An Interview with Elise Tanner – Director of Digital Projects and Initiatives at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture

This is the fifth post in the Conversations series.

FB_IMG_1535042441997Elise Tanner received her Master’s of Science in Library and Information Science from the iSchool at the University of Illinois in 2015. She was a Resident in the 2017/2018 National Digital Stewardship Residency for Art Information program. For the residency, she worked on a project to build a foundation for the preservation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s time-based media art collection. Today, she is the Director of Digital Projects and Initiatives at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture where she is taking the lead of all things digital.


“Try things.” “[Ask] lots of questions.”

Elise Tanner’s cheery force of will shines through the interviews we have over video chat. Her work in digital archives and preservation so far has been on the edges of the digital preservation map: preservation of Time-Based Media Art at the Museum of Philadelphia and this new position as the Director of Digital Projects & Initiatives at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for Arkansas History & Culture. She admits she doesn’t see her role as an “archivist” necessarily, but a preservationist — even if archival concepts can’t help but inform her work as she considers an upcoming born-digital remote transfer.

We talk about the way archives hold stories, show structural bias, and how cool it would be to incorporate soundscapes in future collections. Tanner is working on collaborative GIS projects with the GIS Lab in the University, getting the Digital Services Lab technology organized, thinking about how to best engage the graduate assistants/apprentices who do much of the digitizing work in the lab, in addition to all the work involved with getting up to speed with a new institution and a new home. The Center itself shares space with the Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a unique partnership that includes shared reference work in the research room.

When I ask her what advice she has for newer professionals and students, she points to her first internship in an academic library: “It wasn’t what I really wanted [to be a reference librarian].” But it is necessary for people to try things out, see what is in the field, join the listservs and ask (more) questions. Another colleague who made a career change later in life began working at the Center as a graduate student in UALR’s Public History program and has remained at the Center as an Assistant Archivist for the past 10 years.  As for many things, the first attempt will not be your last.

Tanner’s route to digital archives reflects the current social-economic times and her desire to keep learning. After graduating with a BA in Photography from Columbia College in Chicago, she worked for three years at Starbucks before deciding on an online MLIS program to avoid moving. She admits that the program wasn’t really structured towards archival work, but she pulled together the courses needed to obtain a certificate in Special Collections. Tanner worked full time during her MLIS as a digital imaging technician for The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  This practical component, as well as access to practitioners who could answer Tanner’s many questions, would prove a valuable counter-balance to a mainly online program.

After graduation, Tanner applied for the 2017-2018 residency in the National Digital Stewardship Residency for Art Information, and while her first interview didn’t garner a position with that particular institution, the positive impression she created led to one of the other Resident positions with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The residency work produced the base for “an approach to digital preservation of time-based media art (TBMA)” for the institution. It also provided Tanner with the opportunity to develop presentation and project management skills, as well as mentorship from other professionals and the residency organizers.

How did she find herself at Little Rock? “The staff here really sold it to me,” Tanner admits. After the usual job application grind and interviewing near-misses, she credits luck and hard work in landing a position that was a good fit for her skills and personality. She almost didn’t apply because the word Director in the title was intimidating, before looking closer at the requested skills and deciding to go for it. The match seems well made.

What are important skill sets for the nascent digital archivist/preservationist to develop according to Tanner? “Communication” she expands: learn to give an elevator speech; how to articulate your vision to a group; stay on top of an overwhelming email inbox; definitely mastering project management; how to prepare for and run a meeting; go to conferences and put yourself out there. Technical skills follow close behind: networks, security, any tools that will make your life easier in terms of communication and project management.  It might all sound overwhelming, but getting practical experience in the field will reveal your personal strengths and narrow down aspects you can work on – careers are a long game, try things – ask more questions.

What does the future hold for Tanner? Publishing her TBMA work is first on her list, but also aspires to one day collect the archives of the local Rock Town Roller Derby league, and eventually greater embedment with the local community. So definitely keep your eye out for more from this upcoming digital preservationist.


profile5Author Bio: Meghan Whyte is a former public librarian who currently works as a government records reappraisal archivist for Library and Archives Canada.

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