In July’s A Year in the Life, Rachel Fellman contemplates Half a Year in the Life.
We’re halfway through 2018 now, which means I’m halfway through my first year in museum archives, as well as my year as New Professionals blog editor. This is a transitional moment: I’ve finally been at the museum long enough to know the collections.
An archivist’s relationship with the collections is very specific. We know them as well as we know our own stuff; we remember the storage room as well as we remember our homes. We might not know exactly where we put that multipack of toothbrushes or that banker’s box of business correspondence (circa 1950), but we have a mental map that can guide us.
This is a delightful party trick to know. If someone asks me for a photo of an ice show artiste from the 1970s, I can provide it. If they want to know where we keep our Emmy Award, the odds are pretty good that I won’t need to look at the catalogue. I can turn on a dime. It makes people happy, and it makes me feel skilled, and it gives good service to the patrons.
At the same time, there’s peril in knowing the collections. Namely, the better we know them, the longer our successors will have to spend learning them — because the better we know them, the less in touch we’ll be with the needs of the researcher who is starting from zero. After all, if we can find something ourselves, we won’t think as much about how to make it findable. One type of sight replaces another. This is why it’s important to bring new people into the archives — patrons, other archivists, administrators, anyone who’s curious — and to listen to what they say. Accessibility depends on our refusal to get too comfortable, even in our own metaphorical living room.
In this month’s Year in the Life, Kara Flynn reflects on processing.
This summer marks my first full summer here at Augusta University, since I started my position last August, only two weeks before the semester began. On the one hand, I am so relieved that it is summer—I’ve had much more time freed up by the lack of classes and office hours that I’ve been able to start tackling some of the projects that had to be put on the back burner during the academic year. On the other hand, Georgia summers may be the death of me. I was not built for this level of heat and humidity! But I digress. . .
One of the things that I’ve realized over the last few weeks is that I was letting the administrative/managerial aspects of my job overwhelm me, and bog me down a little bit, so I have made the conscious effort to use this summer to work on projects that I enjoy more. One such project is processing a large archival collection. It may surprise some of you who are in the trenches of processing day in and day out, but I actually miss having time to really devote to processing. In the last few months, I have managed to process a few collections, but it has been hard to schedule in that much concentrated time between all my other work demands.
In this month’s Year in the Life, Rachel Fellman gets serious about oral histories.
I spend a lot of my time taking oral histories. I don’t have any background as a documentarian, but the people with firsthand knowledge of our museum’s subject steadfastly refuse to get younger, and I don’t want to make them wait for me to master Premiere Pro. As soon as I arrived at my present job, I had a camera in my hand.
I’d like to share some of my tips, which are no substitute for formal study:
- Commit to the idea that the perfect is the enemy of the good. There’s no point in gazing wistfully at previous archivists who’ve edited together flawless, professionally lit reels whose subjects sound like they’re on The Moth Radio Hour. Those archivists took a long time to get there, and you’ll take a long time to get there too. In the meantime, you’ve got to learn somehow. The stories won’t be worse because you shot them less beautifully.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People really like to help with oral histories! They’re appealing projects, and you won’t need to convince anyone of their worth. Last week, a librarian on the other side of the country shot a history for me while I asked the questions via Skype. My advocacy technique: I asked. (Also, he was a better camera operator than me, and had a boom mic and a real light.)
- For the love of Pete, record backup audio. Your phone has a voice memo function. Use it.
- Carry batteries for everything. Carry spare cables if possible. Never underestimate the tendency of equipment to break. (Remember Fellman’s Law: the further you have traveled for an oral history, the more likely the equipment is to break.)
- A lapel mic really makes the difference between an amateur recording and a professional one.
- Some interviewees will want questions provided in advance; others will prefer a spontaneous interview; still others will want to submit their own list of topics. It behooves you to be accommodating. Their comfort will be the single deciding factor in whether this comes out well — other than the lapel mic — and this isn’t the time to be philosophically rigid.
- Don’t be afraid to let the conversation ramble. Good material will often happen serendipitously, and offhand remarks can lead to new topics you hadn’t considered. By the same token, don’t be afraid to lead in slowly, with chatty getting-to-know-you questions. If this is worth doing, it’s worth taking an extra half hour, and these questions help make people comfortable in a difficult, artificial situation.
- Be as interested in the interviewee as in the subject of the interview. You will learn more about the subject this way.
- It’s best to talk as little as possible. For the sake of getting the story out, though, you won’t want to be a stickler about this.
- If the interviewee offers to do a magic trick, say yes.
In this month’s Year in the Life, Rachel Fellman has another go at the inherent tensions of our field.
