My introduction to archives came in an undergraduate women’s studies course at Smith College. Our first assignment was to visit the College Archives, read a student diary, and write a short response paper. I chose the diary of a random student from the 1930s who had lived in the same dormitory house I was then living in. From the moment I picked up Dorothy’s diary, I was smitten. I still remember the feeling of holding that little leather volume, squinting at the tiny penciled writing, and the thrill of reading someone else’s diary! When I walked back into my dorm later that day, ghosts greeted me. I thought, “Dorothy walked through these halls; climbed these stairs; lived in that room.” I saw everything anew. And so began my love of archives.
Later I discovered that archives could be a career (Reading other people’s diaries and mail can be a job? Sign me up!), interned in the Sophia Smith Women’s History Archives (where I processed my first small collection), and entered the New York University program in archival management. One of the many wonderful things about the program was the opportunity to go behind the scenes at amazing institutions in New York and meet interesting people in the profession. I fondly remember a tour through the conservation labs at the main research branch of the New York Public Library that introduced me to preservation work that I did not even know existed. Another important component of the NYU program was the hands-on internships in the field.
Something I would advise new archives students to do is simply try everything and not to limit yourself. As a student I had imagined that I would love processing projects–doing solo, research-intensive work forever, or historical editing in which I would spend my days with a historical figure forever. But I discovered quickly that I also love reference requests; I love exhibition work; I love public programs for children and grown-ups; I love it all (ok, maybe not writing annual reports). And I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at a variety of institutions with a wide variety of archival materials doing lots of interesting things.
While still a student at NYU I began a full-time position at the Thomas Edison Papers historical editing project at Rutgers. During that time I had the opportunity to attend the NHPRC’s Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents (“Camp Edit”) and learn more about the inner workings of documentary editing projects from experts in the field. Next, I had an amazing experience working for nearly nine years at the Morgan Library & Museum in the Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts. I began my time there with a private collection of American historical documents, on deposit, and later worked more generally with all aspects of the Morgan’s manuscripts collection, including the archives of The Paris Review. Another major project at the Morgan was helping to organize staff files for a move off-site during a building renovation. And so I became involved in records management.
Much to my surprise (here’s where that “don’t limit yourself” advice comes up again!) I found that I enjoyed records management work. I took great pleasure in the service aspect of it; I enjoyed helping people find, organize, and care for their materials. I liked that what I was doing could provide immediate assistance to my co-workers on a daily basis. Not as thrilling work perhaps as researching and handling a Jane Austen manuscript (as I was privileged to do for a later exhibition), but good work all the same.
When my husband received an interesting job offer in western Massachusetts in 2006, we happily moved our young family. Here I began work on a records management grant project at Smith College, and spent many hours digging records out of old file cabinets or cardboard boxes in random closets and forgotten spaces around campus. Again this work was satisfying; knowing that what I was collecting added to the history of a particular program, department, or person at the college (and in some cases was the only record that so far existed).
After the birth of my second child, my work at Smith morphed into a part-time position doing a variety of interesting archival projects. These included an exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the College’s library; turning this physical exhibit into an online exhibit using Omeka; and then creating a number of other smaller Omeka exhibits.
This January I very happily started a new position just down the road at Smith’s sister school, Mount Holyoke College. Here I am the NHPRC electronic records archivist. My job with this grant project is to develop sustainable workflows to ingest, process, describe, and preserve institutional electronic records. Again I find myself doing something I would not have predicted in graduate school, but which I enjoy and am fascinated by (though I haven’t quite reached the “how I learned to stop worrying and love electronic records” stage). I hope that our work will provide a model to other small academic institutions struggling with the realities of born-digital material. Something I do worry about these days is the digital divide between archives. There are many institutions doing a great deal on the electronic records front and there are many, many other shops left behind; our work this year has the potential to help colleagues on the tough side of that divide.
Meanwhile I am always happy to speak with prospective or current archives students. Please contact me at the Mount Holyoke College Archives, firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll talk!
Posted February 2011