Career Journeys: Rusty Heckaman

Rusty Heckaman is the Research Room Supervisor at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives.

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

Since graduating with my MLS from Indiana University in 2009, I’ve been employed as an archivist in a variety of positions and among many types of institutions. These have included private corporate archives, a non-profit advocacy organization, a local municipality, and now state government. While my professional title and responsibilities have evolved, reference has remained the one constant. There has always been an element and expectation of public service regardless of my position. This has sometimes taken the shape of service to coworkers in the corporation whose records we worked to preserve, to colleagues using archival records to demonstrate the value of their advocacy and work across time, and to the public assisting with accessing the records of their communities’ past. Not only has this been a continuous element of my work, but it has also proven to be both the most rewarding and challenging aspect. We’ve all experienced the challenge of communicating the value and methods of our work to family members, friends, and the public. That challenge is never more apparent than when attempting to initiate a new patron to research and access in an archive. Overcoming this challenge and successfully helping someone navigate our resources to make a new discovery and walk away with a new appreciation of our work is the most satisfying experience of my work.

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

My route to the position I currently hold and the success I experience managing reference and access has not been a traditional one. My education was focused on Library Science rather than archival practice. While I’ve since supplemented my education with work experience, professional development, and certification I find that I rely upon my library foundation more than anything in my position and work in public service. I’ve found that this foundation has helped me better communicate with patrons who so often come to our archival institutions with no point of reference outside of that of the library. The ability to find common ground to begin to illustrate commonalities and differences allows me to manage their expectations and appreciate the context for why we must navigate access the way we do in an archive. The focus that a Library education places on public service, training in the reference interview, and information literacy has been essential in my career and something I would like to see stressed more in archival education.

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

Reference services provided by myself and archival colleagues are a pivotal component that underpins the appraisal, processing, and preservation being done to guarantee continued access to our institutions’ records in the future. The reference career path and the customer service that it entails is an oft-overlooked aspect of archival work. While so many may embark upon this path as an entry point into our profession it offers few avenues for continued growth and progression professionally. Rather than viewing them as an initiation, I would strongly encourage anyone in these positions, or those considering their career in our profession, to appreciate the value that is a reference service position. Even if only occupying a reference position in passing as you progress on your intended path in the archival profession, or perhaps as a smaller aspect of your other archival duties, I hope that you’ll take the time to appreciate the value of the role you are providing. Perhaps in doing, you might find that the reward found by participating in someone’s discovery is worth pursuing continued employment in the public service role available to archivists.

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

Embarking upon a career in archives with a library background can prove to be a barrier and challenge when pursuing employment. Despite this, I would not change my career path, and the education I attained has supplemented the archival experience and education I’ve since developed. I hope that sharing my experience and career trajectory will help illuminate the role reference plays in archives, will increase awareness of its value, and challenge the perception that archival work is solely based on preservation and processing.

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