This month, I’ve been thinking about the mystique of archives. One of the things that drew me into this field was its rarefied feeling — the special care with climate, the strict rules about water and pens, and the unique access to papers, including the papers of the famous and powerful. But I also believe that archivists should be a little bit iconoclastic, a little bit scrappy. My love of archival ritual is tempered by my wish that I could just hand an artifact to a patron once in a while; my awe of the artists in my museum’s collections is tempered by the archives’ tendency to remind you, at the most inconvenient times, that artists are just ordinary, breathing people with unusual jobs. That’s certainly one thing we have in common.
An archivist’s position is strange. We’re librarians, so we have a mandate to make information available to the public. But we also have to be physically careful, tactful, and sensitive about how we do that. If we’re too free with the materials, we can violate copyright and medical confidentiality laws, breach donors’ trust, and even cause the destruction of information itself. I know that I never had to face those questions when I was working the reference desk in a community college library.
This tension is part of what keeps me going in the field; a foundational tension is how you know that a thing is worth doing. And it’s not as if academic librarians don’t face conflicts of loyalty, too — the student’s needs against the school’s, or the need to respect a student’s privacy versus the suspicion that the student needs more personal help. But I can’t think of another library field where the professional’s loyalty to information freedom can clash so routinely with their loyalty to people.
This is why I always go back to the archivist’s judgement, how we can never stop honing that instrument against the rough stone of real decision-making. Obviously I won’t ever get to a place where all of my calls are good, and I still need to consult colleagues all the time. Excelling in archives, though, is all about keeping an unsparing eye on what’s necessary, and viewing all other considerations with a touch of skepticism.
In this month’s installment of A Year in the Life, Kara Flynn makes a case for archival blogging.
This month wrapped up the academic year at Augusta University, and as soon as finals were over, I took a week and a half off of work (the most time I’ve had off in almost a year!), when I knew there would be a bit of a lull. I’m definitely looking forward to having a bit more time this summer to work on projects in the time that will be freed up from meeting with students and teaching classes!
Since I was out for the middle of the month, much of the early part of this month entailed me getting ready to be out of the office. I finished up some projects I had been working on, scheduled a bunch of meetings, and set up a few projects for our Special Collections Assistant to work on in my absence.
One of the things I wanted to get done ahead of time were my blog posts, as I write two blog posts a month—in addition to the Year in the Life posts (obviously), I also write a monthly post for Augusta University Libraries “Heritage Unit News” series. In my experience, archives and special collections LOVE blogs, and I actually really enjoy writing blog posts about archives/special collections related topics, so today, I’m going to be doing a bit of a meta post: blogging about blogging.
In this month’s installment of Year in the Life, Kara Flynn offers some valuable guidelines for archivists who are just starting to publish and present at conferences.
April has been a busy month here at Reese Library Special Collections and Institutional Archives! Between completing my first annual evaluation process, to dealing with students in end of semester panic mode, there’s been plenty to keep me busy. In the midst of it all, I completed two professional milestones: I gave my first professional presentation, and I submitted my first article for publication.
As the annual evaluation process reminded me, part of my position as a faculty-level librarian is research and scholarship. Basically this means that my colleagues and I all have to meet certain research and scholarship goals each year. While this varies person to person, my goal is to submit a presentation to a conference, and submit an article for publication each year, in addition to working on a personal research project.
Although professional development did come up in my MLIS program, it wasn’t something I really focused on, or thought much about, in grad school. While I wish I had taken more advantage of opportunities to attend conferences as a student, between working two jobs while completing my MLIS degree in one calendar year, professional development kind of fell by the wayside. I’m pointing this out for a few reasons:
- This demonstrates just how new I am to the professional development side of being an archivist/ special collections librarian.
- There are MLIS rock stars out there who present and publish and all that jazz while they are still in grad school, and I applaud them. But if you, like me, are one of the many of us who have yet to dip your toes into that particular pool, that’s ok too!
Suffice it to say that when I started my job back in August, the expectations to present and publish were one of the most daunting parts of my new professional life. Sort of by accident, I ended up in a final push to prep for both submitting an article for publication, and for a professional presentation this month.
First, the article. Continue reading
In this month’s Year in the Life, Rachel Fellman reminds herself that a brain in a jar wouldn’t be a very good archivist.
Last month, I took a road trip with the president of our board. We drove two hours south to take the oral history of a 102-year-old woman. All went according to plan, except that when we got back to the museum, I learned that there’d been a technical issue with our microphone. Fittingly enough for an interviewee born in 1916, we had spent the day making a silent movie.