Lance Werner (MLIS ’04) is Director of the Kent District Library, an 18 branch library system serving Kent County, Michigan. In 2016, Lance was named a Library Journal Mover and Shaker and in 2017, was named as a Wayne State University Distinguished Alumni. He was also named the recipient of the 2017 Urban Libraries Council Joey Rogers Leadership Award and the 2017 Michigan Library Association Librarian of the Year Award.
Do you have recommendations for new librarians who want to improve their leadership skills? How can today’s Librarian I or II prepare themselves to be an excellent future Librarian IV or V?
I think it is important to be kind, empathetic, passionate, and fearless in the modern library arena. I think strong consideration should be given to developing communication styles that reflect genuine self are important. I do not think there is any room for intellectual elitism in libraries. Exceptional internal and external customer service should always be sought. We are the people that we serve, no better than the best of them and no worse than the worst of them. If you’re a really good leader you care about what’s best for the organization first, in a selfless way.
I have been saying that the mushy stuff matters a lot lately and I believe it. I think we should be willing to be personally vulnerable. A lot of what we experience is a reflection of our own behavior and when we treat people with genuine kindness and empathy the world will reflect that back. I care deeply about the people that I work with, the people that we help, and the work that we do. I do not consider myself “above” anyone who works or volunteers at KDL. I have always seen my role as a facilitator of greatness in others. I recognize that we all win or lose together. We refer to our coworkers, volunteers, and everyone in the community as our family and treat them accordingly. We have servant’s hearts.
You can do great things where you are at. As long as it’s a good fit for you, and you feel secure there, you can change the world from right where you’re standing. It’s not always the case, but when you find the right position for you, you’ll know.
What aspects of library management do you love? What is, shall we say, “less loveable” about being in library management?
I am more of a leader than a manager. I establish vision and direction and manage the Leadership Team. They are excellent at their jobs and I let them be. We are extremely collaborative across our entire system. I learned a long time ago that a great game changing idea can come from anyone, anywhere. So what do I love the most? Working with people that I love, on work that we love, for people that we love.
I know at this point you probably think KDL sounds like a hippie commune, it is kind of. We have high, high expectations of our employees. Sometimes things don’t work out, even when the person is giving it their all. Since I am the one to make the determination that someone needs to be terminated, then it should be me who tells them face to face. I have fired many people. While I never have felt guilty or bad about firing someone, I don’t love it.
The libraries you manage seem to become highly innovative and try new technologies and ideas for their communities. What advice do you have for those libraries that might be holding back from going too far outside of the library box?
People that change the world are people that believe they can. I think libraries that are afraid to reach and take risks are holding our entire profession back. Nothing new would ever happen if we didn’t take chances. I think as a group, libraries and librarians need to embrace the notion of being fearless for the people that we serve.
I love being on the bleeding edge and past the bleeding edge. I find it exhilarating. I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie and enjoy pushing the envelope in everything that I endeavor to do. I could care less what other libraries think about it. We don’t do it for anyone except the people that we serve. We are committed to throwing out the status quo and improving what exists. I figure that if I haven’t given it my all, what’s the point? Reach, fall down, reach again, rinse and repeat. When that cycle becomes too much, I think a new profession is in order.
Are there trends or issues that you’re seeing in public libraries that need to be focused on more?
Next level customer service and user experience (let’s beat Zingerman’s and Disney), communication skills (if you come across like a good bartender, you are heading in the right direction), staying abreast of the latest technologic breakthroughs, and always pushing for convenience and simplicity.
As a Library Director, you have a full calendar and plenty of meetings. Can you share ideas with the SLIS community for managing a busy schedule successfully? Do you have any tips for managing meetings?
I usually work anywhere from 60-80 hours a week. It is not uncommon for me to attend 5+ meetings a day. I also am involved in 8 different outside groups and visit each of the KDL branches monthly. I also try to work at least one desk shift a month. It would be impossible for me to keep track of everything and do everything without having a top notch executive assistant. I do and she’s a ninja! Her name is Jaci (pronounced “Jaycee”).
