The Role of Archivists: An Elevator Pitch

Cynthia Heider | 16 December, 2017
Image: Elevator in the Old Post Office Pavilion, Washington, D.C. via Steve Snodgrass

Archivists need an elevator pitch. They need to use it widely and often, and they should encourage the people who work within them (for example: historians, teachers, genealogists, and journalists) to have one at the ready, too. Out of sight often means out of mind, and this undoubtedly extends to the visibility of archives and the archivists who staff them. This is the blurb I came up with:

Archivists are keepers of our collective memory. They gather, organize, and protect the photos, videos, and documents that help keep the past alive. They shape the future by making it possible for historians to tell the stories of everyday folks, for activists to keep our leaders accountable, and for journalists to put present-day events into a wider context. Archivists keep track of important documents, help people learn about their families and neighborhoods, and provide a bulwark against alternative facts. Archivists are public servants, and archives should be for everybody.

This simple paragraph is defines what archivists do, who they help, and why it matters. It connects what happens in the stacks to a community context, and communicates the profession's ideals in uncomplicated language. I strongly believe that the onus of archives advocacy belongs to those who work in them. Promoting archives is proactive, an act of leadership.

But, pragmatically, I know that the average person spends little to no time thinking about archives. I get it! I spend exactly as much time thinking about electrical power infrastructure or frozen concentrated orange juice futures or the mechanics of catalytic converters. I know that these things are important, in a global sense, but they're not in my wheelhouse. And I know that if someone presented me with an elevator speech about the mechanics of catalytic converters, it's possible I might respond with interest, but more likely I'd be baffled and put off.

I can only imagine that someone uninterested in archives would respond the same way. So I think that a gradual approach is probably the one that's most necessary here; that would make the elevator speech less like a soliloquy and more like a dialogue. If each of the pieces of the blurb are strong enough to stand on their own (and I think they are), then it would probably be more effective to fit them into conversation where they would be most natural. Call it an escalator pitch.