As a current archives student in Boston I am constantly introducing myself in conversations starting with the question: “What do you do?” My standing response is “I’m becoming/am an archivist!” There are two clear categories of response to my declaration:
The first is: “Cool!” (Which is always appreciated).
The alternative is: “What?” which is closely followed by “Is that like a librarian?”
Originally I was offended by the misunderstanding (I’ve since come around and now fully embrace the entire information science and cultural heritage communities as part of the archival profession), and without the patience or desired vocabulary to provide a quick reply my response to the confused questioner was lamentably variation of “yes.” To move the conversation along I would use descriptions like: “an old paper librarian,” “preserving historical documents,” “making unique documents and records available,” or “facilitating research.” There are clear patterns in my stand-by synopses in the use of functions and actions.
My explanations left out specifics but offered broad strokes, and while none of the explanations I have offered so far are inclusive or entirely accurate they seemed to get across a basic understanding. I’m sure my experience and feeling of inadequate representation of archives and archivists is not unique and have been reassured as much by my cohorts at Simmons and throughout the profession.
Last spring Simmons’ Student Chapter of the Society of American Archivists (SCoSAA) addressed this concern about succinctly and effectively communicating about ourselves and the archival profession by sponsoring a competition for students to submit elevator pitches answering the question “What is an archivist?” The student body voted on the submissions and the winning pitch was: "An archivist preserves and organizes materials that uphold the memory of a person, organization or community to ensure greatest access to the information by the public."
While this description offers a starting point for the conversation, and is a vast improvement over previous explanations of an archivist’s responsibilities, it doesn’t offer the desired “zing” necessary to be a standard response. The competition had very few submissions, hinting at the larger issue that we, as a profession, have not developed the necessary skills to express the significance of our field and positions in an effective and impactful way. We are trained to be nimble professionals, who think critically and continue to learn outside the classroom, but not to “sell ourselves.”As we see funding continue to be cut and donations dwindle in hard economic times, we have been asked to adapt, take on new responsibilities, and learn new skills, particularly as new mediums enter our repositories. We have met these challenges head on and are finding ways to work with new materials within tighter quarters. The question is then: “What is stopping us?” How are we able to overcome so many obstacles and yet are unable to effectively communicate? Particularly when being able to effectively express ourselves to the broader community could potentially solve the problems of tighter quarters and other budgetary and decision making limitations.
My preliminary hypothesis is we haven’t tried very hard; communication has not been a priority. Even recognizing that this is an issue, it still isn’t at the top of my list of professional concerns, but it is rising. We, as a collective, need to push this item up on the agenda and work as a community (like we have on so many other issues), and tackle this problem. I’m sure Simmons’ elevator pitch competition isn’t the first or the last initiative, and I hope in our more collaborative community we can continue to expand beyond our immediate environments to improve our communicative skills.