When you’re hiring librarians, what skills are you seeking – either soft skills or hard, technical skills?
It really depends on the position, but by and large we look for:
- Soft skills
- Soft skills
- Soft skills
- Soft skills
What types of soft skills are at the top of your list in terms of importance?
You want somebody who is kind, who is outgoing, who desires to be part of a team. You also want someone that is selfless and is passionate about pushing the bar even higher.
I enjoy people being fearless, who are able to look past their own fears and are willing to speak up in a constructive (not degrading) way. It’s important to be constructive, speak up and if you have an idea to make things better, then let’s do it. That’s all I care about making things better.
You were recently named as a Wayne State University Outstanding Alumni. Multiple members of your family bleed green and gold. Who else in your family has graduated from Wayne State? What aspects of Wayne State make it a top choice for your family?
I am honored to be named the 2017 WSU Distinguished Alumni and to represent the SLIS and WSU Libraries. I have since received notice that I am also the 2017 recipient of the Urban Libraries Council Joey Rogers Leadership Award and the 2017 Michigan Library Association Librarian of the Year Award. It has been a pretty unbelievable year.
My father went to Wayne State for Medical School and my grandmother attended the College of Education for a while. WSU was a no brainer for me. In addition to providing a top-notch education, the program was flexible enough for me to attend law school and work full time simultaneously. I would encourage anyone to give serious consideration to WSU when contemplating higher education or graduate school. WSU has nationally recognized programs that are both of tremendous benefit educationally, as well as value.
Congratulations! Those are immense honors – and well deserved! The Joey Rogers Leadership Award offers a stipend for senior library managers to pursue a professional development opportunity. What will you do with Joey Rogers Leadership Award?
I am applying for the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University. The program offers training for people who are interested in running for office, it has many aspects including personal leadership development and training on public process. It’s intended for people interested in becoming legislators. Maybe someday I’d be interested in being a legislator, but in the meantime, I think it would be good training for me to learn and help others in their endeavors. Libraries are governmental organizations, though we don’t think of ourselves that way. Whether you’re an academic in a university library setting or a public library funded by local, state, and federal funding, we need to understand and learn how to be successful advocates. Not just related to money, but issues of intellectual freedom and other topics, too. I think understanding this is important for the longevity of libraries. I do some of this on behalf on the Michigan Library Association and other organizations but would like to learn more.
I think it’s important for us to be good advocates – not aggressive advocates, just better advocates. I’m never aggressive when I’m advocating for libraries. If you are a nice person and people respect you because you treat them the right way, people will want to work with you.
The SLIS Leaders Blog Post Series highlights library and information leaders and seeks their insights on leadership and LIS trends. Our first interview features Dr. Sandra Yee.
Dr. Sandra Yee is Dean of the Wayne State University Library System, a role in which she oversees operations of both the University Libraries and the School of Library and Information Science. She has worked in the field of academic librarianship for over 35 years and will be retiring from the position of Dean in August 2017. We caught up with her to get insights about libraries, leadership, and where the LIS professions are headed.
Over the course of your career you’ve seen a great deal of change in libraries – whether that’s policies, technology, or other trends. What recommendations do you have for library professionals who have to adapt to and manage change?
Stay informed, stay current. Continuously learn about trends in the profession. Go to conferences, read, talk to colleagues. Try new things, don’t be afraid. Force yourself to embrace new technologies and to try new things. It’s important to understand the process of “failing fast”. Find a way to scale projects for testing and if they don’t work out, then learn from that. Take some risks but know when to dial back!
You have balanced many important roles in addition to your role as Dean. Currently, you are Chair of the OCLC Board of Trustees, you’re a past-president and current board member of the Friends of the Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation and a member of the Wayne State University Press Editorial Board. Over the course of your career, you’ve held similar roles at similar organizations. How do you manage the demands of these various roles on your time and what recommendations do you have for LIS professionals who would like to participate more actively in organizations outside of their “day job”?
