Archives work is emotional work

I am writing this blog from a personal perspective, as I reflect on working throughout a pandemic in archives. My thoughts have been encouraged by a blog written by project research assistants Elizabeth Bassett and Noah Duranseaud summarising a discussion at an Association of Canadian Archivists session ‘There’s something we need to talk about: Uncovering and Supporting Archivists’ Emotional Work‘.

To my eyes, ‘imposter syndrome‘ is endemic in the profession. This feeling of never being quite good enough. I think this is at the bottom of why the archives world seems to struggle with so many things, including diversity (my pet gripe as I’m sure you all know). It’s a fear of failure and of being seen as less than perfect. It’s feeling precarious in your workplace, all the time. And it holds us back. No-one wants to publicly fail. Yet sometimes, well actually ALL THE TIME, failure is how we learn. Add on top of that personal factors such as disability, race, sex, personal identity … you can see where I’m going with this.

The Archive school lesson that has stuck with me the most, is that we must always be ready to justify our existence. We are constantly in defence mode. I remember one task was coming up with an ‘elevator pitch’ on what an Archivist is and what archives do, to have ready as the first shot whenever our existence was questioned. Are we all being made insecure by the training we’re offered, before we even get a chance to enter the world of archive work?

More technically, archives work is emotional work. This can be through the cataloguing of the outputs of people’s intimate inner lives (personal papers, email, correspondence, family photos). Sometimes we are taking meticulous care over documenting the life of someone who we don’t like very much. Perhaps sometimes, we fall a little in love with them. Perhaps it will put you off enjoying a person’s life’s work once you learn what they were ‘really like’ and that lifelong joy has been soured. Maybe it’s a collection documenting something really traumatic or sickening. Or a volunteer or staff member going through a tough time. Even ourselves, suddenly in the spotlight, that gnawing anxiety that can’t be shifted that we’ve failed, publicly. Worst professsional nightmare, am I right?

This is so much at odds with archival theory where we are supposed to be ‘neutral’. Archival standards can feel like an impossible ideal. I know they do to me. When your existence is dismissed – ‘Archives? Never heard of them!’ it hurts. All that care and love just disregarded in a throwaway comment.

In a lockdown world, unfortunately we need our defence mode. The thing we were always warned about has actually happened. Archives, and the wider heritage sector, is in danger alongside many others. But I’m hopeful (we have to have hope) that we will rally once the vaccine arrives, and doors can open, and people can come back in. But please, when things have settled down, let’s be honest about our failings as well as our achievements. That’s the only way we can progress.

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