Public History & Museum Archives

We receive at least a dozen emails each year from graduate students asking if we have any job openings in our Library/Archive. The majority are finishing either history or public history masters degrees and hoping to find work in a museum.

I always respond and try to give some sort of positive feedback but ultimately I have to let them know that an MA in history is not the right degree for an archivist/librarian; even in a public history museum. I’m sure there are people with MAs in history working in archives but when we do have openings in these departments they require the MLS, MLIS, or similar degree.

Even though we work in a public history environment, the job requires an entirely different set of skills and training than one would find in a public history graduate program. Within my museum, we’re typically looking for people who have studied:

  • Conservation/preservation (paper, metal, fabric, etc)
  • Digital preservation/curation (audio, video, etc)
  • Metadata construction
  • Original cataloging/accessioning of rare material
  • Collection Development

Not to mention having a firm grasp on the “best practices” for the spectrum of skills that any librarian or archivist should know coming out of grad school.

There might be a history graduate program that offers training in some of these areas; however, the majority of graduate candidates I speak with seem to have little experience with these areas.

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A Last Drink

For the last three years, I’ve been using the clip below when teaching others about conducting oral histories. This is an excerpt from an oral history my uncle and I recorded on Thanksgiving Day 1987 with my paternal grandfather. The entire interview took about three-and-a-half hours and was the first time I heard a detailed account of my father’s family and learned how they wound up in Asheville, NC.


I find it useful for teaching for a number of reasons:

1. Questions
The story my grandfather is telling was not triggered by a direct question about his last drink. Instead, we were questioning him about his career as the foreman of a road construction crew in Western North Carolina. This type of unexpected discovery is one of the thrills of doing oral histories.

2. Setting
The setting was one of the least desirable for conducting an oral history. Typically, if you are conducting an interview you want a quiet room with no external distractions. As it happens, the noisy, holiday atmosphere created an environment where my grandfather felt comfortable opening up and speaking candidly about his life. I’m not sure we would have gotten as much if we were in a closed studio.

3. Narration
You may notice a buzz of voices in the background from my aunts and cousins but you never hear the interviewers during this clip. The one lesson I’m always struggling to get across to new would-be oral historians is the importance of shutting up. It’s incredibly difficult. Social convention teaches us we have to use place-holder words to be active participants in a conversation but oral history is about listening.

4. Preservation
These types of “life stories” are valuable and should be preserved. The original recording was done on an old cassette recorder and was subsequently transferred to compact disc. I’ve since converted them to audio files (WAV). When I’m teaching, I try to bring in all these formats to show students how the media has evolved but the recording is the same.

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Sirens at midnight

This past weekend a series of emergency sirens sounded in downtown Richmond. When I say emergency sirens, I’m referring to the kind that are used for disaster warnings and toxic spills and tornadoes. What Cold War babies like myself would refer to as air raid sirens.

The first round probably lasted about three minutes followed by a fifteen minute pause before the second round went off. Between the two, I opened my laptop and did a few quick searches to see if anyone had any information on what was happening.

Since Virginia Commonwealth University has a set of these sirens, I checked their alert page first, as well as my VCU email, as they normally send out alerts whenever they use them. Neither proved useful, so I started to check local news sources and came up empty. I did find a number of people on Twitter from around the downtown area asking the same question but no one seemed to know what was happening.

The next morning John Murden posed the question on Church Hill People’s News which inspired some inquiries though thus far hasn’t yielded an answer. I contacted both the VCU Alert office as well as the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and have yet to get a response from either.

Update (12:27 pm): Mystery solved — Richmond Fire responded a few minutes ago that “it was the emergency siren for the MCV Campus you heard. As a result of a fire producing an inordinate amount of smoke in the West Hospital, staff thought it was necessary to activate the siren after noting significant smoke in the West Hospital. The root cause of the smoke was a leaf fire in a tunnel which funneled the smoke to many West Hospital floors. No injuries were reported.”

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