I recommend picking some organizations that you really care about and that have goals and values similar to yours. Finding time and energy to work with professional organizations is easier if you are passionate about the organization and have a desire to help make it the best it can be.
As Dean of University Libraries and the School of Library and Information Science, you are a key stakeholder in many important decisions that have long-term impact on the university, its libraries, and SLIS. Do you have a particular process for making big decisions in terms of getting input and using data? How do you assess need and the potential impact of the decisions you have to make?
When big decisions have to be made I like to take some time and look at the whole picture. That means asking for input from those who should know the situation, getting the important data and considering alternatives. I try to consider what the desired outcome would look like. In the end, I also trust my gut because I learned a long time ago, “if it doesn’t FEEL right, don’t do it!”
What do you think is the most underestimated trend in the LIS professions currently? Is there something that LIS professionals should be spending more time or attention on that is going unnoticed?
Customer relationship management and artificial intelligence. I was just reading about not just self-check out at grocery stores, but NO check out. All done through an app. Are we even talking about this for libraries??? I think there’s a place for CRM systems like SalesForce and similar automated email systems in libraries, and some libraries are starting to use those for marketing and interaction. There’s a lot of activity with AI and libraries aren’t there yet. Libraries need to be really watching what’s happening out there.
I think it’s crucial to study library literature, but also study customer service, study inventory control systems, don’t just study library literature. Keep your mind open and read about other trends and technology because those things will influence libraries down the road.
When I was an undergraduate I studied creativity –I wanted to know how I could be more creative and what are processes of creativity – and that has helped me think in the way I do. It’s important to not just think critically but also creatively.
What additional advice to you have for library professionals who are interested in becoming excellent leaders?
It’s important for leaders to know what the people in your organization are doing. It’s important for a leader to know how things work. I think there is a fine line between micromanaging and knowing what people do. They are the experts, that’s why I hired them because they’re the experts. I want to know what they do so I understand what their challenges are and understand how they’re meeting those challenges. One semester I taught LIS 7060: Academic Libraries online and it was difficult. I had to learn about Blackboard and Adobe Connect. I created video recordings as well as powerpoint slides, so it was a lot to prepare! But I felt it was an excellent experience. I felt needed to do it so I understood what the faculty do and would know what faculty were going through when teaching online. I knew what challenges they were facing.
I’m a pretty energetic person both mentally and physically – I believe it is important to maintain your energy.
What projects or highlights from your career are you particularly proud of?
One of the highlights of my career is the success of the University Library System and the School of Library and Information Science at Wayne State. I have been able to move the libraries forward by partnering with students and faculty, bringing resources to them where they are, and providing a safe and inspiring physical environment. We moved the Library and Information Science Program totally online in 2008, increased enrollment, and changed from Program to School.
At Eastern Michigan University I was deeply engaged in the development and building of the Bruce T. Halle Library which opened in 1998, with a new model for storing collections, the Automated Storage and Retrieval System which was the second one to be built in a library in the US. It was an exceptional opportunity to work with faculty and students but also to work with that technology. It was a unique opportunity at the time to work with Voyager (the Integrated Library System) to define the specifications so that the automated system and Voyager worked correctly together so the software would identify the bin where the item was stored and place it at the retrieval system. I learned about logistics, I learned about inventory control and logistics and I learned there is so much more to it!
Are there any moments in your career that you would have approached differently?
For me, I’m happy with the decisions that I made. I stayed at one location for 19 years and at another for 16 years. For others, I’d suggest moving to new opportunities more quickly if that is something that seems right.
What makes Wayne State special to you?
The relationship the University Libraries have developed with the Student Senate, in particular, is quite special to me. We really have reached out and had a partnership that is not always easy to accommodate in an academic setting. One thing I’m most proud of during my time at Wayne State is my selection as 2010-2011 Administrator of the Year by the Student Senate. It was the inaugural year for that award and I feel very proud that I was chosen for that honor. We’ve also been able to develop a good relationship with the university faculty members and that is extremely important.
