Alan Virta, Former Head Archivist for Albertson’s Library

Interview with Alan Virta, former head Archivist from Albertson’s Library and Special Collections

I met with Alan on Wednesday, his day to volunteer for 4 hours at the Albertson’s Library and Special Collections. I found him there, processing a manuscript collection from the now defunct McCall Mine. Although Virta retired from Boise State in 2011, after a nearly 24-year career, he is not ready to completely give up the process of creating beauty from boxes of chaos. Since I completed an internship there this past summer, I understand (and miss) the spell that working with archives and manuscripts can have on a person.

Alan Virta’s initial interest in archiving came from doing research as an undergraduate student at various archives and historical societies. Since he loved spending time in the historical environment and looking at primary documents, he decided to make public history his career. Virta began his own career at the Library of Congress after receiving a MLS. There, his principal role was that of descriptive cataloguer in the manuscript collection. This means that each year, he created a reference source of manuscript collections held by all the libraries at the time, which numbered about 2,000.

After 13 years at the Library of Congress, Virta wanted to expand his experience and applied for head archivist at Boise State University.   He got the job and went to work establishing the collections.   Then, the department consisted of only himself and an aide. The highlight of his career was being able to process the Nell Shipman collection and help teach others about her contribution to film during a time when there were few female filmmakers.   Virta feels that the best perk of archiving is that the archivist always learns something. Archiving is the introvert’s dream- mostly solitary work that requires “little heavy lifting or sweat-inducing work.”   Also, archiving attracts people with compatible personalities. He is careful to stress that archiving is not for everyone, and that people looking at the field need to determine their tolerance for taking boxes and boxes of disorganized papers and turning them into a coherent research tool.

Regarding problems in archiving, the most pressing problem is that of electronic records that have never been on paper in the first place.   Technology changes so fast that it is difficult to know what to do with those cassette tapes that have been donated for study     (and have no transcript or a list of key words).

While watching Alan process the mine collection, I got the sense that he is a practical and sensible person. He is not the type of archivist that keeps every single thing that arrives to the archives in ratty old boxes – only that which he feels will be beneficial for researchers.

Virta is practical with his advice for students hoping to break into public history.   First, his suggestion is to get as varied as one can in internship opportunities.   Also, being able to write grants is a bonus.

Virta is realistic about job prospects for budding archivists in Boise. Unfortunately, jobs in this field are in greater demand in larger states such as New York and California. He suggests looking for jobs with USAjobs to find work within the National Park System or the American Museum Association.   The AMA is a good resource because it will only have jobs with accredited museums.

Virta admits that knowing other people in public history and being able to show off a skill set are imperative to breaking into the local field. Also, applicants need to be open to working part-time, if staying in the Treasure Valley. If an applicant is open to a cross county move, then there are great opportunities out there for those interested in the collections field.

Another Attitude Adjustment

To be honest, I approached this book with a big chip of my shoulder.   I figured that the aim of the book was to ensure that every museum exhibit from here on out was served with a generous serving of guilt about transgressions of the past.

Slavery is such an emotional issue, but I never considered that it could be painful for the black community. The story about the “Back of the Big House” exhibit that caused workers of the Library of Congress to feel offense, gave me pause. I never realized that slavery was a topic that many African-Americans would like to skirt just as many from the white community would like to do.

I agree with the statement that there is a perpetuation of superficial knowledge about slavery in our society.  I know that in my History 10A class, which covers from English Settlement to the Constitution, the only mention of slavery is during the ½ day discussion on the Triangular Trade.   There are two problems – a lack of time, a lack of importance placed on the subject with curriculum writers, and lastly, the one mentioned in the book, is my own superficial knowledge. School textbooks are also trite in the mention of slavery – textbook companies go out of their way to avoid controversy.

In the chapter, “If You Don’t Tell It Like it Was, It Can Never Be As It Ought To Be,” a roundtable of historians asked African-American community leaders what message they would like to see in a museum about slavery. The answer was surprising.   Instead of a museum that wanted to punish the present about the past, they felt that museums about slavery should teach truth, but yet, ultimately give visitors a feeling of pride of heritage and a hope for the future.

Even though the book focuses mainly on how to address the topic of slavery in the south, the philosophy of creating museum exhibits that focus on those who have not had their histories told by the general populace in a truthful yet compassionate way can help create a new dialog of understanding between historically conflicting groups.


From Passive to Active

So far in my life, I have only been to museums that follow the “old” way of doing things- I approach a painting or artifact, read the brief description, then move on in the low-light galley to the next object. I have never had the opportunity to use digital devices, participate with strangers, or create an object d’ art. I think that is why it is hard for me to visualize the effectiveness of all these new ideas within my museum context. One thing is for sure; the concept of what museums are to be is going through a major revolution. Last week in class, we discussed the blurring of lines between digital and physical presentations, as well as the shared ownership of authority between curator and community. This week’s discussion focuses two other changes that I feel are much more daring. One, the lines between historical and art museums (or other artistic groups such as playwrights, and dancers) are becoming blurred. This includes the idea of bringing in an artist and having them curate with the museum’s artifacts or creating a play about a historical figure. Secondly, and probably most revolutionary, is the idea that historical museums are moving away from being collectors of the past to being active creators of the present.


Using the Mining the Museum exhibit as an example, I wonder what the public reaction was to the collaboration.   People are used to being shocked and pushed in art galleries, but not necessarily in historical museums.   Instead of seeing the stagnant displays that had been there for years, visitors were treated to displays that were meant to create strong emotion and discussion.   Challenging the emotions as well as the intellect can be a difficult process for visitors. That being said, is challenging emotions such a bad thing?   Probably not, but it will be something that visitors will have to get used to in the new museum model.


Curators will have to become much, much, more creative when developing new installations for museums.   It seems that museums will spend less time will be spent building up collections in lieu of creating collaborations with others.   Ideas are now the focus, not things.

Digital Components and The Museum

The Role of Digital Components in The Museum.


One of the aspects that Letting Go? focuses on is how museums are relying more and more on digital content from blogs, podcasts, visitor contributions from feedback booths, and tweets.   This is a response to a larger societal trend and museums are trying to stay relevant in a user created world.  On the part of the museum, it seems like that is the only option to modernize, but I have reservations about the headlong dive into creating so many digital platforms.


What I really appreciated from Letting Go? is the acknowledgment of the downfalls that museums face with the pressure of creating digital content. While many visitors do have sentimental feelings towards the old museum paradigm, the new blended museum is here to stay.  While reading, I realized that even though the book details many great digital museum sites, such as 21st Century Abe, I had never heard of them before reading the book.  So, problem number 1: How do museums get the word out about their digital resources?   If no one knows about it, does it even matter that it is good?   Also, once visitors leave the museum, is there a role for the digital component of the exhibit?


The book is honest with its discussion of what has worked with digitally and what has not.  While other museum books have extolled the virtues of the feedback booth, this book acknowledges that most contributions are unusable and silly.  And, unfortunately, the good contributions have nowhere to go but to an archive where they probably won’t be seen again. This goes back to the earlier question – what is the point of digital components if they are bad?  Is there such a pressure to bring digital aspects to a museum that quality is compromised?  I realize that digital aspects within museums are a fairly new phenomenon, and of course, still in the process of trial and error.  While the profession is growing and improving, it is refreshing to have a book where students of museum studies can see and learn from other museums’ efforts.