One part of my job description is to take care of the school’s archives. Now, I should start by confessing that while I’m good at organization and have a decent idea about how to preserve things, I am not, nor have I ever been, trained as an archivist. Beyond working at my last school to start making sense of their history and one course in graduate school, I’m totally dependent on the advice and guidance of archivally-trained peers.
So, confession over. Moving on.
The school I’m at now is heading rapidly towards their 175th year (hemisesquicentennial? anyone know if there is a word for that?) and the archives are in a mess. They used to be organized, albeit not necessarily in the best fashion, but a couple of years ago they were moved from an old building (dating from the 1700s) to a new building (est. 2001) and then moved three times within the new space(s). There used to be an archivist, but no longer and for the past several years it’s been either completely ignored or part of someone’s non-academic duties. So I’m starting not from scratch but from a position of trying to make sense of what’s there (the box labels don’t always reflect the insides), keeping things ticking, weeding the dross and trying to plan for the future.
Wait! Weeding? Dross?
Yes. If you are a school archive, there’s a good chance that you will be considered the dumping ground for all the stuff that someone doesn’t want. It takes discipline on the part of the archivist to not accept things like art and other gifts that were given to the Head/a teacher/coach/school nurse by grateful students and parents, and while appreciated, not quite appreciated enough to go along with the person when they moved offices or left the school. Knowing that the athletics department should give you a team roster, team schedule/results and photos for every team but perhaps not the play sheets for every game, or that the airline tickets from the admissions departments travel aren’t really necessary seems “duh”-ish, but you’d be surprised! I’ve seen all that and more in the archives in two schools that I’ve worked with.
Anyway, back to the situation at hand. One of the things that needs to happen is a reorganization of the boxes, decisions about how to preserve some of the artifacts (some clothing, a lot of scrapbooks and notebooks, ledgers and other written works, etc.) need to be made and maybe we can reopen the archives to researchers. More important, maybe we can consider updating the book that was written in time for the 150th. In the intervening 20 years there have been a lot of changes in the school, some unique to the institution and some familiar to anyone working in independent schools, or all-girls schools, but our archives haven’t kept up.
It’s interesting to be thinking about looking forward, to updating this book and protecting the future history while at the same time I’m looking backwards at what was in the archives, what should be there and how we can best preserve that past.
More thoughts to follow.