All posts by Violet Caswell

Dual Degrees and Dead Chickens: Municipal Records and Challenging Archival Stereotypes

By: Anthony Strong

“People are weird and you get all of that with city records. It’s great.” These were the words of Marta Crilly, Archivist for Reference and Outreach at the City of Boston, at the beginning of our exchange in October 2017. Her words especially resonated with me that morning, and I agreed wholeheartedly that people certainly are weird with myself being no exception. Being a first-year graduate student on the History track at UMass whose twenty-four-hour shift for the Boston Fire Department had ended just two hours prior, it was weird that I was sacrificing valuable sleep to meet with a woman I had no connection to, regarding a career I was not actively pursuing. It was weird that I had never conducted an interview before. It was even weirder that I had never stepped foot inside of an archive, let alone spoken with an archivist. Prior undergraduate work had led me to believe that institutional archives were largely obsolete due to the widespread availability of digital records – why go to an archive when I can find what I need online? This in turn dominated my opinion of the latter as I assumed the stereotypical image of the archivist as an older, unapproachable individual who spent a majority of their day muddling over dusty boxes in the dark recesses of a warehouse.

Pulling up to the Boston City Archives certainly did not do much to dissuade these preconceived notions. Tucked away on an industrial road behind a West Roxbury Home Depot, the City Archives occupies a building formerly owned by the gas company.

Exterior of the Boston City Archives, West Roxbury, MA
Exterior of the Boston City Archives, West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Although you can tell that some remodeling efforts had been undertaken in recent years, the bleakness of the loading dock and desolation of the parking lot seemed to affirm my earlier conclusions. Upon entering the building, I was instantly greeted by an older gentleman sitting behind a desk which contained an empty sign-in sheet; my suspicions appeared confirmed. Within thirty seconds I found myself in the reading room of the City Archives and that is when my perspective of both the archives and the archivist began to change.

Archivist Marta Crilly (right) helping a patron in the Boston City Archive reading room.

Marta emerged to greet me; a woman not much older than myself with a small tattoo on her forearm and a personable demeanor. Contrary the air cast on her leg, this was not the old and unapproachable archivist I had assumed I would be interviewing. Rather, Marta proved enthusiastic, outgoing, and knowledgeable about her profession and the collections contained within the archives. After some small talk, we began a tour of the facility which proved more extensive and technologically advanced than I had imagined. Although she joked about the primitiveness of their microfilm reader, to my novice eyes this was a stark contrast to the dusty boxes I had pictured. It was during this tour that I received a crash course on administrative archival tasks and how they were conducted at the City Archives. The most rewarding experience, however, came as we entered the Records Room.

Interior views of the records room, City of Boston Archives.
Interior view of the Records Room, City of Boston Archives.
Another view of the Records Room, City of Boston Archives.

Clearly observing my amazement at the organization and breadth of the collections, Marta remarked: “I don’t think people understand how fascinating municipal records are.” She was right.

Returning to the reading room, the hard part was about to begin.

Though I had prepared several questions that I thought would fulfill the technical aspects of the assignment, I realized I no longer cared about simply “checking-the-box” and getting a good grade; I now had a legitimate interest in what I had just observed and the stereotypes that had just been challenged.

I was less concerned about annual processing statistics and was more intrigued by what she did as an archivist. Describing her typical day as a “mix of social media, working with researchers, and then using any extra time to work on digital records,” I realized an archivist is a lot less dusty boxes and a lot more interaction and technology. Not only does Marta maintain a twitter feed for the City Archives, but she also tries to keep the public engaged by posting a “mystery photo of the day” while actively blogging on behalf of the archive.

