Monday, March 20, 2017

"What Do You Do?" "Among Other Things, I Read a Lot of Old Mail."

Recently, I've had the opportunity to talk to individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, education/training, and life experiences about what I do for a living. Many of them did not know what an archivist is or what one does. I started with what I do as a local history librarian, and gradually worked my way into the archives work I do.

"That Sounds Like a Fun Job!"

"It is," I say. It's the most fun I've ever had at work (although my first job out of college at the recording studio was pretty cool, too). What makes it fun? A great number of things, actually. For me, one of the draws is that it's never the same day twice. Someone might walk into my office to donate a county wall map from 1977 and leave having made an appointment to sit with me the following week to record a video oral history interview. That same person may later, in an interview, reveal that he had worked on the Nike Ajax missile program during the Korean War. He might return for another recording session carrying photos and all of the license and permit cards from his wallet in the Army, which he allows me to scan and return to him on his next visit.

Another day, I might research how best to describe in a finding aid all of the electronic visual materials in a collection. I then reach out to professional friends I've met at the Society of American Archivists and Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conferences and ask what they would do. I send a link to the finding aid for their feedback because it's good to have a second/third set of eyes look at a finding aid, especially since I am what is called a Lone Arranger -- the department head of my department of one. Later, after all suggested edits are implemented, I will publicize the finding aid so that researchers can find the collection (here is one:

If you walk into my office in the coming week, you might see me putting together an exhibit. The image below shows an example of a holiday-themed exhibit I had developed. I made facsimiles of postcards that had been lent for the purpose of digitization, as well as ads and articles from a local paper and newsletter. The little turkey is a salt shaker that I bought at the dollar store, along with the fabric leaves.

On rare days, it's not as much fun. For instance, when links began disappearing from the .gov site, I had to update some of my Local History Resources to links from the Internet Archive. Sometimes, I have to take a stand ( Other days, to keep positive energy flowing, I update my Facebook page with news stories of great work by archivists, conservators, and librarians. On the tough days, the updates include puppy videos.

"What's the Most Interesting Thing You've Found?"

That is a tough question. However, my favorite archival materials are maps, especially this one ( I'll be talking about that map at the upcoming annual New Jersey Library Association meeting ( The information about the map can be found here:

I've found things that document the unattractive aspects of a town's history. The importance of telling the whole story, not just the parts we like, cannot be overstated. Consequently, when I uncover evidence of minstrel shows and KKK activities in a town's past, it is my responsibility to make that material just as accessible as the turtle races put on by the Optimist Club.

The most interesting things aren't artifacts or archives, but the stories given to me by the oral history interviewees. They are gifts that give to me as well as the giver. I might be the only person the interviewee talks to in a day. The patrons win by experiencing local history in a completely different way than they would otherwise. Researchers can use the impressions of the people who lived in the times they describe. I gain by meeting and getting to know some pretty fascinating people whom I probably wouldn't have met had they not happened to walk into my office while I was processing a collection of library records.

Maybe, someday, I'll write a book about it.

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