What follows below is my initial email interview with Brigette Kamsler, Project Archivist at Burke Theological Library. Although this was to fulfill the requirements of a paper for my Management of Archives and Special Collections class, I wanted to know more about Brigette because she is the only person I have applied for a job with that turned me down and then offered to help me improve my resume and cover letter. The result of this interview was a second follow up interview that led to my current position as her intern for the Fall 2012 semester and my Practicum course project.
How long have you worked as a Project Archivist at the Burke Library? Tell me a little bit about the specific collection you are working on.
I have been the Project Archivist at the Burke Library since August 1, 2011. I was hired with a special grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, who gave money for the full processing of the Missionary Research Library Collection and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Archives. This project is scheduled to continue until July 2014, with possibility of extension.
The Missionary Research Library (MRL) Collection contain over 160 unique collections from missionaries and missionary organizations from six continents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with special strength in early 20th century China, Japan, and Korea. This collection contains a broad range of field reports, demographic surveys, and other analytical data. As a result, the MRL Archives document the cultural and social realities of indigenous populations in substantive detail, and will amply serve scholars of religion, historians, anthropologists, economists, and medical researchers, among others.
Founded in 1945 at Union Theological Seminary, the William Adams Brown (WAB) Ecumenical Library Archives contain over 30 collections, which serve as a source for the documentation and study of modern ecumenism. Today the WAB Archives include records of local (NYC), national, and international ecumenical organizations and communities, as well as records from ecumenical conferences (Protestant & Catholic dialogue) that have shaped global Christianity.
Have you always been an archivist? Have you always wanted to be an archivist?
I have always wanted to be an archivist and have set my career path with that in mind. I took jobs as an undergrad and graduate student processing archival collections, and my first professional job as an archivist was at the Historical Society of Frederick County, Maryland. I was there for three years and due to the budget and other issues, I went from being in a 3-person department to being the only one in my department. At that time, I took over the Research Center and became the Archivist and Research Center Coordinator.
Do you enjoy your job, what drew you to this job? What is your favorite aspect of your job? Least favorite?
I do enjoy this job. After working for 3 years at a historical society, 2 of which I was also in charge of the Research Center, I wanted to get back to solely working on archives. I missed the physical processing and organization of records. I also was ready to move forward in my career, and what better place was there than Columbia University in New York City? I could not move anywhere with my job at the Historical Society, so I had to go outside of the organization.
I enjoy the physical processing of collections and really getting to see what these missionaries and organizations were going through. Their diaries and letters can be very detailed, and I think it is great to literally make history available for others to learn from – I’m not just reading about it in a book. I also enjoy supervising interns and student workers; mentoring future professionals who will one day be my colleagues is very rewarding.
My least favorite thing… I think it is more about getting used to being in a different environment. At the Historical Society, it was very small and we handled more things on our own right away. Here, because the University itself is large, there are different departments I go through. For example, when I need to order supplies, I fill out forms and send it to the financial office. It is not a bad thing by any means, but it is still a bit of an adjustment going from somewhere that was small to a larger institution.
What is your educational background? What part of your education was the most beneficial for your job?
I received a BA in History from Millersville University, one of the state schools in Pennsylvania. I then attended the University of Pittsburgh for my MLIS where I focused on Archives, Preservation and Records Management. The most beneficial aspect from my history degree is how to study history and view it objectively. I can’t insert any possible bias I may have when processing a collection. It also helped me immensely with writing academic papers; whether I am writing a finding aid or presenting at a conference, my history degree comes in handy.
I have been told by a few librarians that their library science classes weren’t that useful to them. I on the other hand use what I learned in my classes on a daily basis, even though I graduated from Pitt in 2008. Because I specialized in Archives, Preservation and Records Management, pretty much all of my classes were geared towards that. I only took 2 or 3 true ‘library’ courses. There was a full class on archival appraisal and archival advocacy and ethics; you really will not find that at many other places. I took a collections conservation course and archival preservation, where we learned practical things like how to read a hygrothermograph and what to do with a wet book.
Another great thing about Pitt is that it is really on the cusp of technology and teaching their students about new developments in the field in general. I had a class just on Digital Preservation, and we always tried to work in different issues when it came to digitization and that type of technology. I had another course on Archival Representation where we discussed finding aids, EAD, etc… You really need a full class to learn about all of the issues with migration, metadata, XML, EAD… there really is a lot to learn on that subject and it is always changing.
