By Colleen McFarland
Believe it or not, my work as the director of archives and records management for Mennonite Church USA requires some travel. Stereotypes of introverted archivists, who are as dusty as the historical records they oversee, might suggest that I would never leave my collections. The realities of modern archival work, however, require that I interact with the outside world.
Sometimes I attend regional or national professional meetings, where archivists gather to network, share ideas informally, and hear about the latest innovations in the field. Other times I travel in order to attend workshops and learn new skills, such as the management of electronic records or the crafting of digital preservation plans. But my favorite travel assignments involve visiting other archivists in their “shops,” learning about their work, and identifying opportunities for cooperation.
In my work for Mennonite Church USA, I have had the privilege of visiting a number of regional Mennonite historical agencies – museums, historical societies, libraries, and archives – and engaging in conversations with staff members and volunteers. We discuss how we might support each other in our work, better serve our researchers, and save money and time by working together. And then we begin to feel our way forward in a new kind of collaborative relationship.
I recently returned from one such trip to Pennsylvania. The Eastern Mennonite Archives and Library Association invited me to present a workshop on archival description, and I was delighted to have the opportunity. Learning professional archival description standards empowers Mennonite historical agencies not only to employ best practices in their archives, but also to take an important step towards working together.
If we describe our archival collections using the same standards, we could someday be able to share a common online database of our finding aids (descriptions of archival collections) and enable researchers to search all of our collections at the same time. It was a joy to see the faces of some workshop participants light up at this prospect! Such dreams (which I hope will become reality sooner rather than later) would not be possible without the face-to-face conversations that travel outside of the archives affords.