SAA Candidate Interview: Jim Gerencser

Jim Gerencser
Dickinson College, College Archivist and Head, Archives and Special Collections
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?

When I applied to library school at the University of Pittsburgh, I did not intend to focus on archives. After a conversation with Richard Cox about the profession, and after taking an arrangement and description course he taught, I was hooked. Unable to find a job in the archives field with my MLS (waiting tables continued to pay the bills while in grad school and beyond), I then enrolled in another graduate program to earn an MA in history. The internship I was able to arrange during that MA program led to a short-term job offer. Quite fortuitously, the short-term job led to a permanent position when my supervisor resigned only six months later. That opportunity allowed me to “reboot” a college archives and special collections that had stalled for about ten years. As the only professional archivist at the college at that time, I was quite lucky with the timing of this opportunity and blessed with supportive library and faculty colleagues in those early years.

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

I view the SNAP Roundtable in much the same way that I view all sections and roundtables within the larger picture of SAA. The purpose of such groups is to facilitate conversations among individuals with similar concerns, and then to bring those concerns forward to SAA leadership and the broader audience of the archival profession. Sometimes those concerns are unique to that special interest group, but at other times we discover that those concerns are shared by many others outside that group as well. The conversations that develop can lead to changes of policy and practice that help to propel the profession forward. As with most things, new ideas are likely to emerge among those with the greatest personal knowledge and experience with a topic or issue. The SNAP Roundtable must serve as the conduit for communication with SAA as a whole for issues of particular concern to SNAP members in order to increase awareness and affect future change.

In addition, the SNAP Roundtable offers leadership opportunities for those interested in making the personal commitment of time and talent to share in the responsibility of advancing the profession through service. Those who are elected to office in sections and roundtables get to work closely with fellow SAA leaders on issues of common concern. In this respect, I again view the SNAP Roundtable in much the same way that I view all sections and roundtables within the larger picture of SAA, as a means whereby individual members can become more personally involved in SAA activities, develop skills as leaders, increase their knowledge of SAA and the profession while expanding their personal network, and most importantly, work with colleagues to advance the profession.

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

I believe that the responsibility of SAA leadership, as well as my own, toward students and new professionals is the same as the responsibility shared by all professionals. I feel that every archivist has a duty to continually support other members of the profession by sharing their time, knowledge, and expertise as appropriate within their context. Throughout my career, I have made a concerted effort to mentor work/study students under my supervision, to provide worthwhile learning experiences for interns and volunteers, to share ideas through conference presentations and written publications, to offer instruction via workshops, and to provide general advice and support within the local community. I hope and expect that fellow professionals will do likewise. The only way we can successfully advance the profession is by continually educating one another on every aspect of our practice – and that education applies to all archivists, not only those who are early in their careers.

If elected to the Nominating Committee, I would see it as our committee’s responsibility to ensure that the slate of candidates developed for the next SAA election would include new professionals. Such representation on the ballot would appropriately reflect the membership of SAA, and would provide an opportunity for archivists newer to the field to lend their voices to the discourse within the elected leadership of our national professional organization.

What steps can SAA take to improve the perception of the archives profession in a variety of settings (academics, business, government, etc.)?

The greatest challenge to improving perceptions is the fact that everyone’s perceptions are based largely on their own personal experiences. Thus, the responsibility for changing perceptions falls to each and every one of us individually. As a profession, we need to be fully committed to a service orientation in our work, to ensuring that our users receive the highest quality of service, and that the processes and systems we develop will serve their needs, as patrons, as well as our own needs as professional archivists. Such service will leave people with positive impressions of archives and archivists.

In addition, people’s perceptions are generally based, at least in part, on what they see and hear in the media.  With that in mind, one thing that I think SAA could do, as a way to raise the visibility of the profession and the important work that we do, is to develop a communication strategy and the necessary resources to focus more attention outwardly. A public relations approach such as this, one in which archives are kept in the public eye in a positive light, would require a financial commitment on the part of membership (yes, probably a dues increase), but I think it would be a worthwhile investment for all of us to share in, one that would reap numerous benefits for the profession as a whole over time.

What role do you think SAA can play in ensuring MLS programs are producing the archivists employers need?

I believe that SAA has played a strong role in articulating the goals and mission of quality graduate programs. SAA’s “Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies,” most recently reviewed and updated in 2011, demonstrates an ongoing commitment – one that stretches back to the 1970s – to the quality of graduate offerings in our field. I believe that the many educators who are active within SAA maintain a strong personal interest in ensuring that graduate programs continue to evolve to meet the needs of tomorrow’s professionals. I think it is incumbent upon SAA to continue to play a leading role in archival education by reviewing and revising these guidelines regularly, soliciting input from both educators and employers alike, to ensure that program offerings reflect the ever-changing needs of practicing professionals.

How do you plan to engage new and young professionals in SAA?

As my style of communication is a very personal one, I will continue to engage with new and young professionals in SAA in the same manner that I already have been for years. I meet new people at regional and national conferences all the time, and I continue conversations with them thereafter online and in person. I follow the activities of SNAP, and I encourage my own students to join the group and add their voices to the discussions. I maintain an active correspondence with former students, interns, and volunteers who are pursuing graduate study or are now themselves employed throughout the country as newer active professionals in the cultural heritage sector. I also encourage all newer colleagues to get involved with their regional organizations so that they can share their perspectives with other archivists while simultaneously advancing the activities of the profession as a whole. As someone who has mentored many new archivists through the years, I enjoy the many opportunities I have to engage with younger professionals, and I take great pride in having them join me in reaching out to yet another generation of archivists.

If elected to serve on the Nominating Committee, I would seek to extend my existing personal network of students and new professionals. I would want to hear from even more fresh voices about the needs and concerns of new professionals, and I would seek out their ideas about who they feel might represent them well if given the opportunity to run for elected office within SAA. Again, ensuring that the next slate of candidates put together by the Nominating Committee would be representative of the full membership of SAA, and not just more seasoned members, would be a priority for me.

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

A few days ago I met with someone interested in volunteering. After working for many years in an administrative support capacity in an academic setting, she chose to go back to school. She has now earned both an MLS and an MA in History. She has been sending out resumes and applying for jobs in library, archives, and other related settings. She has submitted several hundred job applications, and she mentioned that she has received interviews only about 1% of the time. She works the night shift at an elder care facility to help pay the bills until she finds work in her chosen professional field. She has volunteered with organizations of various types in the past so as to broaden her experiences, and she continues to actively manage a local community archives that depends entirely on volunteer effort.

Despite what may seem like a lot of hard work for no reward thus far, this volunteer remains very upbeat. In our first encounter, she struck me as being intelligent, mature, and professional. She demonstrated a commitment to continual education and self-improvement. She exhibited all the characteristics that I, as a hiring manager, would look for in filling a position – an eagerness to learn, a patron-focused service orientation, and a positive attitude in the face of an uncertain and challenging future. I am happy to provide her with whatever learning opportunities I can, to offer her whatever advice and services I can in order to assist with finding a job that she feels is just right for her, and to help her to succeed in the profession thereafter.

My advice to new professionals is to be sure that the impressions of yourself that you convey to your colleagues are just as positive as the ones this volunteer left with me. Be willing to learn from others and to give of yourself at the same time. Be courteous and respectful to peers, supervisees, and patrons alike.  Be open to change, and meet every challenge with grace and enthusiasm. It is an exciting time to be an archivist. Take every opportunity to find, enjoy, and then share that excitement.

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This entry was posted in Candidate Interviews 2014 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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