Career Journeys: Amy Cooper Cary

Amy Cooper Cary is Head of Special Collections and University Archives, Raynor Memorial Libraries, Marquette University, and Editor of the American Archivist.

Professional Work:

Society of American Archivists:
SAA Fellow, Inducted August 2018; Council Member, August 2015 — August 2018; Multiple committees including SAA Nominating Committee, Education Committee, Manuscript Repositories Section, Awards Committee, Women Archivists Roundtable, and the SAA Annual Meeting Program Committee. Work on publications includes positions as Editor, Reviews Editor and Board Member for American Archivist; Editor of Archival Futures book series; Council Liaison to Publications Board.

Midwest Archives Conference:
President; Council Member; Multiple committees including Presidents’ Award Committee, Education Committee, Nominating Committee, Margaret Cross Norton / New Authors Awards Committee. Publications work includes position as Editor and Editorial Board member for Archival Issues.

Amy has served on multiple other committees and journals for affiliated organizations and attended both the Archives Leadership Institute (2008) and the Harvard Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians (2013). Amy has also worked as an archival educator for the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies, as its director from 2005 – 2012, and as an adjunct instructor since 2012.

What are your main responsibilities as an archivist?

As Head of Special Collections and University Archives in the Raynor Memorial Libraries at Marquette University, I’m responsible for oversight of all activity in Special Collections. This includes working with colleagues to manage large projects, working to facilitate access, revising policy as needed, and addressing personnel issues. I also am directly responsible for work with the Native American collections at Marquette, responding to reference questions, working on arrangement and description, and facilitating access to materials for scholars as well as for members of tribal communities.

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

There is no typical day or week! Because I work in an academic institution, there are some periods that are busier than others (when classes are in session); but requests from researchers outside of the Marquette community, the opportunities to work with the library leadership team, and the changing nature of our work (especially in a Covid environment) mean that each week – or even each day – is different. The work is unpredictable, and because of that, it’s engaging.

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

I think many archivists get a great deal of satisfaction with connecting patrons with materials that mean something to them. For example, at this time – when there is tremendous controversy around Native American Boarding School records – the opportunity to provide people looking for information about family members is very moving. Because the archival record is “raw” it’s important to think about how we continue to prioritize access – and perhaps that is the most challenging thing. Most people (again, especially in a Covid environment) are looking for ways to access material digitally. When the vast majority of a repository’s material is only available in an analog format, undertaking large digitization projects can be extremely difficult, but they can have a significant impact on specific communities. Because of this, it’s important to work with management skills in mind – how can we undertake projects that can have an impact, providing access to large groups of records, without over-taxing our own resources? That is one of my most challenging considerations on a day-to-day basis.

How have your responsibilities changed throughout your career?

I started my career as the Special Collections Librarian and University Archivist at the University of South Dakota. From there, I became Assistant Head of Special Collections at the University of Iowa. On moving to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I took on the position of Director of the Archival Studies program at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies, and after 7 years in archival education, I returned to practice as Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Marquette.

I’ve worked with a variety of materials – university archives, manuscript collections, and rare book collections – throughout my career. I have always worked both as a manager of archival process and as an archivist with responsibilities for specific collections. My career took me from practice, into archival education, and back to practice. That ability to have experience as a manager, practitioner and educator has been invaluable. All aspects of my career have informed the others – I bring more to the table as an educator because I have a background in the daily questions of archives work (processing, preservation, access, instruction….) and in managing archives; and I bring more to the table as an archivist because I have taught archival courses.

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

I’m most proud of two things: my work with archival literature, and being named a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists. My work with archival literature has spanned my entire career, and it is a deep source of satisfaction. As Editor of American Archivist and co-editor of the Archival Futures series, I love working with potential authors (of journal articles and of books) to help them bring their ideas to light. I love the contributions that our creative, brilliant colleagues make to archival literature. I can’t think of anything better than to continue to contribute to our profession by expanding access to archival literature and bringing new ideas to our ongoing professional conversation.

