Ready for the 21st century

For me, the archivist’s core business consists of providing insights into society and the past, ensuring that history can be traced back from one generation to the next, that information can be easily accessed in an increasingly complex legal environment and in close conjunction with the latest technologies. They must have inquiring minds and a willingness play detective in tracking down facts and figures. Not the sort of job that can be done by sitting in the splendid isolation of an office. Instead, archivists and recordkeepers work in teams at the coalface. And, in Luxembourg, they not only need to be properly trained and possess a wide range of general knowledge, they also need to speak several languages, since most of the documents produced are in French, German and Luxemburgish and English. They have to be computer-literate and knowledgeable about the law. And, if they have managerial talents, organisational abilities and assessment skills and are discreet and disciplined, so much the better.

Archivists manage information and, as such, are the caretakers of our collective memory, of democracy even. They have a whole range of different tasks. They collect documents retracing the history of government in the broadest sense of the term, or of companies and other public or private bodies. They must also maintain continuity by ensuring that documents and data remain available for as long as they are still relevant and serve a useful purpose.  This means that they have to set up archiving systems that allow for digitisation and must be able to share information whatever the medium on which it is stored. Since it is physically impossible to preserve every single document and since not all documents are worth keeping, they have to make choices, largely based on scientific criteria and legal considerations. Archivists therefore have the huge responsibility of deciding what to keep for future generations. And to restock their collections, they often have to hunt out new documents themselves.

Their job consists of classifying information (archives, data, etc.) and producing inventories giving, as a minimum, its origin, content and chronological order. They also have to ensure the long-term survival of the physical and electronic archives in their care, by “repackaging” them in suitably adapted formats or “containers”.

In addition, archivists have to make their valuable materials available to the public: researchers, teachers, students, genealogists, journalists, individuals, etc.  They play the role of intermediary, receiving members of the public and providing them with information, helping them in their research and assisting them in understanding document content. They arrange events to showcase their materials, which requires responsiveness and communications skills, to say nothing of the ability to interchange with a variety of different partners (e.g. during educational workshops, exhibitions, conferences, guided tours). For all their users, they transmit and share the knowledge that have acquired from analysing archives and records. Didactic and diplomatic skills are vital assets in steering users in the right direction without doing their research for them.

In short, archivists have to assume responsibility for records throughout their lifecycle, from creation through to destruction or lasting (historical) preservation.

To make the public at large aware of the true nature of the archiving profession, last autumn the Veräin vun de Lëtzebuerger Archivisten (Luxembourg Archivists Association) organised a round table ofarchiving practitioners. The aim was to be able to play an active part in the festivities staged by ICA to celebrate International Archives Day on 9 June. As a result of the extremely close cooperation we were able to establish among these players, we have succeeding in producing an extremely varied programme of events.

Our first objective is to show the general public what the archivist’s job is all about. All too often, archivists have the reputation of being dust-covered oddballs, crouched over ancient documents for purposes never entirely clear. To fight against this sorry image, many archival professionals stage open days, where they can explain to the public what their job entails.

Secondly, we also considered it crucial to highlight the importance of our profession in today’s society. Few people realise that archivists have to walk the tightrope between collective memory and human rights, which is one of the reasons why we chose “Archives and democracy” as our predominant theme.  Without records, there could be no oversight, no division of power, no defence of human rights.

Thirdly, we were anxious to make it patently clear that archivists need to be involved from the very moment a document is created, whatever the medium used. Both the public authorities and the private sector are gradually beginning to recognise this need and are recruiting archivists and record managers to partner them in their businesses or activities. The Archiving Act, which was passed on 17 August 2018 and came into force on 1 September last year, underpins this trend.

To sum up, as the guardians of our collective and individual memory, archivists have an essential role to play in the 21st century. It is an exciting and constantly evolving profession offering plentiful contacts with a variety of publics and their many and different subjects of concern.

By Corinne Schroeder, chair of the Veräin vun de Lëtzebuerger Archivisten (VLA)