Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Joanna Black, the Digital Archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library.
I am incredibly honored to release my first blog post as a contributor to the SAA Issues and Advocacy Section Archivists on the Issues Blog Series. In joining a distinguished pool of past writers, I hope to build on existing perspectives and suggest topics that reflect some of the broader issues archivists confront within an incredibly diverse profession. Whether one is a cataloger, digital asset specialist, processing archivist, or somewhere in between, it is imperative that archival professionals align the job with their own core values. As I reflect on the ways the archival profession creates positive change in the world and how many other livelihoods simply don’t — specifically those that utilize cheating, harming, or killing to advance a “bottom-line” — I can’t help but ask, “How do I hold my values in one hand and perform hours of data entry with the other, without losing sight of the greater goal?”
It is early afternoon toward the end of a long work week. A spreadsheet stretches wide across two oversized computer monitors. I am dizzy from scanning rows, columns, and boxes, inputting endless metadata. I pause, close my eyes to reset my vision, and gaze back at my sheet. Though at times I crave a good spreadsheet, I can only sit with one for so long until I think, “What am I doing with my life?” I have to step back and remind myself that although the spreadsheet may sometimes be a challenging part of my job, it has great significance. In preserving the “stuff” of the past — context, provenance, metadata, the nitty, gritty details that breathe life into collections — I can draw a direct connection between the duties of my nine-to-five job and the values that drive my life.
Without knowing it, time travel is what led me to a career in archives. While pursuing a creative writing degree at San Francisco State University and interning at the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, I became enthralled with archives and the notion ofaccessibility. In working with my first archival object — a 1967 recording of Allen Ginsberg chanting the “Wichita Vortex Sutra” — it became immediately clear to me that people need to know these materials from the past exist; otherwise, what’s the point of preserving them? At that moment, I knew working with archival materials had some kind of intrinsic positive power to connect people across time. By recognizing archivists’ ability to time travel through memory, my drive to correct the wrongs of the past by amplifying experiences of the historically silenced took on new momentum.
As an archivist today, I’ve built upon my roots in creative writing and pursue work that supports positive social and environmental justice reform. For three years, I served as the head archivist at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, an LGBTQ non-profit that “collects, preserves, exhibits and makes accessible to the public materials and knowledge to support and promote understanding of LGBTQ history, culture and arts in all their diversity.” Since summer 2018, I have been serving as the first staff archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library, a special collections library documenting the club’s 127 year history in environmental justice. In both positions, I have been able to merge my personal and professional passions to build a more equitable, inclusive, and just world by protecting and disseminating truth through the archival record. Whereas creative writing was an early mode for these intentions to manifest, archival work serves my passions even more broadly. Archivists, much like poets, are truth tellers; we share not just the loud truths, but the quiet truths whispered by those whom history often erases.
At a Sierra Club staff meeting last month, the Executive Director of the organization spoke about some of the club’s most recent victories. At the conclusion of his speech he said, “Our job is to change what people think is possible.” For archivists — the superheroes of time travel, the truth tellers of the past — it is especially relevant. Our individual pasts, stories, and experiences have enriched an increasingly diverse profession strengthened by differences in perspective. And with these differences, we each come to the profession out of a personal desire to make the world a more equitable, honest place. When archivists uncover truths, they stitch a small thread into a massive cultural and historic fabric, changing the pattern of that fabric for centuries to come.
Any time the spreadsheet doldrums get me down, I take a moment to remind myself of why I got into the archives profession all those years ago. Being an archivist is more than just a job; it is a means of traveling through collective memory and defending truths. Knowing that the ramifications of archival work stretch across space and time, archival professionals can be secure in knowing that we are true time travelers fueled by a passion to spread truth and promote greater justice. This is our professional foundation. The spreadsheet is simply a brick.