Archives as Activism: Elizabeth Myers' Vision for Special Collections

Elizabeth Myers, who began work in May as director of special collections for the Smith College Libraries, views archival work as a form of activism—particularly when it comes to women’s history.

“That idea doesn’t originate with me,” says Myers, with a smile. “But I have made that argument.”

Myers, who previously worked as director of the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit, says she is thrilled to be heading up Smith’s collections, which she says are “unprecedented in size and scope” for a small liberal arts college. Her work involves overseeing the Sophia Smith Collection on women’s history, the College Archives and the Mortimer Rare Book Room in Neilson Library.

Myers’ professional experience includes six years as director of Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University in Chicago. She holds a Ph.D. in 20th century U.S. history from Loyola, with minors in public history and women’s history. Myers has also served on numerous professional committees, including the Women Archivists Roundtable and the Archives Leadership Institute.

Myers will offer her vision for the future of special collections at a talk on Wednesday Nov. 12, at 4:30 p.m. in the Neilson Library Browsing Room. The talk is titled “What Does the Future Hold for the Past?”

Here’s a preview of some of her ideas.

What attracted you to Smith?

Myers: “The thing that drew me was the collections. My first professional job was at Loyola University running the Women’s and Leadership Archives there. I would always say, ‘Well, we are good, but we’re not Smith.’ When it comes to women’s history, my feeling is there is no collection as great as the one here. This position was an opportunity to join a wonderful, prestigious college with a mission I felt a personal affinity to: educating women for the world.”

What makes Smith’s special collections the best?

Myers: “We are coming up on the 75th anniversary of the collections in a few years. That’s a big deal. The National Archives wasn’t even founded until 1934. Smith has also been visionary in collecting and valuing women’s records. In most archives, women’s records existed as part of collections about men. Smith has resisted that and has recognized that women’s records have their own inherent value. That means we have a lot of items that would have been buried in other archives—or even thrown out.”

What does it mean to be archiving women’s history in 2014?

Myers: “This is a critical juncture for special collections because technology has transformed what we do. Archiving is still a human endeavor; you can’t fully automate our work. But the way we teach and provide access has been transformed by technological change. So now we’re asking women, ‘What social media are you on? Can we get access to your Facebook page?’ We’re having to become more knowledgeable about technology, especially where preservation is concerned. We’re also exploring how we provide access to records and still preserve privacy.”

Are women still writing letters or is that form of communication disappearing?

Myers: “I think people are communicating personally in the medium they feel most comfortable with. So we do still have people writing letters. But then we also have email and people who feel completely comfortable expressing themselves in the 140 characters you’re allowed on Twitter. The goal of preserving lived experience hasn’t changed, but the formats we’re working with have.”

Do you ever get nervous handling one-of-a-kind items in the collections, such as Virginia Woolf’s handmade books?

Myers: “I don’t believe in roped-off history. I believe history needs to be touchable. Nothing can replace the experience of sitting in the same room as a document and breathing in the dust of the past. I have students who come in and want to know, ‘Isn’t this online somewhere?’ But then you see them sitting down with the document and having an ‘Aha!’ moment.”

The college plans a renovation of Neilson Library in the near future. What will that mean for special collections?

Myers: “I’m very excited about the renovation project. It promises to bring us into a more central space and in closer proximity to other parts of the library. We hope to gain much needed storage, but also create spaces that reflect the dynamic work of special collections, like our robust instruction program. We average about 90 classes a year that use the collections. One in five Smith students will come through here during their time at Smith, so teaching is a huge component of rethinking the space. We are also hoping for technology-rich spaces that help facilitate staff and researcher navigation of digital content, curation creation and exhibition.”

You’ve written about how you view archiving as activism. Can you explain?

Myers: “The historian Gerda Lerner first put forward the idea that collecting women’s materials is its own form of activism because no one else was doing it. Some archivists have also been going out more into communities and creating or co-creating documents to be archived. Oral histories are a good example. They are especially important in working with women or communities that have been silenced in the historical record. Even editing Wikipedia can be seen as activist because there are so few entries by and about women. A question was raised at a recent conference I attended, ‘Do we even need women’s archives anymore?’ What it comes down to for me is how many women with potential personal materials for the archives I hear from that say, ‘You really think I’m important? I’m not Eleanor Roosevelt.’ It takes someone to break that thread of devaluing women’s records.”

You were director of the Walter Reuther labor archives at Wayne State University. What do you bring to Smith from that experience?

Myers: “The Walter P. Reuther Library is massive, the largest labor archives in the country. Here, we have 27,000 feet of linear material in the archives. By contrast, the Reuther library has 80,000 feet. There were three collecting scopes there—labor, the university archives and urban Detroit. So there are some parallels with Smith, which also has three major collections. One major difference is that the Reuther Library served a lot of rank and file union members who were doing genealogical research on their families. At Smith, there are loads of students and scholars who use the archives, but the broader public is a group we could do a better job of reaching out to.”

What’s surprised you about special collections, so far?

Myers: “I am continually surprised by its strength and diversity. That’s a point of pride. In the Sophia Smith Collection, it’s not just preserving white, privileged women’s records. The College Archives is also near and dear to me because it represents Smith’s hopes and dreams—what we have aspired to and what hasn’t worked—the institutional memory of the college. And I am fascinated by the rare books collection, which has tablets dating from 3,000 B.C. and is also becoming an emerging leader in collecting artists’ books. Being here has challenged my ideas, and I would expect nothing less.”