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Staff Highlight: Melanie Rinehart, Archivist

Valerie-Anne Lutz is Head of Manuscripts Processing, where she supervises a team of archivists who make new collections available. Val...

Melanie Rinehart joined the APS in May after two years of processing the Time, Inc. records at the New York Historical Society. During her interviews and tour, Melanie impressed us with her experience in processing large collections, her insightful responses to questions we posed, and her friendly collegiality with staff. We could visualize her working well with the team, and we were glad when she accepted the offer.

During the past several months, Melanie has completed processing the papers of geneticist H. Eldon Sutton, completed surveying the papers of physicist Richard Garwin, and is currently processing Garwin’s 92 linear feet of correspondence. Melanie has developed a method to maintain the chronological physical arrangement of the correspondence while creating a virtual alphabetical arrangement for the finding aid. She also recently passed the Academy of Certified Archivists exam.

Did you have a defining moment when you said to yourself, “Aha! I should become an archivist!”?

My junior year of college, I knew I wanted to do something with my history degree but didn’t want to become an academic. In discussing it with a friend, she mentioned her friend was currently completing an archival degree, and maybe I would also be interested in doing something similar. After doing research and talking with professors and my then-boss at the campus library, I decided to get my MLS with an archives specialization at Indiana University, but I still didn’t know exactly what kind of archivist I wanted to be.

My first year of graduate school, I had the opportunity to take a course on manuscripts where the final project was to curate an exhibition based on a single archival collection at the Lilly Library. The collection I chose was a set of thirteen letters from a woman named Polly Palmer to her friend Betsy Mayhew over the course of the American Revolution; in working with the materials and researching who these women were, I realized how incredible it was that these letters had survived for so long, and because of archivists these two women are allowed to be present in the historical record. While that wasn’t the exact moment I decided to become an archivist, it was a turning point for deciding the direction I wanted my career to take and the materials I wanted to work with— manuscript materials in a special collections setting. My answer isn’t akin to a lightning strike where I had sudden clarity, but a process of exploration and experience, and now I get to work in the exact position I dreamed of as a graduate student!

What appeals to you about working with collections?

I love getting insight into people’s personal lives or the more complicated story behind events, which are usually simplified in the retelling, plus it gives me the chance to learn a little bit about a lot of different subject areas. Because of the collections I’ve processed, I can tell you about failed Lord of the Rings movie adaptations, the experience of journalists reporting on Chiang Kai-Shek in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and particle physics! When I’ve finished processing a collection and the finding aid is complete, there’s a sense of accomplishment knowing it’s going to be used by researchers for (forgive me for riffing off the APS motto) creating useful knowledge. 

I also work in the APS Reading Room, and getting to witness the collections in use or even being able to suggest a collection I just finished processing to someone doing their research on a related organization is intensely gratifying. In getting to know collections so intimately while processing, I get to become a conduit and source of specialized knowledge for researchers. It’s fun!

Do you have a charity or cause that you feel passionate about?

Voter rights— a democracy is only a democracy if everyone has the right and opportunity to vote. 

Do you have a mentor who changed your perception of yourself, archives, or the world at large?

My answer isn’t a traditional sort of mentor— my good friend and colleague Ava Dickerson, now the Manuscripts Archivist at the Lilly Library, has been an incredible support system since we met in graduate school. Connecting with someone who is also intensely passionate about the potential of archives and works hard to better the field for those who come after us has helped solidify my career ethos and love for this job throughout the rough patches. 

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the archival field now?

Backlogs, lack of funding, a general misunderstanding amongst non-archivists about what exactly we do, and curriculum in archival schools that is still catching up to the current state of the field.