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Monday, October 28, 2013

Archivists & Librarians: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fonds

The author. Image digitally altered to include glasses.
True story: I work at the Archives of American Art, but I am not an archivist. I'm a librarian in archivist's clothing (which doesn't actually look that different from librarian's clothing). When someone asks you what you do at a cocktail party and you reply "I'm a librarian," people nod knowingly, picturing shelves of books and women wearing cat-eye glasses shushing patrons (side note: I don't actually wear glasses, but I do love shushing people).  Archivists share a similar fashion sense, but the general populace has less of an understanding of what they do, so much so that one of my archivist colleagues sometimes tells people at parties that she is a librarian, just to avoid the blank stares. But what's the big difference anyway?

Professional archivists and librarians generally hold the same degree - the Masters of Library Science (or Information Science, as the trend is these days). We both organize, care for, describe, and provide access to intellectual materials. One divergence is how those materials take form. Whereas libraries deal primarily in books, which exist in many copies, archives deal in collections of unique documents which can come in widely differing formats. As a library art cataloger in my last job, I dealt with three formats of material: prints, photographs, and drawings. At the Archives of American Art I have cataloged all of the above plus a myriad of other materials ranging from audio recordings to diaries to one pair of rubber underpants.

Rubber underpants, between 1949 and 1966?
Emily Genauer papers, Archives of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution.
Another difference comes in how those materials are described. In a library, materials are generally described on a one-to-one basis (one book = one catalog record), whereas materials in archives are usually described at the collection level (one collection comprised of many letters, photographs, etc. = one finding aid). It takes a significant mental shift for someone accustomed to the one-to-one to look at the big picture. Fortunately for me, the main purpose of my job is contrary to the normal archival pattern of description. I describe items that have been digitized on an individual basis, so I still get to provide the one-to-one ratio that I am accustomed to, but I have also learned to take into account the context of the collection these items come from. For example, the rubber underpants on their own don't tell much of a story until you know the context that the entire collection can give you - namely, that Emily Genauer (the recipient) was a newspaper art critic and Clyfford Still (the sender) was an acerbic-tongued painter who didn't appreciate her review of his work (the attached note reads "Hoping this will aid in concealing your Sunday afflictions").

Three years into my time in the archival world, I feel like much less of a librarian interloper, even if I do still think that "fonds" sounds more like a character from Happy Days than a body of records. Perhaps I might even suggest a title change to Archibrarian. Librarchivist? Oh, maybe I'll hold on to Librarian just so I don't have to confuse people at parties. But in the meantime, I'll be celebrating Archives Month with the best of them.

Bettina Smith, Digital Projects Librarian
Archives of American Art


  1. I love it! I'm also an Archibrarian, and I think there's a huge rift in defining our roles between the professional organizations on both sides. Thanks for this awesome post!

  2. Hi Katie, thanks for the comment. Archibrarians unite!