Thursday, October 23, 2014

Boston College, the Belfast Project, and Oral History

The Belfast Project, initiated in 2000 by a small group of researchers, including Irish journalist Ed Moloney and independent historian Anthony McIntyre, working with Boston College. The aim was to collect oral histories from people who directly participated in the Troubles in Northern Ireland between the late 1960s and 1998, in order to gain insight into sectarian violence. Former members of the Irish Republican Army as well as loyalists were interviewed in 2001 and 2002. Participants signed contracts agreeing that the tapes would only become available at the time of the participant’s death, as many contained dangerous information and evidence of criminal activity. 
However, in 2011, Boston College received a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice under agreement with the United Kingdom, asking for the interviews of two Belfast Project participants for a criminal investigation in Northern Ireland that involved kidnapping and murder. The year before, project researcher Ed Moloney had released a book using the interviews of a deceased participant, bringing international attention to the archive.

The legal battle that followed, as Boston College resisted release of the tapes, was loaded with political and ethical concerns and significance, but, most relevantly to oral historians, archivists, and repositories, the events raised a number of questions about the legal and ethical protocol of collecting histories of political violence, and is ultimately forcing oral historians and repositories to consider more deeply the legal and ethical implications of the histories they are gathering.

Undoubtedly, Moloney, McIntyre, their colleagues, and the participants were aware of the risks involved with undertaking this project, but were unaware of the limitations of confidentiality and protection afforded them by Boston College and United States law. Should oral historians take the risk to record valuable histories if there is no guarantee of protection of research subjects who reveal controversial and possibly criminal matter? What is the best practice for sensitive information in interviews and what is the obligation of the interviewer to research subjects when possibly damaging information is recorded?

Read more about it here, here, and here

~ Rebecca Robbennolt, second-year SLIS student

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Summer as a “Lone Arranger”: Archiving at the John G. Shedd Aquarium

My Summer as a “Lone Arranger”: Archiving at the John G. Shedd Aquarium

Last summer (May to August of 2014) , I spent two days a week at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, to fulfill my practicum for LIS 620. As you can imagine, working at an archives in an aquarium presents some unique challenges, large amounts of water being only one of them. My supervisor and the Librarian and Archivist (yes, she does both) at the Shedd, Alisun DeKock, taught me invaluable information about the unique opportunities and many challenges that come with not only being a “lone arranger”, but a lone arranger at an institution that has a very different purpose and mission than that of your average historical society or museum.

The Non-Living Collections

The archival collection at the Shedd Aquarium is referred to as the “non-living collection”, a clever way to distinguish the records from the extensive, unique and frankly, adorable living collection of marine animals that call the Shedd home. The non-living collection consists of a research library that serves staff only (though outside research can be done upon request) and 300 square feet of archival materials including:
Visitors on opening day, 1930. Shedd Aquarium Archives.
  • Photographs (1920s and 1930s Chicago, Museum Campus, Collecting Trips etc.)
  • Manuscripts (John G. Shedd, Stanley Field, other past presidents and board members)
  • Administrative Files
  • 1933 Chicago World’s Fair ephemera (Guidebook, Photographs)
  • Planning and Design Department (Exhibit design, Gala invitations, etc.)
  • Costumes from aquatic shows, original construction blueprints and much more


Perhaps I have been spoiled by my positions at the Wisconsin Historical Society, but working as an archivist in an environment where nobody else is an archivist (or library professional, for that matter) is HARD. Budgets and space are problems in any and every type of archival institution, but just imagine being included in a budget that focuses on the needs of marine biologists, aquarists, tourism, and 32,000 animals. Furthermore, imagine finding adequate and
First shipment of saltwater from Key West, 1929.

environmentally controlled space in a building designed to hold millions of gallons of water. Finally, processing a diverse, 300 square foot collection of all types of media is a a full time job, not including the implementation of a database or the running of a library.  Luckily, the President of the Shedd Aquarium is huge advocate for archives, and Alisun has the support of her fellow Museum Campus (The Field Museum and Adler Planetarium) archivists, but nowhere has the importance of advocating for oneself seemed more important.

