Sunday, July 16, 2006

Change and decay: work in progress 4

I opened the door and breathed in slowly. This was the bit of my job I loved. Archivists have the reputation of being fussy or authoritarian, protecting their collections from users. But this is just a product of their role – they are responsible for the safety of the archives. If somebody damages a document, then to them it is an accident; to the archivist it is a failure. Not surprisingly, archivists end up being cautious: everything is done according to the rules, documented, carefully; this makes it hard to go wrong. Except now. Before anything had been listed, counted, described – here I could devalue the collection in minutes by rearranging things. As it stood now, the records room’s organisation reflected the process of managing the estate: documents were field together because they were used together. So, before moving any of the bundles, piles, boxes, and (in the corner) heaps of paper that filled very flat or near-flat surface in the room, I walked along, mentally classifying them into types: legal documents, business letters, accounts, and, most common of all, general miscellaneous. All administrators seem to grasp the first principle of record management: keep all the papers you might need. The second, keeping them organised, was usually beyond them.

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