Thursday, July 07, 2011

On Challenges and Inspirations (many more of the latter than the former)

Lately, I've been answering my share of questions on the topics of challenges in processing collections, managing projects, and promoting collections. This morning, I turned the questions on their heads and thought "Wouldn't it be nice if I were asked about the benefits of this work." With that in mind, in no particular order, here are some musings on why I find working in museums and libraries so inspiring.

1. The materials -- A great example is the project I'm working on these days at the Plainfield Public Library. The thousands of architectural drawings kept in the local history archives represent a century of architectural styles in the town. The collection also shows trends in architectural drawing as a field -- from lettering and drawing styles to the types of materials used to produce the drawings. But as far as inspirations go, it's pretty high up there for me. When I drive through Plainfield on my way to the library (along 8th and other streets in historic neighborhoods), I see some of the homes depicted in plans from the turn of the last century. I also learn about the different classes in the town from the mansions with gorgeous libraries drawn into the blueprints to the 4-family apartment houses drawn by Charles Detwiller in the 1950s. While I'm still impressed with Adam Winger's cuneiform tablets, I'm also pretty fortunate to be exposed to so many different types of historical records at the Plainfield Public Library.

2. The archivists, librarians, curators, historians and other cultural history pros -- I like working with folks who get as revved up about copyright challenges, historical items, and ephemera from personal collections as I do. It's even more fun when we gather for conferences, or when I have the opportunity to tour a cultural heritage institution. My tour hosts are enthusiastic evangelists for our work, and I can't help but admire them and the work they do. Sometimes, I get to watch conservators think through how they will handle various challenges. I'm in awe of the pros who labor for a year or more on one item to delicately remove a harmful coating or repair beautiful plates in a damaged Audubon book. Recently, a classmate of mine from the Rutgers MLIS program landed a great job in a library at a California university. While I will miss her being close by, I'll get to hear new stories about her exciting work as a faculty liaison (among other fun work). And, I have yet another reason to go back to California!

3. The patrons -- I know a few people who would much rather be behind the door with the treasures than working with patrons, but I'm not one of those people. I like doing both. Just two days ago, a man and his adult son came into the local history room looking for information about a particular building in town. A librarian began to work with the son while the elder man watched me doing some preservation work at the large table in the room. I had two boxes of architectural drawings ranging from the 1860s to 1911 that were particularly interesting examples of mansions. The man began to edge closer to get a better look at the drawings. I looked up and smiled at him and he smiled back. I explained what I was doing and why, while I unrolled one of the precious blueprints for him. It was the front elevation of one of the town's beauties. This fellow lit up and started asking questions. I answered as many as I could before he had to go, feeling that I was probably as entertained as he was by the exchange.

4. The opportunities -- The biggest is the opportunity to learn. I am constantly learning something new, whether it's an historical fact, the proper way to preserve an item I haven't yet encountered, a better way to write or say something, a new software package, or any number of other things. Being able to put these new things into practice is a bonus because then they become what I can teach others. Another great opportunity offered by this field is being able to network easily. Whether it's through member societies, list servs, blogs, Facebook, conferences, or simply by writing a fan email to tell someone you appreciate they work they do (I'm inspired to write these all the time), making new contacts and friends in this field can be done pretty easily. Most of the folks in the cultural heritage fields want to be helpful and tend to be friendly people. How can you not like someone like that?

I'll probably think of a few more inspirations and put them aside for another post. In the meantime, please comment on your inspirations. I'm very interested in what you have to say.

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