On Being an Archivist

I wanted to be a librarian for many years before becoming one.  I was inspired by an article in the Providence Public LibraryProvidence Sunday Magazine about the Providence Public Library.  I thought, “How cool would it be to walk into that building everyday to go to work?”  When I finally took the leap and went to grad school, I decided to become an archivist instead.  I love working with older documents.  One of the things I loved when I was new in this field and doing my internships is that when I stumbled upon a cool original document while processing collections, I would immediately tell my supervisors, people who have been working in the field for twenty years or more.

I thought they would be ho-hum about seeing another cool document by a famous person.  But, No, they weren’t.

They got just as charged up about it as I did.  They all said the same thing, “Let me see.” When I did an Beyond god the fatherinternship at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, I had the honor of doing an initial survey on the papers of Mary Daly.  In her collection I found letters from Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis, among others.  When I told my supervisor, Maida, she got excited and said, “Let me see.”  I thought she would have seen it all by then, having worked in Smith’s archive for over twenty years, but she was impressed and curious and had to see.  The women’s whose documents I found might not mean much to you, but I grew up listening to them, reading their words, and learning from them.  They’re like rock stars in my world.

Recently while working in another archive where I supervised a couple of student interns, one of Jacques Derridamy students found a signed letter by Jacques Derrida, the postmodern philosopher.  You would have thought he had won the lottery he was so excited.  He had read a number of Derrida’s books and considered him a hero.  A few days later when I was surveying another collection, I stumbled upon handwritten thank-you notes Fear of Flyingfrom Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. That’s what I love about working in the archives.  We get to see and feel the documents of people we love and admire, and more importantly, preserve them so a researcher in the future can experience the same thrill  of discovery.

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