Career Journeys: John Esh

John Esh is a Processing Archivist at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. John holds a BA in Anthropology from Portland State University and a MLS from Emporia State University.
John is a member of SAA’s SNAP (Students and New Archives Professionals) section and Performing Arts section steering committee member.

What are your main responsibilities as an archivist?

As the Processing Archivist at Towson University, I’m primarily responsible for the survey, accession, and creation of resources for the materials we ingest. In addition to my more practical duties, I also teach classes in archival literacy and research as well as assisting the University Archivist with classes tailored for departments across the university in using our resources for specific projects. I’m also in charge of the digitization of legacy media such as vinyl, audio and video cassettes, and magnetic storage media dating back to the 1980s.

What is a typical day (or week) like for you?
It always starts with a large Americano and getting through any emails that need to be addressed. I generally don’t have a set order for projects, as priorities are always shifting, but I try to do a little bit of everything every day. Chipping away at our backlog of accessions, fine tuning presentations for teaching, and working on scholarship are always on my plate. I also like to help out around the library when I can. It’s always good to stay involved with colleagues outside of the department.

What do you like most about your work? What’s most challenging?
The thrill of unearthing hidden collections and piecing together the stories of our various donations. I haven’t found a collection yet that hasn’t yielded something exciting. Every collection presents its own unique set of challenges, and it’s always fun to tackle new ones. Working out solutions for these situations is what I look forward to every day and what helps me grow as a professional.

What are some career accomplishments you’re most proud of?

Processing the Bill Urban and Baltimore Alternative collection. A resource showcasing 15 years of Baltimore’s premier LGBTQAI+ monthly paper from the mid 1980s to early 2000s, and the story of its founder that has not, outside of a few issues here and there, been available anywhere for researchers prior to now.

As well, working with Shodekeh Talifero, a Baltimore based beatboxer and breath artist, to help realize his collection to accurately reflect his journey as an artist and create a unique and dynamic site to showcase it.

How did you become interested in this field, and how did you begin your career?
After receiving my BA in Anthropology from Portland State University, I continued to work as a bartender while I tried to figure out what I was doing with my life. At one of my jobs, I met a server who was in library school to be an archivist, and the more she talked about it, the more I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. So I enrolled at Emporia State University, and the rest is history. My internships and student positions at Oregon Health & Science University, Lewis & Clark College, and Adidas NA provided me with a well-rounded skill-set and experience base to draw from and help land my first professional position.

What education, skills, and training have been essential to your success in this field?
My undergrad in Anthropology really prepared me to look at the world through a variety of lenses, instilled a deep respect for other cultural processes, and even gave me a bit of training in artifact handling and preservation. In addition, years of work in the service industry enabled me to work and communicate effectively with a wide variety of patrons, researchers, and colleagues.

What advice would you give someone who is considering this type of job (or field)?
Get as much and as varied experience in archives (internships, student positions, volunteer work, etc.) as you can before and during grad school. It’s an overly saturated market and competition is fierce for that first position. Once your foot is in the door though, things do get easier.

If you could start all over again, would you change your career path in any way? Why?
I wouldn’t change a thing. The confluence of experience and schooling I was able to obtain worked out perfectly for me.

In a perfect world at some point in the future, what would you like to be doing?
Working with archaeological collections and the communities they belong to, to help make sure that they’re properly respected and represented. I’d also love to raise awareness of the archives within these same communities to help bring more varied voices and experiences into the profession.

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