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.

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