Robert Perret is the Special Collections Librarian at the University of Idaho Special Collections and Archives and Vice President of Northwest Archivists.
What do you like most about your work? What’s most challenging?
I like that there are constant discoveries to be made. Often, I am the first person to open a box in decades, whether it is one from our shelves or a new donation. Any box can hold a surprise! I also love the minutiae of supposedly mundane materials like receipts or business cards. From the textures of the materials to the aesthetics of different eras it is a joy to work with archival materials. However, the best and most challenging part is the preservation and engagement with the stories of people’s lives. Just as I may have been the only person to have seen a particular matchbook in 70 years, I may also be the only person touching upon the life and memories that collection represents. We tend the garden on the edge of oblivion, which is both beautiful and melancholy.
How did you become interested in this field, and how did you begin your career?
As a child, I was basically feral in my local library. School library during the school day, public library the rest of the time. When you spend that much time in the library you find all the weird old forgotten books. The stuff that proves the real action isn’t on the new items shelf, but in the musty back corners. Weekends were spent at a museum that I can still vividly remember and visit in my mind today. After taking archival classes in my library program, I cobbled together jobs at a herbarium, a heritage center, and a historical mansion. I got to work with extinct plant samples, letters from Buffalo Bill Cody, and the bric-a-brac of a 19th-century frontier household.
What education, skills, and training have been essential to your success in this field?
This is a field that rewards eclectic interests and experiences. From the book arts I learned both formally and as part of the 90s zine scene, to my brief career as a journalist, to a youth misspent on arcane and occult books, everything has fed into a career in archives. I think public speaking is an often-overlooked skill set in archives. There is a non-trivial chance that an archivist will have to give formal speeches, presentations and provide programming. Even if you plan to remain staunchly behind the curtain, some experience with public speaking can really shape the way displays are designed and the way messaging through venues like social media is composed.
What advice would you give someone who is considering this type of job (or field)?
There is a strong move towards digitization and digital humanities within the field and you should 100% be conversant with those areas. That being said, I predict we are soon to be glutted with digitization-focused archives workers. If you are just pursuing your archives education and credentials now, a solid background in IRL skills, like basic preservation, physical display work, and public services are going to be assets for finding professional opportunities.