Thursday, August 27, 2009

Week One (August 19 and August 20)

Day 1

Though there is some advantage to reflecting on things as they happen, I think there is also value in digesting the experience and waiting a little while to put it in a better context. For example, now that I’m actually in the second week of my internship and doing some minimal processing of a collection, the idea of minimal processing is not as abstract as it was when all I had for reference was my textbook and preconceptions. What I’m trying to say is that perhaps my blogs for this practicum will not be raw like the stream of consciousness one might see in a journal, but hopefully a bit more measured, organized, and thoughtful.

The first day of the internship was like the first day in any new environment: lots of information, too many names, and decisions about the future that seem far too important to make with a just a few hours of experience under the belt. The internship began with a tour of the building, which mainly meant getting acquainted with the various professional spaces on the third and fourth floors. I am also doing an internship for Dr. Kyriakoudes at the Center for Oral History this semester, so I have a decent grasp of that area in the bowels of McCain. Professor Ross introduced me to all the staff members and then returned me Cindy to go over the basic rules and procedures of the institution. I spent an hour reading through the manual to reinforce some of the basic principles. I wish I could say I have the guide down pat, but that is never completely the case, so I’m happy that Cindy made me a copy to refer to when I’m in a pinch.

The concluding activity of day one was to select the collection I wanted to process for the semester. Cindy gave me the case files of 4 collections of personal papers and 2 collections that required transcription. I love transcribing old journals and letters because it is challenging and you get to read the contents at the same time. However, I’ve had some experience doing this, so I decided, all else being equal, that my internship would be best spent working on physically processing a collection. Cindy did an excellent job selecting a variety of potential projects, allowing me the option to work on either the papers of a musician, educator, photo-journalist, or family business. I looked at the case files for each one of these subjects and decided that it was the collection of the photo-journalist, Mary Ann Wells, which best suited my interests. With a mix of slides, negatives, photographs, correspondence and newspapers, this was a collection that could provide me with the greatest range of processing and maintain my interest for an entire semester.

Day 2

At the end of day one, I selected the Mary Ann Wells collection to process. Consequently, I spent my second afternoon at the Archives trying to figure out just what I’d gotten myself into. I began by reviewing the case file again. I think (purely speculative) that an archivist, almost like a character actor in Hollywood, can do their best work when they immerse themselves in the details of their subject. I’ll qualify this by saying the archivist, also like the actor, must keep the rules and the objectives of the project foremost in their mind – it just helps to have an idea of with whom or what you must deal. The case file on Mary Ann Wells was definitely not a complete biography, but it did help me begin to get a sense of the woman that I used as I began processing and which I plan to borrow from as I write the finding aid biography.

I think it takes a unique type of person to recognize the body of their work as having an innate value worthy of preservation. Mary Ann Wells’ three gifts to the Archives speak to the importance of her photojournalism and Wells’ dedication to its preservation. One testament of the esteem with which people in Hattiesburg held Wells is evident in an 8 January 1991 letter, where University archivist Terry S. Latour wrote Roger Brinegar that "[Wells’s] articles and photographs provide us with many insights into the culture and history of Southern Mississippi. In particular, her features for the Hattiesburg American highlighted people, often not widely known, who contributed significantly to making the area culturally unique." This was a woman who not only had the pulse of the community in the palm of her hand between 1977 and 1981, but had the foresight and vision to save these records and donate them to the archive almost a decade after the fact. Afforded accolades and acknowledgements by many others, I hope to capture my own glimmer of Mary Ann Wells as I process her collection.

This collection will be a challenge. The most difficult aspect of day two was mapping the scope of the collection and then deciding where to go from there. Wells’s three accessions (1990, 1990, 1997) totaled 32 boxes. On the plus side, the collection was already roughly alphabetical organized by Wells and a previous archivist by medium (there were separate boxes and folders for slides, negatives and prints). However, where to go from there? I was unsure just how much minimal processing entailed. Would I have to identify each slide and photograph individually? Could I change the original order to integrate the three accessions together? I like to complete projects, but at this juncture I also started to realize that perhaps I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I finished day two pondering befuddled, but not disheartened. One of my favorite clich├ęs is that everyone starts somewhere. The first few weeks will be two steps forward, one back, but eventually everything will work itself out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How I Got Here

I graduated from William & Mary in May 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in history. In October of that year I got a break and landed a position as assistant registrar for a small historical trust in Berryville, Virginia. I worked full-time for The Clermont Charitable Trust until April 2007, processing their collection of objects for storage in an off-site storage facility. It really was a wonderful opportunity and helped me develop an acute sense of the precision and patience necessary to describe, photograph, and ultimately build a collection profile from the ground up. These six months demonstrated to both the executive director and ultimately me that I could work a 40 hour week without supervision and minimal direction, setting goals for myself and taking initiative where prudent. Starting in May 2007 I split my time between Clermont and The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (www.shenandoahmuseum.com) in Winchester, Virginia. I think it was the experiences in these last 18 months that set me on my course to Southern Miss.

