Somewhere in the slow part of Home Alone 2, the boring scene where little Kevin imparts some wisdom to a struggling old soul, right before the good stuff, Kevin McCallister shares a story about how he had some super cool roller-skates he did not want to ruin, and so never wore them. The whole scene is rather boring, I always fall asleep during it, but the point is, what is the good of preserving something if it cannot be used for its purpose. The same can be said for archives. As the Society of American Archivists (SAA) points out in their Core Values of Archivists, “Access to records is essential in personal, academic, business, and government settings, and use of records should be both welcomed and actively promoted.” So, it is clearly understood that most good archives seek to provide access to their materials to as many people as possible. However, the challenges to the success of this goal are, as would be expected, numerous.
Everyday businesses, governments, educational institutions, and individuals produce an immense amount of records. To preserve everything in a repository is impossible, not to mention kind of ridiculous. Thus, it is the archivist’s responsibility to decide what materials, based on their historical value for current and future generations, should be preserved as part of a collection. In addition, and often overlooked, archivists need to be consistently engaged with their collection so as to be able to downsize when necessary. Thomas Cauvin, in Public History: A Textbook of Practice, notes, “Collection management is not a linear process but must be seen as a cycle.” (36). As an employee of Spokane County Library District, I am very aware of the tendency of collections to get out of control. There is a continuous process of adding new books to the collection and weeding out old ones that never get checked out. The limitations of physical space demand continuous collection vigilance. Of course, as Cauvin makes sure to point out, for archives that are deaccessioning, “preferably items should be offered to other collections, and transferred rather than sold or destroyed.” (37). This is because, as Laura Schmidt makes clear in Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, “Materials in an archives are often unique, specialized, or rare objects, meaning very few of them exist in the world, or they are the only ones of their kind,” unlike libraries where a new copy of a book can be purchased if the old one wears out.
Collection management is most certainly a challenge for the archivist. However, archives also present other issues due to their nature as repositories of one-of-kind documents that allow access to the public and/or authorized individuals. That is: nefarious, or just plain stupid, individuals can walk into an archive, hide some unique and classified documents “in his socks and under his pants,” walk out, and get fined $50,000 for being a world class moron. Maybe we could have let it slide if it was Nic Cage stealing the Declaration of Independence for benevolent historical pursuits, but that was not the case.
Archival work has its challenges, but it’s not insurmountable. Vigilant collection management goes a long way in maintaining a useful and accessible archive. In addition, hiring archivists who exhibit the SAA’s Code of Ethics for Archivists is also a good place to start. Professional relationships, judgement, authenticity, security and protection, access and use, privacy, and trust are attributes listed and I would just like to quote Bill Murray form Groundhog Day on this, “me, me, me…me also…I am really close on this one!”