One thing about the Pitt program is that it is very theory-based. This did not bother me because I had worked for three years on a variety of projects at my undergrad archives and special collections, and also interned for a summer at the Adams County Historical Society in Gettysburg, so I had worked with collections and done transcriptions of oral histories and digitized materials, etc… for about four years before going to school. Therefore whatever we were talking about, I was able to apply my past knowledge and see what I had been doing, why I had been doing it, what I should have been doing to make it better, etc… I also worked at the Pitt Archives on a special project while I was there, so as I was learning in my classes, I was able to apply it at the same time. Many people I went to school with thought, “oh, I like old books and libraries so I think I’ll be an archivist now,” with no prior experience, and therefore they struggled with understanding some of the concepts because they had nothing to compare it to or apply it to. There was only one class-related opportunity to really do an internship, which I decided not to do in the summer session since I already had experience and I was already working at the Pitt archives.
I assume that a Project Archivist is very much like a project manager, you manage a team of archivist in the assessment and processing of a specific archival project, would this be the correct way to look at it?
That is not exactly the correct way to look at a Project Archivist position, although sometimes it could be the case. A Project Archivist position is an archivist hired to do a specific project. I am processing the MRL and WAB collections. I don’t work on processing any of the other things at the Burke. I answer questions about the two collections. I have interns and students that I supervise, who also work on the MRL and WAB collections. Everything is much more focused. I feel that typically, the Project Archivist is the main person working on something. However I’m sure there are cases where the Project Archivist is the point person, and perhaps they have ‘processing archivists,’ ‘assistant archivists,’ or ‘archives technicians’ working with them.
What are your responsibilities? How does it differ from being just an archivist?
– Develop and implement processing plans, ensure appropriate housing of archival material, identify materials for conservation treatment, perform basic in-house preservation techniques, process and arrange collections, write and edit finding aids and other descriptive access tools utilizing DACS standards, and maintain schedules and deadlines for the grant-funded project.
– Submit regular reports and maintain metrics on manuscript and archival processing, support other staff in MARC cataloging of collections.
– Train and supervise interns and student assistants.
– Provide reference services for MRL and WAB collections.
– Advise Director and other staff on issues of significance to the management of collections.
– Speak at classes, conferences and meetings about the collections specifically as well as about being an archivist in general.
What I do is not any different than what someone titled “archivist” would do, other than the fact that I am focused on a specific project. My project does happen to have a time frame (3 years), but that is not always the case. I have seen my project and others similar to mine have a title like, “Archivist, Missionary Research Library Collection and William Adams Brown Ecumenical Archives Project.”
Are you involved with appraisal or processing the collection? or both? How involved are you in the creation of the finding aid? Which influences the creation of the finding aid more; the collection itself or the potential users?
Most of the collections have already been appraised; however new collections have been added, and additions can be made. At that point, I make the appraisal decisions along with Ruth Tonkiss Cameron, the Archivist for Union Theological Seminary (where the Burke is located) and the Burke Archives. The MRL and WAB collections were originally under her jurisdiction solely, however now they have become my responsibility and she is able to focus on the other archival collections. The other record groups that are available can be seen on the website here: http://library.columbia.edu/indiv/burke/archives.html.
I am personally processing the collections and creating the finding aids, about 80-90% of the time. I currently have two interns and one work study student. I assign each collection and work with the student each step of the way. I edit their finding aids and I am very hands-on with their work.
I think that the collection itself dictates the finding aid text; however you have to think broadly of your potential users. Because we want these collections to be around forever, we can’t predict who will use them or how they will be used in the future. We also don’t want to deny anyone access. These collections are important for their information and what they document. We want these collections to be used and studied. Like Mark Greene’s presidential address to the Society of American Archivists in 2008 said, “Whether processing, appraising, or directly providing reference all that we do must be seen in terms of service to our users…we serve our users first, not our collections.”
Many people can use the MRL and WAB collections, not just historians. Sociologist, scholars of religion, anthropologists, economists, and medical researchers can use the information. Perhaps someone who is from China grew up with a missionary in their town and wants to see what that missionary thought at the time. The users are the reason we are here, and we need to be open to all people using the collections.
How do you approach your responsibility of appraisal? How do you ethically make the decisions on what to keep in the collection and what to discard? Is it guided by policies of your institution or on a collection to collection basis?
Appraisal is very important and should not be taken lightly. If any organization takes in a collection that really doesn’t belong there, it will hurt the chances of the collection being used. It will also take up valuable space and time, which could have been geared towards something that DID belong in that organization. The mission of the organization must be the guide, and we do have policies in place. The public trusts organizations with their historical materials and these materials deserve care and respect.
