Welcome to a new year of Ex Libris Universum! We’re starting 2020 with a staff Q&A where we answer the questions we know you’ve been anxiously awaiting the answers to. Find out more about each of us in our staff bios!
Why did you become an information professional?
Max: There were a few reasons I decided to become an information professional, but I didn’t decide to become an archivist until I was already in library school. I had an Intro to Archives class and wound up getting sucked into reading about the legal and social uses of archives following war and unrest. I liked the idea of being in a profession that could help individuals and groups build narratives around things that happen to them, bring about justice, or assist with the healing process. So that was my original foot in the door.
Audrey: Whoo. We’re getting right into it in the first question, aren’t we?! Information is a form of power, and I wanted to be able to get information (whether that information is data, a cookbook, internet access, a 20th century physicists’ lab notebook, etc.) into the hands of people and communities who need it. Now that I *am* an information professional, I try to remember this everyday and work to make the resources we have here more accessible to those who need it.
Allison: Look, I know I should not say it, but it was 100% because I loved books. That’s the short and cliched answer. But I truly love learning and never want to stop. I like helping people and I like problem-solving. I love working in archives (even as a librarian) because I think history is essential for understanding humans and humanity. How do we know where to go if we don’t know where we’ve been? I like collecting, protecting, and making history accessible because I think we must take an honest look at our past.
What does an average work day look like for you?
Chip: I spend a lot of my time maintaining library information systems, which include the library catalog software and some internal databases. I’m also part of a team effort to improve our digital repository. I also work with our digital collections, but it can be hard to make time for collections work because the systems work is often more pressing.
Sarah: I am often processing books: cataloging, classifying, labeling, shelving, etc. Despite being donation-driven, the library adds a surprising amount of books to the catalog each year. The most recent donation I processed had over 200 books.
Max: As a fairly new member of staff I’m working on finding my groove, so a lot of my day looks like appraising and accessioning collections, creating catalog records, and writing finding aids, but also reading up on physics-related topics, going through existing finding aids to learn about our holdings, attending meetings, and getting to know the different members of the staff!
Allison: I wouldn’t say I have an average day, but I do have certain constants in my week. Working the reference desk and answering reference questions, fielding correspondence with donors and all of the admin that entails, working with my colleagues on the questions of the day whether that’s working on outreach, answering a tricky reference question, documenting new norms, or popping popcorn while chatting. You’ll notice nowhere in there did I mention books, but one of the challenges is trying to find time to work on the collections, whether it’s inventorying the Wenner Collection, or cataloging book donations and purchases, or any of the other many collection related issues we face on a daily basis.
How do you support each other in your work?
Corinne: We have many meetings about various topics (reference, outreach, formal staff meeting), plenty of off-the-cuff conversations, and fun get togethers like popcorn o’clock throughout the work day. These are opportunities for staff members to talk about ideas for NBLA, and they often end up being great ideas! We are all very enthusiastic about working together to improve the ways we do things and we offer this enthusiasm for new ideas and help with carrying out new or existing plans. During one of our meetings, a standing agenda item is: What is a problem that you have or something that you are trying to deal with? We try to help each other out in whatever ways we can.
Audrey: As someone with no formal training in physics, I appreciate that we get to work closely with the Center for the History of Physics (CHP) staff. We rely on each other; us as information professionals who work to provide access to records and locate materials, and them as historians of science who can provide context and specialized knowledge. I feel like I am constantly learning new things from the CHP staff even in passing or while getting coffee in the pantry!
Allison: I advocate for my colleagues and their amazing ideas, whether that’s behind the scenes cheer-leading or openly supporting their ideas in meetings.
Is there anything you've done here that you never expected to do in your career?
Allison: I just read The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean and I was amazed to find out I recognized most of the names! I’m not afraid to admit that before working at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives I’m not sure I could’ve named more than a handful of physicists, much less recognized their names and their contributions to science. One of the hardest things about working at the Library is my lack of physics knowledge, but I’m proud of how much I’ve learned in just a few years.
