Interview conducted with Caitlin Birch by Juli Folk in March 2019
This is the third post in the Conversations series
Meet Caitlin Birch
Caitlin Birch is the Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist for the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire: she sat down with Juli Folk, a graduate student at the University of Maryland-College Park iSchool, who is pursuing an archives-focused MLIS and certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture. Caitlin’s descriptions of her career path, her roles and achievements, and her insights into the challenges she faces helped frame a discussion of helpful skill sets for working with born-digital archival records on a daily basis.
Caitlin’s Career Path
As an undergraduate, Caitlin majored in English, concentrating in journalism with minors in history and Irish studies. After a few years working as a reporter and editor, she began to consider a different career path, looking for other fields that emphasize constant learning, storytelling, and contributions to the historical record. In time, she decided on a dual degree (MA/MSLIS) in history and archives management from Simmons College (now Simmons University). Throughout grad school, her studies focused on both historical methods and original research as well as archival theory and practice.
When asked about the path to her current position, Caitlin responded, “To the extent that my program allowed, I tried to take courses with a digital focus whenever I could. I also completed two internships and worked in several paraprofessional positions, which were really invaluable to preparing me for professional work in the field. I finished my degrees in December 2013 and landed my job at Dartmouth a few months later.” She now works as the Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist for Rauner Special Collections Library, the home of Dartmouth College’s rare books, manuscripts, and archives, compartmentalized within the larger academic research library.
Favorite Aspects of Being an Archivist
For Caitlin, the best aspects of being an archivist are working at the intersection of history and technology; teaching and interacting with people every day; and having new opportunities to create, innovate, and learn. Her position includes roles in both oral history and born-digital records, and on any given day she may be juggling tasks like teaching students oral history methodology, working on the implementation of a digital repository, building Dartmouth’s web archiving program, managing staff, sharing reference desk duty, and staying abreast of the profession via involvement with the SAA and the New England Archivists Executive Board. “I like that no two days are the same,” she shared, adding, “I like that my work can have a positive impact on others.”
Challenges of Being an Archivist
Caitlin pointed out that aspects of the profession change and evolve at a pace that can make it difficult to keep up, especially when job- or project-related tasks demand so much attention. She also noted other challenges: “More and more we’re grappling with issues like the ethical implications of digital archives and the environmental impact of digital preservation.” That said, she finds that “the biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity: most of what I do hasn’t been done before at Dartmouth. I’m the first digital archivist to be hired at my institution, so everything—infrastructure, policies, workflows, etc.—has been/is being built from the ground up. It’s exciting and often very daunting, especially because this corner of the archives field is dynamic.”
Advice for Students and Young Professionals
As a result, Caitlin emphasized the importance of experimentation and failure. “Traditional archival practice is well-defined and there are standards to guide it, but digital archives present all kinds of unique challenges that didn’t exist until very recently. Out of necessity, you have to innovate and try new things and learn from failure in order to get anywhere.” For this reason, she recommended building a good professional network and finding time to keep up with the professional literature. “It’s really key to cultivate a community of practice with colleagues at other institutions.”
When asked whether she sets aside time specified for these tasks or if she finds that networking and research are natural outputs of her daily work, Caitlin stated that networking comes more easily because of her involvement with professional organizations. However, finding time for professional literature and research proved more difficult, a concern Caitlin brought to her manager. In response, he encouraged her to block 1-2 hours on her calendar at the same time every week to catch up on reading and professional news. She remains grateful for that support: “I would hope that every manager in this profession encourages time for regular professional development. It may seem like it’s taking time away from job responsibilities, but in actuality it’s helping you to build the skills and knowledge you need for future innovation.”
Juli Folk is finishing the MLIS program at the University of Maryland-College Park iSchool, specializing in Archives and Digital Curation. Previously a corporate editor and project manager, Juli’s graduate work supplements her passions for writing, art, and technology with formal archival training, to refocus her career on cultural heritage institutions.