I also feel I’ve had a really unique experience working with SLIS. Nowhere else is there an ARL library where a Dean can have dual roles in both the libraries and the library school. It’s been a unique experience and one I’ve embraced and treasured.
And last, but not least, if you were to start your MLIS studies in 2017, what focus area would you choose and why?
I would definitely take every technology course I could take, and focus on Information Management. I think that the future of libraries is exciting but in many new ways, and I’d want to be prepared for whatever new ways were around the corner!
The Allied Media Conference happens each summer in downtown Detroit. The event unites media-makers – those who create, share, participate in, or simply enjoy media in any form. Multiple alumnae participated in this year’s conference, including Alexis Tharp (MLIS ’13), Nakenya Lewis-Yarbrough (MLIS ’17), Shoshanna Wechter (MLIS ’11), Amanda Seppala (MLIS ’16), and Andrea Perez (MLIS ’05).
Alumnae Alexis Tharp and Andrea Perez co-presented “Soul of a Public Library” at the Allied Media Conference on Saturday, June 17 at 2 p.m. as part of the Radical Librarianship track. Alexis and Andrea presented with fellow librarians Kristy Cooper and Katie Dover-Taylor, all of whom were employed by the Westland Public Library. The presentation outlined their struggle in a toxic work environment and their efforts to create positive change in their workplace and community despite overwhelming resistance. They explained their termination from their jobs and provided updates on the current political and employment situation they face.
“I think our session went very well. For me, it gave a sense of closure for me with the whole Westland saga,” explained Andrea Perez. “Being at AMC always feels amazing, but it felt really healing this year. I loved seeing how much the Radical Librarianship Track has grown from just two years ago. It was hard to attract good sessions then. Now the track has expanded to include archives and museums.”
Nakenya Lewis-Yarbrough co-presented “Diversity in Youth Literature” with fellow youth librarian Katy Kramp from the Plymouth Public Library. The presentation discussed the importance of diversity in library collections so that young readers can see reflections of themselves in the literature they read. Recommended titles reflecting diversity in race, gender identity, learning and physical abilities were discussed and information for collection development planning to enhance collection diversity was shared. Nakenya is the youth librarian at Belleville Area District Library where she merges her experience as an educator with her work in public libraries to encourage young readers and increase their awareness of diverse authors.
Thanks to Dr. Kafi Kumasi for the photographs of SLIS Alumnae at AMC!
Blogpost and photos submitted by SLIS student Colleen Cirocco.
While the scent of the flowers that filled the air is fading from memory, and I can no longer hear lime green parakeets singing from the terrace, I will never forget the two weeks I spent in Italy. And while I ate gelato and gazed at fountains, I was also studying the Italian approach to library and information science.
Catholic University of America’s course, Visions of Italy, included myself and seven other students, including two WSU online students, and ran from May 27-June 10. We found ourselves behind the velvet ropes of almost a dozen cultural institutions and libraries, with knowledgeable and engaging private tour guides at every stop. The two-week course was absolutely packed with site visits as well as unstructured time to explore on our own. CUA’s Rome Center is a hybrid living/educational space where we stayed and ate family style Italian meals (think stuffed eggplant, white wine pasta with clams). It is an incredibly beautiful campus, enclosed like a gated fortress, atop a hill in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome, perched above the noise and crowds of the city.
From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was learning, observing, absorbing Italian culture. Their advertisements, their shoes, their speech inflections, the heat in the middle of spring. Except for the time I spent sleeping (even then, Italian phrases and flickers of the previous day filtered into my dreams), every second of every day, I was learning what Italian culture was. I eventually saw how this translated into their approach to their information organizations.
From our leisurely three hour dinners, to the omnipresence of art and history, to stores closing during the mid-afternoon, to high schoolers having the opportunity to lead museum tours, it became clear that Italian culture values its art, and takes a rather relaxed approach to life.
