M. Michelle Chiles is the Head of the Providence College Archives and Special Collections
What are your main responsibilities as an archivist?
I am the Head of Archives and Special Collections at Providence College, a private Catholic college in Providence Rhode Island. I am responsible for all aspects of managing the College archives including institutional records, manuscript collections, and rare books. I supervise a small staff and work closely with my Library colleagues, faculty, and administrative staff on campus.
What do you like most about your work? What’s most challenging?
In December 2021 I celebrated two years at Providence College! I absolutely love my job; every day has its own new challenges and opportunities. After 5 years at a local, state historical society, I was really looking for an opportunity to return to academia. Whether it is a class or in one-on-one research support sessions, I love working with students and faculty. Exposing students to primary source research opportunities and helping them to formulate their own directions in where they want to take their projects.
As the head of a small department, I sometimes find it challenging to balance all of our responsibilities. We not only care for collections and work with researchers to access them, but we also provide research services for administrative offices on campus, support campus events and programs, and collaborate with our library colleagues and community partners.
What are some career accomplishments you’re most proud of?
I am so happy to be in a leadership role in my current position. The opportunity to drive specific initiatives that I have a passion for plays a big part in what makes me proud to do this work daily. Recently, I successfully ran a semester-long project where students researched and curated an exhibit using our collections. It was fantastic to have a trusting and collaborative partner in the faculty member and the students were so into it!
Looking further back at my career as an archivist, I am very happy to see that the mentoring program I helped co-found for New England Archivists is still going strong. In a profession that relies so heavily on hands-on experience and personal connections, mentoring relationships can be so beneficial.
How did you become interested in this field, and how did you begin your career?
I came to the archives profession a bit late, having had a career as a middle school teacher. I left teaching for an opportunity to move overseas for a few years with my partner and this was life-changing! While living in Australia I was fortunate to be able to volunteer at the State Library and Archives of Tasmania which is where I rediscovered my love of archives. I had used archives as a student but hadn’t seriously thought of it as a career and had always thought I’d be a teacher. My mentor at the archives really showed me how I could marry the two together and she encouraged me to apply to graduate school for a second Master’s. We moved back to the states and chose Boston so that I could attend Simmons. I had part-time jobs during school and it did take a while to get a full-time job once I graduated since I was geographically limited.
What education, skills, and training have been essential to your success in this field?
I know I have mentioned this several times, but my background in teaching has been invaluable! This not only helps in teaching traditional class sessions, but it also helps with my supervisory duties. Training staff at all levels, I have to develop training tools and methods to help my staff succeed in their work.
If you are uncomfortable with outreach or teaching, the best thing to do is to take classes or one of those intensive learning opportunities where you really get to learn about how to teach. The stronger your foundation is, the more confident you will be. Even if you are not teaching with archives there are very few jobs in the field where you don’t have to talk to people!
What advice would you give someone who is considering this type of job (or field)?
Find an area in the field that excites you and dig in! Just know that in many cases you will likely be in a role that has to do a little bit of everything. I think it is important to understand the user experience as well as the back-end. It is difficult to effectively describe collections for researchers to use if you’ve never interacted with researchers to understand how they think about collections. The same goes for the other way around.
Hands-on experience is great, if you have the privilege of taking part-time work or volunteering positions then that is a good way to apply the classroom experience to the field. I know that isn’t always possible, so anytime you can leverage the skills you are building in other work experience is great. Working retail, marketing, tech, etc. can all transfer skills to libraries and archives.
If you could start all over again, would you change your career path in any way? Why?
Sometimes I look back to my undergraduate days as a history major and think about the different directions I could have taken. We had the privilege of having a state archives branch right near campus and were exposed to this kind of research experience early on. I only briefly thought about archives as a job at that time because I really had my heart set on teaching. Little did I know how much teaching I’d get to do in archives! So no, I don’t think I’d change my path since I was able to gain such a foundation in education and then tie that together with archives in a way I don’t think I would have been able to if I went straight into an MLIS or Archives program.