Steve Barrett, State Archivist

I interviewed Steve Barrett, an archivist at Idaho State Archives. Since I am currently interning at the special collections in Albertson’s Library, I thought it would be interesting to look deeper into a career in archiving. He was extremely helpful and I learned so much while talking with him.


What path did you take to get to your current position? 

Steven Barrett has his PhD in American literature and obtained the position of archivist through unexpected channels. After following his wife to Boise when she got a job as a professor of literature at Boise State, Barrett started out volunteering at any location in which he might want a job. After starting out as a volunteer with the Boise library he eventually climbed the ladder there while still volunteering at Idaho State Archive in their research center. Climbing the ladder in the Historical Society in Boise, he worked as management assistant for the entire historical society for three years and then back into the Archive where he has been for the last few years. Barrett explained, “You don’t necessarily have to be a history major to work for a state archives. And in my case you can’t understand American Literature if you don’t understand American History.”  Most people in the research center have library degrees or backgrounds and the workers in the archive usually come from history backgrounds.


Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years? Is there anything that stands out?

Barrett explained that every project he is currently working on tends to be his favorite. One special project, however, is the Abraham Lincoln collection belonging to David Lee Roy who used to be Lieutenant governor under Cecil Anders.  Roy has been collecting Lincoln artifacts for decades and Barrett commented that his house is essentially a museum. Roy has donated a section of his collection to the State Archive who plan to create a five room exhibit out of it. Barrett plans to work with a volunteer who has an MA from King’s College in London to build Lincoln’s cabinet room as well as four other rooms featuring documents and artifacts from different eras in Lincoln’s life.


What kind of issues or problems do you see occurring in the archive or historical world?

            Barrett surprised me with his first ‘issue,’ he explained that one problem the archive world is by 2017 Idaho wants to go completely digital. Federal and state documents will never occur outside a digital form. As Barrett explained, “That’s great as long as the power is on.” It would then be up to the archive to store the digital document in perpetuity. Like we discussed in Digital History, the constant migration of the documents causes degradation and there’s also the progression of technology that may cause issues for preservation. How do archives store the massive amount of material then? Hard drive on shelf? A server? “Paper is still the most enduring record. Will we have records created today 100 years from now when they’re created digitally? No body knows. I call it the second Dark Ages.”


You mentioned Business Model, which is something that we have discussed in our class. Do you see anything positive in moving towards a business model?

            Barrett is a believer in the “public service model” when it comes to the state archives where “…we’re not nickel and diming everything that we do. It alienates people, it alienates me!” He does, however, find one positive feature being implemented with the business model approach. This approach forces the archives to be efficient.  He explains that agencies with plenty of funding and money get ‘sloppy.’ Informality means that different ideas and goals may or may not get done. The business model approach may not be as friendly, but it certainly gets things done. He commented that in his perfect wold they would have a public service business model because, “Right now we’re losing public service.”


Is there anything specific you’re looking for when hiring for a position in the archives?

            He explained that the big thing he sees is you need to have to have masters. He explained that when you apply for a position at the archives you could have a high school diploma and still do a lot of what they’re doing. You could have bachelors and definitely do what they’re doing.  However, when you are part of a pool of 70 people applying for a position that is as basic as it gets, you’re competing with people with a masters and maybe PhDs. “That’s the economy, and that’s the economy it’s been for 10 years now. It’s just the numbers.”


Any recommendations or advice for a person looking to break into the business?

            He suggests we look for project management positions where you’re working on and creating exhibits for one project. Look for those because the more experience you have the better of you’ll be. Always volunteer. Volunteer at museums, archives, libraries, anything, and get that experience so you can talk about your experience when applying. If you get a chance to work on a project like the Lincoln exhibit as a volunteer then jump on it. “If you’ve been project manager on stuff like that in a couple different states then you show that you’re willing to move around the country and that you can do diverse work, have leadership skills, so that then you’re going to be a strong candidate when a position opens up.”

Barrett then gave me the advice that he said was most influential in his life, “When I was in the 8th grade in my algebra class, of all places, my algebra teacher said, ‘The most important lesson you can learn here, in life, is change and adaptability. You are going to experience so much change in a lifetime that being able to adapt to whatever comes down the road is the most important skill you can developed. And I’ve worked with a lot of people who did not learn that, who did not have that skill, and I don’t work with them anymore. This would have been in the 70’s and look at what I’ve seen since… I just think, thank God she said that to me and thank God I heard it… I just want to pass on this incredible bit of wisdom I got in the 8th grade and that’s adapt, adapt, adapt.”



