This post is the first in a series highlighting our elected section leadership.
Michelle Sweetser is the Head Librarian at the Center for Archival Collections (CAC) at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Before joining BGSU in 2016, she served as the University Archivist at Marquette University (2004-2016). Sweetser has been involved with the C&U Section since 2011, first serving as the newsletter editor and then managing the newsletter’s transition to its current blog format. She was elected to serve in the role of Vice Chair / Chair Elect in the summer of 2019.
Why or how did you find your way to becoming an archivist?
I went to college planning to become an archaeologist. A research project with one of my anthropology professors took me into the college archives on a regular basis to access and transcribe records from the town’s poor farm, where she was planning to conduct a dig. I developed a deep sense of connection to the past by handling those records and the sense of discovery and wonder in learning to read and interpret writings from the 18th century. At the same time, I had an internship with my school’s alumni magazine and I conducted a lot of photo research and fact-checking for them in the archives. These two activities introduced me to archives as a researcher; the college archivist, Anne Ostendarp, spent time with me to help me understand that archival work could be a career path, and the rest, as they say, is history. I like to say that instead of digging through dirt, I now help people dig through records.
Can you share a success you’ve had in your repository recently?
We are currently engaged in a NEH Common Heritage grant that has allowed us to partner with the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo (ICGT), about 20 minutes up the interstate from us. Through a community scan day, we digitized historical materials for community members and presented a selection of them in an exhibit we launched at the ICGT last fall. We reinstalled that exhibit on our campus and had planned a series of events for the spring semester that are aimed at bringing together our communities, but we’ve had to postpone them due to the COVID-19 situation. But I’m really excited about the relationships that we’ve built with members of that community and the opportunities we will have moving forward to collaborate with and learn from one another.
What current or future project are you most excited about in your archives?
We are in the midst of a huge project to convert all of our finding aids from Omeka as a delivery platform and into ArchivesSpace; we are moving our collection management data in there as well. It’s not a flashy project at all, but will allow us to have much better intellectual and physical control over our collections than we’ve had in the past. As a relatively new staff (all of us with less than 5 years of experience), it’s been a good way for us to get to know our holdings too. But once we’re finished with the project, we’ll be able to much more responsibly collect new material because we have basic intellectual control of our existing holdings. And who isn’t excited about active collecting?
What are some of the challenges you face in your position?
As I mentioned above, all of us have less than 5 years of experience at BGSU (I joined the institution 3.5 years ago). This is both freeing because we can establish a culture and processes for ourselves as well as a challenge because we simply do not have someone that we can call upon to help us understand past institutional decisions or to help provide context about donors or other matters. We are devoting a lot of time to addressing technological issues within our area – our finding aids and collection management projects, establishing digitization processes and standards, and working on digital preservation, for example – which are exceedingly important projects and focus a lot of our time inwardly. It’s difficult to find or make time, then, to also develop external relationships and do the public-facing work that is also vital to archival work. I’m trying hard to keep staff members from overextending themselves while continuing to make progress on these important projects.
How long have you been involved with SAA and what interests you the most about the College and University Section?
I’ve been involved with SAA since I was in graduate school, which is approaching twenty years at this point (how in the world did that happen?!?). I’ve been in academic archival settings in some form since my undergraduate career and there are so many varied aspects to work in these settings, including instruction, exhibits, and outreach; processing, description, and access; digitization and electronic records management. Just about anything within the archival profession relates to our work in some way and so the section is a place that allows you to specialize in a way with a focus on your institution, but also to be a generalist, to support people with passions and experiences across the range of archival work. We have really interesting and ever-changing conversations, as a result, and I’m a person who enjoys supporting that variety in work and conversations.
What projects do you envision the section undertaking under your leadership?
I am hopeful that our section’s SAA Foundation grant application will be funded, allowing us to complete a survey of College & University archivists that will establish a baseline understanding of the landscape at this moment in time. This information will help us better understand the needs and priorities of C&U archivists so that we can establish goals and priorities moving forward. If the grant application is not selected for funding, I believe there are some more limited ways in which we might go about collecting data. I believe that the section will continue to be responsive to emerging topics and changes in our environment and create spaces for conversations about those topics, be it discussions of difficult campus histories or how we are responding to pandemics, distance learning, and remote work.