What really interested me, however, was how her formal education factored into her role as an archivist. Marta possesses Bachelor’s degrees in History, English Literature, and Spanish from the University of Tennessee, as well as Master’s Degrees in both History and Library Science (with a concentration in Archives Management) from Simmons College. Regarding my own situation, I was curious how her degree in History impacted her role as an archivist and if this was a career she just stumbled upon, or if it was her long-term objective after leaving Tennessee. Though she joked that she was “highly motivated to get out of Tennessee,” she explained that her undergraduate experience had nurtured an interest for the archives and that was a determining factor when applying to graduate school. Boston is home to an abundance of archives, and Simmons seemed a good fit for her as it offered many internship opportunities and a chance for her to network within the profession.

Why not just get a graduate degree in Archives? Why put yourself through the extra work and expense of attaining two graduate degrees? Quick to note that “not everyone would agree,” Marta feels as if having a history degree “is really helpful to understand the historical context of the records that you’re working with, especially when you are working with researchers.” This historical background appears to complement almost every aspect of her role as an archivist. Considering the appraisal process, for example, Marta reflected how “if you have a historical background you recognize the value in things that someone with just an archives background might not necessarily recognize.” Although her historical specialty while at Simmons of Gender and Religious History did not necessarily aide her work as a City Archivist, she was quick to credit the “writing and research skills” she developed while a member of their program.

Marta maintains the social media channels for Boston City Archives, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Tumblr. Screen shot of BCA’s Tumblr page.

Writing and research skills have certainly paid off for Marta, as she is a frequent collaborator and initiator of digital projects and collections for the City Archives. Although the website for the digital records of the City Boston is somewhat difficult to navigate (you can find it here), the extent of the available collections is impressive. Marta is an active proponent of the City’s “Digital Access Initiative” – a program aimed at digitizing some of their “most interesting or best-known records.” While Marta lightheartedly states that making all of the records in the City Archives available digitally is unrealistic, she believes that the information they have digitized will draw more researchers into the archives. A perfect example of this is the desegregation records she has overseen the digitization of, which she concludes has “allowed her to a part of some groundbreaking research.” When researchers browse these desegregation records it is frequently followed with a phone call to Marta, during which she informs them that the archives houses about ten times more than what they are seeing online. This bait-and-hook tactic has proven effective, and has led her to aspire to conduct a similar project regarding Boston’s immigration history in the 1900s.

Flickr page of the Boston City Archives.

Marta’s work, however, is not solely aimed at academics and researchers; she hopes to engage public participation in the City Archives. The extensive use of FlickR on projects such as the “Ray Flynn Collection” have proven perhaps the most effective means of achieving this; the “granular information” that public participants provide is just an added benefit. Considering my personal situation and how I never had an interest in the archives until I had actually been there and seen one for myself, I questioned how she would convince someone to want to come to the archives? What would make Joe Schmo want to give up his Tuesday morning to examine the collections? Marta, after a brief moment to collect her thoughts, summed up her sales pitch in the simplest of terms by stating: “We have the history of your neighborhood. We have the history of your family. And for some, we have the evidence you need to hold the city accountable.”

“#Mystery Photo,” one of the most successful social media initiatives Marta implemented at Boston City Archives, using Twitter.

More interesting to me was the realization that nowhere else could you find a well-maintained record of how city of Boston residents interacted with their government. Where else could you find a letter to the Board of Alderman complaining that a neighbor’s dog killed his chickens?

Our interview concluded with some general advice about the profession, as well as some things Marta personally wishes she had done differently. Stressing “technical skills and digital classes,” her insight certainly suggested that the future of the archivist is increasingly focused on the digital realm. Rather than try to convince me to become an archivist, Marta offered credible and honest advice:

“Being an archivist is not for everyone and it can be a really difficult job sometimes. But what’s wonderful about being an archivist is that you get to see history in people’s own words; it’s not filtered through someone else.”

Whether or not I pursue an archives certificate is still a personal decision I have yet to make. If you are someone reading this however, don’t take my “filtered words” as gospel; this was just a small account of my brief interaction with the City Archives. Take an afternoon, visit the City Archives, and be surprised at what you might find there (just be sure to make an appointment).

