Career Journeys: Caroline J. White

Headshot of Caroline J. White
Caroline J. White.

This post is from Caroline J. White, Archives and Manuscript Librarian at Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA), UMass Amherst Libraries. Caroline was first hired in 2012 in a three-year position. She has also held several short-term archives positions at Mount Holyoke College. She is a graduate of Simmons School of Library and Information Science and of Princeton University, where she majored in English. An editor for the Viking and Penguin imprints from 1987 until 2006, she expanded representation of women writers and writers of color on the Penguin Classics list and published the bestselling memoir about The Sound of Music by Charmian Carr (“Liesl”), among other works. She is an adjunct instructor in archives for Simmons and serves as copy editor for the New England Archivists Communications Committee. She grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and lives in western Massachusetts with her family.

Caroline, what do you like most about your work? What’s most challenging? 

I am officially a generalist, and my department at UMass Amherst is very flat, with staff members sharing responsibilities so that, in theory, we can all be flexible and somewhat interchangeable. I like that my work and responsibilities are so varied, but this can be challenging too, when it comes to prioritizing. I keep running lists—on paper—of daily tasks and ongoing projects to help me stay on top of things, but surprises always pop up. And in reality, we all carve out areas that we are especially interested in and/or good at. I do quite a bit of work with donors and with the library’s development and communications staff, especially on events and publications. I also love working with younger visitors (elementary, middle, and high schoolers). My favorite parts of my work are reference—I love a good hunt and figuring out how to come at a question—and any opportunity that lets me promote archives and the work of archivists. 

How did you become interested in this field, and how did you begin your career?

I spent almost two decades in New York City working as a book editor for Viking Penguin and Penguin Classics. There was a lot I loved about being an editor and working with books and authors, especially getting excited about a book—its potential, its success—and getting to know some brilliant and fascinating people. But the workload was enormous and the stress level incredibly high, and I worked all the time, evenings and weekends included. It hardened me. I decided to quit when I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore; my plan was to move to western Massachusetts to live near my sister and figure out the rest later. Before I left New York, I met my college creative writing professor, the novelist and travel memoirist Mary Morris, for a drink, and we got to talking about my next steps. She mentioned library school, which had vaguely occurred to me, and I soon decided to pursue it, and archives and special collections in particular, because I knew how writers and scholars used archival materials in books, and that intrigued me.

After I moved and had an 18-month hiatus, I started the Simmons program, at the Mount Holyoke campus, and took my first archives class, which included an internship focused on processing a collection. I was 41. I was lucky to have the wonderful Nanci Young at Smith College take me on and give me opportunities for behind-the-scenes glimpses of the collections and exposed me to reference work. 

What education, skills, and training have been essential to your success in this field?

I got a lot out of many of my classes in library school, especially my archives-related classes, preservation, and history of the book. But the most important things I came away with were good connections, good relationships, and some field experience. Some of my professors at Simmons West were practitioners, and some later became colleagues, as did several of my classmates. I had a few internships, including one at Mount Holyoke that—thanks to then archives head Jennifer Gunter King (now directing Emory’s Rose Library)—led to some invaluable early opportunities for me as a new graduate. 

My experience as a book publishing professional has proven more relevant than I ever imagined, in ways I did not expect. I am forever grateful to Rob Cox, who was one of my professors and later hired me at UMass Amherst, for recognizing this as a strength. It enabled me to bring into this field my love of stories and of history, comfort with people, familiarity with marketing, experience with change and with challenging work cultures (having been through two corporate mergers, multiple administrators, Satanic Verses-related bomb threats, and 9/11), and an ability to figure out how to figure things out in an unfamiliar environment.

More recently, teaching the introductory archives course for Simmons, which I started doing a few years ago, has refreshed my appreciation for the foundational concepts of our field, as well as connecting me with people coming into it. I love learning what they care about and why they want to be archivists. Teaching makes me a better archivist.

What advice would you give someone who is considering this type of job (or field)?

Do the reading and participate in your archives classes. You will need to absorb the foundational concepts and understand how “mainstream” archives function even if—especially if—you go on to complicate, subvert, or rebel against them! And your teacher will remember you.

Expect to do short-term or project-based work for a while. I was not prepared for how prevalent gig work is for professional archivists, and it took me more than five years after graduating from Simmons to be appointed to a permanent position. It’s one thing about the field that I would like to see change.

Some of the following advice concerns surprising things about archives that I have learned—and still reflect on—and some of it can be applicable to any field:

  • Archives are about people more than they are about collections: colleagues, users, donors, people represented in collections.
  • Pay attention to other people. Find people you admire, notice how they do things, how they talk about work, workplace issues, archives (or library) issues. (I did this as a book editor, and I still do it.) Connect with them, if you are comfortable doing so. Find a mentor or mentors, whether through a formal program or in a more informal capacity. Connect with colleagues at all levels if you can. Ask questions, but also: continue to figure out what questions you need 
  • Be alert to opportunities and as flexible as you are comfortable being. And patient.
  • If you are coming from another field, learn to explain clearly and succinctly how your experience and skills translate to archives work. Because they probably do, and they may help you stand out. But…
  • Don’t let others define you but know that they might, at least in their own minds. I had to relearn how to apply for jobs, and there were a few jobs that I thought, with my background, I would be perfect for! Did I make missteps in my applications? Did I come off as too old? Or–? Who knows? I was surprised not to get interviews for these positions; only people who already knew me gave me a chance, which is both gratifying and a little unsettling.
  • Don’t overdo it—don’t feel like you have to do it all, and don’t get pulled, or pull yourself into, a project or committee or something that you aren’t really into.
  • It’s okay to change your mind (and your career).

If you could start all over again, would you change your career path in any way? Why?

I would probably change many things about how I approached my publishing career—I was so young when I started!—but I am happy to have come to archives. I did not get the first job I applied for at UMass Amherst, but I was offered some part-time gig work that bolstered by metadata skills—and I think I ended up with a job and path much more suited to me.

If I had come to archives at a younger age, I might have gotten a subject master’s degree as well as my MLS, but I’m old enough now to be satisfied with what I have and what I can continue to learn. There’s always more to learn, to listen to, to understand, to do better… and I still love to read.