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A Spotlight on Academic Archives with Sarah Glassford

18 Apr 2024 3:30 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

From municipal and federal government to universities, from religious congregations to community organizations, archivists work in a variety of settings. This year, the ACA blog, In the Field, is setting out to talk to archivists across Canada about the unique joys and challenges of their work environments. We will feature a different type of archives each month, with the objective of showcasing the rich spectrum of archival work.

This month we are featuring academic archives. In today’s post, the In the Field blog chats with Sarah Glassford, an Archivist at the Leddy Library Archives & Special Collections, University of Windsor.

Q: Can you briefly tell us about your academic and professional path? 

Sarah: I initially pursued a traditional path to a career as an academic historian: BA, MA, PhD, postdoctoral fellowship, tenure-track job market. It was a great first career, and I loved itbut it did not lead to the geographic or financial stability I wanted. So, I went back to school to earn my MLIS, did some more contract work, and then was hired in a permanence-track position here at the University of Windsor’s Leddy Library. Although I knew I wanted to be an archivist, I chose to do an MLIS degree for pragmatic reasons: I believed it would give me more employment options, and that was important after I had already spent a decade struggling to gain a foothold in the academic job market. I therefore gained most of my archival training not in a degree program, but by pursuing every hands-on training opportunity I could find. That turned out to be a co-op placement, a practicum, volunteer work, and a lot of professional workshops offered by ACA, AAO, NEDCC, and NAAB. 

I sometimes regret not having been trained in the theory and literature of archival studies, but my MLIS training helped me get current my job, because Leddy is a mid-size university library and everyone has to wear more than one hat (meaning that I do both archival and library work). It also helps me communicate more effectively with my librarian colleaguesI know their lingo and core practices, even if they don’t know mine. Elements of my first career have also been useful: a background in History makes archival arrangement and description faster and easier, and having a PhD generally earns the respect of the faculty members I interact with. My university teaching experience has been an asset in the instructional portion of my archivist and librarian roles. 

Sarah Glassford in the vault. Credit: Marcie Demmans, Leddy Library, August 2019. Check out this UWindsor DailyNews article featuring Sarah.

Q: What brought you to the field of archival studies and practice? 

Sarah: As a historian I spent a lot of time doing archival research, and always enjoyed the environment of archives. I first got a taste of what archivists do when I helped a voluntary organization organize their historical materials, butI was still committed to my teaching career at the time. I remembered that experience years later, when I was considering a career change, and wondered if it might be a viable option. So, I talked to people I knew with History degrees who were working in either libraries or archives and they were very encouraging. Once I got into it, I realized that archival work suited my natural inclination to enjoy organizing things, and allowed me to make a meaningful contribution to whose histories are told and howquestions I was already interested in from my teaching and research career. 

Q: What does an average day look like in university archives? 

Every day is different. Sometimes I am 100% archives-focused; other times I am up to 50% library focused. Some days I work quietly alone in my office doing arrangement and description; other days I attend library committee meetings, give tours to community groups, teach classes primary source literacy skills, or communicate with potential donors. Some days I train or mentor students intraditional archival practice; other days I work closely with staff, librarians, or faculty members on digital projects and outreach initiatives. Some days I work with new acquisitions or do monetary appraisals; other days I wrestle with legacy issues in our archives and try to improve the descriptions of collections we’ve had for decades. Most days it’s some combination of three or four of the above.  

Q: What is your favourite thing about working in university archives?  What are some of the challenges that are unique to university archives? 

Sarah: Since I work in a small archives, being a jack-of-all-trades is the name of the game. Paradoxically, this is both my favourite thing and the most challenging part. It can be overwhelming and disheartening to be pulled in so many directions all the time,but it also means I am rarely bored. I have an intimate familiarity with all aspects of our work, collections, patrons, donors, and purpose, and I like that.  

Specific to being a university archives, I think, is the challenge of being a small sub-unit of a much larger entity (the academic library) that recognizes and values the archives as a close cousin but very rarely understands it. I do a lot of what you might call ongoing low-key advocacy work when interacting with my librarian colleagues, around the differences between the two worlds. It’s important and necessary, but can be a bit wearying. 

A real benefit of working in a university archives is the opportunity to interact with young adults who are energeticidealistic, and enthusiastic about making the world a better place. I love getting to know a student’s interests and being able to direct their placement work around a collection or project that will be meaningful to them while also improving how our community is reflected in our collections. I’ve supervised student work highlighting women’s history, 2SLGBTQIA+ history, and Black history in our region, and it’s win-win when the students’ efforts not only benefit the archives and its future patrons, but also their own education and personal growth. 

Q: What do you wish the public understood better about university archives?  What do you wish other archivists understood about university archives?  

Sarah: Having the words “University of Windsor” in our name sometimes leads people to assume that all we collect are university records, or that the only people who can access our collections are university-affiliated faculty and students. In truth, our archives was created specifically for community collections, and only later in its evolution added university records to its mandate. Windsor is predominantly a blue-collar city, so there is sometimes a tension between town and gown, in terms of whether ordinary citizens feel that anything to do with the university is “for them” or not. About 75% of our archival patrons come from outside the university, but there is still a lot of work to do in terms of building our profile in the community as a trusted partner in regional history preservation and dissemination.

Collage of Great Lakes items held in Leddy Library Archives & Special Collections. Credit: Sarah Glassford, Leddy Library, April 2024.

Q: Can you tell us about a project you’ve been working on lately?  

Sarah: Right now my archives is part of a larger library-wide effort to support an upcoming international conference hosted by the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research (GLIER). The attractive and interesting historical materials in our Archives and Special Collections (ASC)old maps, historical images of Great Lakes birds, fish, landscapes, etc.will be used to draw conference-goers’ attention to a display highlighting the research potential of our library’s Great Lakes collection (of which ASC materials form a small part). It’s a good example of an archives-library collaboration within a university context, and alsoa microcosm of the way thatthe rare and unique items in the archives’ care are increasingly deployed to help academic libraries define themselves and defend their value in the digital age. In other words: we have cool old stuff you can’t find anywhere else! 

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