Reinventing the Museum, the Third

I really appreciate the Kotter’s comments on what is really necessary for change in a museum. As Falk and Sheppard said, the changes we are experiencing today are revolutionary (385). Museums can no longer maintain the status quo without being left behind. That change, however, is in no way easy. Kotter points out that even when the will is there the odds are against you when wanting to change your museum. Instead of becoming discouraged by this perspective, I find myself encouraged. It will take people like us – fresh, motivated, and willing to work hard to make things happen – to move aid motivated museums into this revolutionary era.

The common theme I noticed in these pieces was a need for cooperation among a number of different people. I appreciate that Kotter especially pointed out that it takes more than a motivated curator or director to make change happen. It take the board, directors, curators, interns, and the community to really revolutionize a museum. I have been lucky enough to work with a museum that actually managed to bring everyone together and revitalize their museum. It was hard, there were a some patrons who were unhappy with the change (they were the type of people who were upset with *any* kind of change so I wasn’t too worried by their comments), and the work isn’t finished even 5 years into the movement. If we can adopt a simple majority of the skills laid out of us starting on pg 500, then I think each of these articles holds hope as much as realistic warnings for future museum workers and patrons.

Reinventing the Museum, Scene II

Phelan, Monroe and Echo-Hawk focus their essays on museum ethics and repatriation of artifacts.  Both pieces discussed the inherent issues behind the accidental or purposeful acquisition of stolen artifacts and then the repatriation of said artifacts to their rightful owners. While the issue can often have black or white examples, I feel that the authors did not explore the gray areas quite thoroughly enough. I know both essays had a word limit and all the authors involved needed to get their point across very quickly, and therefore would like to see if they cover the issue better in other works. The gray area, in my opinion, is that of preservation of the artifact. Repatriation from US museum artifacts back to American tribes is pretty cut and dry, but what about museums like the British Museum that contain artifacts from all over the world? Greece’s Parthenon is beautifully displayed in its own section of the British Museum, yet Greece has been trying to get their artifacts back for many years. Many countries have stolen Egyptian antiquities that obviously belong to the country of Egypt. In many cases, however, the artifacts repatriation would end in the destruction or damage of the artifact. Greece is completely broke and Egypt is a military dictatorship at the moment. Returning any artifacts to these countries would not bode well for the artifact’s continued existence.


These are extreme examples, to be sure, but should there be some question of ethics behind the preservation of artifacts as much as to whom they belong? To be honest here, I’m not sure what the correct answer is. A Crow headdress may belong to the tribe, but they may not have the ability or motivation to preserve the headdress in a way that it would survive the test of time. Should there be some guarantee of preservation or care? Or do the ethics of returning items to the original owner overshadow those questions and thoughts? Dr. Zahi Hawass was instrumental in the repatriation of many artifacts back onto Egyptian soil, yet most of his work has been damaged, destroyed, or stolen with the recent turn of Egyptian politics. Is there ever a guarantee of preservation when you’re letting one of your artifacts move to another space? I’m very interested to hear what you all have to say about this issue in class or perhaps in different articles for class.

Reinventing the Museum, Part 1

The different perspectives in Reinventing the Museum provided useful insight into the different issues and concerns museum workers face today.  While I have very limited experience within this museum world, I still found myself nodding along with their worries.  Museums issues often take the form of a clash between old world and new world ideas.  While wanting to update a 60 year old museum you are faced with lifetime patrons that will literally boycott the museum should they find their old saddle is no longer on display.  On the other side how does a museum honor its own institutional values and keep up with the modern world at the same time. The authors all seemed to agree that bridging the gap between the old and the new does not have one clear answer.  In this struggle, however, I think museums honor their original value. By even making an attempt to honor their original purpose while remaining relevant they do their community justice.  Not all attempts are successful, the discourse between these authors and different museums bodes well for the future.

Graham Black’s short discussion on sharing authority raises the largest issue I saw while working with my museum. I often personally witnessed this “… fear of their expertise not being recognized and of losing control,” (274) and more likely than not it harmed the progress of the museum. Distrust of other institutions and extreme competitiveness did nothing but harm the different museums in my city. Black focused more on the sharing between users and communities rather than institutions, and I feel like he missed part of his argument in that. I never witnessed a fear of the public gaining too much power but often witnessed almost paranoia towards those darned heritage centers and art museums. I feel like Black and the other authors should have touched on this harmful prejudice between museums as much as a need to share authority with the community.