SAA Candidate Interview: Rachel Vagts

Rachel Vagts
Head, Special Collections and Archives, Berea College
Candidate for Council
Read her bio and response to questions posed by the Nominating Committee here.


How did you get your start in the archives field?

My first time using an archives was during a history class when I was an undergrad.  I don’t know that I understood exactly what the archives were or how you ended up working in one, but when I decided to go to library school several years later, one of the options at the University of Wisconsin was the archives track.  I decided to give it a try and found that it was exactly what I was looking for!  That class led to my first job working at the Wisconsin Historical Society in a work/study position during graduate school.

I was lucky to have the chance over the two years I was working on my degree to work in a variety of areas at the Society, with manuscripts and state records doing both appraisal and processing.  I was then hired as a project archivist as I finished my degree.  I was able to develop important connections and relationships during those years with people who are my colleagues to this day.  After graduation, I worked for a year as a project archivist at the University of Maryland and then returned to the Midwest as the College Archivist at Luther College.

As a long arranger, I quickly learned that I needed to continue to nurture the network I had begun during my earlier positions at large institutions as well as to cultivate relationships within my professional organizations.  I have been an active member of the Midwest Archives Conference and eventually became a much more active member of SAA.  Earlier this year, I took a position as the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Berea College.  My desire to move into that position was a convergence of my experience working with undergraduates in a liberal arts setting along with my personal growth as a leader after attending the Archives Leadership Institute and now serving as the director for the Institute.

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

I believe that one of the greatest benefits of a professional organization like SAA is the ability to create a network of colleagues.  SNAP offers that opportunity for our newest members–first among themselves and then among the larger professional organization.  An organization like SAA and its annual meeting can feel like a daunting experience, but SNAP has created a great atmosphere where the newest members of the profession can begin to meet one another as well as offering an opportunity for leadership opportunities for new archivists to get their feet wet so they can start affecting change and influence at the start of their career as well as creating opportunities for the roundtable members to begin to learn more about SAA.  I have particularly seen how that has worked during the roundtable meeting where other SAA sections and roundtables were invited to come and so that members of the roundtable could learn more about those groups and the people involved with them.

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 each of us, not just leaders, but as members of SAA, need to create an atmosphere of welcome to students and new members.  We should be open to sharing the history and resources of the Society with all members and helping our newest members to understand the role the Society plays as a professional organization.  I also believe that as leaders, we can and should work to listen to the needs and concerns of students and new professionals and to offer resources and feedback and we should work to offer the venues to allow that to happen.  This can mean using technology options through the Society, or being aware of where that conversation is taking place (Twitter, listservs, etc.) and engaging with the conversation.

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

As a professional organization, we, the members, must work to communicate about the value of the work we do to those who do not understand it as comprehensively as we do.  That message may appear different in various settings (academics, business, government, etc.) but the underlying message remains the same.  We must work to create opportunities for outreach and message delivery.  That can be led at a macro level by the SAA Council, but will require the coordinated efforts of our sections and roundtables to effectively spread the message more broadly.

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

I believe the appropriate role is to continue our work with our standards and guidelines, to review them and update date them as necessary.  In addition, as members of the profession, we can be available to people who are looking at graduate training programs, both through the MLS programs as well as other equivalent degrees, to help them understand more about the profession and if it is a good fit for their goals, both personally and professionally.  I think the best part about this is that it doesn’t just have to be SAA leaders–students, new archivists, veterans, people in leadership at all levels can serve in these roles to the prospective members of our profession.

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

In my previous roles as the chair of the Membership committee and now as the Chair of the College and University Archives section, I have looked for places where I can engage with new and young professionals.  That has been in both virtual and face to face locations like our annual meeting and regional meetings.  I feel fortunate as an archivist who has been able to hire newer members of the profession to be able to use them as sounding boards to understand more clearly the challenges that are facing our new and young professionals.  As a member of Council, I would continue those activities and would invite new opportunities to understand the unique challenges of our newest members.

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

Working in the SAA Career Center over the past few years, I have spoken with many of our newest members who are having significant challenges finding a job–especially one that pays well, is in a location that works for the applicant and isn’t project based funding.  The challenge for most of us will always be how willing we are to make compromises either in location or position to continue our professional lives.

Recently, I moved halfway across the country (for the second time!), leaving a home and friends who I really value because I decided that the “perfect” job was the right decision for me over the “perfect” place.  I also have archivist friends who have had to make the other decision, taking a less that perfect job to stay in a location that they either choose or need to live in because of a personal obligation.  Because of the nature of our work, what we do will most often require some form of sacrifice.  

There are many paths that we can choose, especially carefully considering the balance between our personal and professional lives.  My advice would be to find personal satisfaction in the work that you do now.  Know that even if you can’t find your perfect job in the perfect place right now, you can find immense pride in the work that you are doing while you keep working toward your professional goals.

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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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