While we saw many connections between these values and the management of their information organizations, I still believe that we only really scratched the surface of the topic. We came to the general conclusion that Rome’s cultural institutions, libraries, and archives—such as the Vatican Secret Archives, Rome’s National Library, and the Capitolini Museum—were far behind our standards of preservation and digitization. Their museums did not utilize technology or even consistent signage to enhance user experience, and we sensed a general “easy going” attitude towards security, evidenced by open windows and lack of crowd control. And most concerning to me, there was no sense of urgency regarding digitizing their collections.
Almost as an “Aha!” moment, on our three-day trip to Florence we were very impressed by the amount of work the Galileo Museum had put into digital archiving and enhancing their exhibits with interactive touchscreen modules. In a way, one museum put the two cities at opposite ends of a dichotomy: Florence being advanced, while Rome lags behind. However, such a reductive conclusion must overlook the complicated reasoning behind these disparities. It just cracked the door open to many questions about how Italy views their information organizations, and how various cities approach protecting their resources.
The course tapped into so many fascinating questions like these. It also lead me towards that golden moment of realization: there are other ways of doing things besides the way we do them. The moment this thought popped into my head I also wondered, “How are libraries organized in Germany?” and then, like a row of dominos falling, I saw the names of country after country flash before my eyes. I was confronted with immeasurable possibilities, with the sheer vastness of the world, and suddenly felt overwhelmed. Presently, this type of global consciousness is crucial, being essential for empathy and collaboration.
Overall, during my stay, I was most impressed with how art flows through every aspect of Italian culture. This struck me the most, as our relatively young nation doesn’t come close to having Italy’s history or cultural holdings. The inspiration I felt from the experience was dizzying. I hope, through my archival administration training, to be able to interact with art in the way that our tour guides did. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a way to offer my skills to one of their institutions. I did make sure to throw three coins in the Trevi fountain, which ensures my return to Rome, the eternal city.
To see more images from the trip, watch this video created by Colleen’s classmate, Katherine Currie.
By Mark Prindiville, MLIS Student and Wayne State SAA Student Chapter President
On Friday, May 5th, the Wayne State chapter of the Society of American Archivists was invited to take a tour at several repositories in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. Locations included the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, also located at U of M, and the Eastern Michigan University Archives located at Halle Library. Our hosts included the William Clements’ Curator of Manuscripts, Cheney Schopieray, the Gerald R. Ford Library’s Supervisory Archivist, Geir Gunderson, and EMU Archivist, Alexis Braun Marks. Our personal guide was none other than the Reuther’s own Erik Nordberg, who helped arrange the tour.
We began at the Clements, where we were introduced into the newly renovated reading room and were acquainted with the general collections, if you wish to call them that, of the library. These included a plethora of Colonial American ephemera, as well as rare items collected throughout the years, including while William Clements himself was alive. After a brief tour behind the scenes, we were given a front row experience of the main lobby, where one can envision an older styled library to look like.
After taking a few minutes to dodge the rain and to drive several blocks away, we arrived at the Ford Presidential Library. We were given a tour around the different aspects of the facility, where we saw a replica of the Presidential Office through the doorway in a conference room, as well as the reading room, which overlooks a portion of the stacks for researchers to gaze upon. We were also given exclusive look into their audiovisual set up, as well as their processing area.
After continuing to fight with the rain, as well as taking a very lovely back road drive to EMU, we arrived at our final destination. Alexis greeted us in the lobby, where she then led us to the third floor, where the archives are located. One of the most memorable portions of the trip involved the ARC, or Automated Retrieval Collection. The ARC’s robot crane locates and moves hundreds of bins, which hold more than half a million books and other materials from the Library. Getting a behind the scenes look at this system proved to be an interesting experience for all of those who joined our tour.
After EMU, we left for Detroit, where we met at the Jolly Pumpkin to reflect on our trip and, due to the excitement, discuss what next year’s possible tour could be. Unfortunately, due to finishing up school, I will not be able to join in on the festivities; however, Nathaniel Arndts, newly elected President of our little chapter, will be the go-to leader of said trip, and will be the one who prepares SAA for the incoming school year.
