Julie Rockwell is a part-time collections specialist at the Frost Entomological Museum of the Penn State University, Main Campus. She recently accepted a part-time position as an independent contractor archivist with the East Broad Top Railroad Foundation located in Rockhill Furnace, PA. Julie graduated in December 2020 from the Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs with a Master of Arts in Museum Studies and a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Digital Curation.
Matt Testa is the archivist for Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where he manages institutional records and special collections in performing arts. Matt holds committee positions for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) and the Music Library Association.
Testa volunteered as a mentor and worked with Rockwell this past year, and they generously answered some questions to share their experience with the SAA community.
The Society of American Archivists’ Mentoring Program welcomes applications throughout the year. In this blog series, mentoring participants share about their experience in the program. Would you like to write a post? Let us know at email@example.com.
What are some aspects that you most enjoy about working with your mentoring partner?
Julie is coming to archives work after careers in culinary and theater fields. She is very enthusiastic for archives work and eager to take on new challenges, whether it is learning new technology or figuring out how to design an archives program for a historic local railroad company. She has a genuine interest in many different areas and wants to learn more. I enjoy checking in with her and seeing how much progress she has made in just the last eight months: writing a capstone paper on born-digital access, finishing her master’s in digital curation, starting a new part-time position as a digitization specialist, and networking with the board of the local historic railroad.
I have appreciated connecting to Matt because he and I share similarities of having various academic and career paths that led us both to the archives and special collections profession. Matt’s education in becoming an archivist started with a master’s degree in Musicology from McGill University and then earning a master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Maryland College Park. His experience helped me realize that having a rich, varied background can be a great asset to working in collections. It’s inspiring to learn of Matt’s interest in preserving archival records found in performing arts and music collections and how he is tackling the challenges of working with born-digital materials and sustainably preserving them for access. I enjoy knowing that a seasoned archivist such as Matt is always willing to learn and embrace challenges no matter his expertise in the field. He keeps current on the latest libraries and archives scholarship and digital preservation technologies and is active in expanding his networking and professional development. He is a significant leader in the archival profession. Matt has been a great mentor because he genuinely cares about my progress in becoming a LAM professional. He offers sound advice and positive encouragement, which has been one of the highlights since joining SAA as an older graduate student entering the field.
What have you learned from your mentoring partner so far?
Seeing Julie begin her post-grad school career with digitization work for an entomological museum while also helping the local railroad plan an archives program is a reminder that there are many possible entry points to archival work. I’ve learned that her interest in the profession is genuine, which carries over into her willingness to take on new challenges.
What I’ve learned most from Matt is that leadership skills in the archival profession are extremely beneficial no matter the position. His active leadership in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) and the Music Library Association, along with being an active member of SAA, encourages me to become a leader within my own work either as a museum assistant or as a newly contracted lone arranger. Either being responsible for leading other professionals or self-managing his own work at the Peabody Institute, Matt exemplifies the qualities of an effective and compassionate leader and archivist who understands the balance between work and self-care so that he can bring the best of himself every day.
What inspired you to sign up for the SAA Mentoring Program?
Originally I think I responded to a call that mentioned a need for mentors in performing arts archives, though Julie and my other mentee turned out to be generalists. I’ve learned a lot from my own mentors and I want to pay that forward. Coming out of my own MLIS program in 2015, I was fortunate to have a supervisor who kindled my interest in archives work (a shift from the trajectory I expected as a music liaison librarian) and opened my eyes to the skills and connections I would need to thrive in that career. Working in archives and libraries can be very rewarding, but finding your way to a position you like that comes with job security is challenging. I think it’s important for all of us who are established in the field to help early-career archivists find their way.
As a former American history and culinary arts instructor in higher education and a theatre arts instructor for young adults and children, I have been a mentor for many students. I know that navigating challenges in both the academic and emerging professional world are many and is a different experience for each student. Having a mentor can make a complete difference in someone’s life, professional or personal. Whether it’s helping to strategize the job hunt or interview process or simply lifting someone’s confidence and being an inspiring figure – Mentors matter. Being a part of the SAA Mentoring Program has helped me continue to sharpen my networking and communication skills within the organization and meet new people, especially outside of my former studies at Johns Hopkins. I believe in inclusive and collaborative communities of practice, and what better way to strengthen the profession than by embracing community, sharing resources, and giving back. In this spirit, I hope to be the type of mentor that Matt has been to me.
