This post is the third in a series highlighting our recently-elected section leadership.
Ellen Engseth is Curator, Immigration History Research Center Archives and Head of the Migration and Social Services Collections within Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries. The Migration and Social Services Collections are four distinct archives with complementary collections, staff expertise, and patron base. Archives and Special Collections is a department of the University Libraries, with 15 distinct yet collaborative collecting areas, that together create one of the largest archives on an academic campus in the U.S. Previously, she worked as an archivist at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, at North Park University, and at University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign.
Why or how did you find your way to becoming an archivist?
After a college degree in history, I thought I’d go on to museum work, and I spent some time gaining volunteer and work experience in the heritage sector. I was fortunate to be able to volunteer at the Public Record Office in Kew, England, now the National Archives (UK). I don’t believe I’d ever been in an archive before that point. These colleagues sat me down in front of some 19th century copyright registration ledgers, to look for something in particular, and I was hooked on two things: the information source in its original form (with which I had little experience), and the continuing value and exciting research options these sources provide to us. I did some research and learned of the option to concentrate on archival administration, and attended that program at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
Can you share a success you have had in your repository of late?
This past year, we’ve had a good experience publishing our sources through a digital academic publisher. I saw this opportunity as one to be both entrepreneurial and contributory; through this project, we’ve increased our digital assets (55,000 pages and 20 hours of transcribed oral history recordings) while improving access of our sources to users we would otherwise not reach. We also had a great time working with campus colleagues, the James Ford Bell Library, and the publishers, building stronger campus relationships, and learning a lot.
What project are you most excited about in your archives?
Finding our next colleague! We have an assistant archivist position available soon, and I really enjoy the process of talking with candidates, finding a good match, and then onboarding and welcoming that new colleague.
As a curator at the Immigration History Research Center Archives, what advice might you give college and university archivists who are considering documenting immigrants on their campus (or the surrounding community)?
This is something I think a lot about, and in the current political and social climates, others are engaged, too. This increase in activity is an opportunity for us to be part of the conversations, learn more about the realities of those on our campuses, and utilize those traditional areas where we often connect with others, such as student groups or in teaching. In our case, at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, a newly-formed Immigration Response Team confirmed that after the presidential proclamation, over 150 international students and scholars are from the eight listed countries, and there are hundreds more faculty, staff, and students with connections to those countries. Did your campus respond in some official capacity? Are more classes discussing immigration, and do you have sources to share with them? Are student groups active and engaged? If so, they are likely cognizant of the historical importance of this moment. Finally, it’s a prime opportunity to practice cultural competence, because the lived realities of recent im/migrants and new Americans on our campuses will be different from others.’ For example, one thing I am now sensitive to is my own use, as an archivist, of the word “document” (and its variants such as documentation and documentary). For many non-archivists, this word carries issues or meanings much stronger than any related to archival activity. In honor of this, I increasingly choose other words, or if I do use “document,” I explain my own usage and set it in the archival context.
You recently received an AASLH Leadership in History Award for your exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the IHRCA. What are your top tips for creating an engaging exhibit in a college and university setting?
In this exhibit my colleagues and I worked to create an impactful, energetic exhibit space. We hoped that the visitors would engage with the general topic of im/migration, and then, bring that engagement to the archival material on exhibit and to the topic of our archives. So we utilized bright colors, everyday recognizable items such as suitcases and (traveling) shoes, and provided a large world map where we asked visitors to participate in the exhibit by illustrating any migration journey by simply placing a string onto it. Visitors thus gradually and collectively created an exhibit piece that visualized global migration through time. Students seemed to really enjoy this easy way to participate. We also asked folks to leave their comments — and students did, which is great! Finally, we actively welcomed people via a video, a formal event/invitation, personal outreach to teachers, students and community members, and encouraged visitors to discuss their visit on social media.
How have you balanced the demands of the work place with your professional involvement in SAA and elsewhere?
Time or energy for volunteer work service and professional activity can be a struggle for many of us, I know. Yet this kind of work is a great benefit; some people I know in other work environments don’t get such opportunity, and I find that I typically receive as much as I give. I balance by being strategic, choosing to do that which I feel will truly be of use. Also, my experience is that this kind of activity will ebb and flow, depending on opportunity, our other life demands, support from work places, and similar. This will provide some natural balance, as well.
As Vice-Chair and Chair-Elect, what are your priorities for the section for the next two years?
I’d like to maximize the good work of this year’s initiative led by current Chair Rebecca Goldman (details to be announced soon!) by continuing with any work in process. And I am always interested in connecting our section work with SAA’s Goals and Strategies or with other sections, and thus share our campus-based experiences with the wider profession where it can be useful. Finally, as someone with my eye on the international, I will be considering confluences or connections with the Section on University Archives of the International Council on Archives. (Some of you may be interested to know that their 2018 conference will be held in Salamanca, Spain on the topic of “Historical Records in University Archives, a Value Added.”)
I’d love to hear from any of you interested in these areas or others, and work with you on them. Thank you!