RECOMMENDED: Implications of Archival Labor

Stacie Williams (University of Kentucky) published a post in Medium’s On Archivy this week, “Implications of Archival Labor,” building upon the “Leading Together: Archivists and Historians Shaping the Digital Archive” panel discussion from the Organization of American Historians’ 2016 annual conference. Williams’ post delves into the often hidden labor that goes into making archival collections accessible and usable:

…very little thought goes into the team of people who make it possible: the collections management archivist, the manuscript archivist, the technical services cataloger, the digital archivist, the reference archivist, and most importantly, the people who actually process the collections. They go by many titles, but we’ll return to that momentarily. As a researcher, it’s easy to take all of those things for granted — that you would visit a research room, tell someone behind a desk what you want, and be given a sweet little acid-free gray box with all of the information you are looking for, perfectly organized by date, format, or subject.

Williams goes on to highlight important issues within archival work: how archivists often fail to adequately advocate for and explain their work, the gendered nature of the profession and low pay and status of archivists, who does archival work, and how all of these issues are compounded when discussing digital archives:

When we talk about digitizing, well, anything, we have to be willing to talk in terms of time and money. Who are we asking to conduct this labor? Why? What are they getting out of it? And what is the end game? Are we digitizing something that is going to be extremely useful to a wide variety of researchers or users? Are we asking people to contribute to projects that might help their communities or even help them personally? Or are we just asking people to pad a university or repository’s bottom line and annual feel-good reports?

The post closes with suggestions for how to “disrupt this system-based inequality,” including paying equitable salaries and opening up archival work and workspaces to creators of content. Williams’ post is a must-read for librarians and archivists concerned with fair and equitable labor and sustainability of archives.

dh+lib Review

This post was produced through a cooperation between Rebecca Dowson, Alix Keener, Allison Ringness, and Chelcie Rowell (Editors-at-large for the week), Caitlin Christian-Lamb (Editor for the week), Sarah Potvin (Site Editor), and Caro Pinto, Roxanne Shirazi, and Patrick Williams (dh+lib Review Editors).