How do you communicate with your mentoring partner (telephone, video call, weekly, monthly, quarterly)?
We have a video call about once every 4-6 weeks and touch base by email in between sometimes. Our informal conversations touch on some highlights and milestones of the past few weeks. We also usually end up chatting about what’s happening in our gardens or kitchens.
It has worked out exceptionally well to have a Zoom meet-up once a month for about thirty minutes to an hour. Both Matt and I enjoy brief, informal email conversations before setting up the Zoom meeting as we share a love for gardening and other outdoor activities, such as hiking. I’ve also been free to contact Matt at any time if I’ve had any questions regarding my developing an archives and special collections program for a new, local railroad foundation. The work has included considering the appropriate salary that aligns with the job description I’ve outlined. Matt’s flexibility in communications has been highly supportive in this endeavor.
Do you have tips for participants in the Mentoring Program and others thinking about participation?
Mentoring can be really valuable at any career stage, whether you’re a mentor or a mentee or part of a peer group. I encourage people to enter with an open mind and really listen to each other. You never know what you might learn in the process.
I would say, most importantly, as a mentee, “Be receptive.” Accepting constructive criticism at any age is hard, but it is a learned skill. The more you can accept constructive criticism, whether it be in fine-tuning your resume, or sharpening your writing, communication, or networking skills, the more comfortable you will become with taking professional advice, and your skills will improve over time. Welcome any opportunities your mentor may have for you, such as seeking out professional development or attending conferences that would benefit your participation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be honest about your inexperience or limitations and share what you would like to work on to become a better archivist or a better steward of the profession. Mentors would not be mentors if they didn’t want to – take advantage of the unique opportunity to have one rooting for you!
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your mentoring relationship?
We started communicating in August 2020, so our relationship has always been mediated through a computer screen, but that’s most professional communication these days. I hope we will be able to meet in person eventually.
For me, starting the mentorship program near the completion of my online master’s degree program during the Covid-19 pandemic did not impact my mentoring relationship with Matt. I was used to communicating with my JHU professors and fellow students in the online course format and on Zoom before the pandemic. However, I know that face-to-face, in-person communications are of great value to making a real connection, and I’ve missed it. As one who can experience social anxiety, especially at conferences, having the mentoring relationship with Matt over online communications has strengthened my confidence in meeting new people who have worked in archives much longer than me. I do hope that Matt and I can meet in person and continue communications within the archival field.
How has your mentorship affected your outlook on the archival profession? How has it changed from your perspective prior to participation in the program?
Serving as a mentor has made me reflect on what I have learned from my own mentors over the years. I think my relationship with Julie has reinforced just how important mentoring can be, especially during a time when some of the traditional sites of professional development and networking are more limited during the pandemic. For those of us who are already established in the field, supporting our early-career colleagues through things like mentorship is an important way to help them thrive and to strengthen the profession as a whole.
Participating in the mentorship program has given me hope for SAA’s welcoming of emerging professionals into the archival profession who come from many different academic paths. Although I primarily focused my graduate studies on museum collections management and digital curation, I have found that these skills significantly complement the archival profession. As a mentee, I could contribute to Matt’s knowledge in these specific subject areas, especially in our mutual interests in born-digital collections access. The interchange of LAM scholarship from various perspectives has helped me become a more informed and curious archives and museums practitioner.
As an older, career-transitioning professional, I was terrified that no matter how hard I worked to learn the theoretical and practical skills to become an archivist or collections manager, my inexperience would be detrimental in becoming an immediate, successful hire in the LAMs. However, since I’ve been a part of the mentorship program, I realize that the hard work does pay off. Having someone like Matt as a mentor who believes in your skills and abilities and can guide you to achieving success in the field is priceless. His support and the support of other professional archivists from SAA and other organizations reflect the profession’s changing landscape that is more reparative, community-based and cross-disciplinary.