The Myth About Dusty, Musty Archives

Have you noticed how often news articles and blog posts refer to archives as dusty, musty places filled with similarly dusty, musty collections? Here are a few quotes perpetuating the dusty, musty myth about archives:

“I lifted the lid of a sere and dusty gray box; a box unexceptional among shelf upon shelf of sere and dusty gray boxes…”

“An archivist enters, pushing a cart that bears a dozen dusty gray boxes.”

“…the search happens in finding aids, the archival stacks, and the dusty boxes.”

“When people think of archives at all, they think of mouldering files in forgotten basements…”

“Leaving Cloister of Dusty Offices, Young Archivists Meet Like Minds”

“Musty Archives Shed Light on Democracies at War”

Invoking the name of T.R. Schellenberg, a revered mid-20th century American archival theorist and writer, one archivist responded to the seemingly endless litany of dusty mustiness with this Tweet,  “Whenever you use ‘musty’ [or 'dusty'] in an article about Archives, the ghost of Schellenberg kills a kitten.” (Brad Houston, University Records Archivist, University of Wisconsin –Milwaukee, @herodotusjr)

Houston’s response, though couched in humor, affirms a truth rarely revealed in the quest for a snappy headline or catchphrase: archives and the collections they preserve are usually pretty darn clean. As these shots of our storage areas show, one would have to search long and hard to find the dust and must so ubiquitous in those articles and blog posts.

Well-organized rows of shelves at the State Archives of Florida (2014).

Well-organized rows of shelves at the State Archives of Florida (2014).

No dust here! Only neatly labeled boxes containing original documents from Florida's colorful past (2014).

No dust here! Only neatly labeled boxes containing original documents from Florida’s colorful past (2014).

Another view of the stacks at the State Archives of Florida (2014).

Another view of the stacks at the State Archives of Florida (2014).

Occasionally an archives will acquire a collection that was not stored in clean conditions and requires cleaning or rehousing. If researchers are provided access to such a collection before that work is done, they might indeed encounter some dirt or dust. Or a very small or severely understaffed and struggling archives might lack the resources to perform such work. But those are the exceptions. Far more typical are the well-maintained collections and facilities that disprove the myth of the dusty, musty archives. Come visit us – we promise you won’t get dirty!

Did you know you can search the holdings of the State Archives of Florida from your own computer anytime? Check out the Archives Catalog to find out what we have on your favorite Florida history topic.

 

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