Being a Mediator

April 8, 2009

I have heard it said that archivists are mediators between the collections and the users of the collections. I have also heard it said that their stock in trade is their understanding of their collections and the organizations that created them. I find it curious that someone could believe he is capable of being a successful mediator between two parties (in this case the source of information and the individual that desires it) without a good understanding of the qualities of each. Yet archivists seem to assume that they understand the research needs of their users with no, or at best the most perfunctory, of inquiries as to those needs.

I spent years doing research before becoming an archivist and it was a rare occasion when archival staff took the time to truly try and understand what I wanted or needed. I was usually more successful at my research when I was able to persuade the archivist to just give me what I wanted whether he or she thought it was useful or not. On many occasions I would be told that there were no such records, in spite of the fact that I had used them the previous day when they were supplied by a different staff member. It was not unusual for me to just abandon the topic for a time in hopes of finding another source that required fewer hoops to jump through for access. Nothing has persuaded me that the attitude that the archivist knows best is not still the most prevalent attitude in the profession.

Today things are a bit different than they used to be. There are many more sources of information with which the repository must compete. The archivist must truly become a mediator, not just claim to be one. That means finding ways to determine what the user actually needs (or, for that matter, wants) and examining whether there are reasonable ways to meet those needs. It means setting aside the hubris of believing that one’s knowledge of one’s collections and the organizations that created them in and of itself qualifies one to make decisions on behalf of the researcher. The modern archivist must base his or her practice on the knowledge of the collections, the knowledge of the creator, and the knowledge of the researcher’s needs. This last includes methods of access that are compatible with the researcher’s skills and with which he is familiar. It requires study and compromise. Indeed, user study and evaluation should be a separate domain of archival practice.

Somehow I don’t think studying the records, their structure and their function will adequately fit the bill. This, by the way, is one of the statements that I made at a professional meeting that resulted in my being called a heretic. Oh, well. If the shoe fits…

The Heretic


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