What is an archives and why should you care?
The WLA is participating in Archives Month with weekly features on the website and Facebook. To get started, below is a post by Director Nancy Freeman, first published in the September 2015 issue of BROAD magazine.
What is an archive and why should I care?
Who saw the movie National Treasure? You know, the one with Nicolas Cage and Justin Bartha who go to the National Archives and steal the Declaration of Independence. And has anyone reading this watched the TV show “Who Do you Think You Are?” where celebrities trace their genealogy?
The National Archives is featured in National Treasure because that’s where the Declaration of Independence is. While the media doesn’t accurately portray how a real archivist or historian would touch, let alone steal, the Declaration of Independence (never, ever, ever touch a historic document the way Nick Cage does), I love that the National Archives is so prominently featured in the movie.
In “Who do you Think You Are?” celebrities usually end up in an archives or library with an archivist who found historical records that detail previously unknown facts about their family. In fact, it is usually the climax of the show when the nice archivist (archivists are almost always nice) reveals something quiet surprising or interesting about the celebrity’s family history.
The movie and the TV show portray archives, which are really just about everywhere when you know where to look. Archives can be part of a library, the Newberry Library in Chicago, and part of historical societies such as the Illinois State Historical Society. Loyola has a University Archives (keep reading and be patient to find out about the other archive at Loyola) Religious denominations such as the Episcopal Church of America have archives. Corporations do too, with the Harley Davidson Corporation just one example. The previously mentioned National Archives, with a famous building in Washington, D.C., has branches all over the US, including the Chicago area.
Now that I’ve given all these examples, what actually is in an archive? An archive is a place that collects and preserves valuable records, and then makes the records available for people to use.
While not all archives are fortunate to have the Declaration of Independence (although we secretly wish we did) archives are places full of historical records in a myriad of formats. Think of paper; photographs, both paper and digital; VCR tapes (who not only remembers those but still has some); blueprints; cassette tapes, reel to reel tapes; magnetic wire recordings; and many more formats, both obscure (click on the magnetic wire recordings link to blow your mind) and current.
So, why should you care about archives? Because, without archives valuable historical records are lost, records that are vital to collective memory. Archives document the past, inform the present, and shape the future.
Without archives there may not be a well-preserved and publically available Declaration of Independence. Without archives, genealogists couldn’t look up their family histories. Without archives, we wouldn’t know the very first design of a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Most importantly, without archives, the records of our collective past would be lost.
An archive is almost never dusty, which is a common misconception, nor is it a dark place hidden away in barely used basements or attics. The archive of today is clean, tidy (mostly) and a place where archival records are meant to be used and explored.
People use archives in many different ways either on-line or by coming on-site. Authors write books, scholarly and popular, by using archival materials. Documentaries are made using archives. (who’s seen a Ken Burns show?) I’ve already talked about genealogists, who typically love archives. Middle and high school students involved in History Fair use archival records. And these examples just scratch the surface of how people use archives.
Now that I’m sure you care about archives, let’s talk about the coolest one ever, the Women and Leadership Archives (WLA) at Loyola University Chicago. (well done, patient reader, you have now discovered the other archive at Loyola) I totally confess to bias because I’m the archivist at the WLA.
When people ask me what I do or where I work and I tell them “I work at the Women and Leadership Archives,” I almost always get a response along the lines of “wow” or “that sounds interesting.” Folks genuinely perk up a bit and become intrigued just because of the name. The phrase women and leadership invokes a response, even though many people aren’t familiar with any archive or archival records, let alone know an archivist.
To explain further what I do, I like to say the WLA collects records about women that show how they live or lived, what they do or have done, and what that means to all of us. Each archive is focused on a subject(s) and everything collected in the archives fits that scope or interest area. The formal statement at the WLA is: To collect records of women and women’s organizations that document women’s lives, roles, and contributions to society.
I’ve worked in the archival field for 16 years and been at the WLA for 2 and a half years. There are three part-time Graduate Assistants who also work with me, taking care of the records and making sure folks can use them either on-line or by coming to the archive in person.
Because I believe who I am informs my work, I’ll also let you know I’m a white, middle aged (53 and proud of it) feminist who is married, with a 9 year old daughter. I also came to the archival profession after a career in social work.
I hope I’ve explained well what an archive is and why you should care. Come back to this monthly column to hear more about archives, social justice, feminism and how it all intersects because really, it does.