On Wednesday, November 5, 2014, I sat in a high school gym in North Philadelphia. Half the gym had been blocked off, set aside, and beautifully decorated in the school colors of Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High School. Circular tables with their white and red tablecloths dotted the floor.
I sat at a table, conveniently labelled Table #6. All my memories of high school flooded back. Let’s just say high school wasn’t exactly a good time, 100% of the time for me. Painfully shy and overweight…a recipe for bullying or benign neglect by authority figures. But, I wasn’t that kid anymore.
I’m an archivist now. An archivist who loves what she does. So, I clung to my archival box, plastered a smile on my face, and secretly hoped someone would come and fill up the empty chairs at my table.
How did I find myself at Simon Gratz’s 3rd annual career day? Well, a friend reached out to me. It’s only in knowing me did she learn about archives and the work of archivists. So she thought why not forward the call for professionals to Ashley because kids should know that’s a career option. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
I hadn’t prepared what I was going to say to these high school students (8th and 10th graders to be exact). My previous experience had been with 9th graders at Esperanza High School as part of an ongoing project. At least in that scenario, they were doing something. There was a very specific purpose and outcome from those talks. At Simon Gratz, I’m just talking. About archives. About what I do. And maybe just maybe the kids would have questions.
So here’s the set up: professionals were set up on panels ranging from 3-4 panelists and assigned to a classroom. In three 50-minute sessions students would have the opportunity to hear you talk about your career and, in turn, ask questions. The class size, from what I saw, could be anywhere from 15 to 25 students. Roughly translated, I would talk to anywhere between 45 to 75 students.
One thing I’ve found to be the hardest about talking about archives is just that….talking about archives. What are archives? What’s a record? What do you do….really? I’ve heard that emphasized really more times than I can count. This time, however, I was prepared.
I borrowed a tool from my museum peeps. Instead of a museum trunk, I created an archival box. I filled it with all sorts of things, the proverbial tools of the trade.
Acid free folders, cotton gloves, spatulas, weights, mylar sleeves, and replicas of archival documents from photos to documents, to flyers, to architectural drawings.
Despite all their bravado, when teenagers see a box of stuff, their interest is piqued. I saw it in those who stared directly at the archival box to those who stole glances at it out the corner of their eyes. In some cases, I opened up the box and put the stuff out on display. For other sessions, I waited until my turn to talk to draw their attention to the box. I pulled the items out and explained to them what it was and how I use it. Then I circulated the items.
Of the three sessions, I would say that the second session was the most engaged. It’s like they zeroed in on me, almost to the exclusion of my counterparts (hey, I’ll take all the attention I can get).
Do you like what you do?
How does someone become an archivist?
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen?
What’s the oldest document you’ve ever touched?
With each answer, I could see they were taking it in. And, another hand would pop up to ask another question.
I’m not sure if any of those students will likely remember me years down the road or even if any will become archivists. But, I can say that for a time, they learned something new. They learned about a new career path that they never heard of. Who knows? Maybe one of them will become an archivist. Or, they’ll share their experience and inspire someone else to become one. You never know.
These are the conversations I love to have with students and adults. To talk to them about our work and the specifics of what we do. For too long (and still to this day) we remain hidden in the shadows. Our work unseen and, in many cases, under appreciated. Then, can we really be so surprised when the hammer is brought down on cultural institutions and archives take a hit. If we’re not out front and center crafting the message then we leave it to be crafted by someone else who may have little to no understanding of the importance of our work.
We’re important. Our work is important. Let’s take ownership of that and develop the message. Let’s stop being the lone arrangers in our silos but a collective voice.
We’re archivists. We’re here. And, we’re not going anywhere.