Alumnae/i Feature

Director of Archives Stacie Parillo ’11MS Talks Torpedo Testing, Love Letters, and the Value of Archival Collections at the U.S. Naval War College

A row of books in the Simmons University library

Simmons showed me the importance of participating in the field as a professional.

What inspired you to pursue archives at Simmons School of Library and Information Science (SLIS)?

When I was unhappy with my former career, I began investigating my childhood dream of being a librarian. To start over and diverge from my current career path I felt this pivot needed to have weight and promise. I applied to Simmons SLIS because it had an active alumnae/i network that I thought would help me as I started in a new field. Entering the profession with the support of SLIS encouraged me to take the leap of faith.

When I started looking into Library and Information Science programs, I discovered archives and the work immediately spoke to me. Growing up, at the end of every school year, my mom asked me to go through all of my school stuff to pick out what I would save for my memories; I would make appraisal decisions of all of my homework, mementos, and notes and make a collection for the year. I have all of these shoeboxes of curated collections! My mom didn’t know it, but she ignited the spark that led me to being an archivist. After feeling professionally “at sea" for so long, I immediately felt at home and energized by the archives management program.

Tell us about your position at the Naval Historical Collection Archives.

I’m the Director of the U.S. Naval War College Archives, where we collect records, manuscripts and special collections related to the history of the Naval War College and material related to core elements of our curriculum, such as naval strategy and war gaming, as well as the history of naval activity in Narragansett Bay. Most of my work is advocacy work. I try to create linkages between the archives and the institution at large. Most of our researchers come from outside of the college, which I think is common for academic archives, but my goal is to increase faculty and student use through better integration with the College’s curriculum and research activities. My job is demonstrating the archives’ value in helping the institution achieve its primary mission of education and research.

The U.S. Naval War College is a professional military education institution that instructs domestic and international career military officers and personnel from U.S. government agencies in national security decision making, strategy, and the operation of war. The curriculum is a balance of professional training and academic, theoretical work. Those on the professional side may not see the value of archival research. They want to teach or learn practical operational and tactical skills to be used by the modern warfighter in the field. It’s challenging to show them that engaging in something as ambiguous and open-ended as archival research is useful and worthwhile. My hope is that over time, the pigeonholed perception of the Archives as a historical repository used for only erudite scholarly work will shift to be more inclusive. Archival inquiry can increase critical thinking and the information literacy skills needed in the theater of war’s complex information-rich environment.

How do students at the college use the Archives?

There is only one program at the college — a graduate certificate in Maritime History — that requires students to use primary sources. Last year, one of those students researched the records of the Newport Naval Torpedo Station (as we were processing them). Using the collection’s torpedo testing data from 1896-1917, she made spreadsheets looking for trends to connect to her job working on hypersonic missile development. That was a really fascinating comparison, and it showed how historical data can be applied to a contemporary issue. I’m working with the Naval War College Museum to do an exhibit to display the records, data collection, and the student’s findings. I hope for more archives-faculty-student collaborations showing how the information in the College’s collection can be applicable to current issues in national defense.

What do you find most rewarding about archival work?

I like the work itself: arranging and describing, creating access to collections, writing metadata and cataloging. It’s a small shop —myself, an archivist, and a records manager — so I do a lot of processing work, and I find that really rewarding.

But I also enjoy writing and updating policy - thinking about our workflows and the decision points to develop and document best practices that work with the institution's needs. The Naval War College Museum is a separate organization from the College, but I’m revamping our accession policies and procedures to be more integrated; we want to use the same forms for donors, the same internal policies. It’s important to address the power structures that shaped our accessioning processes, because they determine what we have and haven’t collected. Up till now, we relied on tacit understandings of the two collections, but when you spell things out in policy you can interrogate it, critique it, and find areas for improvement.

What makes archives important, even for students reluctant to use them?

History is happening all the time; if it happened this morning and topically meets our collecting scope, I want it in the collection. The archives are full of examples of the lives of military leaders, showing the elements that go into decision-making. One faculty member wanted to look at how different military leaders assessed risk, and we have a lot of examples of leadership and ethics. Even if you aren’t interested in historical research per se, we have stories and data about any aspect of military life.

I can’t think of a more timely skill than information literacy for today’s military or diplomatic leaders. If you aren’t familiar with working with primary sources, how can you evaluate and critique message traffic [information sent and received in the field] or intelligence information? So much of the wartime environment involves misinformation and disinformation, and while propaganda isn’t new, it’s now more accessible than ever — it’s in your pocket and you can access it hundreds of times a day. The way our information environments are arranged, we only see the things that reinforce what we already believe. It’s important to ask, what am I not seeing?

Archives tell a holistic story. As with the Torpedo Station records, you can see every angle of how that command was run – what they were asking for versus what they received, what their operational priorities were and how they were executed, when the water taxi ran back and forth, and even water quality reports. The wide range of sources that go into a collection like that provide an in-depth view. Using only secondary sources, deep context like that isn't available. Keen information literacy skills are imperative for analysis, critique, and reinterpretation.

What do you think is the most interesting item in the collection?

A lot of the collection consists of naval records. As an archivist without a military background, I’m more interested in the personal material we have. William Sims (1858–1936) was a WWI naval hero, and his papers include letters between him and his wife; his wife writes about how handsome he looks in his uniform, and he starts his letters to her with “Dear Sweetheart.” It’s not normally what you read about Sims, but he didn’t live his whole life on a Destroyer. We have universes inside of us, and that’s what an archive captures.

How did Simmons prepare you to become a leader in your field?

Simmons showed me the importance of participating in the field as a professional. I saw so many of my professors and adjuncts presenting at conferences and engaged in other professional activities, and it showed me how to be active in the field. I’m mostly a practitioner, but it’s so important to pay attention to what is happening in the field academically and beyond the walls of your institution. None of us work in isolation; it’s important to stay connected.

What do you tell people who ask why an archive can’t digitize all of their materials?

I say, gee, we would love to! Wouldn’t that be great? However, it takes a ton of labor and money to accomplish responsibly. In my collection, there is so much reappraisal and reprocessing that needs to be done before we can even start to think about the normal barriers of digitization. It depends on the level of archival debt that you have in your collection, and we’re in arrears. We work toward what we envision for the archives, pivoting from previous decisions, policies, and practices established when the archives wasn’t run by information professionals, but by historians, who had a different set of priorities. It also doesn’t mean that digitized items will be easier to find and understand — a lot of work needs to be done for that to happen. With our collection, people wonder why we can’t send the records through a feeder and then “control F” to full text search through the collection, but that is inefficient and won’t deliver the results they expect. Information retrieval is more than just keywords!

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Alisa M. Libby