Cara DeSimone is an Archives Technician on contract with the National Parks Service’s Southeast Archeology Center (SEAC). Cara is a member of the Society of American Archivists: Archive Workers Emergency Fund (AWEF) Organizing Committee (20-21), SNAP Secretary (20-21), and a member of the Society of Florida Archivists: Secretary (21-24), Audit Committee (20-22), SFAJ Copy Editor (21-22).
What are your main responsibilities as an archivist?
My main project is a mass reorganization of the Center’s photographic collection. We collect and maintain materials relating to archeological research in the region’s 60+ National Parks. The new arrangement will support research requests in a more streamlined fashion and will ease some of the time and energy burden on staff in locating materials. This is also an opportunity to assess and index the materials.
My secondary assignment is to consolidate legacy and internal finding aids into consistent park-based collections and prepare the updated finding aid and associated metadata for input to a proprietary Cultural Resources Management database (with an ongoing change in platform TBD, so interoperability is a concern!).
What is a typical day (or week) like for you?
Our lab techs need to be on-site to work on their backlog collections, so we have been operating in a hybrid arrangement for most of my contract. I also need time on-site to perform physical processing – the actual rearranging of photographs. Since I am not rehousing materials unless necessary, this does not take up the majority of my time. I spend about five hours a week on-site (average), and about five hours (again average) in meetings or as professional development hours (obviously this fluctuates as projects arise, stall, or close). I also lend support to the Center’s library when I can (largely cataloging and reshelving materials). I have an Alternative Work Schedule (AWS), and the Center is maintaining “maximum telework” when available. Long-term details are still up in the air as to whether WFH will persist post-Covid, or what requirements will be implemented going forwards.
But with great freedom comes great responsibility. I can’t say for sure, but I think part of the flexibility I have been afforded lies in my ability to effectively communicate my efforts and accomplishments. While I largely work independently – partially from working in archives; partially from working in the government (largely siloed); and very largely because of Covid – I can explain and justify my work to my superiors.
This is a concept I was exposed to through military life. From regularly updating your medical files to keeping extra copies of a leave “chit,” everyday life in the military is great records management training. The Navy, in particular, relies heavily on standardized logs to provide records for review. To advance, “it behooves one” to keep personal records at every opportunity. The other sailors laughed when I voluntarily took a course on Military Records and Administration on deployment – until it was time to write something official!
I was once admonished in an archives working group for daring to suggest that this kind of reporting and accountability was an individual responsibility, and should not be required of non-professional workers. My opinion is, everyone should be able to explain their work in concrete detail. Instead of debating who is responsible for recording such details, might it not be more productive to simply teach others the techniques to do so? My favorite tool for time tracking is an analog Passion Planner. I do use it to plan ahead and schedule meetings, appointments, and other personal commitments; but when all else fails and life gets to the boiling point, I use it as a retrospective – what did I do today? How did I spend my time? I’ve just ordered my fifth planner. I like the medium size because they’re about the same as my many graph comp books – I keep about three or four in active rotation for various projects.
How did you become interested in this field, and how did you begin your career?
My favorite way to describe my career path is a quote from genius author Douglas Adams: “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” I am what folks often call a “non-traditional” or career-change archivist. I’ve also heard on more than one occasion, most of us “end up” at archives, we rarely start at them. Looking back, however, I can see a theme across all my previous career attempts – records management.
I am of the generation who was brought up hearing “you’d better go to college – you don’t want to flip burgers the rest of your life, do ya?” around every corner. To teen-aged me, the only options after high school seemed to be college or the military. I liked school and hated conformity, so I went to college. At my undergrad, I studied English and Theatre; I served on several tech crews for both student and faculty productions and worked for the campus radio station. I had great ideas for what I wanted to do after college, but not quite the drive to compete – and in the Seattle area, everything is competitive. I spent the next few years working at some retail and small business positions and playing in local bands (for fun, not profit – I wasn’t delusional, at least!). Eventually, for a host of reasons, the military became an increasingly attractive option. Finally, I decided, “hell, I spent four years in college, I can survive four years in the military, too.”
