Interview With an Archivist

Dr. Cheryl Oestreicher has held many positions in her career but none she found as fulfilling as working as a library archivist. It was not her first choice–she did not attend library school until her late twenties, and only chose archival work halfway through her program–but little makes her happier than working with the general public to uncover pieces of the historical narrative buried in special collections. Dr. Oestreicher began her career in the archives excited about the collections she could preserve and has continued it because she is excited about the people who wish to work with them.

The Boise State Library Special Collections and Archives require several different kinds of work in order to function. Someone must seek out or accept collections for donation, which means that the archive must have a clear idea in mind of what kinds of collections they wish to keep and what to pass on. Space is always a limiting factor in an archive, particularly since the stacks where collections are stored generally require temperature and humidity regulation. Since an archive cannot house everything, someone has to judge whether the collection is worth keeping–a tricky prospect for an archivist. Next, someone must process the collection. This can be as simple as labeling folders or boxes or as intense as itemizing and describing each piece. Later that collection must be added to the catalog, as a collection is hardly useful if no one knows an archive has it. Additional work can include digitization, cross-referencing items with other collections, and interpreting the collection to create public history installations like interactive timelines or exhibits. Dr. Oestreicher has done it all.

Most if not all archivists require a masters or doctorate in one of the library sciences. Very few have any background in history, and while some archives build exhibits that is not their main focus. The majority of archives exist to serve a curatorial function, and the Boise State archive is not an exception. The archive works with a variety of different kinds of people, from faculty and students to amateur historians and curious members of the public. Dr. Oestreicher has also worked with researchers from the National Science Foundation and researchers from other countries who are interested in topics covered by the special collections the library owns. The Frank Church Papers are by far the most utilized collection, but many others have fueled important projects.

Many archives are funded by the institution they are attached to and accept donations to further expand their capabilities. Collections are often donated to the archive, though some actively seek out and purchase famous or desirable collections. Dr. Oestreicher and her team are lucky in that they have the ability to chose which collections or projects they would like to work with and are able to develop their public history installations from there. While a small exhibit in the windows of the library features some of the archive’s pieces, the primary interest of the archive is not to track how many people are stopping ┬áby to look at them. The archive has also done a fair amount of digitization, either at the behest of an interested party or because the archive itself believes that the collections will be of interest to the public. Dr. Oestreicher’s favorite public history piece that has been produced in the last few years is the timeline of Boise State’s campus that features pictures of the old buildings and tidbits of the University’s past. The user response to this timeline has been overwhelmingly positive, and the archive plans to do more like it soon.

Dr. Oestreicher had some advice for those who wished to get involved with archives. So many people want to work for an archive because they believe they will be in a back room processing collections all day, and will not have to deal with the public. She freely admits that is what appealed to her the most when she was first choosing this career. However, she has found that even in her time spent processing collections for the Atlanta library she used to work for, she still had to spend a certain amount of time talking with the donors in order to properly label things. Over time, more and more of her job consisted of interacting with the public in some way. This interaction is now the most fulfilling part of her work in ways she never thought it would be. Being an archivist is not just about the ‘stuff;’ it is about the new knowledge gained from projects that utilize that ‘stuff.’


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