The Accidental Archivist

By Katherine Burger Johnson

How in the world did I end up in the field of archives and historical collections? It was an interesting journey and like many others in this profession I did not grow up with the dream of being an archivist. In fact, I had only a vague idea of what an archivist was or that there were people trained and working in this area.

I grew up as kind of a nerdy kid, always reading and basically liking school. I spend many Saturdays at the Minnesota Historical Society and a nearby museum, but I never imagined that I could work in a place like that. In my family, college was one thing but graduate school was not even a consideration. The cultural message of the 1960s was that women could be teachers, secretaries, nurses or librarians. I knew that nursing and secretarial work were out, and the librarians I saw were usually rather severe and unfriendly. (I have found to be untrue of librarians today!)

I started college as a music education major (I did and still do love music.) I soon found out that I had no talent for working with large groups of children, so there went the teaching profession. My other favorite subject was history, but this was the 1960s and females were told by advisors and professors that women could not get jobs in the field. Thus I remained unfocused, taking classes that I liked but with no clear career path. I was lucky enough to attend a university at which one could create her own degree program and I did just that, graduating with a Bachelor of Liberal Studies.

My next stop was law school. By this time it was the early 1980s, I had a more liberated mind and was challenged by some of my instructors to use it in the legal profession. I took one year of classes and knew this was not going to be the place for me to land. I decided then and there to pursue what I was passionate about and see where it led me. Frustrated, I spoke with several graduate school advisors, but I felt most comfortable with the one in the History Department and thus I began my time in graduate school. Learning that I could use some financial support, one professor recommended that I apply for an assistantship in the University Archives. After just a few days my future was set. My supervisor (who is now a friend) taught me, guided me and advised me, and I fell in love with the work. Handling primary source documents, learning how to care for them, writing up the finding aid to a collection, helping researchers find what they need, were all things I thoroughly enjoyed. Even so, I worried about finding a position in the local area, for with a spouse and 3 kids I could not just pick up and move.

One of my advisors directed me toward some free-lance opportunities which in turn brought me others. Then within a year after I finished my M.A. my mentor took another job and lo and behold, I was offered a position at the University Archives, at first part-time and temporary, then permanent part-time, and eventually full-time with faculty status. So here I am 25 years after I first set foot in the archives and 20 years after I began working there, a tenured associate professor working as the Archivist and Curator of the History Collections of the Kornhauser Health Sciences Library at the University of Louisville. I am an “accidental” archivist, not because I do not have the necessary education and training, but because the whole concept of archives, records management, and preserving the materials needed by scholars was not even in my brain until I was an adult working toward a graduate degree. Today, more and more young people go to college with the goal of pursuing this line of work, but I do believe there are still many “accidental” archivists whose stories parallel mine and are so happy that someone pointed them to an archival facility at some point where they fell in love!

I need to send a big thank you to Lee Shai Weissbach, Nancy Theriot, Carl Ryant (deceased), all of the University of Louisville History Department and Sherrill Redmon, Bill Morison, Diane Nichols, Gary Freiburger, and Neal Nixon of the UofL Libraries for your roles in my educational and professional journey. I am eternally in your debt.

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