“[A]lthough an archivist must have agreed to accept and preserve the papers, their being in an archives was a form of burial, not of discovery.” – “‘Preoccupied with our own gardens’: Outreach and Archivists,” Timothy L. Ericson
Historians often operate under the arrogant assumption that they can/have/will “discover” something strange, old, and wonderful in the “dusty” and “forgotten” recesses of the archives. Like all wayward explorers (see “columbusing”), they are hampered by their own eagerness and positionality. Ericson, however, finds his fellow archivists to be at fault for this common misconception, proclaiming: “the archival profession has fallen short of the mark in promoting the use of archival materials” (114).
The Society of American Archivists defines outreach as “the process of identifying and providing services to constituencies with needs relevant to the repository’s mission, especially underserved groups, and tailoring services to meet those needs.” One issue with which Ericson contends is how archivists ought to conceptualize these constituencies – “one of the great myths of our profession, and one of our most debilitating misconceptions, is that archives exist simply to serve scholars” (118). In this acknowledgment, he touches on larger issues of accessibility.
We must recognize the necessity of sharing archival materials (the histories they contain) and of making them accessible for everyone. Academia’s archival “columbusing” is rooted in the fact that scholars tend to only talk to other scholars – passing “new” knowledge and ideas among themselves. Effective archival outreach initiatives have the potential to empower everyone (especially Others), via real and relevant connections to the past that emphasize the role of archivists in processing and maintaining them.