Melissa Salrin is the Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at the Whitman College and Northwest Archives in Walla Walla, WA. She received her MA in history and her MLIS from the University of Illinois, where she also spent nearly three years as Archival Operations and Reference Specialist. At last year’s national meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), she was one of the speakers on a panel discussing Practical Approaches to Born-Digital Records. For me, she personifies leadership through her commitment to lifelong learning, good stewardship, and helping academic and local researchers make connections.
How did you become interested in librarianship?
My mother—a librarian—always said, “You don’t have to know everything, you just have to know where to find it,” and that stuck with me. It’s all about helping people figure out what they need, how to get it efficiently and not be overwhelmed by the amount of information that they can find, and how to vet the information. To me, being a librarian allows you to do that, to help people. The point of education is learning how to think critically, analyze sources, and understand arguments. Librarians are crucial to that entire process because we help people make connections.
What’s one of your goals for the Northwest Archives?
We have Pacific Northwest holdings, records pertaining to Whitman College’s history, and materials to support the research of the students and faculty on campus, but there also are people in the community who are interested in these issues and I’d like to promote these kinds of connections. I’d love to do something with local schoolchildren to help them see what kinds of things you can find in the library and get them excited. I think if you can help students understand from a young age why libraries are important it sets them up for a lifetime of being good advocates and stewards of these kinds of collections.
What’s an important issue facing archives and special collections?
People really want to know what to do with electronic records. The possibilities of promoting access are greater but the dangers are also greater. If a professor retires and says, ‘Here, empty out my office,” now you have 20 cubic feet of material that probably won’t be digitized. Obviously you go through to remove sensitive material, but if you accidentally miss something a researcher will show you and you can just take it out. But if the professor says, “Have my hard drive,” you can provide access online but people then can troll through it more easily, too.
But to not act, to say, “It’s too impossible, so we’re not going to worry about it,” isn’t a good solution. As good archivists, we need to be involved in records management issues because people aren’t very good about imposing order on the way they use electronic records. That’s something I didn’t really appreciate before library school—that you need to be aware of copyright, law, what court cases are saying, what responsibilities you have as someone who works in a library. It’s a lot more complicated than people think.
When people find something in the archives, do they recognize the work of the archivist in making those records accessible?
If they’re good researchers they do recognize the value of the archivist. Since there’s so much unprocessed material in the archives, if we can do minimal processing to help expose this content and put finding aids online so that they’re indexed by Google, so that people can just search and say, “Oh gosh, here’s something in this little archive,” that’s really valuable.
It’s enjoyable and gratifying as a librarian when you see someone working on a project and you can say, “Here’s another search strategy you may want to use” or “You’re studying this, and it’s drawing to mind for me this other thing, so let me pull that for you.” You’re a scholar and you have to be able to know how to talk to other scholars so you can anticipate what they’re seeking and know when you’re processing something who is going to be using it and what kinds of research questions might they ask. It’s important to engage your own mind and help them find and use the resources in your archives or special collections to the fullest.
Do you have any advice for MLIS students interested in archives or special collections?
For most jobs in special collections and archives it’s good to have a second master’s degree in a subject area and some language skills, especially reading skills. And it’s really good to have a record of professional engagement. Join organizations like ALA and SAA and attend conferences. Don’t be afraid to throw your hat out there and say, “I want to present.” You have things to say and people really want to hear your perspective. So don’t be shy about getting involved.