Karen Murphy

Karen is the Archive Manager at the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, and graduated from the program in 2007

As an undergraduate history major entering my senior year I had no doubt that I wanted to pursue history as a career; I just wasn’t quite sure how to do it. A trusted professor suggested I look into Public History and Archives and a transformative internship at the Merchant’s House Museum convinced me that there could be no better career than helping to connect people and history. A second internship at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection of English and American Literature reiterated the importance of primary sources in making that connection.

When applying to graduate school I included my alma mater, NYU.  At the time, Public History and Archival Management were separate concentrations, but the flexibility of the program ensured that I would be able to pursue the certificate in Archival Management and supplement the degree with classes in the Public History and Museum Studies programs. The final tipping point was the opportunity to work as a graduate assistant at the University Archives, which would provide me with valuable on-the-job experience throughout my graduate school career. Working for the University Archivist, Nancy Cricco, I learned tools of the trade – processing, encoding and digitizing collections, putting together exhibitions, teaching undergraduates and assisting researchers. Meanwhile, a strong academic program led by Dr. Peter Wosh ensured that I had a strong foundation in archiving principles and practice. Finally, a close-knit and supportive community of classmates and professors provided me with a strong professional network that has served me well in the years since.

In addition to working at the University Archives, I also had the opportunity to intern at the Museum of the City of New York, assisting with their “Glory Days: New York Baseball 1947-1957” exhibit (as a lifelong Yankees fan, this was a dream come true). My final internship which was closest to my heart was with the Archives of Irish America (AIA) under the direction of Marion Casey, the professor who first suggested I explore a career in Archives. At AIA I processed the collection of Brian McGinn, a scholar of the Irish Diaspora, and digitized ephemera from the Mick Moloney Collection.

After graduating in 2007 I started work at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in the Office of Records and Archives Management, where I still am today. DEP is the City agency responsible for managing the New York City water supply, as well as air, noise and hazardous materials. Like many archivists I wear multiple hats, including facility manager, health and safety officer, IT liaison and general office manager, so it is never the same routine every day. Helping to organize the DEP Archive’s vast quantities of engineering drawings, photographs and documents has been a challenging but exciting undertaking. I develop and supervise inventory projects of the collections, create and manage digital assets, contribute to the agency’s social media presence through Facebook and indulge my love of research by writing historical feature articles for the agency newsletter. Our unit has received several grants to completely redo the agency’s retention schedules, an experience which has plunged me into records management and vastly increased my knowledge of the organization’s work as a whole.

As great as all these activities are, archives exist so that they can be used, and my favorite part of the job is helping users find the records they need. I have assisted graduate students, local historical societies, filmmakers and journals, but as an institutional repository our primary mission is to support DEP operations. DEP engineers and consultants use the original design and construction documentation to operate, maintain, repair and build upon the City’s vast and aging water supply system. This is history at its most practical and knowing that my work with these records has had a direct impact on so many New Yorkers is incredibly rewarding.

My advice to current and prospective students is to be open to opportunities, even if they are outside of your comfort zone. I started the NYU graduate program with the intention of working at a small historical house and as an undergraduate I didn’t take a single science or math course. Now I’m successfully working for a local government where my primary users are engineers and I am analyzing drawings of tunnel intake structures. As students and recent graduates this is the time to broaden yourself and explore – you may uncover skills and interests you never knew you had.

March 2012

Leave a Reply