Beginning in the fall of 2007, both the executive directors of The Clermont Trust and the Museum because to inquire of me if I was thinking about graduate school. I was through a year at Clermont and four months at the MSV and they thought it was time I start considering longer term professional development. This made sense. The history business, like academia, is an education-driven field where people without master’s or doctorate degrees can only rise so far. I took their point that I should aspire to something greater, push myself, and better control my own destiny. Even though deep down I knew graduate school was necessary, at that point I don’t think I was ready to go. I finally had some friends, set up my apartment and was comfortable in my first bachelor pad. It was only a chance meeting with Dr. Douglas Chambers of the USM History Department that really got the graduate school wheels spinning.

Doctor Chambers came to Clermont that fall to consult the executive director on how to start a community oral history project. The Clermont estate has an intriguing architectural and family history surrounding it, so when Dr. Chambers came to the property before his meeting, I gave him a brief tour. I remember that he peppered me with questions, to the point that I somewhat sheepishly felt like I was doing a poor job as the registrar of the trust (I was promoted in April 2007). Still, we established a good rapport and I didn’t think much of the encounter after he left. Well, the boss must have talked to Dr. Chambers about his efforts to convince me to consider graduate school and given me one hell of a recommendation because not a week or so later the professor first floated the idea of me coming to Southern Miss as the graduate assistant for The Southern Quarterly.

I was shocked, but also cautious. What did I want and was Southern Miss the right choice? Experience at Clermont and the Museum meant I could potentially enter master’s programs in historic preservation, museum management, history, archives, and library science, to name a few. I was also concerned, justly or not, about the pedigree of Southern Miss. This turned out to be less of an issue when I really considered what was really important to me, but in the beginning, not having heard of Southern Miss and coming from a top-notch Virginia school, I was more than a little dubious of this opportunity thrust into my lap.

Though the decision to come to Southern Miss was mine, luckily I had my supervisors at Clermont and the Museum to put things in the right perspective. One reminded me that graduate school would only be two years of my life and not only hone my resume and skill sets, but help me further mature and come into my own. He noted that a master’s degree was not an anchor into one profession, but rather proof to employers of a certain proficiency and competence that I could apply in any number of fields. The executive director at the Museum helped me figure out what type of master’s degree I wanted. She asked me a simple question: “What do you enjoy about your responsibilities at Clermont and the Museum?” It took a while to flesh out an answer, but eventually I was able to pronounce that I enjoyed working with archival materials. I have some experience handling artwork, furniture, and other objects, but realized that I could never completely appreciate the beauty of a Monet or the woodworking craftsmanship that distinguishes a Queen Anne chair from its Chippendale counterpart. However, whether it was transcribing 18th century letters for the Museum or processing and researching Clermont’s collection of photographs, I found books and manuscripts more interesting. Each (individually or as a collection) has a story and often a unique narrative.

This helped tremendously. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted a master’s degree that would give me options when I got out of school. I am a generalist and would rather know a little about a lot of things than everything about one subject. Now I had a little more direction. Museum-specific graduate programs were too narrow; especially when I wasn’t 100% museums were where I wanted to be long-term. The combined History/Library Science degree at Southern Miss, in contrast, satisfied my parameters. LIS classes would provide the library training to be qualified for a job in an archive or library while the history degree would accomplish the same if I ever decided to teach high school or go back into the museum business.

One thing remained. I already knew that I could assimilate into the organizational culture of a museum. What about an archive? It seemed a misnomer to state that I was in graduate school to become an archivist when I had no professional work experience to justify my interest. The archives practicum this fall provides that missing piece of the puzzle. I really hope it works out and I am looking forward to a positive experience. I expect the internship to be a useful litmus test as I weigh job opportunities in the spring and decide what post-graduate path I want to follow.