(Written Spring 2016):
The other day at my internship, my supervisor (a Simmons graduate) asked, “hey, did you know Simmons is the number one archiving program in the U.S.?”
“Yeah,” I called back. “That’s why I chose it!”
Then we joked around some with the special collections librarians about how we need to make a Simmons team.
Maybe all roads lead to… Massachusetts? I did my undergraduate in Worcester, home of the Higgins Armor Museum, the largest collection of arms and armor in the western hemisphere, and site of my first internship. It is also home to the American Antiquarian Society, founded by Revolutionary War patriot and printer Isaiah Thomas, and is now an archives and research library, boasting a vast collection of documents, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and other ephemera of early American history (pre-1880s). I spent some time in both of these places, along with Indian Lake, Mount Wachusett and Bancroft Tower, which always seemed to be closed when I tried to visit.
It was about 2010 when I started thinking about post-collegiate career life. Some time ago, I wanted to be a famous writer and break a million hearts with my literary fiction. Part of that dream still exists, of course, but something else rose up in its place — something that was kind of a fixation. My fixation with history.
It’s hard to describe, and I think it’s difficult for all archivists, honestly, to describe why they find history so alluring. But it’s the same feeling that anyone has when they discover his/her vocation. It’s a kind of intuitive knowing. Like the intuitive knowing that something isn’t right.
I knew, for instance, that journalism wasn’t right. More to the point, “not right” equates to not fulfilling, in my eyes. Do I value information? Well, I am an information professional, so yes. Do I value transparency, and information divulged to the American public, no matter how controversial? Of course. However, there was something I couldn’t pinpoint about why I didn’t like it. I took the classes, I worked on the student newspaper–for years. I suppose what it comes down to is this: as much as the media intends to be unbiased, releasing information that the public needs to know, it isn’t.
I didn’t enjoy the interviews, the stories. I still don’t really read the news or watch it. I don’t believe that a 3:00 segment or newspaper article can really tell me the truth of what’s happening out there. For the ultimate unbiased, unfiltered truth, we keep things in archives. Primary documents, pamphlets, newspapers, ephemera from a past age. No one will tell you what to think. No one will infer anything from the documents. We simply hand them over and tell you to be very careful with them and not to use pens. Want the truth? Visit an archives.
ALAS! You say. You can’t understand contemporary events in an archives, only the past!
Ok, I say. If you feel that way. Well, I’m sorry to tell you that newspapers, CNN, NBC, and Fox aren’t categorized as peer-reviewed, scholarly, reputable sources of information. That’s why librarians and other information professionals are important. There are plenty of arguments going around in which people mainly argue over whether the sources of information, in this day and age of overabundance, are reputable. For instance, Facebook memes are not reputable, even though their intent is to simplify a point or idea and spread it like fire. You can’t make the argument that giving your child their vaccines is more dangerous (yes, that’s a fad now) than letting them catch the practically-nearly-fatal diseases themselves, to “build immunity” the natural way if you can’t find a single study or peer-reviewed article in a medical journal that points to this being the case.
We are more relevant than ever with the rise of the Internet age.
While in undergrad, I had this nagging, uncomfortable feeling regarding careers. I felt that the only “careers” led to a life in the office or something completely outrageous, like photo journalism that requires much travel. The media and chick lit teach females that your place as a 20-ish nobody is in your average office job, probably doing some kind of PR or media-type thing, if you’re not doing something with fashion or design. You’re low on the totem pole. The lucky few that make it to medical school or something — forget them. They don’t get to go to happy hour every night after working 9 to 5 in your average American City.
I was feeling, in a word, existential. My crisis was: will I have to live the rest of my life in unfulfilled monotony? Will my only writing outlet be for a boring office job?
No one explained that I could be a professional librarian, the director even, or an archivist, except for — you guessed it — my librarian coworkers.
I was an English major, so apparently the collegiate staff believed there was only one of two paths ahead: Go teach, or Go to the media.
Well, I walked away from Assumption in 2013, Out of the Woods, away from journalism, away from the blasted media, confident that no matter who said what, it wasn’t right for me. I wasn’t going anywhere near it again. One thing I will say, though, is that I recommend journalism classes for anyone who wants to become a better, more concise writer. Anyone who wants to write press releases or write in a business some way. Journalism can teach you that.
Nothing heats up my blood like being in an archives. I mean that — even a public library, which makes me feel cozy and public service-y, can’t do that. Some of it has to do with being bookish, and some of it has to do with being crazy for documents that are rich in history — someone long ago created this, touched this, had this or that meeting, recorded this. Some archives contain architectural drawings, old photographs, or personal letters from a time long before I was born. All of these things transport me chillingly into a state of knowing that it’s just right — I was meant to be here, analyzing these documents. I love the tired feeling my mind gets after scrutinizing old cursive for hours, for finally understanding the main idea or a document or collection, and gathering the information I need.
After Worcester, my mind turned to Boston. It seemed unattainable. As an undergrad, I spent many hours in the library looking at Simmons’ class catalog and debating between its program, so expensive yet so exemplary, and Southern Connecticut State University’s library science program, not archives-based but which would get me that Master’s. There were even a few online programs through USJ that I thought of taking, due to their being less costly.
But after a lot of thought, a lot of letters, emails, writing my essay and waiting by the mailbox, I got it… the acceptance letter! And with it, a generous scholarship. Of course, I wouldn’t be moving to Boston, no way! I had big plans to move to a neighboring town near where I grew up, to live with my boyfriend and start our life together. My sacrifice would be working hard, working two jobs while taking classes and starting anew in our apartment in Suburbia, Connecticut.
In Spring 2016, my second semester at Simmons, I was assigned my internship at our local Little Ivy in Hartford (you know the one!) under the new archivist, and we had a grand old time. I surveyed the Trustees minutes and correspondence dating back to 1823. That meant — yes– I was hand-holding the original items, looking at wax seals on letters, and “oh I’m so sorry sirs, I shan’t be making the meeting” (obviously paraphrasing here) in the original handwriting and ink. Some of the original documents are of course transcribed on a typewriter, but not all. My job? To create a finding aid. And to do that, I needed to read the minutes and correspondence and committee records, to get a handle of their content and to accurately summarize for researchers in the finding aid. The collection needed to be described and context provided in order for it to be useful to anyone. And as a bonus, it was a strikingly interesting collection.
Fast forward two years — I am back, working in a full-time position! I guess you could say it came out full-circle. And no, all roads don’t necessarily lead to Massachusetts, but they do bring you back to what you had your eye on in the first place.