I chose to interview Laurel Sercombe, the current archivist at the University of Washington’s Ethnomusicology Sound Archive, for this assignment. Laurel has been with the archive since the early 1980s. I have an immense respect for Laurel and the work she has done in the Ethnomusicology Sound Archive. She has led the sound archive through the vast changes in sound formats over the last 30 years and has maintained its commit to access and preservation. Laurel is a one woman show (officially she is the single employee of the archive although student aids are hired when grants allow). I believe Laurel’s experience and knowledge qualify her as a leader in the field. The work that Laurel has continued to do day in and day out for three decades and her commitment to the archive are inspirational. The Ethnomusicology Sound Archive itself is a great resource but Laurel may be its greatest especially when it comes to learning what it takes to be an outstanding archival professional.
1. Tell me a little about your background—education and interest in archives/libraries before becoming an archivist?
I was a violinist but knew that I would never make a living as a violinist. I entered library school at the University of Washington in the late 1970’s. Before that I had worked as a library clerk/page for the Seattle Public Library for a year. After graduation I worked for one year in the public library, yes, I think it was exactly 365 days. It was sort of a library boot camp, very quick paced but I could have never stayed. I did not realize that being a librarian meant that you had to also clean up vomit and wipe sticky stuff from library materials. Don’t get me wrong there were some aspects of the job that I did enjoy, running the story hour and working in the young adult section.
I then took a position cataloguing in the music library and I was there for 3 years. During that time the position at the Ethnomusicology archive opened. Some members of the ethnomusicology faculty suggested that I apply and I was flattered so I did. I later found out that they had been under the impression that I had an ethnomusicology degree. The people that had run the archives previously were strictly ethno-minded and not very organized. They also tended to be very technical and into the technical aspects of sound recording but did not know how to organize. They really wanted someone to organize and turn the archive into a real sound archive.
So by 1982 I had a job in the sound archive –the perfect job for me. I am still here 30 years later!!! In 2000 I received my PhD in Ethnomusicology and I was lucky enough to be able to work in the area and research local Native American music. I have been very lucky and loved being able to work with the archival materials as well as living human consultants such as my work with Vi Hilbert
I might retire in 4 years but I have so much to do here. Students and colleagues continue to inspire me.
2. You have worked in the same archive for a number of years how do you stay current and what motivates you?
I have many colleagues that keep me informed and I involved with the Society of Ethnomusicology and ARSC (Association for Recorded Sound Collections). There is also a lot of professional literature out there to follow what is happening. The Sound Archive is isolated from UW’s major library system so it tends to be difficult to keep current with metadata issues and preservation formats. It is difficult to change and keep up with the formats. You have to work within your constraints and accept the challenge of reaching out. It would be easy to ignore everything and play around with the collection. We continue to add great music to the archive because of the guests (world music artists program) we have through the ethnomusicology program.
3. There have been a lot of changes in the information field in the last 10 years. How has that change impacted you and the ethno-archives?
I entered in the ethno-archives during the analog period. During the first ten years we went for a preservation grant. Back then you did preservation on analog so we copied tons of items to analog reel to reel tape. A few years later all that work and the format was totally irrelevant. We had to re-write the grant to digitize the collection. It’s all about access and preservation. The 1990s saw the establishment of audio digitization standards. It was nice to finally know what everyone else was doing. It really helped in pushing things forward. The real horror in the last ten years has been video preservation. We have rooms of VHS and other pre-digital formats. Even with funds we do not know which format to use and no standards have been established. We are on a holding pattern with video.
4. Do you find that information professionals tend to have long careers in one institution like yourself or is it more typical to move around?
It is desirable for people to have a couple of jobs for 5-6 years then find something compatible or that you want to long term. A lot of people are retiring in a few years. Jobs are seen differently now. My peers would not quit their current positions because at their age they would not find another job. The sound archive is my third job. The first year is fast, paced; “thrown into the trenches” atmosphere. My second job cataloging in the music library was totally different. This job (sound archive) is a little bit of everything (hidden treasure trove). I’ve worn jeans to work for 30 years!
5. Did you feel like your education prepared you for your current occupation?
Nothing I did in library school had anything to do with archiving sound or paper materials. Library school courses are very interesting but most of the time you have no idea what you are going to do. You basically learn everything on the job. I knew the acronyms but could not catalog my way out of a paper bag until I had training. There is no way to avoid not knowing, just adapt quickly. Either you learn or you don’t.
6. What is your opinion on library/archive education today since you regularly interact with LIS students?
I feel ignorant around LIS students. They should require me to take professional training (continuing education) to keep me up with technology. A refresher course. There still is no program or place to train sound archivist. It’s on the job training only.
LIS students know a lot of technical things coming out of library school but I will never think like an IT person. Librarians should not have to be IT specialist. There should be room for media people and non-IT people. Media people are subject experts. There is value to media people and if we are good at our jobs we should have access to IT people to help us with the IT part.
7. What do you see as the most important qualities that an information professional must have?
People should have the ability to see the big picture and extreme detail at the same time. Most people are good at one or the other. A sense of humor is important as well as knowledge with a sense of perspective. Scott Cline is the archivist for the city of Seattle and he always talks about achieving the best possible. He mentioned one time that we cannot all achieve the best practices all the time. Sometimes we have to live with what is good enough for now but then we must strive to get better. Flexibility with working with what you have. If a best practice does not work for your archive then it may not be the best practice for you.
8. What advice would you give an aspiring archivist?
Don’t give up on what you want to do. Find out what skills those people have that have the job you want. Fill in the gaps as you can. Be likable!! People still tend to make selections on subjective grounds. You can’t get to the initial interview unless you have the minimal tech skills.