SAA Candidate Interview: Jill Severn

Jill Severn
Head of Access and Outreach, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia Libraries
Candidate for Nominating Committee
Read her bio and response to questions posed by the Nominating Committee here.


How did you get your start in the archives field?

While in graduate school studying history at the University of Georgia I worked as an archival assistant at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research Studies helping to maintain the Civil Rights files of Senator Russell and developing small thematic exhibits. There I realized that what I loved most about the study of history was the challenge of sharing it with more than just a scholarly audience. This led me to study exhibit design and development at the University of South Carolina and to begin my career as a curator at the McKissick Museum in Columbia South Carolina. I returned to archives work when opportunity brought me back to the University of Georgia and I accepted a position with the Russell Library. There I developed my skills in arrangement and description and began working closely with a wide range of researchers. In 2001, as part of the Russell Library’s ambitious efforts to expand its reach and raise its profile, I founded a unit focused on access and outreach that placed specific focus on instruction for undergraduates and engagement through exhibits and programs for the general public. I continue to lead this unit today and feel very lucky to have worked in an archives where I had the opportunity and the latitude to shape a career in archives that draws upon the talents and interests I first discovered when I entered the profession.

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

The SNAP Roundtable is an engine of change and innovation for SAA. New archivists have always been a valuable source for new ideas, approaches, and concerns, but SNAP gives them a way to leverage this power through collective action and focus. The individual voices of our newest members make a powerful chorus working together to advance SAA in new directions.

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

SAA Leaders and have a responsibility to establish and promote clear pathways for all members to become active members in the society. For component groups like sections and roundtables, this means creating a wide range of opportunities for meaningful participation, advertising these opportunities to members, and demanding a transparency in nominating and elections processes. If section and roundtables adopt these standards, then the society as a whole is enriched by a constant stream of fresh ideas and robust energy. When the nominating committee seeks a diverse and experienced slate of candidates for society-wide positions, it can draw upon a pool of nominees where new professionals and students can bring valuable experience and participation to their candidacy.

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

I think the simplest answer to this question is that SAA needs to embrace its opportunist self. We all have an opportunity to communicate the value and fabulousness of archivists and archival work in large and small ways to everyone we meet. As a child of an “ad man” I never shy away from selling the magic of what I do to anyone who will listen, but not everyone in this profession is comfortable with this direct approach. SAA has taken steps to offer training in advocacy techniques to members and we as  embers should all commit to having at least one elevator speech that we can deliver with passion and verve.

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

As an archivist whose work demands constant effective interaction with people online and in person, I would encourage MLS programs to focus on teaching effective  communication skills in a variety of contexts. To be able to wow an audience with a great speech, to persuade and excite a donor or a stake holder, to write a simple email that clarifies a way forward for a student struggling to articulate a research question, can be just as valuable as technical innovation or mastery. Too often, many in archives assume that facility with communication is a talent or a personality trait that cannot be learned, but there is evidence in many realms to suggest that effective communication is a skill that can be developed and refined and perfected with practice and commitment.

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

In my experience, a mix of formal and informal approaches works best for engaging new and young professionals. On a personal level, when I meet new professionals I plan to continue to be the same goofy, passionate, nutty self I was when I first became an archivist seventeen years ago, but with some gray hair and more comfortable shoes. I’m not sure we veterans do ourselves a great service as people and as a professionals by distinguishing ourselves as no longer new and young. On a more formal level, I recognize that new professionals need some pathways to follow to find a meaningful place in the profession and SAA that are not dependent on personal relationships, popularity, or knowing the right people. Internships with sections and roundtables, plentiful opportunities to participate on working groups and taskforces, and low stress chances to network and discuss like the RAO Section’s Marketplace of Ideas program are all great examples that I hold as models for engagement.

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

Step outside your comfort zone. Be an opportunist. Be a sponge. Learn from people who you admire and those you don’t. Collaborate! Great technical skills are essential, but don’t ignore the importance of grace and eloquence in your archivist toolkit. Save money. Recognize the power of humor.

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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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