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The Meet Your Steering Committee Series allows the section membership to better get to know the Committee. For more entries, click here.
Ellen Holt-Werle is the Institutional Archivist in University Archives at the University of Minnesota. She holds a MLIS from Dominican University by way of St. Catherine University. Ellen’s work with university collections as Institutional Archivist centers surfacing and acknowledging exclusionary institutional histories and the voices and experiences of those impacted by the institution’s settler colonial and racist underpinnings. She is also a member of the Midwest Archives Conference, currently serving on the Ethics and Inclusion Committee. Her current interests are community archives; increasing access to and growing the representation of BIPOC voices and experiences in the archives; the settler colonial roots of collections across the university; and student activism and protest.
How did you get your start in academic archives and why have you stayed?
I’m a wannabe and then accidental archivist. I was unable to take the archives class when I was in my MLIS despite being interested in it. However after receiving my degree, I was encouraged to apply for a part-time, temporary archivist position. That turned into a full-time job, though split 50/50 Reference Librarian and Archivist, and then changed again to 50/50 Special Collections Librarian and Archivist. Now, 17+ years since starting that first temporary job, I’m still in archives, though in a new position and institution as of September 2021 (and finally a 100%-time archivist). Things that immediately come to mind regarding why I’ve stayed: I really like working with tangible collections; I enjoy instruction and interacting with students; and I particularly like that I get to learn a little about a lot of things and go down endless rabbit holes.
Can you share a success you’ve had in your repository recently?
I’m collaborating with a faculty member in our Anthropology Department to bring together staff and faculty from across the university who work with collections—whether archival, in our natural history and art museums, teaching collections of biological specimens or material culture, etc.—to discuss the colonial and settler colonial roots of many of these collections and the linkages that exist between them, sometimes even unbeknownst to us. Thus far, archivists, curators, faculty, and staff have been really interested and engaged, and we hope to be able to plan some more formal programming for next year.
What current or future project are you most excited about in your archives?
In addition to the Colonial Collections collaborative mentioned above, I will be co-teaching a Honors seminar in the Spring of 2024 with a History faculty member on “The Histories of Student Activism.” I’m excited to dig into student activism and protest here at the University of Minnesota, as well as broader national contexts, in preparation for this course, and to see how the students engage.
What are some of the challenges you face in your position?
The position I’m in is a newly created one, so there are no paths or precedents to follow. On the one hand, that’s exciting and freeing and part of what attracted me to this job. However it also means I’m figuring out what my position is, how to grow it, and what I want to do. I was a solo archivist before, and continually struggled with how to find balance—admittedly not very successfully. I’m still figuring out balance, but in a new way that’s positive. I can think about prioritizing work that feels the most impactful, versus I used to stress about how to move forward so that I didn’t feel like I was failing at all parts of my job. The other challenge has been moving from a very small liberal arts college to a huge R1 university, and all the additional systems, people, layers of bureaucracy—and especially acronyms—that I’m going to be trying to figure out for years to come.
What projects do you envision the section undertaking during your time on the steering committee?
It has been great to meet new people and see some of the workings of SAA. One thing I’d like to see is more opportunities for different sections to work together. We already do this some through co-sponsored talks, etc., but I think there’s always room for more and new ways. I also think there’s a role for the College & University Archives section to play with so many of our institutions tackling institutional histories and legacies of racism. What that looks like, I’m not sure yet, but I’m open to ideas if anyone ever wants to chat: email@example.com.