NSights Blog

Being an archivist: It's often about the relationships

Archivists not only find ways to organize materials; they find ways to connect holdings with families, donors and the public

Often when I meet people one of the first questions they ask is "what do you do?"  I say, "I'm an archivist."  Puzzled, the follow-up question usually consists of something along the lines of, "Is that similar to an architect?"  I explain that I work in a repository at the University that collects, preserves, and provides access to historical materials and information about notable Nevadans, Nevada institutions, and related topics.  The work is not nearly as dynamic or sexy as the types of things that Indiana Jones does, but it is incredibly important to the history and identity of northern Nevada and the region at large.

The most rewarding aspect of my job in Special Collections is the satisfaction that I get from working with our donors and/or the families of donors.  Going into the profession, I hadn't realized that beyond processing, arranging, and describing archival materials there would be another more human aspect to the job that involves meeting and interacting with a multitude of diverse people who themselves (or their family members) have chosen Special Collections as the home for their archives, papers, or records.  This is fortunate because sometimes working in an office behind closed doors, with no windows and little human interaction, can be lonely. 

Most of my previous work experience has been in customer service.  I worked in retail in a skateboard shop, sold bicycle parts in a warehouse call center, was the maître d' of a comedy club, and finally spent years behind a cash register at a car wash.  I sincerely enjoy people.  I would have never imagined myself working in an archive.  I was born and raised in Carson City.  When my dad was offered a job with the Bureau of Reclamation in the early 1980s, he and my mom packed up the pea green Volkswagen bus with my older brother, a cat, a dog, and some household goods and made a beeline from Virginia to northern Nevada. 

As high school graduation approached, I figured I would maybe join the military.  I never really had any intentions of going to college, but then two things happened: the terror attacks of 9/11, which occurred right around my 18th birthday, and news that I'd be receiving the Millennium Scholarship.  That's when I decided to attend the University.  After stumbling around for a few years between majors, I finally received my B.A. in History (realizing I had a love for history all along). A year later, I applied to the History Department's Graduate Program and was accepted. 

During grad school, I received an internship at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) with the USDA in Washington, D.C.  Much of my time that summer was spent at the National Archives doing research for my boss.  It was an incredible learning experience and one that informed my career path. When I returned to Reno, I started hanging around Special Collections a lot more.  I knew I wanted to try to get my foot in the door somehow. 

Well, I got my wish when I was hired as a student worker in 2012 just before receiving my M.A. in History.  In my time with Special Collections, I've learned a lot and developed professionally.  I enjoy all the different facets of my job, but there are some that I like more than others. Over the years, I've been increasingly more involved with picking up materials from donors or their estates, giving tours of the department, and facilitating visits with donors and their family members.  If someone is coming to the department for a visit, we always make sure we can showcase some examples from the collection in addition to a completed finding aid. 

This is a good visualization of the work that has gone into processing a collection, but it also highlights the care that was taken as well as the thoroughness in describing and listing the contents of each box. Some donors might recall the condition that their papers came in whether in old boxes, bags, or any other container and they're amazed to see what the finished product looks like.  Sometimes they will look at the folder headings, pull out the folder, and thumb through the contents.  They might even recognize someone or something and exclaim, "Oh, I remember this!"

Recently, I completed work on the Cooke Family Papers.  This collection included materials from long-time Reno residents Thomas Arthur "Tom" Cooke and his wife, Martha Patricia "Patty" Herz Cooke, and their immediate families.  One of Tom and Patty's four daughters, Theresa, reached out to us knowing that we'd received the family's papers.  It was fortunate timing, too, because I was just on the cusp of finishing up the work.  We arranged a time for her and her sister, Kathy, to come to the department so they could learn the "ropes," and look at their parent's papers. 

Not only were they impressed with the holdings of the department, but they were both thrilled to see their family's papers neatly organized and arranged by subject.  I pulled a couple boxes and left them in the reading room to dig in.  They told me that a lot of memories came flooding back seeing these materials and thanked me for the work I did not only in arrangement, but also in the biographical essay that described the family history beginning with their great-grandparents.  

I always feel a little strange writing somebody else's history, but through good research and use of primary sources, I can produce what describes and contextualizes the role of a person(s) or institution.  In any case, seeing those two happy, made me happy.  I told them that it's those situations that make my job all the more rewarding and worthwhile. 

They're coming back to do more research soon and they're going to bring along some additional family members!  I am flattered and honored that I've had to opportunity to work with so many unique and valuable collections and had the opportunity to meet some of the people, but also be a part of telling their stories.

Edan Strekal headshot