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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).