Career Journeys: Dave Lewis

Dave Lewis is the sound archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives. He holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Indiana University-Bloomington and an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh. He currently chairs the Conference Grants Committee for the Association of Recorded Sound Collections and the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Special Interest Group for Archiving. Before coming to BGSU, he was the Curator of Collections and Digital Media at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, VA/TN.

What are your main responsibilities as an archivist?

As the sound archivist, my work revolves around our sound archives, a large collection of popular music materials that supports several departments on campus. I correspond with donors about potential acquisitions, manage the appraisal and accession process, catalog and create finding aids, manage A/V digitization, lead instruction sessions, and answer reference questions regarding the archival collection, as well as provide assistance with our circulating music resources. I’m supported by colleagues in much of the above work, but one of the benefits of a relatively small staff is that my work is varied from one day (or hour) to the next!

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

I’m excited to have landed in an institution that values both my academic training and my archival skills that also recognizes my publishing, teaching, and service work in both fields. I also enjoy the breadth of our popular music collection, though the same breadth can make it difficult to help users meaningfully navigate the collection, as can our very large (but slowly shrinking) backlog of unprocessed sound recordings and archival collections.

What current issues and trends in the field should readers know about/be aware of?

As an audiovisual archivist, I might be a bit biased, but the fragility of analog audio and video materials is always worrying, even for archives that don’t primarily collect audiovisual material. A/V is hiding in almost every archive and likely needs digitization-for-preservation attention soon. Archivists in training or early career archivists should seek out opportunities to learn about handling, playback, and preservation of audio and video materials to add to their set of archival skills.

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

I’m proud of the work I did at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to set foundational policy and procedures for their collecting and collections care programs, and of the special exhibits we created in the museum’s first two years. I also continue to be excited by the organizational and campus outreach efforts I’m involved with at BGSU, which are making the sound archives more accessible to students, faculty, and community members.

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

In many ways, my career has been a bit meandering. After an internship at the American Folklife Center in the early 2000s, I was bitten by the audiovisual archiving bug and worked at audiovisual archives at Indiana University-Bloomington while finishing my ethnomusicology degrees, though I didn’t consider archival work a viable career at the time. Thanks to supportive supervisors and advisors, I was able to learn many aspects of audiovisual archiving during those years and used that training later at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. I managed the artifact and archival collections during the first two years the museum was open to the public, writing foundational policy, training and managing volunteers, and helping to create exhibits. I finally returned to school, earning an MLIS at Pitt, which filled gaps in my previous informal training. The degree and the formal training along with my previous experience allowed me to be competitive for a wide range of positions, including my current job.

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

My training as an ethnographer not only prepared me to understand audiovisual media and records, particularly field recordings, but also to bring a nuanced understanding of society and culture to my work as an archivist. I continue to be interested in bringing my ethnographic sensibilities into my appraisal, arrangement, description, and outreach work. My MLIS degree was essential for my career, but the groundwork was laid in my early, tentative steps into the field as an intern, researcher, and student worker.

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

Find a position or internship with an institution or archivist you like and respect to see if the field is for you before making the commitment of obtaining an MLS degree. If that isn’t possible, carry out a short archival research project using the holdings of one or two repositories near you. Some extra-curricular archival training is especially important for anyone wanting to work primarily with audiovisual materials because, with a few exceptions, library and archive programs don’t often provide robust training on these formats. Even for aspiring archivists who aren’t primarily interested in audiovisual materials, gaining varied archival experience before the MLS will help you contextualize and retain more of the knowledge and skills from your graduate training.

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

Even though my career path meandered through several stages and, as a result, was a bit protracted, I’d change very little. I dearly loved my time as an ethnomusicology student and am continuing that research as a faculty librarian. The years of archival experience I gained as an intern and student worker while I was in graduate school prepared me well for my first two professional positions.

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