Be nice to archivists, they can erase you from history!

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All in a day’s work for an archivist. ©EU

They hide behind perfectly ordered shelves, digging into boxes and drawers that barely see the daylight. If you invite them, they are likely to arrive only once the event is over and start documenting whatever is left. Don’t get us wrong: their mission is all about transparency. The archivists of the European Commission work behind the scenes for a great purpose: making sure we remember the past to build a better future.

With an old catchphrase in mind “Be nice to archivists, they can erase you from history!” we sat down with Lieven Baert, archivist at the Historical Archives Service and Bert Musial, head of the audiovisual library at the European Commission, to learn more about what it takes to be a good archivist.

Bert Musial (left) and Lieven Baert, archivists at the European Commission. © EU

How did you become an archivist?

Lieven Baert: After obtaining a degree in history, I was trying to figure out how to find a job in this field. At that time, I was intrigued by the archival programme proposed by the University of Brussels. So I took a chance and spent one more year at the university. Immediately after, I began my journey as an archivist at the Brussels Stock Exchange in the enigmatic “Palais de la Bourse”.

Bert Musial: I had the opportunity to get a job at the audio-visual archives of a European broadcasting station. When you are involved in the production of TV news and documentaries, researching AV material from around the world, clearing rights and negotiating publication fees, the job gets really exciting. And I fell in love with audio-visual archiving.

What do you like the most about your job?

LB: From my youth, I’ve been attracted to the digital world. It all started with a Commodore 128! Later on, during my training in archives management, I also studied “Geographic Information Systems”.

It is fantastic — being an archivist in the 21st century — to be able to deal with IT projects of different kinds and to find solutions on how to archive digital information. Setting up our digitisation workflow and lab was a fantastic experience and pioneering with other colleagues on digital preservation activities is really exciting.

BM: The variety of tasks: archiving of the current AV production of the Audio-visual Services and the Commission in general; long-term preservation of the institution’s AV memory; digitisation; rights management; publication and distribution via the audio-visual portal; helping journalists, researchers and citizens find the material they need. And the contact with colleagues!

What is your favourite item in your collection?

LB: Legitimately, most archivists will answer that favouritism is to be avoided when managing archives. Every document has its own right of existence and its importance can only be qualified in relation to its need.

Nevertheless, I would like to point to a 1975 European Commission Communication regarding the first set of IT related proposals as part of its industrial policy. That was more than 40 years ago! Today, archivists need to find ways to cope with the digital materials and information produced on a daily basis.

Strangely, we consider digitisation as something new. But as a matter of fact, digital information has already existed for the past 20, 30 or even more years in our institution. It is amazing to think about how many databases have existed since then and there are those that contained valuable information which may no longer be available for proper archiving.

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Visit of Walter Hallstein, the then President of the Commission of the EEC, to the crèche of the EEC Social Services on 1 October 1965. © EU

BM: This is a difficult question. I like very much old black and white photos with a human touch, like President Hallstein visiting the crèche of the European Commission or Joseph Bech, Luxembourgish Minister for Foreign Affairs, filming his counterparts at the Messina Conference.

Is there any part of your job that you never imagined having to do when you first decided to be an archivist?

LB: Even though I was willing to work on the digital side of the archival domain, I could never have imagined that I would be involved so often in meetings with developers, business analysts and other colleagues from various IT departments within the Commission. Pretty much for the last ten years, I have spent most of my time explaining our needs and defining our requirements. But I’m sure that one day, I will put my white gloves back on in order to dig again into the paper archives!

BM: Not really, but I never imagined that intellectual property rights would take so much of my time.

What are the best books on EU history that you would recommend?

LB: Many books have been published and it is fantastic to see that writers, whether they are academics or journalists, often make use of our services and archives. The EC’s Central Library is definitely a good starting point to find out more. Still, I would like to draw attention to the two volumes on the history of the European Commission (1958–72 and 1973–86; a third volume is being edited). I also particularly like the great work Histoire de la construction européenne de 1945 à nos jours of Marie-Thérèse Bitsch (4e édition, Bruxelles, Éd. Complexe, 2004).

This interview is part of the European Commission Archive 30 challenge on Twitter. You can also access our historical archives and audio visual archives online.

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