Lone Arranging 

Blimp over Museum Campus. Date unknown.
While the challenges listed above may seem daunting, Alisun’s (and mine for the summer) position as a ‘lone arranger’ taught me a great deal about time management, setting priorities, cross-departmental cooperation and, perhaps most importantly, advocacy and outreach. In an institution full of non-archivists, it is extremely important to make your collection known. Many people at the Shedd knew very little about the archival collection, yet were eager to find out not only what was in it, but how it could benefit their department. For example, after a small presentation I did concerning some of the more interesting items in the collection, a member of the Human Resources team came to Alisun asking if they could peruse the archives for photographs to be featured in a “Now and Then” section of the employee newsletter. It is important to remember that the reach of an archival collection extends so far beyond researchers, but only if it has some exposure.

Bottom Line
Working as a lone arranger taught me many things and helped me figure out that, in my fast approaching search for a future career, I want to focus on finding a position in which I can dabble in many aspects of the archival field. As challenging as it can be, I would highly encourage everyone to work in a small or non-traditional institution, or as a lone arranger, if only so that you can learn how to better advocate for yourself and your collection.  
Thanks, and stop at the Shedd next time you are in Chicago!

Emily Swenson, Second year SLIS Student

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

You May Be An Archivist and Not Even Know It!

You may be an archivist without realizing it, and here’s why!

I have started a project a while back that many others have taken on before me. This project would be researching and constructing a family genealogy. Many people have started to explore their own family histories, and thus the popularity of websites such as,, and, among others continues to grow.

What does this have to do with being an archivist? If you are one of us genealogists, whether that is as an amateur or professional, you likely have your very own archive. All genealogists have their very own collection of materials that document your family’s history. Some of these materials may be photographs, letters/correspondence, and government documents such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses. Whatever it may be, you definitely want to keep track of them all!

Many experienced genealogists will also create a system that will allow them to retrieve specific photos or documents quickly and efficiently, just like finding aids do for an archival collection. But, why stop there? Many of us genealogists will also look for the best ways to store our materials, as well as share them with our families or other genealogists.

So, if you are like me and have taken on the challenge and excitement of exploring your family's past, then you likely have your very own collection of historical documents that you take pride in storing, researching, and sharing what you find. If you have not joined the growing community of genealogists, feel free to jump in! It can be more fun than you think, and in the process, you can create your very own specialized collection to archive.

Written by Ryan Welle

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing Family Stories

Even though I love putting multiple file folders into a semblance of order or sorting through old photographs, my absolute favorite part of archival work is reference and outreach. I experience a thrill of joy when I can put collections in the hands of people who want and need them. I also love learning from people and hearing their stories.

Currently, most of the reference work I do is genealogy-related. I know, I know. I’ve heard the jokes and seen the eye-rolls about genealogists, but I personally think they are some of the best people to walk through the archive and library door (ok, a majority of them are). They are passionate about their research, they are excited to connect to their past, and they usually appreciate any help offered to them along the way. They’re also quite a diverse group. One man learned about a baby brother he had never known about. A family of sisters came from Georgia to find the house their great-grandparents had built. Two cousins reunite every August to come in to research their family. I’ve encountered the mystery of the misnamed baby, pulled up some truly gruesome deaths, and even discovered that a patron was a distant cousin of mine from Arizona. It’s truly never a dull moment when you’re doing genealogy reference.

The flip-side, of course, is that genealogists can be challenging patrons as well. They may be passionate, but many of them have never done this type of research before. Locating resources is only one side of the coin; many of them have no experience with citations, finding aids or indexes, or the patience required for sifting through archival material. It’s not easy to teach someone how to think of spelling variations on a name or convince them that just because a document gave “the wrong” birth date does not mean the document is incorrect. Their technological skill level varies considerably, which can also be a challenge. This can range from those who aren’t sure how to use a mouse to those who want to know why everything isn’t available online yet. Patience is required at both ends of that spectrum.

There are so many ways in which archives can serve genealogists, and with the hobby growing among all age groups, they may soon become our #1 patrons. We shouldn’t roll our eyes at them. We should embrace the genealogists’ passion and eagerness and ride that wave. Genealogists may be a bit persnickety, but they also tend to be extremely grateful. They are willing to support institutions and organizations that go the extra mile for them; I've gotten the donations and Christmas cards to prove that. I know of archives who are making extra efforts to connect with their genealogy patrons, but I think that should become a priority for all archives and libraries that hold collections of family papers. How can we market to genealogists more effectively? Are archives visible on the websites they use most often? Let’s find out how they research, how they find us, and how they use our materials, and then go from there. How can we make the finding aid something they understand? Most genealogists I’ve talked to don’t know what a finding aid is. Can we change that? Is there a way to make our online collections’ interfaces and search mechanisms mirror genealogy databases they are already familiar with? These questions and more should excite and motivate us to better serve our genealogy users. You never know which family stories we can help write.