On May 30, SLIS alumni gathered for a learning and networking event entitled “Information, Inspiration, Innovation: Technology Trends in Information Management” at Troy Public Library. A recording of the presentations is available at online!
Alumni and faculty gathered and enjoyed presentations by:
Kiron Johnson (MLIS ’16) and Stephanie York (MLIS ’15) of Quicken Loans, a division of Rock Ventures. They shared the project DetroitStockCity.com – a collection of digital images of Detroit taken by Rock Ventures photographers and curated by the Rock Ventures Digital Asset Management Team.
David J. Moore (MLIS ’15) from Carhartt, Inc. shared his adventures in creating a digital archive from scratch using OneDrive by Microsoft. He explained process and hints and tips that have helped his team as they work collaboratively in OneDrive.
Dr. Hermina Anghelescu, SLIS faculty member, discussed international librarianship and the opportunities, issues, and adventures that await those who choose to work or volunteer in other countries. She also discussed the many international library organizations that exist and ways to participate in those groups.
SLIS would like to thank alumnae Cathleen Russ (MLIS ’03), Director of Troy Public Library and her library staff for their assistance in preparing for the alumni event!
By Emily Perdue, MLIS Student
During spring break this year, I had the opportunity to participate in Alternative Spring Break, a week long project (similar to an internship) to learn more about the library science field. I was lucky enough to spend my week at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, MD, not far from my home town. I spent a lot of time in Annapolis growing up and was thrilled to go back for the week. A little background on the Maryland State Archives – the State Archives serves as the central depository for government records and its holdings date back to Maryland’s founding in 1634. The holdings include colonial and state executive, legislative and judicial records; county probate, land, and court records; church records; business records; state publications and reports; and special collections of private papers, maps, photographs, and newspapers.
When I first entered the Maryland State Archives, I was greeted by Emily Squires, a staff member at the Archives, and we began our tour of the facility. The main space of the archives is completely open and breath-taking as you walk in. The ceilings are huge above and a map of the state of Maryland can be seen covering the main wall to the top of the building just past the front door. Emily then took me on a behind-the-scenes tour of what goes on and where I would be working for the week. I then met my supervisor for the week, Corey Lewis and began going over what his department does and what I would be working on for the week. Corey works in the imaging department as the Imaging Specialist.
After a second tour of the Imaging department with Corey, and meeting the wonderful staff, I began to work on my project for the week. Not long before I joined the staff of the MSA for the week, they had begun reprocessing various collections that had been scanned over the last few years. While this is a long-term project, I was able to help alleviate some of the stress and continue working on some of the images for the week. I reprocessed various images through Photoshop to ensure that they could be uploaded to a digital repository and look as crisp and clean as possible for references. Overall, the entire trip was an amazing experience that I was extremely lucky to have. The staff members at the Maryland State Archives were so warm and welcoming and made the week absolutely fantastic.
Interlochen Center for the Arts is looking to hire an Academic Library Intern for the 2017 camp season. The dates of the contract are 6/12/17-8/7/17 and the stipend for the entire duration of the contract is $1,525. Housing is provided for the dates contracted. All meals are included with your agreement- breakfast, lunch and dinner.
This is a great internship opportunity for someone interested in librarianship as a career. This position serves the needs of the Interlochen Arts Camp by helping to provide campers, faculty, and staff with resources to support their arts specialty and personal interests while on campus.
Required documents for application are: cover letter/letter of interest, resume and a current listing of three references. You can upload these documents during the submission of the application process by selecting “Apply and continue to upload documents” button. Please upload your documents in a pdf format.
To apply go to http://www.interlochen.org/careers
Under Current Employment Opportunities
By Mattie Dugan, MLIS Student
On March 13, I woke up bright and early in the new-to-me city of Washington DC. A short Metro ride later, I stood outside the National Archives for the first time (and, yes, I was that tourist snapping photos). Through the rear entrance were seven other interns from Wayne and around the country. We went through security, which I would get very used to through the week, and were led to the office of the Archivist of the United States.