When we are offered a collection, or see one in an auction or other sale, we look at it individually but we have to be guided by the policies as well – both of those go hand in hand. Some things that run through my mind when appraising collections have been – do we have the space and funds to care for the collection? Will people think to come here to do research with it or would it make more sense somewhere else? Do we have this history represented in some other form?
At the Historical Society if I decided a collection needed to be deaccessioned, there are various checks and balances in place to make sure I was following policy and was making the right decision. The first step I would take would be to put together a defense of why I thought a collection should be deaccessioned, and also include where I think the collection truly belongs. I would then present this to the executive director. She would either approve or deny that, with suggestions. If approved, I would then take this defense to the Curatorial Committee. The Curatorial Committee was comprised of people in the field – archivists, librarians, historians, etc… who understood the profession as a whole and what deaccessioning truly involved. Again, they would approve or deny the request. If they approved the request, the final step was that the executive director would present to the Board of Directors. Lastly, they would approve or deny the request and vote on it. If approved, the material was deaccessioned.
Having these various steps seems tedious, but it is very useful to show we do not take this decision lightly. Various professionals and people in the field, as well as those who are versed in the history of an item and why it might or might not work at the organization, consider if an item should be kept or not. Perhaps they know of a use that I might not have considered. Paperwork and documentation is also kept every step of the way so we can prove to the public why a decision was made. Depending on how long the collection or item had been at the Historical Society, if it was deaccessioned it would then be offered back to the original donors and give them a right of first refusal. If they did not take the item or collection back, it was donated to a better suited public organization so others could continue to learn and enjoy the material.
Do you feel that you have a hand in shaping how history is viewed because of your job? Is it possible to remain just an impartial keeper of records?
I do feel like I have a hand in shaping history because I am personally preserving, describing, arranging and making available these important collections. If I (or other archivists) didn’t do this work, many collections would be hidden and unknown.
I believe it is possible to remain impartial as the keeper of the records. For example, it does not really matter what my personal religious or spiritual beliefs may or may not be. I am here to take care of the records and make sure other people know they are here and can use them. I am making sure these records are here forever. Not everyone may be like this, though. That is why the interview process is so important for each position because you don’t want to hire someone who would try to “sweep something under the carpet” as it were because they didn’t believe or agree with whatever the records show.
What is the very first thing you do when you receive a new collection…how do you typically start?
At the Burke when I start working on a new collection, I do a bit of general background research. This will help me to understand who the person or organization was, and may tell me what could be in the records and where things need to be grouped if I am imposing order. I search CLIO, the Columbia catalog; look at inventories that have been created of the MRL and WAB collections, and also do a google search. I will also check to see if there are any files in an on-site filing cabinet that sometimes have legacy finding aids in them. This research will help later when I do the in-depth writing of the biography and scope and content sections.
What is the most interesting item in the collection you are working on now?
I am just starting to process the papers of William Adams Brown in the Missionary Research Library Collection. These papers are from the 1930s. William Adams Brown was a Presbyterian minister, systematic theologian, Union Theological Seminary professor and ecumenist. Because of his work and legacy, the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Archives was created in 1945 to document the modern ecumenical movement.
One of the interesting things about it is the complexity. We have the WAB record group; then there is this MRL Collection; and finally we have a William Adams Brown Collection in the UTS records since he was a faculty. The records in the UTS collection are more about the family, whereas the MRL collection is focused on India.
Another interesting aspect to it is the topic itself. Brown was a member of the Lindsay Commission on Indian Higher Education, which was a joint British/American Commission in 1930-1931. This is an aspect of his personal history that has not been explored, and information on the Lindsay Commission itself is also quite scarce. I am looking forward to processing these materials and learning new things about him.
Some other “interesting items” I’ve worked with and that we have available are Indian palm leaf books from the 1800’s; a Book of Esther written in Hebrew from the 1600’s; and a cricket cage from a Chinese missionary (literally to hold crickets).
How many people do you manage on your team? What are their jobs and how do they differ from what you specifically do?
