Call to Action #8: Take the First High-Stakes Archival Essay Test!

The press is focusing this month on the debate about the value and impact of high-stakes testing for students. As archivists, we have had our own array of experiences with examinations, whether for the Digital Archives Specialist Certificate, the Academy of Certified Archivists exam, or our graduate program examinations.   But there’s one test on which we all need more than a passing grade—and that’s explaining archives and archivists to others.   It is the “core competence” that we all must have to raise awareness and demonstrate the value of archives.  So here are four essay questions (also known as “story problems”) that we invite you to answer in 500 words or fewer.   And as my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Arrick, would say, “Be clear, be concise, be compelling.”    

Submit your essay (we won’t grade it!) to: or post your comment below.

  1. You’re attending the SAA Annual Meeting in Cleveland.   You and a few friends walk into a local clothing boutique and the owner greets you with “Welcome, what brings you to Cleveland?” (She knows you’re from out-of-town because, of course, you’ve forgotten to take off your name badge.)    You reply: “I’m here for the Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting.”   And she says, “Oh, that’s so cool.  What is it you people do anyway?”  Your friends scatter and begin looking through the clothing racks.  It’s up to you to respond….and your answer is:

  2. You’re at your sister Jean’s wedding reception and notice that your grandmother is talking to the new in-law family, pointing at you and saying something that results in a look of alarm on their faces. (They’re from a family of accountants.)   Your sister hurries over to tell you that grandma is claiming that you’re an anarchist, and asks that you please introduce yourself to her in-laws and tell them what you REALLY do.  You sidle up to Minnie and Joe and say, “Hi, I’m Jean’s sister/brother and I know that Grandma has been telling you about me, but is a little confused.  I’m an archivist and….”  Provide the rest of your explanation:

  3. You’ve been asked to make a presentation to your historical society’s board of directors about new acquisitions to the archival collection.   During your presentation some board members nod enthusiastically, others smile, and you’re feeling like you’ve been a hit.  Then one very influential board member looks up slowly from the handouts you’ve provided and, squinting over his half glasses, says in stentorian tones, “Now tell me, just what IS an archives anyway?”  You respond:  

  4. You’ve been invited to Career Day at your former middle school (this is not a “Seinfeld” episode!) and asked to speak to the 7th grade social studies classes about the archives profession.  The teacher introduces you: “Class, this is _______.   She/he works with cool things like the Declaration of Independence.  Please tell us more about how you do that!”   And you say:
3 Comment(s) to the "Call to Action #8: Take the First High-Stakes Archival Essay Test!"
mminer says:
#4 Career Day

Thanks for inviting me today [teacher x]. I'd love to say I work with the Declaration of Independence, but it is so special that there's only one and they keep it in the National Archives in Washington, DC. Everyone can still see it there!

But there are cool things in my archives, too. In a way that is similar to the Declaration for our country, my university has something we call the "birth certificate" of Illinois Wesleyan. Unlike the Declaration, it is not a finished document [pass around facsimile of "Watson copy",2327].

 At the bottom of the page is the name of my school. Who can tell what it was supposed to be? [after waiting for an answer] One of the games I like to play is the "what ifs" in IWU history. What if we'd been named Illinois University in 1850? What would our neighbor the University of Illinois have become when it was founded seventeen years later?

Can you see how the words are lined out in other places?  Pick out one of those lines, work with your seat mate and see if you can tell what the line was supposed to be.

[After working through and discussing changes.] Part of what archivists do is help people study changes in historical records. Through studying changes, we can discover what might have happened in history as well as what did.

The best part of what I do is tell the family story of Illinois Wesleyan University. It all starts with the people who created this birth certificate and there are lots of stories that come after it. In fact, history takes place every day at my school...we haven't stopped changing yet and as the archivist I have a front row seat!

atoner says:
Archivists in #CLE

“OK – think about your own family’s old pictures or letters; maybe Browns or Indians memorabilia; or the personal journal of a former mayor of Cleveland. All tell a story, right? We, as archivists, work to preserve those kinds of personal narratives and accounts that make up the collective history of…in your case, of Clevelanders!

Archivists ensure that events, stories, and records that shape and document the collective histories of families, cities, companies, and even countries are maintained and promoted for use. Photographs, letters, journals, maps, books – we work with all kinds of old “stuff”. But it’s not only old stuff anymore.

Imagine all your everyday electronic interactions – texts, websites, emails, tweets, Google searches, saving papers and photos, and so on. Because so much of today’s information is “born-digital” archivists are arguably more concerned with preserving the varieties of electronic records and understanding digital delivery and storage methods than solely dealing with traditional materials.

Alright, I’ve talked your ear off and I haven’t even looked around yet. So, forget what you’ve read or seen on TV or in a movie. Archivists are awesome. We process, protect and promote history for everyone to use and we’re generally people-orientated, work in a variety of places, and focus on a lot more than just old “stuff”. Now, where can I find the Steelers gear?...!”

Bond39460 says:
Short answer to #2

I’m an archivist, which is the polar opposite of an anarchist! By that, I mean we archivists organize things; we create order from chaos, not chaos from order. We take often jumbled, complex collections of records, evaluate, organize, and share them with professional researchers as well as the general public. We answer reference questions from queries across the world for those who can’t personally access our collections. We digitize many collections, again to promote access to our record holdings.

An archivist’s daily duties are many, but all are essential for a free society and guard against those who would forget, erase, or try to rewrite history, like anarchists, for example! We have both great power and great responsibility for keeping historical memory, a responsibility which is incompatible with grandma’s misplaced “anarchist” designation.