Death and Archives

This week I learned that an old friend and mentor is likely dying of cancer. This news made me think about death and archives. I am reminded of how archivists are really keepers of memory. We find and preserve what the theoretical physicist, Julian Barbour, called “time capsules.” According to Barbour, time does not exist or “flow” in the linear sense. Only a series of “nows” exist. Humans leave behind “traces” of these nows in the form of paper records or information recorded on various media. Of course, the physics and math behind Barbour’s thesis is incomprehensible to normal humans.

Fortunately, archivists are not normal humans. We do not fear death, because our work transcends death. I believe we’re the only people on the planet capable of this feat.

So, this week I continued my struggle with death. Professional archivists can’t wage this battle alone, and in my case I have a full-time professional records analyst, great help from the Olson Library, and a passel of the best damn student assistants (SAs) on the planet. To keep them on the cutting edge, we (Number One, Sara, and I) engage in review training at the beginning of every semester. SAs are trained in all the basics on a paraprofessional level. This week we reviewed ArchivesSpace and basic search strategies. Number One had them all do a practice exercises. More sessions to come.

Leslie, me, and No-AH! met with the new VP for “Extended Learning and Community Engagement” this week. Over the last several months, No-AH! and I have received numerous requests for records / archival management assistance or consultation. Businesses, non-profits, and government agencies have contacted us. The constant queries indicate to me a need out in the hinterland for educational training. Extended Learning is working a project they call an “accelerator” that will provide faculty and staff with support to develop new instructional programs. We pitched the idea of a records management program for Continuing Education. No-AH! and I would teach the classes or workshops and probably online. Because the accelerator is still just an idea, we’ll be Extended Learning’s test case or guinea pig. More to come as it unfolds.

What does an “accelerator” have to do with death, you might reasonably ask? Any thing No-AH! and I can do to educate the public about identifying and preserving records of archival or continuing value helps in the effort to create and maintain time capsules that will conquer death. Same goes with the SAs. They will graduate and leave Northern with a far, far better idea of the importance of archives in society and memory.

Julian Barbour, “The End of Time”

the end of time