Steering Share: Laurel Bowen

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post is from  Steering Committee member Laurel Bowen.

What was your first job in a library, archives, or museum? 

One summer break I was hired as the Engineering Records Librarian at an IBM laboratory complex in my hometown.  The long-time librarian (I still remember her name!) had just retired.  My researchers were the engineers developing and testing new machines, and my job was to locate and retrieve microfiche cards of specific parts from a gigantic rotating metal storage system.  On the way to my office there was an exhibit of the company’s older computing machines.  The contrast between this larger older equipment and the more powerful compact computers being produced was vivid testimony to the pace of change in both technology and information dissemination.

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

I wanted a closer view and greater involvement in our profession’s efforts to raise public awareness about (a) the value and power of archives, and (b) how records—in the skilled hands of archivists—can make a concrete and definable difference in people’s lives.

 What is one major issue you see archives tackling in the next five to ten years?

We live in a digital world now.  Hacking and cyberthreats are commonplace.  Our medical and credit records are compromised.  Voter and driver records are probed.  Public utility grids (water, electric) and telecommunication systems and networks (Internet) are disrupted.  The potential for a quick and devastating blow to society is no longer science fiction or fantasy.  Both as archivists and a profession, we need to become more knowledgeable and well-practiced with regard to electronic records and digital records systems.  The Digital Archives Specialist curriculum is a firm step in the right direction.  But we need to partner more actively with organizations, companies, and specialists on issues like the authenticity and verifiability of vital records in an electronic or networked environment, the security and recoverability of critical information and infrastructures, and the management of risk for electronic records and digital data systems.

 What archives issue means a lot to you?

I’m concerned about the myriad ways that public officials ignore or mishandle records in an attempt to avoid transparency and accountability.  On the other side, I’m also concerned that many citizens seem unaware that documents define both their rights and responsibilities, as well as the scope and limits of a public official’s legitimate exercise of power.

 Describe and share an interesting archives you have come across over the years.

One of my most interesting experiences was with the very large collection of temperance and prohibition records discovered in a small town north of Columbus, Ohio.  I was one of those who arranged, described, and prepared it for microfilming.  The town librarian who discovered it, untouched in an outbuilding for decades, said exterminators returned multiple times “before everything stopped running.”  Books were pulled from shelves, and the termite-ridden bookcases collapsed.  Although she “saved everything we could,” the bottom layers of the collection (fused together) were shoveled into a line of waiting garbage trucks.  Over the next two years, I learned plenty about various types of mold, insect, and rodent damage.

In college history classes I wasn’t much interested in the temperance and prohibition movement, but these records opened up a new world.  There were characters like “Pussyfoot” Johnson, whose nickname reflected his law enforcement technique; Ernest Cherrington, the benevolent man with an Al Capone-style hat who was at the center of all the major organizations; and the women of the Scientific Temperance Federation, who gathered physiological and sociological evidence to demonstrate the ill effects of alcohol.  Did you know root beer used to be alcoholic?  Or that there is a reason that the 18th (prohibition) and 19th (women’s suffrage) amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified so closely together?

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