I enlisted in the US Navy and ended up working with A/V and electrical equipment. After studying electrical engineering – down to the atomic level! – I was sent to a carrier. Since I had prior practical experience in theatre, radio, and live/studio audio, I really enjoyed my work. However, I did not enjoy deployment – at one point I calculated that our ship had been actively at sea for more than 72% of a two-year period. Unfortunately, I was unable to physically keep up with such a strenuous “op-tempo” and eventually left the military.
Before departing, I was transferred to a shore command to fill a primarily administrative support role. Call me crazy, but I liked it. I’ve always been a natural at filing, organizing, and record-keeping. I began using Vocational Rehab services to figure out what to do next. I figured I would add an engineering degree to my existing English degree, and work on tech manuals and whatnot.
Unfortunately, the cost of living in the area kept rising, which required me to put my plans on hold and accept a position at an Escrow company. They subcontracted mail operations with some other small businesses (and their own satellite offices), including debt consolidation firms. Working under the IT Manager directly, this is where I learned the functional basics of SQL and metadata.
Eventually, the continued cost of living increased and some family needs finally persuaded me to leave the only place I’d ever called “home.” I relocated to Florida, started my MLIS studies, and it’s been one synchronicity after another, ever since.
What education, skills, and training have been essential to your success in this field?
All of it. Literally, everything.
If I hadn’t taken a random junior college photography lab course, I wouldn’t have understood the development and printing processes. The film and video aspects prepared me to work as an analog projectionist, which in turn supports my confidence in working with a wide format of archival materials. If I hadn’t studied “the physics of light and color” (which I affectionately call “science for theatre geeks”) I wouldn’t have been prepared for electrical theory; if I hadn’t worked in the campus radio and live audio, I wouldn’t have had the mental connections available to provide myself with engineering examples.
Theatre, as much as the military, taught me how to both self-manage AND operate as part of a team, in a variety of
suboptimal …challenging operating conditions. I learned how to plan; but also how to adapt and improvise. Radio led easily to TV, and the ship’s broadcasting systems range from closed-circuit to satellite. (This also supports my understanding of GIS, which is an emerging partnership with archeology.) Everything I learned about electrical theory supported my practice of coding languages, which are becoming increasingly important in media, communications, and documentation fields. Genealogy honed my research skills and also led to a fascination with genetic genealogy.
Thanks to my shipboard experience, I was uniquely qualified to arrange and describe the Radiation, Inc. Collection at Florida Tech – to be frank, my first time doing “real” archival work. But the truth of it is because I was already familiar with much of the materials (Radiation, Inc. supported NASA during the Space Coast’s “Golden Age”) I didn’t need as much time to acquaint myself with the materials. I knew how to read the blueprints, sketches, and “random” graphs that previous engineers had included in their donations. My experience with military administration and government contractors also added to my enjoyment of processing these materials. I’m still not entirely sure why SEAC believed in me, but I’m glad they did. Archeology is a fascinating field, and I have learned so much through the year I’ve already spent with their collections. After about four years of watching and waiting, I was finally able to link up with American Veterans Archaeological Recovery and go on my first big project; which brings me to my advice: to be able to fully understand the records in your custody, you must experience the records creation process in that context. Context through experience adds subtext that archivists would otherwise be oblivious to.
In a perfect world at some point in the future, what would you like to be doing?
I am thoroughly enjoying the culture of the NPS workforce. If I could wave a magic wand and have my way, I’d convert my current contract to a permanent, regional support position. Meaning headquartered (or duty stationed) at the Center, I could support the parks throughout the region that do not have the budget to provide their own CRM professionals. Archives are easier to maintain than they are to set up from scratch, and it is a long-term goal of the directorate to have all of our CRM professionals functioning under the same operational standards. [Consistency is key, #amiright?]
Despite the anxiety-inducing precarity, I enjoy processing-based contracts and projects – I like the concrete milestones, measurables, and completions. Sometime down the road, I might like a stint in an academic institution, or some liaison/instruction duties – I like to help folks. I’m also reviewing options of study for a secondary Master’s or a Ph.D. (archeology, anthropology, or a multidisciplinary historical/cultural mashup).