SAA 2013 Candidate Interviews: Wesley Chenault

Wesley Chenault
Head, Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University
Candidate for Nominating Committee
Read his bio and response to questions posed by the Nominating Committee here.


How did you get your start in the archives field?

My start in the field began with a graduate research assistantship while working on a master’s degree in women’s studies in the late 1990s. Through the assistantship, graduate students worked with the archivist for Women’s Collections in Special Collections and Archives at Georgia State University Library. Lee Eltzroth, my first boss, exposed me to ideas and practices, made sure I understood reasons behind her decisions, which was incredibly educational. As I was learning about the profession through the assistantship, I also was experiencing difficulty locating primary resources to support my thesis. I remember a day when a figurative light bulb went off over my head: Archivists play a role in knowledge production by shaping the documentary record. This realization and my positive experience in the Library are the reasons I am in the profession today. In addition to Lee, others at GSU at the time who were deeply influential include Pam Hackbart-Dean, Julia Marks Young, Peter Roberts, Chris Paton, and Christine de Catanzaro. I’m in touch with most of them today, now as a colleague.

Should SAA focus its services more on archives professionals (archivists) or the archives profession as a whole?

This is a tricky question, and I did not follow-up for clarity. I will say this. The profession is incredibly diverse in terms of institutional settings, missions, collections, structures, and more. The overall health of the profession, therefore, relies somewhat on there being multiple opportunities for growth and development. For the first half of my career, professional development came out of pocket. Participation and travel to SAA meetings was not feasible. Thankfully I was in a state with  an active, thriving professional organization, the Society of Georgia Archivists (SGA), which offered leadership opportunities and programs and services on a scale I could afford. As a mid-career archivist in management in a supportive environment, I am able to maintain memberships in multiple organizations. And, my professional needs and concerns have changed over time. What I want out of SAA is not necessarily what I want out of MARAC or SGA. Going back to the question, if SNAP members have a particular stance, I would encourage the Roundtable to leverage its collective power to have it addressed.

How do you see the SNAP Roundtable within the larger picture of SAA?

I see SNAP as providing an incredibly important structure and voice to galvanize what is, demographically, a significant percentage of SAA’s membership. For those entering or new to the profession, it a forum where members articulate concerns, share insights, and organize action on their own terms in language they choose. From a social perspective, its structure allows new relationships to form and develop around commonalities, which can lead to collective action, create community. SNAP members have a unique vantage point as to what’s happening on the job market, in curriculum, with social media engagement, and much more. I see this as invaluable to SAA and its members.

What do you feel is the responsibility of SAA leadership, and your leadership role in particular, to students and new archives professionals?

In general, I think it is the responsibility of SAA leadership to a) provide avenues and opportunities for students and new archives professional to get involved in the organization, b) work to develop a sense of community among professionals, and c) listen. As far as my role goes, well, I think it comes down to a general guiding philosophy, the “pay it forward” notion. Throughout my career, I have benefited from professionals who freely gave their time, experience, and knowledge. Some relationships were formal, through a mentor program for example, while others have been highly informal. Every professional move I have made, however, has involved dialog with someone I hold in high regard. This sense of giving informs my approach to leadership. I am deeply committed to the profession and am compelled to give back to it – especially to those seeking encouragement, guidance, or ideas for individual growth – and be an active listener.

What advice do you have for new professionals in our field?

I’m not sure I can impart any advice that members haven’t already heard; so, I’ll say something heartfelt and authentic. Seize every opportunity. Be fearless. Dream mad dreams. And, don’t forget to laugh along the way.

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This entry was posted in Candidate Interviews 2013 and tagged , on by .

About Lisa H

Lisa is the archivist/librarian at the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College. She stumbled into archival work by way of the museum world and is always seeking ways to break down the silos of these professions. Lisa has worked in museums, libraries, and archives in Illinois, New York, and Alaska. While not at work, Lisa spends her free time biking, working on art projects, and putting her useless knowledge to good use on bar trivia teams. You can find her on Twitter @lisahuntsha.

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