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Alumni Spotlight: Judith Marshall

By Violet Caswell

In the spring of her senior year at McGill University in Montreal, Judith Marshall opened her computer and searched that question that is nearly ubiquitous among history majors:

 

For students of history who do not want to teach or work in academia, this wearisome question is ever-present, made worse when relatives exclaim “History! What are you going to do with that?” at every holiday dinner. Yet, as she browsed the internet, Marshall found occasion for hope, not despair. History majors, she realized, could pursue careers in all kinds of organizations and institutions. As the possibilities stretched out in front of her, one path seemed particularly enticing: public history.

Judith with peer, Jacob Lusk, working with archival materials in a graduate history class.

After graduating from McGill, Marshall moved to the United States and enrolled in the public history program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Over the course of two years at UMass, she broadened her horizons and discovered that her interests were more diverse than she could ever have imagined.

“One of my responsibilities was to research the craftsmen and laborers . . . I didn’t think I would be interested in these men . . . but as I learned more about them and immersed myself in their lives, I became absolutely fascinated.”

“I had an internship with Historic New England,” she recalled, “and one of my responsibilities was to research the craftsmen and laborers who built a historic house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I didn’t think I would be interested in these men—and they were all men—but as I learned more about them and immersed myself in their lives, I became absolutely fascinated.” Marshall’s intensive research allowed her to understand the craftsmen as dynamic individuals with robust political and social lives. Her capstone project, a walking tour of Portsmouth, showcased those lives and brought them to life.

After graduating from UMB, Marshall returned to informally advise incoming students at the History Department’s Graduate Student Symposium in September 2017.

With plenty of skills and experience under her belt, Marshall graduated from UMass in 2105 and entered the job market. She soon learned that a position was opening up at the Lynn Museum and Historical Society in Lynn, Massachusetts. After shadowing the Museum’s outgoing education and research specialist, she took over the position. There was only one problem: “I didn’t know anything at all about Lynn. Here I was training docents and working with our visitors, and I was just learning all of the history myself.” Marshall wasn’t intimidated by her task. With little determination and a lot of research, she eventually became well versed in Lynn’s history.

1911 postcard of Market Street in Lynn, Massachusetts, with a car of the Bay State Street Railway. Wikimedia Commons.

“It’s a little like being a teacher,” she explains, “Where at first, when you’re doing lesson plans and you’re teaching yourself along the way. But then it gets easier and easier.”

Now, Marshall serves as an excellent resource to her institution’s patrons. She works with any researchers who come to the Museum to look at its remarkable photograph collection, which spans from the nineteenth century to the present day. Although the Museum has transferred its archival holdings to the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, she routinely directs research requests and assists the public in any way she can.

Judith Marshall (center), Education & Research Specialist at the Lynn Museum, leading a tour.

There is no such thing as an average day for Marshall, whose duties at the Lynn Museum are broad in a way that is common for professionals working at smaller institutions. On any given day, she might be training docents, developing new exhibits, leading fleets of elementary school groups through the Museum or even trying to figure out why that fountain in the courtyard keeps leaking. “Small institutions can be like that,” she laughs.

Marshall says that juggling so many responsibilities can be a challenge, and that time management skills are essential to her success. Flexibility, too, is crucial– as is the ability to remain calm under pressure. When busloads of students arrive early for a field trip, or when buses are late to pick them up, Marshall has to improvise and find ways to entertain them for longer than anticipated.

Despite the occasional hiccups that arise, Marshall finds planning field trip programming to be one of her most exciting responsibilities. While she works with students of all ages, her most extensive initiative is with third grade groups. Because of Marshall’s planning, these Lynn public school students have the opportunity to participate in a field trip that much more dynamic than your average, forgettable one-day field trip.

