If you’ve ever browsed an archives catalog, occupied a research room, or noticed a very tidy box in your research, maybe you’ve wondered: “Where’d that come from?” Archivists are like ghosts: if they do their job right, you don’t even notice what they’ve done. For every fifteen minutes you spend researching, some archivist has spent three hours making it easy. Whether that’s creating a finding aid or getting an entire catalog online, archivists work diligently to keep the records of yesterday and today available tomorrow, whatever that may look like. Everyone loves an archive and to hold history in their hands! The confidence that our legacies will remain past ourselves makes archives something to celebrate.
But let’s try a pivot. Let’s still love the old documents and books and photographs and tapes—we know the archivists do! But when we say we love archives, let’s try bringing a different image to mind. The archives are not the documents. The documents are just things. Their value to us, and that appeal of archives, is in their context. Context which is maintained and sometimes provided by the archivists. The archives are the work. The archives are the time that goes into the preservation, description, and retrieval of the records. They are the physical movement of the archivists. Labeling acid-free folders in pencils with neatly printed handwriting. Pulling on each cord in the digitization station to find out what it’s powering. Getting fifty boxes on the loading dock, taking a deep breath, and opening the one on top. The stuff is loveable, but the work is the real archives, and the work is what we celebrate here at King County Archives for Archives Month!
In addition, we’ve asked some of our archivists to share their favorite memories and pieces of their work. Read on for more:
County Archivist Dani: Have you ever marveled that an image taken 100+ years ago is still able to be seen and examined? It isn’t dumb luck which preserved that image. Non-textual materials (like photographs) are some of the more challenging materials to care for and preserve due to the finicky nature of most early audio-visual documentation processes. Glass plate negatives, nitrate film, lantern slides: all require specialized storage conditions and careful handling to prevent damage, both to the object itself and to the rest of the archival collection. Too cold, the material can become brittle and crack. Too hot, the material can bubble and split; some materials even burst into flame when temperatures rise too much! For example, nitrate film (and nitrate negatives) are highly toxic and extremely combustible materials when they begin to deteriorate due to the nitric acid and nitrogen dioxide fumes that are generated as the material breaks down. Some institutions have lost whole wings of their storage facilities to fires caused by nitrate film that got too warm and ignited. Luckily, the big film companies began phasing nitrate film out of their product offerings in the 1920s and most non-textual records after about 1955 are entirely cellulose, so nitrate film is a relatively small part of what we have here at the King Count Archives. To care for what we do have, we keep our (small) collection of nitrate negatives in a special refrigerator inside our already environmentally controlled secure storage area and archivists have special training on how to handle and care for nitrate-based film.
Assistant Archivist Jen: During a summer internship long ago, I worked on a pilot project for digitizing a museum archives collection that held material about significant exhibitions and events held by the museum but also information about artists that had worked with the museum over time or had their work on exhibition there. The best part for me was the experience in getting to dive into a simplified open source database, learn all the bits and bobs to get it to work and then use it as a learning space for me to better understand how archival material can be described and made more accessible. At the same time, all that work with the simplified database also helped me get more comfortable with later projects for picking up and learning new software and scanning technologies that have had varying complexities.