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.