When she first started the program, Marshall says, “I didn’t have any idea how to communicate with third graders. I didn’t know what they looked like or what they could know.” After careful research, she developed an age-appropriate program to teach Lynn students about their city’s history. She and her colleagues go into the classroom twice—one before and once after students visit the Lynn Museum—to reinforce the lessons that students learn. She also invites the students and parents to the Museum’s end of the year Open House to reinforce the students’ knowledge of the institution and to create new bonds with parents.

Judith, relaxing outside of her work at the Lynn Museum.

Through her work with the Lynn Museum, Judith Marshall has put her background in public history to good use, developed new skills, and brought history to life in Lynn, Massachusetts. Yet, her career trajectory was one that she never could have predicted, even as she graduated from UMass Boston.

Her advice to current students?

“Apply for jobs- lots of jobs. You never know what you’ll end up being interested in.”

 

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“What’s An Archivist to Do?”: An Exercise in Appraisal

By Violet Caswell

Graduate students enrolled in Professor Marilyn Morgan’s “Introduction to Archives” class do a lot of reading. We read about the history of archives, core archival principles, and about challenges that modern archivists face. And we read theory- lots of theory. Information from books, journal articles, and even blog posts swirl around in our heads as we to get a handle on the essential practices and principles of the profession. The process can be frustrating– like when we have to reread the same dense sentence five times to ascertain its meaning– but it can also be immensely rewarding, especially when we get to apply our knowledge to real-world situations.

Enter Juliana Kuipers, Senior Collection Development Curator and Archivist at the Harvard University Archives.

Guest speaker Juliana Kuipers leading graduate students in the Archives program in a discussion of appraisal based on real experiences.

Juliana visited our class recently, to talk about her experience in the field and also to lead a short exercise in appraisal. A week in advance, we broke into teams and, in addition to reading published articles about selection and appraisal, Marilyn assigned us a document containing five appraisal scenarios drawn from Juliana’s experience at the Harvard Archives. Our task was straightforward: after contemplating the theoretical readings, we were to put ourselves in Juliana’s shoes, and decide whether or not to accession materials for the Archives.

Faith Plazarin, Taylor Finch, and Iona Feldman debate whether or not the Archives should accession the personal papers of an alumnus from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that this assignment was more complicated than it seemed at first glance. There were all kinds of questions to consider, from issues of provenance to ethical dilemmas to everything in between. Similarly, there were a host of materials involved in the scenarios, including diaries, correspondence, artwork, scrapbooks, and artifacts.  As we weighed the benefits and drawbacks of accessioning each collection, we remained cognizant of the Archives’ Collection Policy, a document which clarifies much but also contains ambiguity.

Juliana Kuipers shares her experience with archival selection.

What did it mean, some of us wondered, that the Archives sought “to gather an accurate, authentic, and complete record of the life of the University”? Did that mean that the institution should purchase or accept any collection remotely relating to Harvard? Were some materials more conducive to this end than others? What about resources? Should collections that require fewer resources (finances, personnel, space) take precedence over materials that are more costly? And if the archivist decided not to accession the collection, what then? Did he or she have an obligation to suggest other avenues for the donor to pursue? The Archive’s Collection policy provided clues, but no hard-and-fast answers.

Grad students Chris Norton, Nina Rodwin, and Maddy Moison, with guest speaker Juliana Kuipers, discussing selection challenges and how to navigate tricky acquisitions issues.

Juliana smiled and nodded as we expressed our uncertainties. In many ways, she told us, uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of the accessioning process. The determinations that archivists make on a day-to-day basis require background knowledge, critical thinking, and even a little creativity. They argue for and against the accessioning of materials whose incorporation into the Archives is in no means inevitable. Juliana encouraged our class to keep working to develop the skills that will allow us to make informed decisions that will enhance the collections of our future institutions.

Our sincerest thanks to Juliana Kuipers for sharing her time and experiences with us. Stay tuned for updates on the ways in which our class continues to learn about archives and think as archivists!

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