Context Junky

Archives/GLAM, PhD life, history, art, etc.

What’s the definition of an extroverted archivist?

As seen on Twitter, 18 May 2012:

Introverted archivist joke

The cliché of the introverted archivist – like the idea of ‘dusty’ or ‘musty’ archives – is widespread. I shared that State Records NSW tweet with colleagues at the time to knowing laughs; and more recently I noted there is often a sense at the end of archival conferences that many of the participants are scurrying away, eager for some much needed solitude.

I am one of those people. I live alone, have my own office at work and can be fiercely protective of my personal space. After the recent ARANZ/ASA conference in Christchurch I avoided any commitments (read: did not leave the house) for a couple of days to re-focus myself. I am definitely, in popular parlance, an introvert.

But given the right situation I love socialising and meeting new people. I give lectures and look forward to presenting and public speaking. Site visits and meetings with stakeholders, users, researchers and potential collaborators are a highlight of my work. Outside work I have a busy social life which has included performing on stage as a musician many, many times.

What I need is a balance. Being introverted is not synonymous with being quiet, shy and retiring. It just means I tend to expend energy while with other people and re-energise by spending time alone or looking internally, as opposed to those who gain energy from external stimuli and can find too much alone time wearing, or just plain boring.[1]

So I get frustrated when the ‘introverted archivist’ idea starts to twist the public perception of our profession. Case in point: a New York Times article from January 2014 about the New York Court archivist who retired then turned up the following week and kept working, unpaid. A few quotes from that piece:

Mr. Abrams had retired from the job the previous Friday and was no longer employed to tend this mazelike archive he treated as his own personal, cloistered garden …

“It feels like home,” Mr. Abrams said with the requisite reserve and slight social unease one expects from a dedicated archivist …

One problem with the job, he said, was that he was often interrupted in his archiving to retrieve files for the public. “When I started, I made my peace with the fact that I’d have to spend much of the job getting files for people,” he said, noting that he would now like to focus on archiving.

In other words, now that he is no longer working here, he can finally get some work done here. “Now I can focus on important stuff,” he said.[2]

Sure, it’s a fluffy human interest piece, but if these are seen as the ‘requisite’ qualities of an archivist our profession is doomed.

We need archivists who are passionate about helping people. Archivists who are communicators, networkers, lobbyists and activists. Archivists who embrace the idea that access, far from ‘interrupting’ archiving, is in fact the sine qua non of archival practice.

Ivy Blossom said it best when talking about librarians in a recent post:

Everyone thinks a good librarian is an introvert stashed away behind the rows of books, but if the idea of talking to strangers for hours makes you feel ill, you will struggle to find a job as a librarian …

If you are an intelligent person who isn’t afraid of new technologies, have experience with and knowledge of how online tools work, are willing to play and explore new stuff as it comes along and if you’re not afraid of change, if you enjoy working with and helping people, can manage public speaking without getting freaked out, if have passion and enthusiasm to share and want to make the world a better place, please. If this is you, go to library school. We need you.[3]

Libraries and archives both.


[1] “Introversion and extroversion,” Simple English Wikipedia (accessed 27 October 2014)

[2] “New York Court Archivist Isn’t Letting Retirement Stop Him,” New York Times, Online edition. (accessed 27 October 2014)

[3] Ivy Blossom, “Sorry, I saw that you’re a librarian…”, posted 11 September 2014. (accessed 27 October 2014)


  1. i think that certain agendas are well served by this stereotype of archives being musty, irrelevant places, particularly in cases where an entity is invested in cultivating and/or maintaining a specific historical narrative.

    this achieves two things – it reinforces the perceived authority of the archive by situating it within a dispassionate and cloistered (and therefore a somehow more objective) space, and it may deter those who feel passionately about advocacy and access to information from joining the field.

    so thank you for this post, i think it’s really important to provide a counterpoint to these kinds of assumptions. i thought that post from Ivy Blossom was fantastic too, glad to see that it is being shared around.

    • The connection between cloistered spaces and perceived authority isn’t something I had considered in those terms before. Hopefully there aren’t too many people in the field looking to deter people interested in advocacy and access.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for another great post Mike.
    I’ve been thinking about access a lot lately as I seem to be having more conversations where I feel a voice is needed in this space.
    Being new to the profession I am slowly finding this voice, and I’m grateful for the years of corporate servitude that came before. Over those years my introverted self was shaped and molded so that I could compete with the much louder and more forceful extroverts I was surrounded by.
    I think there is a zeitgeist emerging with we introverts at its core. Our considered and analytical approach will finally be recognised for the powerful force it is!
    Now I’m off to add ‘access activist’ to my twitter profile….

    • Thanks Michaela – great to hear you found it useful. Introverts of the world, unite!

      I think we all need to be ‘access activists’. My next post, which will (hopefully) be up early next week, is more specifically about access and some of the things our profession has to consider, especially when it comes to ‘non-traditional’ archival users. I will be interested to see what you think.

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