Comment: Do we need archivists in Ghana?
People react to opinion polls in different ways. While some people accept the findings as the gospel truth, others scrutinize them (the polls) and give reasons why the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt.
In fact, issues such as the size of the sample, the method used to collect the data, how the data was analyzed and whether the population in question was representative are very critical to the credibility of polls.
I conducted a poll recently on the importance of archivists. I must admit that my poll fell short of some necessary requirements. It would therefore be unfair on my part to conclude that many people do not see the need to engage the services of archivists. However, I wish to comment on some of the responses I got from the questionnaire which I administered.
According to one of the interviewees, once something had become useless, the best thing to do was to discard it. It was therefore not necessary to employ archivists, whose duties were to take care of unwanted things.
Another person said archivists should not complain of unemployment because there were many waste-management companies and since archivists were expected to manage old and unwanted things, those companies could readily employ them.
The above and similar comments represent the erroneous notion that some people have about the archives profession; i.e equating archives to unwanted or useless things.
I do not want to believe that the archives profession is one of the most misunderstood professions in Ghana.
Who is an archivist then? An archivist primarily establishes and maintains both physical and intellectual control over records of enduring value. In fact, an archivist selects records (the selection requires an understanding of the historical context in which the records were created, the uses for which the records were intended and the relationship of the records to other sources or stakeholders), arranges the records and describes them (the records) in accordance with accepted standards and principles. He also preserves records properly for posterity. An archivist does not only publish and exhibit the collections he has but also assists researchers during their searches.
It should however be noted that one needs to be trained to be able to perform the above duties efficiently and effectively.
Archivists have some 'relatives' and it is important to explain the type of relationship that exists between them.
A very close 'cousin' of the archivist is the librarian. While both librarians and archivists collect, preserve and make materials accessible for research, the way they arrange, describe and use the materials are different. It is also important to make the distinction between archivists and museum curators. While a museum curator basically collects, studies and interprets objects, an archivist works with records. In fact, records in this case does not refer to only papers but any reproducible format on which information is captured for conducting business. Films, maps, diskettes, pen-drives and photographs are therefore examples of records. The fact, however, is that archivists, librarians and museum curators are all descendants of the same 'great-grandfather' called 'Mr. Information'.
Archivists play very important roles in the society. Without them, it would be almost impossible to have access to archival materials, which are needed in almost every sphere of life. For instance, medical researchers use archives to study the patterns of diseases. Historians and genealogists rely on archival sources to analyze past events to reconstruct family histories. Authors also use archives to acquire a feel for the people and times about which they write. Businesses use archival records to improve their public relations and to promote their new products. Engineers do not joke with their archival drawings and manuals especially when it comes to maintaining their equipment. Legally, archives are used to establish claims to lands and other privileges. Unfortunately, some people do not attach any importance to records and for that matter, those who manage them.
There have been land and chieftaincy disputes in many parts of the country resulting in loss of lives and property. Such disputes could be prevented or minimized if proper records were kept. How could we tell whether one is really qualified to be an heir to a throne or a skin if the necessary legal and historical records to rely on are non-existent? It is not surprising that many people take advantage of our inability to keep proper records to forcefully but cunningly snatch our properties from us.
I pity companies and organizations which underrate the importance of archivists. If they would be sincere to themselves, they would admit that they usually find it difficult to trace their correspondences; become very 'hot' when they want to retrieve information; literally struggle with records for office space; and always have their confidential and restricted information leaked to unauthorized people. The truth of the matter is that archivists are specially trained to be able to solve the above and other records management- related problems professionally.
My heart bled after watching a scene on the television recently. Records of a sensitive government institution (name withheld) were literally used as carpets and left under the mercy of the weather. In fact, words could not describe the mess in which the records were. What a shame!
We should remember that information is the backbone of development. However, records are the 'seeds' which 'produce'? information. It would therefore be ironical to expect to have easy and timely access to accurate information while we attach no importance to records and those who manage them.
It should be noted that archivists do not take care of unwanted things. They manage records professionally.
Credit: Sammy Dzandu, an archivist [E-mail: [email protected] ]