End of Year Steering Share: My Ever-Evolving Elevator Pitch, Thanks to Student Assistants

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This mid-year post is from I&A Steering Committee member Stephanie Bennett, Collections Archivist at Wake Forest University.

I had never heard of an elevator pitch before I became an archivist. I likely was first introduced to the phrase in grad school, and since then, it’s part of my bread and butter. I feel like every archivist has an array of elevator pitches, for donors, students,  administrators, their loved ones – heck, maybe even their favorite bartender.

As a collections archivist, I spend most of my time with my immediate colleagues, most of whom are well-schooled in the arts of Special Collections is not archival collections, or undergraduate student workers, whose interests are a bit less mercurial than I remember mine being at 20 (but not by much).

I do get out of the archives, of course: I have friends in departments around the university (I’m not above feigning casual interest as I ask pointed questions about department recordkeeping practices), and I meet with donors, prospective or current, who may be giving collections, attention, or financial donations to the institution.

In these conversations outside of my more routine archives duties, I find myself increasingly grateful for my work with those kind-hearted but ever-preoccupied undergraduate assistants. I’ve learned new descriptions and metaphors for the work that I do, because students are curious – either naturally or because it’s time for them to craft a resume – but even after some time working alongside me, they don’t have the vocabulary. (Don’t worry, they have the range.)

I still need a second to recover when someone asks that perennial favorite question, why can’t everything be digitized. But I recover and list, with a minimum amount of jargon, the labor of digitization. My answer to that question looks more like this now:

“We are able to do digitization work with the help of students: you would be surprised at the amount of time it takes to physically scan items, even with fancy scanners. To get high resolution images and not damage the physical item, we can’t simply run then through the copier. And even with training, things go wrong in scanning – you remember being a college student. So a librarian runs quality checks and has to re-do some scans. While the scans are being cooked up, or maybe before, a librarian creates metadata: describing that single item, or group of items, giving them dates. What’s your favorite picture of the university? Do you know the date, or the location, or maybe the people in it? We need as much of that information as possible about a photograph, say, since every person remembers it a little differently.”

In my answers, I aim to highlight the skills and number of people involved in the labor, and I skip over new vocabulary words.

First, the laborers: We do a lot with less, and it’s thanks to our student workers, but I want to impress upon them that students cannot do this all themselves. I am a skilled laborer, due to my Master’s degree, so I am agile in employing uniform names; but also, sometimes I renumber folders because a student missed something and every correctly numbered folder saves my reference colleagues time and energy. To drive this home, I may introduce controlled vocabularies – I often call them uniform vocabularies or taxonomies. Biscuits in the South mean something entirely from the biscuits of England, and if there’s time I tell the story of looking for biscuits at a KFC in Central London, for added punch. “In a world run by librarians, the biscuits in London would be just like Grandad’s!” Most folks can nod along with that, and in turn understand when I say, it takes training and experience to recognize when you should employ a controlled language and when you’re free-wheeling.

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Secondly, I have mostly given up “finding aid” and such terminology when I’m talking to non-archivists; apologies to my professor, Kathy Wisser, who insisted (correctly!) that every professional field has its own jargon and few abdicate that pleasure. But I would rather the student assistants learn the concepts and not focus on the words. So they’re collection inventories, or collection overviews if it’s an MPLP finding aid without a box listing – a hierarchical inventory, I tell them, with parents and children, like a family tree. They know about our DSpace instance, searchable on our landing page – but I don’t call it a content management system or a digital repository, I call it our processed collections database. It’s not right, but for initial conversations, it is enough. I can drop some more knowledge on them later – and thankfully, most of these interactions are the first of many, not one-and-done.

Above all: I keep my initial answer as short as possible initially. “I’m an archivist; I work at the University in the library with rare materials and University records” because I want to draw out their comments and questions. If zines come up, or recent activism and related recordkeeping, or family photos: I’m in. Repetitive though a question like “but what about digitization” is, I take the opportunity to regale them with tales of the immense digitized photo collections, or videocassettes that my students treat like cuneiform. I may even invite them to a “Hop into History” event (hat tip to Erin Lawrimore, UNCG) at one of the local breweries, if they’re lucky!

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