Colleen McFarland Rademaker joined The Corning Museum of Glass as our new associate librarian for special collections at the Rakow Research Library at the end of August. On October 4, she’ll be joining archivists around the world in answering questions about archival work for #AskAnArchivist day. We took some time to talk to Colleen about her role at the Museum.
As the associate librarian for special collections, you care for the special collections at the Rakow Library. What makes special collections different from other books in the stacks?
We’re accustomed to books, magazines, and even films being part of a library collection, but special collections are different because they’re unpublished, unique, or very rare. These objects require specialized description and handling because they are unpublished, fragile, or both.
What might you do on a daily basis?
Part of the job is cultivating relationships with donors, who could be individual glass artists or representatives of organizations. Another part is processing, or cataloguing, the collection so that people can find and use it. Our public services team then helps promote use of the collections.
Since I’m so new to the Library, I’m spending most of my time getting to know the collections. This happens in two different ways. The first is the public services desk asking me to look through an archival collection to help answer a patron’s question. The other way is with new accessions, new materials arriving to be added to an existing collection, or to establish a new collection. When that happens, I try to take a look at what it is and learn more about it and its creator. Then, I work on describing the collection so that it can be used by the public. My ultimate goal is to bring the collections and users together.
Would you say that your favorite part of the job is creating that connection between the collection and users?
Absolutely. I call it, “creating relationships across time.” We have a really good understanding of the importance of creating relationships across cultures and across geographies, but I don’t know if we have the same dedication to create relationships across time, which is something I’m very passionate about. Archives can do that in such a powerful way because of the intimacy between the collection’s creator and the collection’s users.
What are some of the challenges of being an archivist?
We’re not really socialized to use archives. When I first discovered archives, I was completely blown away because it never occurred to me that libraries actually collected that kind of material. It’s also remarkable what survives to be archived and what doesn’t. An archivist I know said to me once, “There’s always loss at the center of archives.” For everything you get, there are also things that you don’t get, that you never get, so archives are really parts of a whole.
There are also some records that never get created. Even if you have a very complete archive, not every conversation gets captured, so using archives requires a lot of imagination and discernment to fill in the blanks. These are things like diaries that someone created not intending for anyone else to ever read, so using and working in archives is a very intimate experience because you get to have these one-on-one conversations with the people who created the collection. If you take archival work seriously, it can’t help but be a spiritual experience because you are in the presence of people who are no longer here, but you are listening to them.
What are some things you’ve learned so far on the job?
I don’t have a background in glass, so I’m learning a lot about glass, glassmaking, and the people behind this material. When I think about how the Library complements the work of the Museum, I think about how the Museum shows the glass object and provides enough information to get people curious enough to come to the Library, where the people behind the object are often really well-represented.
The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, which is one of my favorite parts of being an archivist. When I was younger, I didn’t have as good of a grasp of that and it’s a privilege to be in a profession where learning is a part of the daily work.