Skip to main content

A Collector of Things from the Master of Information Program

This post is part of our series to inspire students at the Summer Session to consider continuing their studies.

My journey into the archives was not straightforward. When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Medieval Studies back in 2019, I had a decidedly different path in mind: I would take a gap year, working in a tangentially-related position while I researched and applied to graduate programs in Art History. I knew I loved the subject for which I had earned a degree, despite the repeated queries of, “What are you going to do with that?” from relatives and even strangers. Specifically, I wanted to pursue advanced study in Italian Medieval and Renaissance art. I had been fascinated by it since grade school, when a picture book about Leonardo da Vinci sparked my interest in the subject. In the fall semester of my junior year, I had the opportunity to study these works of art close-up in Florence, Italy. At the time, that semester was a big push in the direction I had already decided on: Art History degree, grad school, and, somewhere down the line, a museum career.

That path turned out to be longer and have more twists and turns than I anticipated. COVID-19 was, of course, a fork in the road I didn’t see coming. At the time, I was volunteering in the archives of my local historical society in Haddonfield, but the pandemic put a stop to that. Luckily, I had lined up a remote internship in late February 2020, right before everything shut down. I spent the next year working on various projects for this company – mostly helping them research grant opportunities and the local history of the area where they are headquartered – and putting off figuring out my next steps. I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing forever. The internship would end, and I would need to have something else lined up.

I thought back to the conversations I’d had with Rutgers Art History alumni who had gone on to different careers. Some of them went for their PhDs, then became professors or curators at big museums. Others took different paths. One person I spoke to, who graduated only two years before me and who I had known when we were both students, completed the Master of Information program at Rutgers, with a concentration in Archives and Preservation. She now works as a special collections librarian at an academic institution. During our conversation, she shared stories of her experiences in different archival settings, from museums to state agencies to private businesses. All of them had one thing in common: In my friend’s words, “You get to work with really cool stuff.”

That comment struck a chord with me. I’ve always been a collector of things. Not necessarily valuable or historically-significant things, but things that piqued my interest when I came across them. Things that told a story, or at least part of one. Archivists deal with the “stuff” of history. They figure out the best way to arrange the materials they’re entrusted with, so that researchers can uncover and share those stories. Often, this means following the principle of original order, or trying to preserve records in the order in which their creator placed them. This arrangement adds another dimension to the story the records tell, because it illustrates the creator’s thought process. Of course, some things come to the archives without much order, so it is up to the archivist to impose their own. Whether the archivist needs to do a little arranging or a lot, that act of shaping the collection adds something to its story.

Leading up to and during my graduate career, I have had the privilege to help tell these stories. Either physically, digitally, or both, I have worked with student newspapers, census records, magazines, yearbooks, personal letters, and more. These were all things that changed hands and traveled from place to place, things that people used in their daily lives. They were shaped by the people who created and used them, and now they themselves shape narratives about those same people. This is what really compels me about archival work – it humanizes the past, and prompts us to consider our own participation in the construction of memory.

In my Rutgers coursework, we discussed the archival profession’s history of prominent individuals who used their positions as caretakers of historical records to shape the narrative according to their own agendas. Sometimes this manipulation was more overt, and other times it happened on a subconscious level. Either way, their examples serve as reminders that no one is completely neutral. Our choices as archivists impact the stories that get preserved. None of this work will ever be done, and I don’t mean that solely in the sense of getting through the unprocessed backlogs repositories have laying around. Learning how to preserve, organize, and share the collections we steward is an ongoing process, and the classroom is only the beginning.

You may also like Becoming a Librarian, Step 1: The MLIS and the series “Reflections on a PhD in Literature”