I have to say that it was one of my deepest honors to be inducted as a Fellow of SAA. This is a group of amazing individuals whose contributions have formed our profession – it is humbling to see my name as a part of that list. Becoming a Fellow galvanized my belief that it is my responsibility to keep giving back to our profession: to keep mentoring, editing, teaching, collaborating, and exploring ways to improve our work.

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

This is my second career – my first was at the corporate level with Borders book stores, managing purchasing contracts with book publishers. When Borders started to grow exponentially, I decided to make a move and go to library school. It was not a decision that I ever regretted…. The first class I took was The History of Books and Printing…. Which hooked me on “the old stuff.” Next, I took classes on archives theory and practice from David Wallace and Margaret Hedstrom, and I was entranced and single-mindedly focused on the archives profession.

I consider myself fortunate that, throughout my career, I’ve always been able to be in a position that incorporates work with archives, manuscripts, and rare books. Starting my career in a small repository gave me the opportunity to do basic archival work, and also to gain some experience in managing the work of an archives and special collections, which has had an impact on every other professional decision I made.

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

My archival education at the University of Michigan was amazing, in that it gave me an opportunity for a very broad exploration of all kinds of current (at the time) issues in the archives field. It set the stage for me to realize the importance of keeping abreast of the literature, and to develop a thorough understanding of how theory underpins practice. But I will also say that each position I have held has helped me to dive more deeply into the “real world” of archives. From the moment I took a student position at the Special Collections in the Hatcher Library at Michigan, until the present day where I am managing the work of multiple archivists in a challenging academic environment, I have learned important lessons about practice. In addition, I’ve understood that I cannot separate my work as an archivist from the theoretical, societal, and cultural concerns of our profession. My education and training, as well as conversations with colleagues, have worked in tandem to instill a deep appreciation of how archives work is informed by the broader context of the archives profession and by society. I am a better archivist because I was asked to pay attention to that broad context.

I also have to say that the requirements for archivists have changed substantially since I started – we may love “the old stuff,” but we must be prepared to work with a shifting landscape of digital materials and vulnerable formats. Archivists must have the flexibility and willingness to keep on learning – this has been critical in each of my professional positions.

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

I talk with students about this all the time…. The “playing field” is very different today than it was when I was entering my career, and yes it’s true that opportunities have narrowed. With that said, there is also a very different definition of our field today. I believe it’s critical to consider your career creatively – I meet a lot of students who believe that academic archives are the most desirable work environment; but I’d challenge that and ask that young archivists consider the interesting work in government archives, corporate archives, public library archives and other areas of practice. Archivists have tremendous influence, and we need to value contributions outside of the walls of academia. Of course, any archivist will say that we don’t work with “the old stuff” anymore. As much as we might love paper manuscript collections, it’s necessary for anyone entering this profession to get a solid background in digital practices and to be ready to continue to shift your focus as the way that we create, keep, and provide access to records continues to change.

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

I don’t think so. If I started over again COMPLETELY, I might go into publishing rather than archives – but I am fortunate to have been able to combine those interests! My archives career path has been deeply satisfying. It’s given me an opportunity to work with wonderful people, in service of others, and as a steward of the historical record.

Maybe it’s a bit sentimental, but I’ll share this in any event: I’ve recently been captivated by “Hamilton” (I was a bit late to the game here!), and the final song asks the questions “Who lives? / Who dies? / Who tells your story?” Archivists help answer those questions. Karl Priebe and Gertrude Abercrombie are alive today because of the researcher who is sitting in our reading room, reviewing their correspondence, preparing for a museum exhibit. Their correspondence tells their story, but it sits in boxes until we provide access to the material that helps others pass that story along. We help reveal “the narrative,” as it is: interrelated; full or incomplete; impartial yet biased; always complex; obscure or revealing. Really, what can be better than devoting my career to that purpose, and to be able to do this work in the company of wonderful colleagues, many of whom have become life-long friends? I can’t think of anything better than that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s