, video recordings and all other types of information that are known as "primary sources." A student researching Martin Luther King Jr. can go anywhere for books about him, but there are only about 4-5 places in the United States where his archival collection of sermons, writings and other original records are kept.
 
If someone was interested in doing volunteer work in archives, how would an archivist sustain the volunteer’s interest in the job, to ensure that a feeling of ennui doesn’t occur?
Well, as the saying goes, "variety is the spice of life." A challenging aspect of archival work is the variety.

A volunteer could sort a collection, write a box inventory list, interfile newly-discovered records into an existing collection, do background research on an unknown person or building in a photograph, or digitize photographs for an online archive.

One of my favorite experiences was when I was an intern at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem during the summer of 2000. I was assigned 3-4 different projects (big and small). One involved working on some letters and financial records belonging to Langston Hughes and his attorney. I was able to come in and spend each day working on something different and I was excited to handle the materials (it’s Langston Hughes! Who hates Langston?). I was never bored, and it is one of the best experiences I have had in my career.

Hmmm…sounds really interesting Derek!  If there is a reader out there who’s interested in becoming an archivist, what advice would you give them?  
Anyone who desires to go into this profession should have a deep knowledge and interest in history considering the materials that we work with. They should also be able to pay very strict attention to detail and write well since the records need to be meticulously organized and described in “finding aids” that will make them easier to use. I would also emphasize that with the technological advancements over the years in terms of digitization, and the fact that many records are now “born-digital,” it is important for people entering this field to learn the basic tenets of electronic records preservation and management. 

In terms of education, back in the day, a Masters degree in History could get you a job as an archivist, but now the employers want you to have either a Masters in Library Science or Archive Studies/Management in addition to the Masters in History. Many graduate programs offer dual areas of study in these two fields.

Finally, I would stress that many archivists start out by volunteering. So get plenty of experience. You never know when opportunity knocks and a volunteer position can land you a job offer!
 
One last question: What do you like most about being an archivist and what do you dislike the most?
I love how the staff has built the collections in Washingtoniana over the years and how their rich content documents the history of Washington, D.C. as a local community. A lot of people don't know about us and/or what we have, and I think a better job needs need to be done in advocacy.

I also enjoy helping people find the information they are looking for in the records. It's like detective work. The researcher and I put our heads together to figure out how to solve a puzzle. It's a thrill for me to meet someone who comes in needing some help and then leave the Library with the answer they have been searching for.
 
My only pet peeve is when people mishandle the records. They don't understand (or sometimes just don't care) that many of these materials can’t be repaired or replaced. One time, in a previous position, I was assisting a woman with genealogical (family history) research and she found a court document from 1791 concerning her family that she got VERY excited about.  She jumped up so fast that she almost knocked her chair over, waved it in the air like it was a Kleenex and screamed out: "I found what I wanted! I want a copy of this!"

I was happy that she was able to find what she was after, but had to explain that a document that is 222 years old must be handled delicately. I'm surprised that she didn't damage it. The whole experience really made me cringe!
 
Thank you for your time Derek.