I’m a processing archivist for NYU Special Collections. When an individual or an organization donates their papers, I organize the material so it’s accessible to researchers.
I always loved history, even if I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it. Both my undergrad and graduate degrees are in history, with minors in museum studies, archives, and editing. I love reading diaries and looking at old photographs. I get really sucked into the stories.
My grandmother was big on antiques. She had this trunk she’d inherited, and we would go through it together every time I went to her house. There was all this old clothing and odd stuff like button hooks, and she would tell me what everything was for. No matter how often we did it, I always had a sense of discovery. She gave me the trunk before she passed away.
When I start to work on a collection, I look at the whole thing and ask myself how it should be organized. I try to think like a researcher and figure out the ways things naturally group themselves. Once everything is arranged and inventoried, I write what’s called a finding aid—the navigation tool enabling researchers to access the collection. One challenge now is, we’re starting to get a lot of born-digital material. When someone donates hard drives, I have to go through every file. To anyone considering donating their papers and digital archives, I say: make sure that everything you don’t want preserved is gone. I’ve found a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have seen.
The first museum I worked for was the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in D.C., and then I did a special project at MoMA before landing at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, working with their American women’s collections. There was a wonderful variety there—not just artists, but women who did all sorts of interesting things.
My favorite collection was from a woman named Caroline Ackerman. She was a journalist and aviator who became the aviation editor for Life magazine during World War II; she had learned to fly when they were offering free lessons to men, to build up the US Air Force. She lucked out, because not enough men had signed up. She loved it so much she ended up becoming a flight instructor. As a journalist, she wrote about the women who ferried the planes back and forth during the war. They weren’t officially Air Force pilots, but they flew the planes to the bases, and a number of them were killed in the process. Caroline lost her job after the war when the men came back. But then she went to work for Shell Oil as a travel expert, promoting road travel for women. She was extraordinary—there were so many parts to her life. But as far as she was concerned, she was always just trying to find her next job.
It’s hard to be unbiased and keep the finding aids impersonal. Much as you might want to, you can’t write, “This amazing collection, from this incredible woman…” You have to stick to the facts. But you also can’t look at it too literally or be limited by a strict definition of what this person was. Part of what I do is to provide clues as to other, less obvious ways researchers might look at a collection. There is never only one direction they can go.
Interviewed on May 6, 2019