How I Became an Archivist

This is a rather long post, FYI. In observance of National Library Week this coming week, and looking forward to Preservation Week. I became the archivist I wanted to be through an indirect route that only makes sense in hindsight.

When I was 10 I loved castles. I’d dream about exploring old ruins, finding the hidden places no one had seen in hundreds of years. When I was 16 I went to England with my father. He took me over the summer after my junior year of high school. That year I had taken AP US history and loved it. I had been nominated by my teacher for Boys State, but lost to someone more conventional. I had received an invitation to the National Youth Leadership Conference in DC, and wanted to go. I had thought about going to law school at that point, after Patrick started me watching The West Wing. But my dad offered to take me to England instead. So we went. And it was the most amazing experience of my life.

We started in London, had coffee with my dad’s friend in a postwar duplex outside the city. We drove past Stonehenge, and on to Bristol. We were invited to high tea at the Lord Mayor of Bristol’s mansion, where we saw 17th century silver baroque trumpets, and the seal of the city. We went to the Empire and Commonwealth museum at Temple Meads station, and saw Bristol Cathedral. We went to Bath and toured the Roman baths. I was awestruck. In Portsmouth, we walked all around the HMS Victory and the naval yard museum, saw the brandy barrel Nelson was pickled in, and ate so many proper English breakfasts with marmite on toast and tea so strong it stained the cups and my teeth. In Oxford I loved the high street so much, and Christ Church cathedral. The Evensong of the boys choir moved me in ways I couldn’t have dreamed. The Pitt Rivers museum was a standout, and on the way to Radcliffe Camera my dad pointed out the Bodlean reading room. My dad told me this past Christmas that, when we were in London, sitting on top of an omnibus, that I looked right at him and said, “I’ve seen so many things I didn’t know I needed, so many new experiences.” He says that stuck with him all this time.
I decided to go to college at HSU, and study history. Taking History 210, we got to utilize the primary sources in HSU’s special collections, and read letters from HSU students fighting in the pacific during World War II. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision studying history, but my junior year I decided I would go to grad school and work with the more tangible Public History. I volunteered at the Humboldt County Historical Society, arranging 19th century business records from Eureka’s founding days. I wrote my senior paper on the Fort Humboldt and Indian Island Massacre. I moved to Sacramento and started my MA in Public History. That first year there was rough. I felt very alone in a big city. My architectural history class was terrible. My intro to Public History class though, was fantastic. The professor, who was my graduate advisor, said she saw something in all of us – a sense of wonder. Of wanting to peek behind the curtain of history. That made me feel like I was on the right track. That summer, I got a job at the California State Archives, processing records of the California Legislature. And it was amazing. It was exactly what I had wanted, a hand-on visceral connection to history. I decided to write my thesis on born-digital records, marrying my love of history and computers.

And then I got a job as an archivist, in Alaska. I had to move away from my friends, my family, and end a relationship. It was hard. Devastatingly hard. One of my new coworkers made my life miserable at work for a while. But I made new friends, and new colleagues. I came into my own as an archivist. And met a ton of awesome archivists and librarians. After almost two years in the frozen north, I applied for more permanent jobs. And I got one, as the Head of Digital Programs at the University of Wyoming. I got to work for luminary Mark Greene, met Kathy Marquis, and so many talented people. Those four years were some of the most rewarding I’ve ever had. I made more awesome archivist friends. I developed scholarship, built up a digital archives program, and made a difference. But Wyoming’s conservative government made everything seem so uncertain. So I applied for jobs again, and became the Digital Archivist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I’ve grown so much as a person, and become a professional.

I keep thinking recently about how I got here. And what I’ve described just now is the truth. But another truth is that all the time I was struggling to find myself. And my life could have gone so many different ways. But with the benefit of hindsight I can look back onto the past, and see each decision point as leading to the larger truth of who I am today. Those moments were quantum states: uncertain until I observe them in retrospect. And the collapse of those multifaceted moments into reality shows the march of progress towards my truest self. I am an archivist. Everything built to this. I still love castles, history, and England. But I think I’m where I’m supposed to be. And it feels good.

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