Archivist or Programmer?
Is there such a thing as a ‘typical Archivist’?
This question was posed by a friend on the Archives NRA Mailing List recently and prompted a series and fairly animated responses, mostly along the lines of ‘there’s no such thing as a typical archivist’. It was suggested that such a phrase may even be detrimental to the image of Archivists and suggest that the profession is more uniform than the reality. I’d certainly agree that it would prove problematic to define the ‘typical Archivist’ beyond saying that we list, make available to the public and preserve material of historical significance or otherwise deemed worthy of long term preservation.
I suspect however, that the way in which the Archivist goes about this role has changed significantly, not least in the methods used to make material available. The development of the computer (originally used to manage payroll in Lyon’s Tea Shops) and software specifically for the cataloguing of archive material, has fundamentally changed the way people create, disseminate and access information. Without an ability to embrace the face paced development of technology, there was a significant danger of repositories being left behind in terms of how they promote or provide access to their collections. Initatives for putting catalogue records online such as The National Archives’ Access to Archives and AiM25 made significant early inroads into tackling the problem.
As someone who is confident is using computers and who has a programmer for a boyfriend, I am confident that there are more effective ways of doing things with a computer than those that are currently practiced by most Archivists. A few pointers on how to use macros in Excel and how to program a query in Access could make the world of difference to your average Archivist. Why spend half a day manually searching through various spreadsheets for data when you can run a report from a query in 30 seconds? I appreciate that this may be specific to my work environment, and/or that there are other contributing factors that restrict the use of technology within an organisation, but you get the idea!
The original blog post requesting input from any technically minded Archivists who want to learn to program, posted by Alexandra Eveleigh, is here. Have a read and please do comment on why you would want to learn and what you think it could help with in your day to day work.
I’m certain that there are a whole host of different things that programming (and other general IT knowledge) can do to enhance to work of Archivists, and I hope that something comes from the invite to learn together with a group of like minded professionals.
So, does an Archivist ned to retrain as a programmer? I don’t think so, although a little bit of knowledge could go a long way to improving the final output of Archivists in terms of web presence, online resources and use of material. Initatives such as Code Academy will go some way to bridging the gap that exists at the moment, provided people have the time to devote to it. Where this is not possible, meeting with a group of like minded people in a relaxed setting or working through basic tutorials delivered online might well be the solution we are looking for.
To return to my initial point, I am not sure there is such a thing as ‘a typical Archivist’ but I do think that programming/computer science based skills need to become increasingly ‘typical’ in newly qualified Archivists if we are going to keep pace with emerging and changing technologies.
I for one hope to be blogging a bit more on this sort of thing and perhaps providing information on a few things that I’ve found useful, but in the meantime I’m getting my head down on Code Academy and reading ‘The Programming Historian’.