Career Journeys: Allison Fischbach

Allison Fischbach is Digital Archivist at the Johns Hopkins Chesney Medical Archives. She is also Secretary and past-Student Member for the SAA Web Archiving Section steering committee, and current Maryland Caucus Representative for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC). Allison is also a printmaker and book artist, and has taught studio courses at both the Maryland Institute College of Art and Towson University in Maryland.

What are your main responsibilities as an archivist?

I am the first Digital Archivist at Chesney, and my most important responsibility involves networking with shareholders in our three main collecting institutions – Johns Hopkins Medicine, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the School of Nursing. The archives have traditionally relied on a passive-collecting method, but with the transition to digital materials we have to be more active by necessity. There is a lot of emailing, Zoom meetings, socializing, and advocacy involved in my work.

Drafting policies and plans for digital archiving is another main responsibility, alongside creating workflows to ensure we are meeting necessary levels of digital preservation. In the future I hope my work can focus more on processing and making our digital materials accessible, but right now much of my job is building the scaffolding to support those practices.

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

I like the problem-solving aspects of digital archiving. The different formats and hardware we collect mean there is constant need to investigate new ways to retrieve and present data. It’s also one of the most challenging parts of the work. There is no single, established method for preserving and presenting all digital materials, and at times it feels like the target is constantly moving. There is a lot of experimentation, but when something works it feels great.

How have your responsibilities changed throughout your career?

I’ve gone from having very concrete and hands-on responsibilities repairing materials, designing exhibits, and working reference, to more conceptual duties like building policy based on theory. Sometimes I miss working closely with physical materials – a lot of digital preservation relies on semi-automated processes and the materials are not tactile, viewable or manipulatable without an intermediate like a machine or a program. But at the same time I’m able to develop new ways of presenting information through practices like aggregate datasets and data visualization. It’s a very different responsibility than I had starting out.

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

It’s very hard to say where my career began! I can trace it back to undergrad, where I was lucky enough to learn bookbinding and letterpress printmaking. From there I spent two years volunteering part-time in the (now defunct) bindery at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, where I got experience in book repairs and handling special collections materials. That experience helped me move into a paid position at the Maryland Institute College of Art library, where I worked closely with their special collections – especially their extensive Artist Book Collection. This is where I really found a love for special collections and archival materials.

When I began working in the Special Collections and University Archives at Towson University it was the first time I worked in an established archive. Much of the workflow and practices were new to me, but I loved the materials. At the time they were migrating their digital collections and I took the lead on working to improve their web presence. I drew on a lot of skills I learned through establishing my own small arts business – web design, metadata management, and digitization. Many of the standards were new, but the theory was familiar. By the time I started my MLIS I knew I wanted to focus on digital preservation.

It was a very slow and winding path to end up in digital archiving, but because it’s still an emerging specialty there is a lot of creativity and experimentation involved which makes it exciting. 

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

The MLIS has been a necessary credential for advancing into a professional position, but most of the experience and skills that prepared me best I learned while working in paraprofessional roles. I’ve worked in libraries and archives now for over a decade, and only recently reached the level of professional staff. I find that the work I did in those positions was often more valuable than my formal education, and being able to work in an archive during my master’s program meant I could directly apply theory to work.

My career has also been largely academic institutions, and taking advantage of any free or reduced-tuition courses offered through the schools has helped me pursue new skills like printmaking, graphic design, and coding. My advice is to always take advantage of any free educational opportunities.

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

Gain any experience you can working in an archive before deciding on it as a career. I realize this isn’t always feasible given the demand for archival jobs, but archives can easily be romanticized. Being able to participate in the day to day of an archive provides a much more realistic view of the work.

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

I wouldn’t. My wide range of experience has been a real asset, and I don’t think I would have been ready to get an MLIS earlier in my career. I certainly would not have known I wanted to focus on archives or digital preservation right out of undergrad. My interests and focus have shifted over time, but being open to new opportunities has allowed me to be flexible with my career plans. I certainly never thought I would end up where I am, but I’m very glad to be here!

In a perfect world at some point in the future, what would you like to be doing?

I’d like to earn a MFA in Studio Art, where I can bring archival theory into art practice. Much of my artwork focuses on themes like classification schemas and reference tools, especially in relation to the body, health, and disability. There’s a lot of overlap between that and working in a medical archive! I think art can be an important tool in the interrogation of archival practice and help us envision new, more accessible, and more equitable ways of working.

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