-Jill Fuller

Friday, October 17, 2014

Archiving: You Can Do It Anywhere!

Although I don’t consider myself to be super knowledgeable about archiving (actually, I don’t consider myself to be super knowledgeable about anything), I have held a job pretty recently in which I was identified as a film archivist. By no means did I have the certification or education necessary to properly own such a prestigious title but at the tail end of an internship-turned-contract position, I wasn’t going to object.
I’m not going to identify the fabulous place at which this miraculous event occurred, but I will say that it is an art museum in a large city. Being mildly obsessed with films (1930-1950’s, in particular), I was placed in the film department which consisted of two people; the film curator and the projectionist. The first task I was given (and, oh, was it delicious), was to organize the museum’s film collection. But let me back up a bit-
This museum wasn’t supposed to have a film department. Occasionally, it ran films in the beautifully restored theatre but it didn’t have its own film collection, and certainly didn’t have a place for one. One fateful day, the film curator gets a call from a university a state away- they were getting rid a large amount of 16mm films. They were literally being thrown in a dumpster in 12 hours. No pressure, right? Film curator to the rescue! He rented a moving truck, drove a few hours to the university, and brought back most, if not all of them. After that, film donations began pouring in. Some were from local universities, others from private donors’ personal collections. Before he knew it, the film curator had more films than he knew what to do with. There was a room in the building that was serving as an equipment room for A/V equipment, projectors and other random knick knacks. Most importantly, it was secure. Add climate control and a bunch of racks on wheels and you’ve got yourself a film archive. These films, which include Hitchcock, Chaplin and The Great Train Robbery, are safe. It’s truly remarkable. 
I worked as a film archivist before it even occurred to me to go to library school- how crazy is that? Working with this collection was such a unique and personal experience- I can’t imagine the path I’d be on had I not stumbled across that opportunity. Now, I work in the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Is there a massively huge difference between the archives I’m in now and the one I was in two years ago? Of course. What blows me away is this: anybody anywhere that finds themselves in a situation where they’ve accumulated a lot (or a moderate amount) of spectacular things, they, themselves, can archive it. Need climate control? No space? It doesn’t matter- make it happen!
Archiving and archives do not have to be planned. After all, we don’t always plan to possess the awesome, valuable, unique things we possess but we still need a place for them. Well, guess what: YOU can archive that! That’s an anthem. Or a hashtag, at the very least.

~ Rachel Behnke, first year SLIS student

Thursday, October 16, 2014

So You Want to be an Archivist?

Whether you applied to LIS School with a specific career goal in mind, or you arbitrarily picked a focus that most directly resonated with your interests and strengths; you might still have a lot of questions and unknown variables which could ultimately impact the which direction you ultimately take.
My choice, so far, is to focus on an archiving track. If you’re like me, you still don’t having a very a very good perspective on what being a practicing archivist entails on a day to day basis.
This blog post focuses on videos highlighting different careers, responsibilities, and environments which may help you get some ideas for various opportunities that will soon be available to you.

Meet Our Vintage Collection Archivist, Bill Bonner
Bill Bonner presides over eight million images as the longtime keeper of National Geographic's vintage collection. He's a keeper not only of photographs, but memories—and he treats each like it's the greatest treasure in the world.



So You Want to be an Archivist
This short video highlights the day-to-day activities you might expect to encounter when you are a Archivist.

Interview with Chicago History Museum Archivist Peter Alter
Peter Alter is key to taking care of and locating more documents for the Chicago History Museum's miles of archival material, supporting and adding to the fascinating puzzle that is Chicago history.

A Day in the Life of a Processing Archivist

Colin Woodward, Ph.D., shares the behind-the-scenes magic of being an archivist.

Dan Piro, Pro Wrestling Archivist!

Photo montage of what it’s like to be an archivist for the WWE.
Hopefully a lingering question you may have had was addressed in one of these videos. I for one never thought of the WWE having their own archivist. However, after learning that they did it seems completely obvious and really highlights to potential for many different types of jobs in this field.
Good luck finding your own niche!

~Shawn Vesely, First-year SLIS Student