Corinne: This past summer we had an event for the Wenner Collection at the Danish embassy in Washington, D.C., and some of us met the Danish ambassador to the U.S., Lone D. Wisborg and Niels Bohr’s grandson, Vilhelm Bohr. It was hectic but fun to plan the event - selecting books, finding talking points for the books, planning how to transport and set up the books - and I never expected to be involved in the planning of an international embassy event!
Do you have a favorite physicist?
Allison: I don’t, but I love hearing and reading about some of the lesser known (at least to non-physicists!) figures and stories. I’m particularly interested in social history so I love stuff like this article on domestic physics by Joanna Behrman: Domesticating physics. I just read Charlotte Moore Sitterly’s oral history and I’m really interested in her and other “computers” from the early 20th century.
Max: I don’t know enough about physicists to declare a favorite yet, but right now I’m learning about the partnership between Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie and their discovery of artificial radioactivity a few years before World War II. I’m still working on understanding the science aspect of it, but the historical context of the discovery helps me better understand the inextricable link between sociopolitical issues and scientific development.
Audrey: My answer to this question changes almost weekly. Part of the beauty of working in a library is that you’re constantly exposed to new topics/subjects in your collections -- and subjects that are in your colleagues collections! During last year’s archival survey, I came across a collection of meteorologist José Fernández Partagás’ papers at the University of Miami. He led a fascinating life, and was truly dedicated to his work as a hurricane researcher. I worked with staff at Miami to write a blog all about him and his work: The Meteorologist, the Library, and the Hurricane.
What piece of advice would you give someone entering the library or history of science fields?
Audrey: Always be curious. When I started in the field, I thought I was going to be a public librarian and teach people how to use computers. Now, I’m at a specialized nonprofit that focuses on the history of the physical sciences! I worked 8 different jobs/internships in the three years between entering grad school and landing my first full-time job (this job!) - I volunteered for everything and tried all sorts of work related to libraries/archives/information professions so I’d have a firsthand account of what types of jobs I liked and what work I didn’t love.
Allison: Cultivate your genuine passions because it’s contagious and inspiring. And learn as much as you can about as many different subjects as you can, you never know when it will be useful. Be confident in your value.
Max: For someone coming into the archiving field, I think it’s good to be aware of the history of archival practices. Ideas we have about value, provenance, or even what constitutes a “record” came largely from major colonial powers with the intention of using recordkeeping to maintain power. With that in mind, I recommend that people who are newer to the field question their preconceived ideas about what narratives and what types of material are important. I’d also recommend reading widely about the field, and paying attention to folks who are getting really creative with archival projects. There are many ways to document history, and learning about them will make you more flexible, resourceful, and thoughtful about your work.
Where did you work before you started at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and how has that affected your work here?
Sam: NBLA is actually the first library and archives I’ve worked at, outside of two summer internships (one in the University of Maryland digitization lab and the other for the Anne Arundel County law library). Given my lack of prior experience, I count myself beyond fortunate to have been hired here as an archives assistant in my first semester of grad school. Before that, I worked as a server in a few restaurants and had many retail jobs (my favorite of these being Petco). My time in the food service and retail industries taught me a great deal about customer service- it helps me a lot when I’m assisting researchers!
Allison: I used to work in Special Collections at the Maryland State Archives where I specialized in working with the state’s extensive newspaper collections. I really enjoy working with published materials in an archival setting because it allows me to pass back and forth between the library and archives worlds. I like being able to wear multiple hats on a daily basis. Newspapers are also endlessly fascinating, so I learned to be really open and curious about “smaller” stories.
Audrey: Before starting at the NBLA, I worked in a lot of different types of libraries and in a lot of different roles. During grad school, I was a graduate assistant for both the collection management department and the institutional repository at UMD Libraries. I interned at the DC Public Library, the Library of Congress, and with the NPR Research, Archives, and Data Strategy team. I’ve also worked as a digitization assistant at a couple of Universities’ Special Collections. All of these opportunities combined gave me the experience and confidence digitizing a variety of primary source materials, working with digital collections, collaborating on developers during platform migrations, social media planning, and creating exhibits - all of which are things I do here! I couldn’t be where I am now without the support of supervisors and coworkers at my past jobs.
