Thursday, May 7, 2015

From the Archives — How I Became an Archivist

Helen and Jere Baker in front of the Goffs Schoolhouse, September 1990.

The Mojave Desert Archives is the memory of the Mojave Desert community and the MDHCA organization.

by Chris Ervin, Archivist
Mojave Desert Archives

Author-historian Jere Baker visited the Mojave Desert Archives a couple of weeks ago. He was in the area doing some research and stopped in to bring me up to date on his latest project related to the history of mining in El Dorado Canyon. It also gave me a chance to show Jere the work I’m doing to get my arms around the many wonderful collections here at Goffs.

At one point, Jere asked me how I went about specializing as an archivist in my studies. It’s a good question because not everyone understands archives work and just what it is that archivists do. Even the word “archivist” is not common in the vernacular. I can assure you I am not involved in archaeology, architecture, activism, or anarchy.

I usually sum up my vocation by explaining that an archivist is a flavor of librarian. Everyone knows what a librarian is, although the word usually conjures up images of cardigans, hair in tight buns, horn-rimmed glasses, and shushing. Stereotypes aside, archival practice has much in common with librarianship from the standpoint of asset organization, subject knowledge, and preservation techniques. Whereas many librarians specialize in the cataloging and retrieval of publications (books, periodicals, music, etc.), archivists specialize in the cataloging, retrieval, and preservation of unpublished materials, such as the records of an organization, personal papers, manuscripts, photographs, etc., especially those having enduring historical value.

Since the introduction of computers in our daily lives in the 1980s and 90s, modern librarians have begun to refer to themselves as information professionals. Information has always been something librarians were known to possess, retrieve, and dispense, but now they more clearly identify their profession with "information" and the information systems that have replaced card catalogs in public libraries and archives. In fact, the school I attended at San Jose State for my master’s degree is called the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS).

To get back to answering Jere’s question, there are several tracks at a library school a student can pursue; public, academic, government, and research to name a few. The source materials of the Mojave Desert Archives have their origin in the history research author Dennis Casebier has conducted for over fifty years on the Desert West. Therefore, it is in the research and archival aspects of librarianship that I concentrated my studies and internship.