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Staff Highlight: Susan Laquer, Archivist

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

Susan Laquer joined the APS last May after 21 years as archivist at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As we reviewed applicants for the archivist position, we were surprised and pleased to see Susie’s name among them. Susie is a well-known and respected colleague in the archival community. Prior to her 21 years at PMA, she worked at the Pennsylvania Hospital Archives for eight years. With her wealth of knowledge and experience, thoughtful responses to questions during interviews, and her pleasant and collegial interactions with staff during a tour of the Library, we knew that she would make an excellent addition to the staff, and were thrilled that she accepted the position.

Over the past several months, Susie has surveyed, researched, and inventoried the papers of population geneticist Hampton Carson, a somewhat complicated collection that included a previously processed portion and several unprocessed accessions. She developed a method of arrangement that retained the work of the previous archivist while maintaining the integrity of Carson’s arrangement of materials. She also recently passed the Academy of Certified Archivists exam for renewal as a certified archivist. 

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

I was a geeky kid and destined for some kind of library work (I used to hang out at the local bookmobile for fun). But if I had to pick a certain moment, it was when I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. On display were metal milk containers used by people in the Warsaw ghetto. They used them as time capsules, so their stories wouldn't be forgotten, as well as documenting their treatment by the Nazis, to hold them accountable. While I had been thinking about a career switch for awhile – I was working at Pennsylvania Hospital's library and increasingly drawn into archival projects – this powerful statement really moved me. It crystallized a lot of my interests, which include personal narratives, working with primary source materials, and doing my part (however small) to preserve the historic record for future generations. 

What appeals to you about working with collections?  

My parents had me late in life – I was the youngest on both sides of the family – so I grew up with a lot of stories about the "olden days." My relatives would pass along treasured items from the past, almost as if they were touchstones to another time. Simply put, I love anything from a previous era and am fascinated with the information held in the materials we preserve. Spending time with someone's papers enables you to get inside their head and learn about their thought process, knowledge, and belief system. A scholar once told me, "Real history is far more interesting than anything we could imagine," which I think is true. To work with archival collections – and do right by them – challenges all parts of your brain to figure out aspects of the past, not make easy assumptions, and determine the best way to steward the materials so users can take full advantage of them.

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

I’m in the process of training my dog Marco to be a therapy animal, specifically for work in libraries. I was inspired by a friend doing similar volunteer work, and hope to provide support for kids struggling to read, or college students who are stressed out during exam time. I’ve always been interested in psychology and animals, and am intrigued with the symbiotic relationship between canines and humans, which has developed over thousands of years. I know I’ve changed for the better since my husband and I adopted Marco through a local rescue organization 2 years ago. While he may be a mutt, he has a lot of “working dog” DNA in him, so he's happiest when he has a job to do. He passed the AKC Canine Good Citizen exam in December, so we're on our way!

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

Three of my mentors worked at APS and taught me about different parts of the profession. Whitfield Bell was chair of Pennsylvania Hospital's Friends of the Library group. I learned about outreach and fundraising from him, and how to get people interested in special collections. I also took public history classes here with Marty Levitt, when he was an adjunct professor at Temple University, and learned archival basics in the board room. He helped me establish a good foundation in the profession. Rob Cox shared his technical expertise in developing collection management systems, before Archivists Toolkit and ArchivesSpace, as well as getting finding aids online. He encouraged me to keep challenging myself with digital projects and professional development. So I've always been grateful to APS colleagues for generously sharing their knowledge. I wouldn't be where I am today without the help I received along the way from the Society's staff.

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

I think it comes down to repositories skillfully managing their resources to provide for right-sized solutions, especially with regards to sustainability. While researchers are justifiably asking for more digital access, it requires an ongoing investment to digitize archival collections, create metadata, develop the technical infrastructure to make digital content available online, and maintain a trusted repository to preserve files throughout their life cycle. As organizations travel down this path, they need to make a commitment to cultivating a different kind of collection, while also maintaining the originals, which is often a challenge for smaller and more modestly funded institutions to juggle.