Last week, I received an inside tour of el Archivo Nacional de la Adminstracion (ARNAD), which is located at the Biblioteca de Santiago, near la Quinta Normal in Santiago, Chile. Archivo Nacional de la Administration translates to English as “National Archives Administration.” They are much like the equivalent to our NARA (National Archives and Records Administration). They are but one branch of the many national and regional archives. For example at this location you can find government records from 1900s to the present, where as any document dated before the 1900s can be found at the Historic National Archives, which is in the National Library in downtown Santiago near the famous landmark Santa Lucia Hill.
The tour was quite an eye opener, starting with the building’s structure with it’s somewhat modern facade, but rather rustic and older interior. In Chile, rather than tear down an old building (like what is most often done with buildings in the United States) it is often repaired or build upon with newer additions. If you scraped at the paint on the walls, you’d probably find a rainbow of colors and only get more colors never reaching the actual wall. When you enter the building the floor is waxy and slippery, the walls are thickly painted white, there are huge wooden doors (like the kind you’d see in a old Spanish hacienda wine cellar, with thick black iron fastenings) that close off the stacks, and intermingled within all this giant space are few rooms, clearly additions (not in sync at all with the designs of the walls and doors), which are more like cubicles really, with glass walls and somewhat current computers.
The stacks themselves are filled with giant ledgers which are bound together with an unfamiliar looking binding that I’ve yet to see in an US archive, and yet there is the distinct smell of old library book which I can smell lingering in the air. It reminds me that while physically this archive environment feels alien to me, there is something so familiar about it, so universal like the way things smell; and so just like here they might process things differently, the idea is the universally the same too–this an an archive. It maintains and preserves books and documents. Just like when we arrange a collection, there may be many ways to organize the series, there are many different ways to process.
So it was fascinating to learn about how processing and arrange are not only done in a different kind of agency (government versus academic), but another country. For instance, many of the policies the archives follows are actual federal laws. Just like there are medical laws, there are archival laws. (The joke is that if you want anything done in a Latino country, you have to make it law.) For example, the documents ARNAD receives come from the many ministries of the government. After a document fulfills it’s life cycle in the ministry it is collected with the rest of the documents from that fiscal year, arranged at the ministry (NOT the archive) and transferred to the archive where it is bound, cataloged and shelved. What is also interesting is that once a document arrives at ARNAD, it cannot leave, which is also another reason for the arrangement stage to be done before reaching the archives–it means no deaccessioning is allowed. This results too in little to no backlog because it’s one huge time consuming stage done and out of the way; learning that just blew me away.
So often I find myself with a collection, that is so messy that it’s like building something without the instructions or blueprint. Sometimes it’s as easy as building an IKEA furniture, but sometimes (often as we all know) it isn’t. And while my students often ask “why can’t we just ask the donor,” that’s rarely an option. How great would it be to get an organized collection? Would that be a good thing or not. Because at the same time, that’s half the adventure. While through most of the tour (which was seeing where items where stored, how they arrive, what kind of in-house preservation they do and where the cataloging happens) I pondered about how great that would be, it later dawned on me that what most of the workers in this archive did was library work and not archival work. These people are librarians not archivist, because the profession of archivist doesn’t exist in Chile. In Chile, where the educational system works very differently from the American educational system, there has to be a career path followed in order to obtain a job, and there is no career path for archivists. There is for librarian, but not for archivist. So what work an archivist traditionally does, is split up and written into the librarians job description although they may have never been trained for that task.
Could that be why “archivist” as a profession is almost non-existent as profession in Chile? Most of the people working in the archives are librarians. There is no archival degree in Chile. There is a post-grad certificate program, but there is no career path for someone to become an archivist. And perhaps that is why many of the processing part happens in the ministries and many administrative assistants and secretaries are given that task to do. But more and more—because as we know the job DOES exist and the career path and educational degrees and training for archivists DO exist outside of Chile— companies, government agencies, schools, etc. in Chile are asking for actual archivists.
This tour served more than to please my curiosity, but enlightened me and opened me up more on this phenomena that exists outside of the US and with our fellow Latino Archivists. Because it is this exact dynamic, that we are congregating to look at, talk about, hope to break down and solve or at least find ways to address at COINDEAR 2012. It all connects together.