by Ashley Thomas
The postmodern structure housing the Massachusetts Archives, shares the short jut of land that is Columbia Point with fellow institution, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and the UMass Boston campus. Located inside the building’s defensive stone exterior, is a spacious foyer that spills to the Welcome/Reference desk, where the warm and generous reference staff sit. At the corral of desks, you will meet Caitlin Jones, Reference Archivist for the Massachusetts Archives.
Caitlin, who is celebrating her fourth year with the State Archives, is one of two full-time reference staff; one-fifth of the small, ten member Archives team. The workload versus personnel ratio isn’t an issue Caitlin assures me. This is in large part due to the help of two co-op students from nearby Northeastern University, and the majority of reference work moving online.
Working reference in a government archive, was not where Caitlin imagined herself as a grad student at Simmons. A natural introvert, she believed processing was her future. Solitude, headphones, and folders of history, a happy archivist make. Instead, Caitlin’s career took a hard-left turn. A temporary position at the Archives turned permanent. Four years on, Caitlin can’t imagine working in a different area of archiving. She enjoys how every day is different – new visitor, new research, new discovery. Some discoveries are exciting, others odd. Caitlin recalls one interaction where a man came in asking for his own death record! Along with discovery, her work has also made her more aware of how reference is the focal point of an archive. She provides me an example, detailing how she and her counterpart are being consulted on how best to organize the new (four!) floors of vault storage.
Caitlin’s career in reference has also demonstrated how important outreach is for archives. In the past, the State Archives had a more robust outreach program. Over the years that has fallen off as records are digitized and posted online. The staff have instead found new, innovative ways to showcase collections. The Archives main internal outreach is through the Commonwealth Museum. Housed in the same building, the Museum’s purpose is to tell the history of the Massachusetts government using documents from the Archive’s collection. Most of the documents in the Museum are reproductions, but the Treasures Gallery holds exciting originals, like one of the original, authorized copies of the Constitution. Although the majority of visitors are school groups, visits to the Museum expose children to the Archives and encourages future visits. Additionally, “every interaction is an opportunity to spread the good word,” Caitlin states. Meaning, every interaction with visitors, researchers, and state agents are an opportunity to advocate the importance and mission of the State Archives.
The Archives are also engaged in external outreach as well. Currently, Caitlin is fostering a growing Instagram account. Utilizing social media, she is reaching a different type of user. The account also allows the Archives to connect with other archivist running similar accounts, and presents a less formal side to a state agency. According to Caitlin the process of gaining permission from the State Secretary’s office was well worth the effort.
Winding down the interview, I asked Caitlin, out of all of the numerous and unique items, what was her favorite. Without hesitation she starts describing the Belinda Royale/Sutton petition. Belinda was an enslaved woman, who upon hearing a reading of the Declaration of Independence wrote a petition to the state legislator requesting back pay for her decades of stolen labor. According to Caitlin the language of the suit is a beautiful description of Belinda’s life, from Africa to the American Colonies. Even better, Belinda’s petition was ACCEPTED! Belinda’s commissioned letter was digitized as part of a processing program with Harvard University.
Concluding our slightly longer-than-planned interview, I asked Caitlin what advice she’d give to incoming professionals on how to conduct outreach and advocacy. Her words were encouraging and possibly: “[it is] important. You can always be doing outreach, you don’t even have to be at work to be doing outreach. … I don’t feel like I am preaching, it’s more like … people are like ‘oh wow, what is that that?’! It is something you should fight for at your institution. It can be hard, … [but] know that everyone is working with limitations and doing the best they can.” Speaking with Caitlin was an immensely interesting and educational experience. If you have time one sunny afternoon, slip over and take a walk through the Commonwealth Museum and advantage of the wealth of knowledge Caitlin and her colleagues hold.
. Massachusetts State Archives (@massachusettsarchives).
. “Petition of Belinda Sutton,” Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions; Senate Unpassed Legislation 1795, Docket 2007, SC1/series 231. Massachusetts Archives. Boston, Mass. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:46957272$1i