By Violet Caswell
Graduate students enrolled in Professor Marilyn Morgan’s “Introduction to Archives” class do a lot of reading. We read about the history of archives, core archival principles, and about challenges that modern archivists face. And we read theory- lots of theory. Information from books, journal articles, and even blog posts swirl around in our heads as we to get a handle on the essential practices and principles of the profession. The process can be frustrating– like when we have to reread the same dense sentence five times to ascertain its meaning– but it can also be immensely rewarding, especially when we get to apply our knowledge to real-world situations.
Enter Juliana Kuipers, Senior Collection Development Curator and Archivist at the Harvard University Archives.
Juliana visited our class recently, to talk about her experience in the field and also to lead a short exercise in appraisal. A week in advance, we broke into teams and, in addition to reading published articles about selection and appraisal, Marilyn assigned us a document containing five appraisal scenarios drawn from Juliana’s experience at the Harvard Archives. Our task was straightforward: after contemplating the theoretical readings, we were to put ourselves in Juliana’s shoes, and decide whether or not to accession materials for the Archives.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that this assignment was more complicated than it seemed at first glance. There were all kinds of questions to consider, from issues of provenance to ethical dilemmas to everything in between. Similarly, there were a host of materials involved in the scenarios, including diaries, correspondence, artwork, scrapbooks, and artifacts. As we weighed the benefits and drawbacks of accessioning each collection, we remained cognizant of the Archives’ Collection Policy, a document which clarifies much but also contains ambiguity.
What did it mean, some of us wondered, that the Archives sought “to gather an accurate, authentic, and complete record of the life of the University”? Did that mean that the institution should purchase or accept any collection remotely relating to Harvard? Were some materials more conducive to this end than others? What about resources? Should collections that require fewer resources (finances, personnel, space) take precedence over materials that are more costly? And if the archivist decided not to accession the collection, what then? Did he or she have an obligation to suggest other avenues for the donor to pursue? The Archive’s Collection policy provided clues, but no hard-and-fast answers.
Juliana smiled and nodded as we expressed our uncertainties. In many ways, she told us, uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of the accessioning process. The determinations that archivists make on a day-to-day basis require background knowledge, critical thinking, and even a little creativity. They argue for and against the accessioning of materials whose incorporation into the Archives is in no means inevitable. Juliana encouraged our class to keep working to develop the skills that will allow us to make informed decisions that will enhance the collections of our future institutions.
Our sincerest thanks to Juliana Kuipers for sharing her time and experiences with us. Stay tuned for updates on the ways in which our class continues to learn about archives and think as archivists!