Career Journeys: Rachel Vagts

Rachel Vagts is the Manager of Special Collections and Digital Archives, Denver Public Library in Denver, CO. Rachel is an active member of the Society of American Archivists and past president of SAA. She also participated in the Archives Leadership Institute, Midwest Archives Conference, and Consortium of Iowa Archivists.

What are your main responsibilities as an archivist?

As manager of Special Collections and Digital Archives, I manage our staff in two locations, the Western History & Genealogy collection at our Central Library and the special collections staff at Blair Caldwell African American Research Library. The staff of 20 includes archivists, librarians, and paraprofessional staff. I’m responsible for planning, budget, staffing, and general oversight of the department.

What is a typical day (or week) like for you?

There is no typical day! I’ve always said that my favorite thing about this work is that after I check my email anything can happen. Most days I spend a fair amount of time responding to emails and in meetings. I also am part of our Central Library leadership team, so I spend time on the public floor as a central supervisor. I meet regularly with financial donors and staff from our Friends Foundation and I regularly interact and problem solve with our special collections staff.

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

At this point in my career, I’ve moved into a management position, so I no longer do most of the regular tasks of an archival career. So, what I do know that I like the most is that much of what I do is to make sure that everyone I work with has what they need to do their job. That means going to meetings; advocating for my staff, including requesting new positions or reclassifications; LOTS of spreadsheets; meeting with financial donors, and these days writing lots of grant proposals.

The most challenging thing right now continues to be the uncertainty of COVID, keeping staff safe and providing our customers with access to the collections they need. I also have staff in two buildings, one of which is under construction for the next two years or so and a second one that will close completely for construction this spring. This has created a lot of uncertainty and challenges for continuing to do our work in less than ideal settings.

What kinds of problems do you deal with? What kinds of decisions do you make?

A lot of what I deal with relates to resources. Our budget is made up of general funds from the city, endowment funds given through the Friends Foundation, and grants. I make sure that we are being strategic with our resources so that we’re able to accomplish our goals and that everyone is able to do their job to the best of their ability.

I’m also here to make sure that our customers have the best possible experience with our collections–but again, for me, that’s more about making sure we have the right people in positions and that they have the resources that they need.

How have your responsibilities changed throughout your career?

I’ve gone from being a term-limited archivist on a large staff to working alone to being a working manager in a small archives to now managing a large team in a large institution. That has definitely changed my day-to-day responsibilities!

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

I’m most proud of being elected a SAA Fellow and both my experience attending the Archives Leadership Institute and then serving as the director for six years. I strongly believe that both peer education and recognition are critical components of our profession.

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

This is a kind of funny story…after college, I spent a year in Washington, DC working at the Capital Area Food Bank and living in a house with other stipend volunteers (think AmeriCorps). One of my housemates used to leave her Cosmopolitan magazine in the living room and one night I read an article about great careers for women. To be fair, the article didn’t mention archivists, but it did mention great opportunities as a corporate librarian. This got me thinking about getting a library degree. When I applied to schools the next spring, one of the applications asked if I was interested in the archives track. I had researched a history paper in college using my school’s small archives and I was intrigued…so I signed up for the archives track. The rest is history.

My career started the way many of ours do–when I was accepted to the library school at Wisconsin, I also got a work-study job at the Wisconsin Historical Society. I did a bunch of different things there, but at some point, I was offered a project archivist job working 20 hours a week while I finished my degree. That job, preparing a collection for microfilming, led to my first job out of school, which was also a project archivist position prepping a collection for filming. Neither of those jobs are what I do today, but at both institutions (a large state historical society and a R1 university) I developed a network of colleagues which helped me prepare for my first permanent job…as a solo archivist (and first trained archivist) at a small college where the nearest archivist was more than an hours drive away.

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

I think the combination of learning theory in my graduate program while doing hands-on work with a skilled group of archivists as mentors and supervisors have set me up really well for the rest of my career. I also have utilized my experience with the Archives Leadership Institute as well as some really good professional development opportunities at my employing institution that have helped me develop my skills as a leader and manager.

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

First of all, I like to encourage people to do something else after college–I think it’s a good idea to go out and spend a couple of years learning how to be an adult–work 40 hours a week, live independently, etc. Then, if you still think this is the thing for you, find a program that matches your interests and figure out a way to get your degree as cheaply as you can!

For me, that meant spending 2 years as a stipend volunteer. I spent a year living in Washington, DC working at the Capital Area Food Bank with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. I lived in a house with six other people in LVC.

The following year, when I knew I was probably headed to grad school, I moved home and worked for a year in an alternative middle school as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Both experiences helped me prepare for going back to school and for my career after I graduated.

While I was in school, I was able to work at the Wisconsin Historical Society. I can’t recommend enough finding a way to go to school while having an archives job. The practice can’t teach you the theory and the theory can’t teach you the practice. You will also begin building your network from day one if you’re able to work in the field while you’re in school.

I know that isn’t possible for everyone, which is why I think we need to continue to think about alternative entries to the profession, like apprenticeships.

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

I often tell people if I started all over again I would go into urban planning, but who knows! If I was a city planner, I might be over in the archives wishing I had done that instead!

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