Caitlin: I’m currently in a temporary Library Project Assistant position here at the NBLA. Prior to coming here, I held several library and archives jobs/internships that helped me realize how much I enjoy working in a library/archives environment. During college, I was a library page at a branch of the Montgomery County public library system. I also completed a digitization summer internship at the National Archives, as well as a digital curation internship at the Daughters of the American Revolution library. (DAR has a gorgeous building, and I highly recommend a visit there!) I am so grateful for the opportunity to have gained library/archives skills from these previous experiences that I can apply to my work at the NBLA. I learned about metadata, cataloging, digitization, rehousing materials, digital databases, and much more! I love how my time at the NBLA continues to develop and build upon those skills.
Chip: I've been at NBLA for nearly 10 years. Before that I was a contractor in the (now defunct) library at the Government Accountability Office. At GAO I was hired mostly to rehabilitate some databases they used, and I also helped with a large digitization project. That job taught me how to coordinate with different user groups to help design systems that will work for everyone, and that carries forward into much of what I do today. Prior to GAO I did contract archival and research work for several clients, which gave me a broad view of the profession. Before library school I did tech support at a number of call centers, which taught me how to work with customers and to help them figure out what they really need.
Max: Before this job, I worked primarily on project-based archival projects for museums, government agencies, universities, and a non-profit. Most of that experience involved working with institutional records, manuscripts, and photographs, with a smattering of A/V projects, digital preservation, and web archiving. It’s given me a lot of experience with seeing how differently institutions apply (or ignore!) recommended archival practices. It’s also helped me see how best practices can be tailored depending on your resources. I once had a job where the storage options were a high humidity basement or a cool attic without reinforced floors, and it was a formative experience in learning how to prioritize, make challenging decisions, and adapt.
What do you do for fun outside of work?
Sarah: I like to make pysanky eggs (decorative Ukranian Easter eggs) despite having the artistic ability of a worm.
Corinne: Read! Play board games (Terraforming Mars is a new favorite), research and tell people about my favorite animal (this is my very first website that I made for a library school class!), discover new electronica, prog rock, and classical music, and bake unhealthy but hopefully delicious treats.
Allison: Watch Love Island (UK version only please) and read books about historical death (war, disease, disasters, etc).
Max: Sometimes skate, sometimes tap dance, sometimes laugh at memes on twitter for 75 years.
Audrey: I’m a dog walker, a thrift-store shopper, and an aspiring bread baker. One day I will bring in some bread to share with my coworkers. One day.
Sam: I love to spend time with my husband and dogs, talk with my sister on the phone, and sleep! Lately, I’m trying to convince myself that I like going to the gym, as well, but this remains to be seen.
Caitlin: I am a reader, thrifter, and blogger! I love going to used bookstores to find more books to feature on my Bookstagram!
Chip: I love spending time with my family. I like to read of course, and I like giant robot cartoons.
What is the one thing you would like people to know about what you do?
Allison: Librarians and archivists actually don’t want to (and can’t) keep everything! Even though I wrestle with my desire to hoard in my personal life, few things give me as much joy as weeding materials that are inappropriate for our collection. Even more exciting is being able to give them to a better home where they will be used.
Sam: It is my experience that, in the archives, every collection is unique. By that I mean that when processing a group of materials- be it audiovisual items, photos, manuscripts, or anything else- there always seems to be at least one aspect that makes you stop and think, “oh, this is different- how do I handle this?” Anything from collection size, preservation needs, access restrictions, sensitivity of contents, and the question of what is and is not worth keeping can drastically set a collection a part from the rest. And so we often have to organize, describe, and care for our collections on a case-by-case basis.The best we can do is to make choices based on what seems appropriate for each particular collection, document these choices whenever we can, and try to be as consistent as possible! One day I would love to have so much experience that I can say I’ve seen it all, but in an archive, I’m not sure it’s possible!