Steve Novak

Unlike the other alumni profiled here, I’m an old-timer having graduated from what was then the Program in Archival Administration and Historical Editing in 1982.  If a program in Public History existed at New York University while I was there in the early ‘80s, it seems to have been well-hidden!

Compared to today’s student, choosing an archival program was easy in 1980: apart from NYU and the University of Michigan Library School’s excellent archives track under Fran Blouin, most archival education at the time consisted of the occasional library school course taught by adjunct faculty.  No offense to librarians – many of whom I’ve worked with over the course of my career and from whom I’ve learned a lot – but I wanted to be an archivist.

I also wanted to “do history” and I still think that the history department model of training archivists that the program at NYU offers is still both valid and valuable.  Learning to do research in primary historical materials is an excellent method of teaching archival appraisal skills, and continues to shape the way I look at potential accessions in my daily course of work.

That said, when I look back at my training 30 years ago (yikes!), it seems terribly primitive by today’s standards.  Partly that’s because not long after I embarked on my career, the archival profession – like the rest of society – was transformed by the computer revolution followed by the digital revolution. It’s dismaying to think that I’m part of the last generation of archivists which remembers typing finding aids – on typewriters!  More positively, my training may now seem antique because the profession has grown tremendously, becoming more technically adept and theoretically sophisticated.   Today’s graduates from archival training programs are probably better-prepared to begin their careers than any previous generation.  That’s particularly true of NYU’s graduates, where Director Peter Wosh is continually fine-tuning the program to meet the rapidly changing nature of the profession.

But the basic principles of archival work I learned at NYU – provenance, respect du fonds, and the like – haven’t changed and remain at the heart of what we do as archivists.  More important to me in deciding that I indeed wanted to become and remain an archivist, was the hands-on experience we had in the special collections at Bobst Library – the University Archives, then presided over by Tom Frusciano, and Tamiment Library-Wagner Labor Archives, run by the late Debra Bernhardt (Fales was then strictlyverboten to graduate students – or anyone else that I could see; fortunately, that has changed completely).  Like so many of us in the profession, it was the chance to work with “the stuff” that hooked me: correspondence, diaries, ephemera, ledgers, photographs.  I couldn’t believe someone would pay me to work with these materials!

Of course, in my current position as Head, Archives & Special Collections at Columbia University’s Health Sciences Library, I don’t actually do much processing of archival collections anymore.  We are the archives for the University’s schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing, and public health (the medical school, dating back to 1767, is the second oldest in North America); hold the University’s rare book collection in the history of medicine – 27,000 volumes dating back to the 15th century; have a growing collection of personal papers and organizational records; and possess the usual thousands of photographs.  With administering staff, attending meetings, planning exhibits, overseeing our lecture series, soliciting collections, working with the conservation staff, and being active professionally, there doesn’t seem to be much time for getting my hands dirty organizing collections – though I still on occasion find myself getting very dirty in the basements of University buildings.

Posted May 2011

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