Celebrate American Archives Month

Special Collections staff hard at work, RS 25

Special Collections staff hard at work, date unknown, RS 25

Every October is American Archives Month – a time to celebrate the work of archivists and the physical and digital items that benefit from our care. There are as many ways to celebrate Archives Month (or #archivesmonth, on Twitter) as there are archival repositories. Larger archival institutions have a full range of activities to showcase their work. The National Archives and Records Administration profiles staff members and favorite items throughout the month on social media. Smithsonian Institute Archives covers its work through a number of virtual and in-person opportunities. Here at ISU Special Collections, we celebrate by working: accepting university records and donated materials relating to our collecting areas; working with donors; processing materials; answering questions from the wide variety of folks who enlist our help; educating students through tours and classroom talks; and providing access to our collections through our website and Reading Room.

The Society of American Archivists, our professional organization, is observing Archives Month, of course. The association president, Kathleen Roe, recently wrote a blog post and asked the question “Who have you met on your journey through archival records?” She posed her question in reference to people whom she met through the historical record – such as the faculty and staff, students, and alumni whose collections we hold.

Special Collections Open House

The Special Collections reading room and exhibit space in 1971, RS 25/3

But as I sit in the Reading Room with a researcher hard at work and one of our student workers making preservation reproductions, I think of the meaningful interactions and lessons that I learn from the living people that I interact with in and around the archives. For example:

  • Students of all ages, from middle school on up to retirees who are curious about something and have the time to pop in. And of course academic scholars from ISU as well as other institutions who seek the rare and unique information that we hold. Even the questions that they ask, about the archives or about their interests, teach me lessons about my work all the time!
  • Our student workers, who bring their perspectives and questions to work every week. It’s nice to hear what student life is like in 2014 when I’m used to fielding questions and handling materials that are often older than today’s students.
  • Donors who generously hand their memories, or their loved ones’ memories, over for care-taking. It is a privilege to assess a lifetime’s worth of accumulated materials and process them to allow others to benefit from all the knowledge within.
  • Colleagues who have fielded my questions, encouraged and mentored me, introduced me to other archives colleagues in their network, and so on and so forth through the six degrees of separation between me and Kevin Bacon. No, wait, between me and famed archivist Theodore Roosevelt Schellenberg.
  • Archivists of the wider world who I meet through graduate school, or at regional conferences, or at the SAA Annual Meeting – which was held with two other records-centric organizations this year. There is an unending supply of new people to meet, share stories with, and learn from.

Much appreciation goes out to all those who make our work as archivists possible – especially the archivists ourselves. You can celebrate American Archives Month by coming by to see our new exhibit on Homecoming, doing research, or checking out all the resources we have available through our [newly updated] website!

Aspects of the Archives Profession: Conferences

In the last few months, I have been trying to provide some flavor as to what exactly we archivists and Special Collections staff do here at Iowa State in our pursuit of making primary documents available to researchers and other interested people. (Like you, web reader!) I introduced the concept of “processing” collections and described the Digital Repository @ Iowa State University and its many features.

Consider this another spice to the flavor profile of Archivist: we attend a variety of professional meetings, which can vary from a lunchtime webinar that is organized by a professional group such as the Society of American Archivists (SAA) or the American Library Association (ALA) all the way to a professional association’s week-long annual meeting that encompasses continuing education courses, sub-group and business meetings, learning lunches – activities that are familiar in professional associations of all kinds. Laura wrote in 2011 about the Consortium of Iowa Archivists meeting (yep, the CIA) that she and department head Tanya Zanish-Belcher attended at the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

Conferences come in many forms: there are state- and sometimes city-based groups to join – the Boston Librarians hold a monthly get-together, for example; regional groups such as the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC) or New England Archivists (NEA), which are frequently more formal than local groups but have more flexibility than larger ones; national groups, such as SAA or ALA; and even international groups and events, like the International Council on Archives or the annual Open Repositories conference.

Our hotel room had a lovely view of the Kansas City, though we spent most of our time in conference rooms

Our hotel room had a lovely view of the Kansas City, though we spent most of our time in conference rooms

This past week, our regional organization, the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC), held its annual meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, and a number of Iowa State staff traveled down. Our Head of Preservation Hilary Seo and Conservator Melissa Tedone held a half-day seminar entitled “Soot, Mud, and Mold: Beyond the Basics of Salvaging Archives Collections,” to help archivists plan for and respond to disasters. Collections Archivist Laura Sullivan and Project Archivist Amy Bishop both had duties as members of the Education Committee, which provides a variety of learning opportunities for Midwestern archivists. I presented as part of a panel under the title “Part Theory, Part Therapy: Archival Management Lessons from the Trenches,” examining the tools and techniques that archivists use to manage the collections and employees under their care.

So that’s what conferences are like – but what do we do there? Why are they meaningful? I asked Amy and Whitney these questions.

Amy writes: I enjoy professional archives conferences because I love to hear about all the innovative things that my colleagues at other institutions are involved in – and get inspired by them! At MAC, I was inspired by the ways that archivists are using digital humanities to engage users with archival materials. Digital humanities (DH), broadly defined, refers to the intersections between computers and the humanities discipline. In an archival context, DH projects can be anything from digital exhibits to visualizations of historical data. For example, speakers from Concordia College in Minnesota described a collaboration between the archivist and a history faculty member that engaged students in historical research in order to create projects to share with the whole community. Students ran a “history harvest,” in which alumni brought in artifacts that the students digitized, researched, and presented online as the Concordia Memory Project. What a great way to engage students with the historical materials in our collections in a meaningful and exciting way!

Whitney says: For me, MAC is about meeting other archivists at different experience levels and with different backgrounds; catching up with archivists I already know; and attending sessions, of course. Two were of particular interest to me: “Improvisations of Processing: Confronting the Unforeseen in Large Processing Collections” and “Managing the Syncopations of Socially Connected Collections.” The session on large processing collections was particularly relevant as that is precisely what ISU’s project archivists primarily work with. The presenters detailed their experiences with mold, water, fire, and controversial items in their collections (i.e., guns) and how they handled such unexpected challenges. The social outreach session got me excited about possibilities for future projects, such as rephotography. Between the opening reception, held at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and American Jazz Museum, and a restaurant tour – I opted for delicious Jack Stack Barbecue – I had plenty of opportunities to meet fellow archivists and learn about their experiences. MAC was a great way to connect (or reconnect) with others and the profession in general, to learn, and to get excited about archiving – both its present developments and its future.

MAC meeting in Kansas City

I devote one notebook to each conference I’ve attended – they always end up full!

My answer? Conferences within the discipline allow me to learn from fellow archivists in order to better understand the tasks and concerns that I face in my daily work, as well as long-term issues. Sessions cover topics like effective and efficient use of social media by archives; dealing with unforeseen issues common to large processing projects; establishing and managing oral history projects; and addressing electronic records workflows. Quite a one-stop education, all covered in three days! As archivists, we are responsible for the day-to-day operations of our repositories; maintaining care for the collections that are already under our care; and preparing to care for records people create today: emails, websites, Instagram accounts, etc. Conferences allow me to not only work better now, but to learn how to work better moving forward. I can’t think of a better way to spend a few days bi-annually.