Identity Crisis: Archivist vs. Historian

When I started library school I knew I wanted to be an archivist. I went on to get a PhD because it would complement my library degree. Also, I scoured job postings while in school and saw that often the head/director level required or preferred a second advanced degree or a PhD. My PhD is in Modern History and Literature, with an emphasis on history. I didn’t plan to be a historian, I only wanted to be an archivist, but I ended up being both.

My writing as an archivist consists of one peer-reviewed article, several in Archival Outlook, book reviews, finding aids, blog posts, and news updates for my campus. My writing as a historian consists of one peer-review article and a dissertation. I find that while writing a book, it’s the historian in me that currently leads my writing. Yet, I am not writing a history book.

There are many benefits to this, much of it technical: using passive voice as an exception rather than a rule, citing (overciting?) everything, mostly clear and concise writing. That’s not to say that I won’t need editing help or that I write perfectly, but I learned much when I went through the writing wringer with my dissertation committee.

One of the challenges I keep facing while writing the reference and access book is the desire to prove everything. I don’t need to “prove” that reference and access are needed – we all know it, believe it, and live it. While of course I cite my sources, the purpose of this book is to provide both broad and in-depth theories and practices about reference and access. I want to include a wide range of resources, both for evidence and further reading.

What I frequently catch myself doing, however, is the I-need-to-find-as-many-sources-as-possible-to-prove-this-thought/idea/theory/practice/history. I finished my dissertation five years ago and I’m a bit surprised how this impulse lingers. As anyone who wrote a dissertation or thesis can attest to, there is a compulsion fueled by committee expectations to be overly thorough so they believe you know what you’re writing about. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be very time-consuming and often unnecessary.

I am learning much as I write this book: about my writing style, time management, and what historian habits I need to break. What I find most interesting is deciding what archivists need to know about reference and access. It’s impossible to write about everything, though I’ll do my best to come close. There are times where the in-depth analysis is necessary, and others where it’s a mention with suggestions with further reading. The latter contributes to my I-need-to-find-as-many-sources-as-possible-to-prove-this-thought/idea/theory/practice/history. But really, it is not my responsibility to point out every single resource available on the topic. Instead, I raise the topic and point to a few key resources and, if appropriate, even mention that there is much written about a topic.

I do have to pare down some of what I already wrote, but it’s easier to have too much then reduce instead of the other way around. Plus, I really enjoy reading the voluminous amounts of literature that I never read before. It will be hard to not include every single book or article I look at, but I hope what I do include entices interest to delve further.


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