The mission of Harvard University Archives – the largest academic archives in the U.S. – is to “support the University's mission of education and research by striving to preserve and provide access to Harvard's historical records; to gather an accurate, authentic, and complete record of the life of the University...” University Archivist Megan Sniffin-Marinoff along with Sarah Demb, Senior Records Manager/Archivist and Virginia Hunt, Associate University Archivist for Collection Development and Records Management Services discuss how their teams handle this broad responsibility.
What do you do and what is your team’s contribution?
Ginny Hunt: Reading between the lines of the Archives mission, we collect, make accessible and store the intellectual legacy of the University. Many people know we keep records for the administration, but we also collect and document personal and professional records for faculty. This provides the scholarly community with materials to study Harvard’s intellectual history and legacy – what our faculty members have done, relationships between faculty, publications, research – going back 400 years. We spend a lot of time reaching out to and working with faculty. Our department gathers those materials and consults on how to preserve them.
Sarah Demb: The other side of this work is records management, which I oversee: ensuring that our policy, the General Records Schedule, or GRS, is followed, which records are kept, how they are kept and for how long. The GRS applies across the University. I need to ensure that the policy is flexible and responsive to people’s needs. I also work with other core services, like HUIT and Risk Management, to make sure our messages about these needs are harmonized.
Megan Sniffin-Marinoff: My job is to oversee the entire University Archives operation. In addition to collecting and records management, which Ginny and Sarah describe, the Archives responsibilities include cataloguing, public service, outreach, holdings management, the exhibition program.
What don't people know about what your team does?
Sarah: Two things. First, I think people have an idea about archives or records that it’s a quiet, maybe dusty place filled with paper, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! I work with people to understand what they do and what kind of records come out of that work, what kind of decisions or history are part of that work, so we have an understanding of what we need to archive. Second, we also collect and provide guidance on managing electronic records – email and many other kinds of digital records.
Megan: People across the University use these records all the time – not just for historical research, but to understand legal policy, how decisions were made. We’re constantly working with administrators, scholars, faculty and visitors to answer questions.
Ginny: I want to piggyback on what Sarah said. We are very people-oriented and our role is helping people understand their own roles in the history and work of this institution.
What is most challenging about your work?
Megan: The scope, the scale, the size of our collections. Every single person who works here is basically working across four centuries of history and needing to understand the layers of the University over that time. And the changes in format. Information may be similar, but the formats change.
Ginny: Reaching people to let them know that we are here for all faculty and all of the University to help them preserve and manage their records. We have specialists on staff who know how to handle academic, personal and administrative records and it’s very important for people to know that they can and should come to us. We have a website, we have workshops, we want to communicate that we’re here to help!
Sarah: For me, it’s getting staff to understand the relationship of their work to the larger context of Harvard’s history.
What are the professional backgrounds of your team members?
Megan: Archives typically have a mix of people with either library backgrounds, typically the Master’s in Library and Information Science (MLIS) with an archives concentration, or a master’s degree in history. A number of years ago I led Simmons’ dual MLIS and MA in history program. I’ve been in the field for 30 years, 14 years at Harvard. What has changed the most is hiring people who also have the right tech knowledge and skills.
Ginny: A lot of people also have a secondary master’s degree in addition to the library degree – I have a master’s in museum studies.
Sarah: Some people come as a second career, which brings in people with other backgrounds and skill sets, like business administration. You need to have great people and communication skills, be tech savvy and be a quick study – you’re always being exposed to something new.
What does your best day look like?
Sarah: When I see the light in someone’s eyes that they understand the role of their work to the University’s history and that their work contributes to that. It often happens in the context of the workshops we offer that staff gain an understanding of how they and their work contribute to the bigger picture.
Ginny: When I get the phone call from a faculty member who says, “I’m calling you because [my colleague] recommended you and had a great experience working with you.” I think it can be a relief to a faculty member who is retiring and cares deeply about his or her work, and realizes that we’re here as a resource to preserve that for the future.
Megan: My best day is when I feel like we get it right – when we balance the risk issues with our desire to document the history of Harvard. And when we get a call from an administrator about the General Records Schedule or from a faculty assistant on behalf of faculty member. We’re trying to raise awareness, so when people come to us, that’s wonderful.