This summer, I did an internship in collections management at the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC), a museum at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s HemisFair Park campus. While I spent most of my summer working within the museum’s collections department, I also had the opportunity before I left to visit with Katie Rojas, an archivist in UTSA Libraries Special Collections, which also has facilities in the ITC building. Since many ALA/TLA members (myself included) have an interest in both libraries and archives, whether that’s because we want to keep our career options open or because we just love learning everything about everything, Katie was gracious enough to share some thoughts on what it’s like to be an archivist in a special collections library.
1. Can you briefly describe your past education and work experiences?
I have a BA in Anthropology with a minor in Art History from UT Austin (2008). During college, I mostly worked service industry jobs (waitress, grocery store). After graduation, I got my teaching certificate and began teaching history at the high school level in San Antonio. During that time, I took a couple library courses at the community college and did an internship in an elementary school library. This was a helpful primer for graduate school, which I completed entirely online through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I graduated in May 2015 with my MLIS (with a transcript-designated concentration in archives).
During grad school I did fieldwork at the City of San Antonio Municipal Archives, which turned into my first paid archives job. I was an archives assistant there and was eventually promoted to archivist. I’m currently the Manuscripts Archivist at The University of Texas Libraries Special Collections (UTSA). My heart has always been in academia, and I have a great boss and coworkers, so I feel lucky to be where I am!
2. You work in a library that is affiliated with both an academic institution and a museum. What makes that setting unique?
There is an ever-present need to clarify archives vs. museums vs. libraries, and being connected to the Institute of Texan Cultures is definitely a catalyst for that conversation. Our organizational structure is such that UTSA Special Collections is a department within the Library. The Library is a completely separate operation from the ITC. However, they share a parent organization, UTSA. UTSA’s main campus and ITC are located about 19 miles away from each other.
Here’s the tricky part: the ITC used to have its own small library, vertical files, and photograph collections. Those components were absorbed into Special Collections in 2009. However, these components are still physically located at ITC, so people often forget or don’t realize that it’s not actually part of the museum, operations-wise. The photographs do get used for ITC exhibits fairly frequently because of their physical proximity and the history they share with the museum component.
Because of the 2009 integration, Special Collections has a physical footprint at ITC. We have a reading room and stacks at main campus, but we also have a reading room, stacks, and work room at ITC. A lot of our Special Collections staff bounce back and forth between working at main campus and at ITC, and two of our staff members are at ITC 100% of the time. It can get pesky when supplies are delivered to the wrong location, or when you are trying to figure out where the best place is to store a new collection, or when you could really use a student worker’s help on a collection that is located at ITC but they live on main campus and don’t have a car. In general, though, I think our situation is actually fairly common – archives everywhere need space and often have stacks/storage (and sometimes work areas) in multiple buildings.
3. What are some of the most and least interesting things in UTSA’s Special Collections?
When asked this question some people highlight the things in their archives that don’t actually belong in archives, like museum objects. For example, we have a pair of chairs that were designed especially for HemisFair, the 1968 World’s Fair held in San Antonio. Personally, I’d file the chairs under “least interesting.”
As an archivist, I really value context. So, in my opinion, some of the most interesting things aren’t oddball one-off items, they’re whole collections. A favorite collection of mine that we have at UTSA is the Sterling Houston Papers. He was an African American playwright, actor, musician, and prose writer who often used these mediums to explore black narratives and LGBTQ identity. His collection is rich with examples of work and photos from throughout his life. It’s the kind of collection that allows you to get an intimate sense of what an amazing person he was. Really, the most interesting things aren’t really the things, but the people who created the things. Good collections allow those people to shine through.
4. We have quite a few students who are interested in both libraries and archives. What skills do you think are the most transferable between those areas?
The basic librarianship and information studies courses will help you to think about information in a way that is applicable to both libraries and archives. Concepts of information organization, information retrieval & information retrieval systems, research methods, linked data, and user experience are broadly applicable in the LIS professions. More specifically, however, I think the following skills are shared pretty heavily between librarians and archivists:
• Experience working with patrons and conducting reference interviews
• Experience with and understanding of content management systems and databases
• Knowledge of controlled vocabularies, how they work, and how they should be used
• Understanding of metadata standards, and best practices for metadata creation
• Knowledge of XML. You don’t need to be an expert, but you should be comfortable with it.
• Pick one: PHP, Perl, Python, MySQL – I probably see Python being used the most. You may or may not use these a lot depending on how positions in your institution are structured. UTSA has a Library Systems department and I don’t actually need to do any scripting in my position. But there have been times I wished I could! And I know other people with similar job titles who do use these. Plus, knowledge of these languages will make you more attractive to hiring committees and give you greater job flexibility.
5. If someone is particularly interested in librarianship and can only take a course or two about archives, what kinds of archives courses do you think would be the most beneficial?
I would take the basic intro to archives course offered by your school. It should cover all the foundational archives concepts: original order, provenance, appraisal & types of value, arrangement & description, finding aids, helping researchers, donor relations, and outreach & advocacy. If your school doesn’t offer archives courses, or you can’t fit it into your schedule, look into other options. See if your school will allow a course or two from another institution to be counted towards your credits. You can also look for postgraduate certificate programs and courses offered by the Society of American Archivists.
6. You had a good experience getting an online degree. What would you advise UT students to look for if they’re looking to choose an online class or two to supplement their in-person education?
If you’re looking outside of your own school for a course to take, try to find something that covers a topic that you are interested in that your school doesn’t offer. Also, look for a professor who is seasoned in online instruction. Teaching online is very different from teaching in-person. Some professors are great at it, but others do better teaching in a classroom setting (same goes for students).
Taking a course online can give you more flexibility in your schedule, but it won’t necessarily give you more free time. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it will be easier because it’s online. It might actually be harder because you really need to be disciplined with your study time and take the initiative to engage with your professor and classmates. If you can be self-disciplined and proactive, I recommend it.
7. Austin residents sometimes seem to forget that San Antonio is so close. What professional opportunities around the San Antonio area would you suggest that UT students might also consider looking into?
I recommend attending the Society of Southwest Archivists annual conference, which is being held in San Antonio in May 2018. Registration for students in past years has been under $100, and there are scholarship opportunities as well. We also have the San Antonio Regional Archivists, which is a semi-informal group of local archivists that meets about 2-3 times a year. We have a Google group and a Facebook group that we use for announcements and questions.
As an Austin-to-San Antonio transplant, I also used to forget that San Antonio was so close and didn’t realize that there was so much to do here. San Antonio has some really wonderful libraries, archives, and museums! The San Antonio Museum of Art is my favorite museum in town, hands-down. Their antiquities collection is quite impressive, and their location on the San Antonio Riverwalk near restaurants and coffee and Tiff’s Treats doesn’t hurt either! I also recommend the McNay Art Museum, the Witte Museum (natural history), and the San Antonio Public Library Main Branch (downtown) to see the Chihuly sculptures and visit the Texana/Genealogy department. And of course, if you ever want to visit UTSA’s Special Collections just shoot me an email!