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An Archivist’s Brand New Hat – New Beginnings for My Family History

May 10th, 2010 · 5 Comments


Dr. Thomas Merriweather In a national economy in which double-digit unemployment figures travel in the opposite direction from the signs that things are said to be improving and a local economy that would jangle the nerves of the most fiercely optimistic, I am frequently riddled with doubt as to my decision to return to school for the academic qualifications to do something I truly enjoy. It was easy to buy into the notion of getting paid for doing a job for the sheer happiness it brings. I didn’t anticipate that timing is everything and having the know-how, energy and desire to take on an all new career was only half the battle.

Recently, while enjoying the company of my three granddaughters during their weeklong break from school, I was reminded why I decided to enter library school and select archival administration as my area of study. As usual, the eldest of the girls was shadowing me, eager to help with any little thing I asked her to do. I sent her to the spare room where she was to take a good long look and devise a plan to organize the boxes and boxes of stuff stacked among the cats’ toys, feeding dishes and litter boxes. After a few minutes she returned with her report. “There’s a lot of stuff in there, she said, but I found a box full of CDs.” I immediately wracked my brain in an attempt to remember if I had been remiss in the clutter-reducing organization of the CDs and DVDs I had painstakingly organized into albums.

Anticipating my next request, my granddaughter left the room and quickly returned holding an old milk crate filled with individually boxed audio cassettes. One glance at the plastic crate and I was instantly reminded of the reason I had upset the status quo by leaving behind a reasonably well-paying job and switching my academic focus to continue on in graduate school. “Those aren’t CDs, I said. “They are cassette tapes recorded by your great-grandfather, and they are in need of processing, along with the rest of his collection.” If at that moment my granddaughter didn’t quite understand what I meant, by the time she returned home at the end of the week, not only had she become somewhat acquainted with the great-grandfather who died shortly before she made it to 3 years old, she attained a basic understanding of the important role archivists play in the preservation of history and culture, and she began to comprehend why her Nana always gets a little misty whenever we go through the dozens of boxes, albums and other containers filled with photographs of people she will never actually meet.

To quote my esteemed mentor, “as archivists we wear multiple hats.” Our professional responsibilities require us to step away from the photographic and/or moving images in our personal collections and devote our time and energies to the clients and organizations from which we endeavor to earn a living. When we are presented with a collection, we delight in the discovery of the information contained therein. Our sense of history is sharpened (or dulled) when set upon a path to learn something new and/or review, organize and disseminate what we already knew. As we focus on these bread and butter tasks, the records of our personal histories all too often get short shrift, and containers filled with items in need of organization and care are left to languish and suffer the deterioration that results from the necessity of putting off until later the donning of the hat we wear as preservers of our family histories.

For most of his life, my father was a musician. He played music, wrote music, breathed ate and drank music – all the time. Although he earned a living as a civil servant, he never strayed far from his first love. He had been a music teacher and a choir director, an actor and a playwright, a lay minister, videographer, photographer and a broadcaster. He had also performed in prestigious productions and with some of the most legendary names in the business. But what my father really, really loved to do was sing, and boy could he sing! My earliest and best memories include the velvety sound of Dad’s rich baritone voice singing from one of the many American musicals he counted among his favorites. Contained among the scores of audio cassettes my granddaughter recovered from the spare room closet is a series of lecture concerts on the history of the American musical theater from 1866 to 1970, Dad’s recreation of his doctoral dissertation. Imagine my surprise when making this discovery. To say that the processing of my father’s collection will be both an arduous task and a labor of love seems inadequate upon the realization that Dad’s audiocassettes, photographs and sheet music very likely hold a cultural, historical, academic and possibly commercial value beyond family sentiment and the enormous pleasure I receive from hearing that rich, velvety baritone waft from the speakers of my stereo.

As I embark upon the journey represented by processing my father’s collection – a journey which will doubtless be filled with twists, turns and bumps in the road – I ask myself one question: Which hat do I wear now?

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Category: Archiving Challenges · Developing A Digital Collection · Preservation