For many the word archive conjures up images of dimly lit dusty places buried in the basement of a building or the image of a crate with the Ark of the Covenant inside moving to its final resting place in a vast sea of crates in a federal warehouse. A description of an archive that I like is that of a temple of knowledge and information. The temple becomes a prison as the patron is told to lock up all their belongings and issued paper and pencil. The prison then becomes a restaurant where your order is taken and the waiter instead of bringing you the dish ordered, brings you the ingredients of the meal, which the patrons cook themselves. The temple, prison, and restaurant represent the power of archives and the responsibilities of the archivist.
The temple represents the power the archivist has to shape the collective memory of society. The decisions made in determining what collections to accept affect the representation of groups in the historical record. Whether they are the personal papers of a family, records of a university, labor union, a Congressman, or the records of migrant workers, all have a place in history. It is the responsibility of the archivist to make objective decisions as to what collections merit preservation.
The prison represents the responsibility of the archivist to preserve the records and keep them secure for future generations. Records are preserved by housing them in special enclosures that are acid free to slow the aging of the materials and reduce the affects of handling the records. Records may be digitized to reduce wear and tear on fragile records. The temperature and humidity are kept at moderate levels to prevent aging and the growth of mold on records. The collections are kept secure behind locked doors and cabinets. Patrons are not allowed to roam the stacks as in a library, but must request items to be brought to them.
The restaurant represents the archivist's role as mediator and interpreter of the records. When a collection is received, it is the responsibility of the archivist to arrange the papers in a way that makes sense to researchers. The records are arranged into series, which can be correspondence, financial records, and photographs as an example. Next a finding aid is produced which describes the collection and provides a brief history of the creator of the records, the series and a container list describing the collection to the box or folder level. The finding aid is a surrogate of the collection, which the researcher consults to determine which box and folder contains the information they require. Some collections can have hundreds of boxes.
While some may think of archives as boring, they are far from boring. Archives preserve the history of people. They can be in any format including electronic. Archivists are on the cutting edge of technology as they confront preservation of electronic records and bring the technologies of Web 2.0 to the archives.