My first visit to the National Archives building was incredible. Our small group talked with the Archivist of the United States, asking questions and answering them. The Assistant to the AOTUS, an effervescent and enigmatic man, led us on a private tour of the Archives. I’ll never forget being one of only nine people in a room with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
That afternoon, we arrived at what would be our workplace for the next week, Archives II in College Park, Maryland. Brittany Forth, another intern from Wayne, and I received training in NARA’s handling procedures. The knowledge from this experience alone has already proven incredibly valuable in my work and studies.
The rest of the week, Brittany and I worked in the conservation lab, under the supervision of Sara Shpargle and Lauren Varga, rehousing glass lantern slides that
were used to train the Army Air Force from 1903 to 1927. We moved the slides from their cramped boxes to more appropriate boxes, putting those that were cracked in Mylar sleeves. The small boxes, combined with previous handling, had resulted in many of the slides becoming cracked or unstable, but the new boxes and sleeves will mitigate further damage. As we worked, Sara, Lauren and other conservators working in the lab stopped by our station to chat with us about their responsibilities and how we might pursue similar careers.
Sara and Lauren were wonderful mentors. They encouraged questions, took images of slides we found interesting, organized special tours for us and even helped us plan our visit to the Library of Congress. We toured the photographic archives, where we saw original photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Ansel Adams’ prints. As someone who is particularly interested in conservation, I was ecstatic when Sara allowed us to help in conservation treatment of one of the slides!
My time at NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) was invaluable. I’ve never learned so much in a single week! It was a wonderful opportunity to meet people working in my field and to see how one of the largest archives in the world operates. It was a privilege to be part of this program and you can bet I’ll be applying again next year!
By Lori Eaton, MLIS Student
A Collection Created by the People
Dip your hand into a box of condolence mail held in the archives at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and you’ll see grief expressed in many forms. Perhaps it was President Kennedy’s youth or the violent and very public way he died that triggered the outpouring of mail. Through the National Archives and Records Administration Alternate Spring Break program, I was honored to spend a week sorting, alphabetizing, foldering, and boxing some of the thousands of pieces of mail that represent the sorrow of a nation at a particular moment in our history.
People were moved to pay tribute in whatever way they could. Local and state governments made resolutions, renamed streets and schools, and gathered contributions for the memorial fund that would eventually support the presidential library where their own letters are now held. People sent poems, songs, drawings, mass cards, even sticks of gum. Letters came with photos attached – school portraits, pictures of local memorial services, and even photos of the sender’s television broadcasting the funeral procession.
Though letters from world leaders (Winston Churchill) and public figures (Vivian Leigh and Bing Crosby) are impressive to view, it is the personal way ordinary Americans offered condolences that I found most poignant. There was a letter from a young American serviceman stationed in Germany who witnessed the tragedy through the eyes of another nation. He wrote about attending a memorial gathering where people held signs that read, “Ich bin ein Berliner” referencing President Kennedy’s historic speech in that city in June 1963. Another letter, from someone with the last name Oswald, expressed how he felt “an inward cringing, a feeling somehow, of additional guilt” at the name he shared with the man accused of killing the president.
The most frequent requests for access to the Condolence Mail Collection has been from people asking about a letter they or someone they knew sent to the Kennedy family. The way the collection was originally processed made it virtually impossible to locate an individual letter based on the name of the sender. In 2015, the archives staff made it a priority to reprocess the collection and make it more accessible to the public. By the time Alternate Spring Break 2017 concluded, the interns and staff had completed processing for all Series 1, Domestic Condolence Mail through the letter P. Jenny Marciello, the project archivist, hopes that by the end of 2017 both Series 1 and Series 2, Foreign Condolence Mail will be more readily accessible to researchers.
The condolence collection contains the best and worst of us as citizens. It documents the mood and concerns of a nation in a time of fear and upheaval. It is not a collection of papers created by one president or even one administration. It is a collection created by the people, as in “We, the People of the United States of America.” I am proud to have played a small part in returning it to them.