Sara Powell, 2014-2016 SLIS Mosaic Scholar

December 29, 2015

Sara Powell

InfoLink talks to SLIS Student and Mosaic Scholar Sara Powell about archives and medieval manuscripts

Diversity in LIS has garnered increased attention in recent years in the form of supported research, open dialog, and scholarships and career development focused on underrepresented minorities. Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Association of Research Libraries (ARL) libraries, the ARL and Society of American Archivists (SAA) Mosaic Program look to address “diversification of the archives and special collections professional workforce through financial support, practical work experience, mentoring, career placement assistance, and leadership development to emerging professionals from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups.” From August 2013 to May 2016 the Mosaic program aims to recruit 15 students in archival science or special collections librarianship with financial support of up to $10,000 per student, a paid internship, and student membership in SAA for one year. 

Simmons SLIS students were three of the five scholars chosen for 2014-2016. Following up on our first profile of Mosaic Scholar Adriana Flores, Infolink spoke with SLIS student and Mosaic scholar Sara Powell, who studied Medieval Cultures and Classical Archaeology as an undergraduate at Brown University, including a semester abroad at the Sorbonne. She earned her Masters of Arts in Medieval Studies from the University of York and wrote her dissertation on Sexual Slander in the Late Medieval Court of York. She currently is an Archives Assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Institute Archives and Special Collections. Powell’s interests in library science include archives, special collections librarianship, paleography, and manuscript studies.

How did you get interested in archives? 

I took a medieval studies survey course my freshman year of college, and one of our assignments was to transcribe a page from a medieval manuscript. I got a French book of hours, and it was life changing. I know that sounds cliché, but it is true. I started thinking about primary sources as physical objects, and what sorts of professionals were trained to work with them. At the time, I do not think I was aware of ‘archivist’ as a career, but over the years my path has become clear.

How closely related are archives and archaeology? 

They have a lot in common, in that they are concerned with the interpretation and preservation of material culture, but archaeology is on the ‘interpretation’ side of things. Archaeologists, like historians, might need to do research in archives to contextualize their findings. A branch of archaeology, historical archaeology, draws heavily on written records to contextualize physical material. The same fundamental interest has drawn me to both disciplines: I find that artifacts of everyday life—letters, photographs, architecture—provide a poignant view into the lived experience of the past.

Can you talk about your time at the University of York and at the Sorbonne and how those experiences have informed your path?

Both experiences allowed me to study subjects difficult to come by in U.S. colleges, such as Old French and paleography. While not directly relevant to American archives, these subjects could be useful to one working with certain rare books and manuscripts. I also visited the National Archives in France and the UK. I remember being alarmed by the shelves upon shelves of unprocessed medieval and early modern records. At this point in my studies, a backlog would hardly shock me, but at the time it drove home the reality of how much work there is to be done.

What has surprised you about working at the Institute Archives and Special Collections at MIT? 

The varied background of MIT’s archivists. I expected MIT’s archivists to have interests in technology or the history of science, but they come from a range of backgrounds and experiences and have all come to love and be invested in MIT’s collections. There is a lot of on-the-job research and continual learning. Also, while MIT is undeniably one of the world’s top research institutions, their archives grapple with the same funding and space issues pervasive across the discipline.

What would your dream job look like?

I would love to work in a special collections library with a substantial collection of early books and manuscripts. I am interested in instruction and reference, so an academic library would be ideal. Sometimes, however, I think about giving up on the whole library/archives thing, and living in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains with a goat and a dog . . . so catch up with me again in five years.

What does a diverse archives discipline mean to you? How can the field be more proactive and inclusive to minorities?

Archives are (or at least should be) for everyone. At its most essential, diversity in archives means a profession able to understand and meet the needs of diverse users—students and researchers alike—and potential donors. This is especially important in colleges and universities, where an increasingly diverse student body is not yet reflected in similarly diverse staff or faculty. For the many underrepresented or marginalized communities whose records have not found their way into archives, adequate outreach and access is imperative to demonstrate the usefulness of archives in preserving culturally important records and encouraging their study.