So, what does an Archivist really do? (Or Spelunking in the Basement of Doom)

April 8th, 2013

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

A very tall messy, tilting five deep stack of books.

Tip of the iceberg!

I love it when people ask me what an archivist does. I tell them it is like being a Time Traveler, a Detective and a Treasure Hunter every day. When I arrive for work, I never know which hat I will have to put on. It depends on what our patrons research needs are that day. If I tell people I take care of rare manuscripts, letters, and old photos and papers some folks think I am stuck in a moldy old basement with lots of dusty old files. (Actually, it is like that some days, but more about that later.) Really it is much more exciting.

In my “Sherlock Holmes” role I had the opportunity to reunite a widower with the scrapbooks his beloved wife, now deceased, made early in their married life. A good Samaritan found the books in an antique market in one of the southern states and felt they were too personal not to be reunited with a family member. This generous soul purchased the books and brought them to her home in New England and called me to help her find the family of the scrapbooks creator. I put on my detective hat and began searching for a relative. I had several volunteers working on the “hunt” with me.  Eventually we located the surviving spouse who was very excited and happy to get the books back.  He had no idea how they got to the Carolinas, but he stated he had missed his wife every day since she had died and he was delighted to get this wonderful reminder of her. The woman who had rescued the scrapbooks, sent them to him at the senior living facility where he resided. I had the warm feeling of having made two people very satisfied.

In my role as “Time Traveler” I get to explore old letters and documents that take me back in time and place me on steamships or trains, in parlors and kitchens, at weddings and funerals, in theaters or in stores. I sit in meetings with Village Trustees when I read the minutes of the discussions held in 1812. I watch the soldiers enlist and march off with their units in the Civil War. I once had the privilege of “sitting on the deck of a Seneca Lake steamship in 1849” as a man wrote to his wife about seeing a woman working on a cadaver at the Geneva Medical College who could only have been Elizabeth Blackwell. Wow!

Old stairs leading to a messy basement floor.

Enter the basement of doom at your peril!

The role of Treasure Hunter is really exciting. Of course I am not talking about gold, silver or diamonds, but the “treasure” of information. I was recently asked to put on my “Indiana Jones fedora” and go spelunking for artifacts in the basement of an old building. Grabbing a flashlight I took my first hesitant steps into the dark cellar by walking on a plank (shades of Pirates of the Caribbean), then made my way down some stairs, holding a rickety railing, that ended at a hole in the floor. Gingerly making my way around the hole I tiptoed carefully through the dust of ages (and crushed bricks) until I stood in a room peering at piles of dusty books. The floor sparkled where mineral crystals had leached up from the ground. I had made it safely without encountering rolling boulders, spikes in the floor or hordes of tarantulas! These books were business ledgers and recorded the history, not only of one business, but many. They held names and information from well over 100 years ago and many of them were in remarkably good condition. For a researcher or an archivist this is comparable to finding a gold nugget when you stoop to pick up after your dog, a totally unexpected surprise.

This is what being an archivist is like, each day is a surprise. Who will be delighted with what you discover today? Will you thrill some small children, please your employer, reunite a researcher with memories, help a person find a lost sibling, solve a family mystery, answer the unanswerable question? Perhaps you will find a photo for a publisher or locate the famous or infamous in the archive vertical files. The possibilities are endless. I have provided images for authors in England and Japan, photos for the sets of television shows, maps for surveying companies, house histories for home buyers, and recipes for grape ketchup to aspiring cooks. Where else can a person get so much variety in just a couple of hours of work?

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