I currently have two interns and one work study student. They are working on finding aids for some of the smaller, simpler collections because they had a variety of experience and I wanted them to be set on the Columbia/Burke procedures. I like to give those I supervise a variety of experiences. This is a little more difficult here than in my last job. They could do research for a research request; fill a copy or scan order; make acid-free copies for materials in a collection that have already been processed; sit in on meetings and conferences; etc…
The work of creating a finding aid and processing the collection is done the same way I do. However, I am the lead in this project. I make appraisal decisions; assign the collections; give the final decision on series organizations and weeding; etc… We have the opportunity to discuss why I am making a particular decision, but in an essence I see their work as an extension of what I do. I generally know about each of the collections and have an idea of potential issues and organization schemes; the students become the experts in the detail.
I am limited in the number of students I can have at this point due to the lack of space and computer work stations. At the Historical Society I was supervising 35 people, so only having 3 is much different.
When you are finished with your particular project are you assigned another archival project within the Burke library or do you move on to another institution or department?
My project is funded by the Luce Foundation to continue until July 2014, with possibility of extension. The main part of the work is the arrangement and description of the materials. However we keep finding new collections or having collections added to or donated. This alone could be cause to seek an extension (with more funds) from the Luce Foundation or Columbia itself. The Burke Library and the Luce Foundation are enthusiastic partners because, as stated by Michael Gilligan, president of the Henry Luce Foundation. “Although these collections are distinct from our own archives, they are clearly linked to two parts of our history—Henry R. Luce’s intention to honor his parents, Presbyterian missionary educators in China; and the foundation’s early support for Christian ecumenism.”
When the original grant was awarded, the Luce Foundation also expressed interest (before any work had been done!) to fund after 2014 a digitization effort of these MRL and WAB collections. I’ll elaborate on this in the next question.
Lastly, if this does not occur, it would be easy for me to take a position within the Columbia library system. While I left a fulltime permanent job at the Historical Society to take a fulltime temporary position at Columbia, I felt comfortable doing this. I had spent three years at the Historical Society and it felt like the perfect amount of time to be there. I am not a big city person – I like visiting but not necessarily living in them. It was a good time in my life to move to this city and experience it, yet there is a built-in “end” should I be ready to move on by 2014. I am making great connections here, and the collections are so important. Everyone is very enthusiastic about it and confident that the project will continue. Whether it be funded by Luce or if it is picked up by Columbia, I am excited to see how things progress over the next few years.
Are you digitizing the collection you are working with now? Are there plans to do this in future? Does that change the nature of your work on this project?
Currently the focus of the project is to process and make available the materials. Once this project is completed in about 3 years, the Foundation and Columbia have already expressed interest in making digitization a focus and I could take the project in that direction. There is a digitization department at Columbia where we can do small projects and online exhibits, but it enters a queue and may not be a priority depending on other time sensitive projects throughout the library system. It does not change the nature of my work with how I am processing, but it is always in the back of my mind saying, “oh this collection of images would be really interesting and useful,” or “this diary has a lot of research potential.” These specific collections that stand out could then be the first ones digitized.
How do you stay abreast of current archival topics and processes?
I stay current with archival topics through readings, attending workshops, conferences, and talking with colleagues. I am a member of the Society of American Archivists, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, and The New York Area Theological Library Association. I am active on roundtables and listservs including but not limited to SNAP: Students and New Archives Professionals; the Archives and Archivists List; and the Lone Arrangers. Through Columbia I am a member of the Council of Columbia Library and Information Professionals and the Columbia Archivists Roundtable. Through all of these organizations I am able to become aware of discussions in the field and opportunities to learn, whether it be through a journal article in the American Archivist; the publication of a new book; a new blog I should check out; or a workshop or conference I could look into attending. I start my day by reading listserv digests and archivists’ twitter feeds to see what is most up-to-date.
What has been your most used skill? What has been most influential for your career…networking/contacts, previous experience (jobs/internships), education…other?
The most influential aspect of my career has been my previous experience. The bar has been raised where education and a master’s degree in library science is required for most jobs. However, my experience has set me apart because I can show I actually know how to do something. I have personally experienced problems that arise with a collection; working with donors and patrons; supervising others; emergencies from water damage.
While networking is important, so far it has not done much to help with my career. I have found my job opportunities on my own and made my own way in that regard. However once I have worked with or supervised someone, I stay in contact with them. My education prepared me theoretically for what I would encounter, but the practical experience is what set met apart from the hundreds if not thousands of other MLS students.
I am a very organized and patient person, and I am able to look at collections from an outsider perspective and understand that what we think now was not necessarily the same when the materials were created. If I don’t know how to do something, I go out of my way to learn it on my own. I volunteer to help with other projects and make presentations to get the word out about my collections, and also to gain new experiences. Those have probably been my most useful skills.