But what does an archivist do?

Author: Wm Kevin Cawley

What do you do for a living? People ask, and if one answers “archivist,” some say, “Oh, you design buildings.” Others revise the question: “But what does an archivist do?” (They’re thinking: Receive dusty old record books. Put them on the shelf. All done.)

In the 1980s, I overheard my aunts and uncles telling one another what their adult children did for a living. “Mary works with computers.” “Bill works with computers, too.” “What a coincidence! Our kids both work with computers also.” My parents identified me as an archivist. But what does an archivist do? “Works with computers.”

Archivists keep records of the past for the benefit of the future. If you’re imagining old phonograph records, I won’t contradict you. Archivists preserve evidence in any medium, in all media, including phonograph records—and tape recordings, videotape, film, manuscripts, publications, photographs, lapel pins, posters, t-shirts, digital data, you name it. For archivists new inventions mean new challenges for preservation and new opportunities for making archives intelligible to researchers.

Archivists of the past had to adjust to such inventions as paper, ink, and the printing press. In any given century archivists use current technology to make records available. To preserve the institutional memory of Notre Dame in the 19th century, archivists saved account ledgers and handwritten letters, devotional objects and early photographs, campus periodicals and bulletins containing course descriptions. They also took responsibility for our American Catholic heritage, saving the correspondence of early bishops.

Meanwhile inventors came up with new challenges. The typewriter made it possible to transcribe handwritten documents and make them more readable. Photography meant a great increase in visual documentation and the need to preserve it. The telegraph provided telegrams to be kept or discarded. The phonograph created a need for appropriate techniques of storage for preservation. The telephone offered opportunities for interaction with distant researchers. Radio rapidly developed from wireless telegraphy to a revolutionary broadcast medium and a challenge for anyone who saw the wisdom of preserving broadcasts.

Early in the 20th century, Notre Dame archivists described records using techniques of their time. They compiled an archival calendar, a finding aid containing detailed English abstracts of the contents of letters originally written in various languages. They used typewriters and photostats to build a card file with a sequence in chronological order and an alphabetical sequence containing author and subject cards. In doing so, they looked to the future, to the historians, journalists, social scientists, and genealogists who might actually need to find pertinent records. They also used typewriters to make inventories of record groups and collections. They wrote paragraphs describing the contents of their archives to help researchers make sense of these inventories of folder headings—to understand the thinking behind the original order of the files and use the filing system to find documents supporting their research interests.

Screenshot from an online directory of Catholic newspapers.
Screenshot of archives.nd.edu/cathnews, a directory of microform Catholic newspapers at Notre Dame, published by Charlotte Ames in 1997 with a foreword by R. Scott Appleby.

Later in the 20th century, Notre Dame archivists added microfilm to their Catholic collections and preserved university records on the medium. Archivists used new technology as it developed. Photocopy machines produced multiple copies of the same records, a challenge for records management: sometimes archivists need to know what not to preserve.

Early in the 1980s, the archives acquired an IBM 5280 computer with terminals in several locations in the archives. The archivists began to computerize their finding aids. They wrote computer programs in DE/RPG, the awful native language of the IBM 5280, but soon had access to networked campus mainframes and early personal computers from Kaypro, IBM, and Apple. They wrote programs in COBOL, Basic, C, Icon, Perl, and Python. They built a database of finding aids. To support research, they answered questions by phone, supplied photocopies, and frequently fired up their fax machine. When they acquired a scanner they began to digitize documents.

In the early 1990s, thanks to a federal grant, Notre Dame archivists and librarians cooperated to add brief descriptions of archival collections to the library’s online catalog. At the end of this project in 1993, the archives published a book-length guide to collections and launched its first website, making computerized finding aids available to the world at large. They also made the family papers of General William Tecumseh Sherman and the records of the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas available on the internet. When the archival profession developed EAD, Encoded Archival Description, an XML document type, the archivists at Notre Dame encoded all of their finding aids, updating them as EAD itself developed and changed.

In the 21st century, the Notre Dame archivists digitized many of their collections and made them available online. They digitized campus publications going back to the 19th century. They established a virtual reading room to support remote archival research and adopted ArchivesSpace, software developed by other archivists and a new way of making archival holdings known. They also dealt with the huge quantity of born-digital records and began to use Preservica, software designed for archival preservation of digital data.

For its 2024 annual meeting, the Society of American Archivists is planning presentations on “artificial intelligence and its impacts and opportunities” and “the future of archival work.”

In a future column I hope to report on interviews with Notre Dame’s current archivists, to find out how they use technology in their daily efforts. I trust I’ll find them two-faced, paying attention to the past they preserve and the future they anticipate. And I expect to discover that they all work with computers.

Wm. Kevin Cawley retired in 2019 from his role as senior archivist and curator of manuscripts at the Archives of the University of Notre Dame, after 36 years of service. He serves as chair of the Catholic Research Resources Alliance’s Digital Access Committee.

This column appears in the spring 2024 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.