Associate professor and head of archives, Jay Trask, discusses the importance and difficulty of archiving books and other types of media.
My name is Jay Trask and I'm the head of archives here at UNC. I'm an associate professor and I also am the history liaison.
The three big things that we're doing in archives are:
- We want to figure out which records are actually things that need to be saved. So when you think about your life, you think about all the records you're generating. So each Facebook post you put up, each tweet you do, each podcast you do, those are all records of your life. Not all of them are of equal value. Like, a receipt from Starbucks that doesn't really tell us about you. So as an archivist, my job is to look at records and make decisions about what tells the story of this person or what tells the story of this institution. What tells a story of whatever those records are supposed to be about. And you make mistakes as an archivist doing that. I know I made a terrible mistake early in my career where I didn't have a background in steel production. For some reason I was working at a steel archive and I elected not to keep some records that I think actually would have been valuable for people doing hardcore science research into steel production, but I couldn't think of any reason to keep them. But, so you get, you, you train yourself and learn what stuff you need to keep. So we're figuring out what to keep.
- Then we have to figure out how to make that stuff accessible. So it doesn't really matter if we've saved these records, if people can't find them. So we have to figure out ways that somebody can use the internet or come to us and find what they're looking for. So like if here at UNC, if you're, say you're interested in who was the first, African American athlete on campus. If we don't have ways to point people to find that information, they just get lost. And, and it doesn't matter that we're saving those records.
Yeah, it's somewhere there. But that's part of your job is to make it accessible. A quick and easier way.
Right, Cause you know, archival research can be kind of daunting and intimidating and we don't want that. We want it to make it as easy as we can.
- And then the third thing, and this is what everybody thinks of when they think of archivists, is preservation. So we, once we figured out what needs to be saved and how you can it, we want to make sure that it's gonna last for a long time. We know things aren't going to last forever cause everything disintegrates and it's really sad. But we want to make it last as long as we possibly can. That's why you see archivists wearing the white gloves occasionally. And that's why you'll see we have temperature and humidity controlled spaces to store things. That's why we put everything in those fancy archival boxes is so that they slow down, the natural, decay of everything. So you know, if you think back to like chemistry, the warmer, some a place is, the faster the chemical reactions happen and so dealt just and everything's just eating itself up. So like photographs, um, like the photographs that you'll see at your parents or your grandparents house that have all turned red, that's just because the dyes are disintegrating. Yeah, they're just disappearing. And the red is the strongest dye, so it stays the longest. But if you reduce the temperature, you're going to reduce the number of chemical reactions that are happening. Um, and so that will help preserve that image longer.
That's a, that's quite the responsibility. I mean, because of we've, you literally have century's worth of documents of all different types. You're having to choose which one is most important. I like how you brought up the steel example cause it's like 'what if my Starbucks, you see it was needed' you know, and that was a trivial thing, and that research is the next part of my career, and that's scary. So then I had a follow up on that part is do you just throw the other stuff away when you decide that it's not worthy of keeping?
It really depends. We've got different options. There are different options for war with what's going to happen. We can destroy it. And that happens if we think that there's no use whatsoever or if there's privacy issues that we have to respect, we can never make the records public. Because when you look back at old records, a lot of them have like social security numbers or like really personally identifying information that we don't want to get out there.
But sometimes we'll have a collection that somehow ended up with us that doesn't really belong with us. It doesn't help our mission, but we know that it might be useful for another archive. So we'll talk to like the Greeley museum or folks over in Fort Collins or sometimes even, you know, across the nation. We'll reach out and say, 'Hey, we've got this collection, that details...' Like thinking of Fort Collins, we got this thing talking about irrigation and we know CSU archives focuses specifically on water resources and so they're a better fit because if you're a researcher, it'd be easier just to go to Fort Collins. Whereas here we're more interested in, um, our focus really now is history of education and we're reaching out to try to start to document historically underrepresented groups.
We want to get more records from groups who have traditionally not been part of the article record or underrepresented. So CSU knows that we're after that kind of stuff. So if somebody brings them that kind of material, they'll reach out to us and say, 'Hey, we've got this collection. Can you guys handle it?'.
How often does UNC exchange - you mentioned Fort Collins with CSU, but how often nationally do people reach out to here and vice versa?
Well, it's kind of a random thing. You know, it's hard to give credit. So we'll get, we get people offering material to us all the time, so we'll get like private citizens who will just... Like just the other day, it was really cool. Someone sent us two boxes of photographs from the normal school era. So from before 1911, their great aunt had come, to school here back when it was the normal school. She was here I think in like the 1890s and took tons of pictures, had tons of pictures of the campus when it was the normal school. She went on to be a school teacher, taught in sterling, Colorado and in taught out in Los Angeles. So, you know, we get people all the time reaching out. That's when we like to catch people. So if somebody is like, 'Hey, I've got all these civil war letters, ' in general, It's probably not best not to give it to us. Let's try to find a place to give it to it. So we try to stop it before it gets here.
You point in the right direction.
Yeah. We try to work with other people. And we will occasionally get, you know, people reaching out to say, hey, we got normal school stuff. Or if they're outside of Colorado, we'll occasionally get CSU stuff because the way that the name changes are confusing to everyone.
This all sounds exciting. Can we go around and explore the archives?
Yeah, that'd be great. I love showing off our collections. It's always really fun.
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