Meet Bethany Fair, Archivist at the Vermont State Archives

by Julia Greider

Bethany Fair gets to do a little bit of everything in her job as Archivist II at the Vermont State Archives in Middlesex, Vermont. The state archives exists to serve the people of Vermont, and because it’s a government institution, all the records it holds belong to the public and legally must be accessible. Bethany most enjoys interacting with the myriad of patrons—ranging from legislators, to academics, to attorneys, to the general public—who come to the archives for information.

Bethany has found that the reference room is the locus of outreach and advocacy, because people with research needs are always grateful for prompt and thorough assistance. Attorneys form one of the archives’ main user groups, and the archivists spend a lot of time helping them trace the origins and development of laws. As a result, satisfied attorneys often refer their colleagues to the archives with similar requests. The archives also has strong relationships with other government agencies, which it serves not only by holding their records, but also by fulfilling their information requests.

However, Bethany says that the public often has a misconception of the state archives as a place that holds nothing more than old, boring government records that have little research value for today. Furthermore, people think that the government is trying to hide its records from the public—particularly the records of shameful pasts, such as the Eugenics Survey of Vermont, a program that many believe sterilized Abenaki Indians in the 1930s. Outreach can be a great way to dispel these false visions of the archives. For example, Bethany recently helped organize a lecture by a visiting undergraduate who was studying the eugenics program. She’s found that dark topics like eugenics tend to draw people in, and the program is an important part of Vermont’s history. Not only did Vermont Public Radio and NPR do interviews with the student who gave the talk, but there was also an impressive turnout for the talk itself, which then spurred attendees to come into the archives and find their ancestors in these records of the eugenics program. Bethany believes this experience showed people that the government isn’t trying to hide its actions of almost a century ago—in fact, all the evidence is sitting right in the state archives for anyone to see.

Bethany and her colleagues know their outreach has been successful when they get an increased number of researchers coming to them with questions. She’s fielded a wider variety of questions as a result of outreach efforts, because people have begun to realize that the state archives doesn’t only hold birth and marriage records (the usefulness of which should not be discounted, of course), but also the records of both wacky and weighty events of the past.

Because the state archives is funded directly by the Vermont legislature, any changes to the archives budget have to be approved as bills in the legislature. This means there isn’t much wiggle room in the budget, so there isn’t much money set aside for outreach. As a result, Bethany and her colleagues have to create ways to do outreach without a budget, which often means working on their own time and finding people who are willing to give lectures on a volunteer basis. Furthermore, the archives staff has to advocate to the state legislature to ensure that they get the resources they need. Beyond an awareness of public records laws, lawmakers generally have little sense of what the archives does. The archivists, then, must explain their role in the government and why their skill set fits them out best to deal with certain legal issues. However, Bethany says that she and her colleagues must not only advocate for their own institution, but also for what will be best for their patrons—what will provide the people of Vermont with the easiest access to government records.

When the legislature debates bills pertaining to the archives, anyone can testify before the assembly, and theoretically, this is when outreach and advocacy can really pay off. The archives constantly builds up strong relationships both within the government and with the public, meaning that if it were ever necessary, Bethany and her colleagues would have many allies in vocalizing the value of the archives to the state of Vermont. For now, they’re finessing their preservation of born-digital records and working on expanding their digitized holdings in the hopes of creating online exhibits that can reach an even broader public and expand opportunities for outreach and advocacy.