Meet Caitlin Birch, Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist at Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College

by Elena Hoffenberg

Caitlin Birch combines her academic training as a historian and professional archival expertise in digital forms as the Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist at Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College. Birch completed her MLIS and MA in History at Simmons College in 2014. Previously, she worked at archives in the Boston area on digital projects spanning from encoding finding aids and digitizing photographic collections to converting metadata and managing complex multimedia projects.

Rauner Special Collections Library is situated on Dartmouth’s campus in Hanover, New Hampshire. In addition to receiving records of individuals associated with the College, it collects materials relating to printing, New Hampshire, Anglo-American literature, science and medicine, and theater. It is also home to the Dartmouth College Archives, which collects and maintains its permanent records. The library acquired the Stefansson Collection on Polar Exploration in 1952, which attracts researchers from around the world. Hundreds of people visit the library each year to see a first edition of Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon. “It advertises itself at this point,” Birch shares, attracting visitors daily during the summer.

As historian and an archivist, Birch has an awareness of how different yet intertwined these fields are. Her training as a historian prepared her to “speak that language” when working with the academics who conduct research at the Rauner Special Collections Library. She has also spoken to groups on campus to showcase how born-digital materials and methods such as web indexing can be useful in research in the social sciences.

Undergraduates comprise a significant number of users for Rauner Library, a result of the emphasis on primary source research in teaching curriculum. The College Archivist Peter Carini and Head of Special Collections Jay Satterfield identified incorporating research into the curriculum as a priority. In Birch’s words, it was “pointless to collect materials unless they’re being used.” Since then, Dartmouth has become a leader in teaching with primary sources. Each summer, the library hosts an active learning institute on this topic, bringing together archivists from across the country to broaden the impact of this work to other campuses.

This engagement with students is central to Birch’s role as Oral History Archivist. As the director of the college’s oral history program, she works with undergraduate students to introduce them to the theory and practice of oral history, while also supervising the oral history collecting they conduct and providing archival expertise to ensure that the interviews are preserved and made accessible.

The Dartmouth Vietnam Project exemplifies Birch’s varied involvement. A history course on the Vietnam War was reimagined as an opportunity to gather oral histories to meet the dual goals of enriching the students’ learning experience and gathering material for the library’s collections. Birch collaborated with the professor and an instructional designer to create an experiential learning project for students to collect oral histories from Dartmouth community members who had served in Vietnam. Birch works with students throughout the process. In addition to drawing on her expertise in digital collections to preserve interviews once they have been collected, she also works with students to introduce them to oral history methodology and guides them through the research with primary sources to prepare for interviews.

Launching this spring, SpeakOut, Birch’s most recent collection, came about in another way. Members of DGALA, the Dartmouth Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Alumni/ae Association, approached Birch for advice about collecting oral histories, hoping to document the diversity of experiences–positive and negative–that comprise the history of the LGBTQIA+ community at Dartmouth, as students or as employees. This grew into a project for the College Archives. With funding and support from the Provost and the Dean of Libraries, Birch has continued to develop a model to train students to gather oral histories to document this important part of Dartmouth’s history.

Contrasting these two projects, Birch shares how the engagement with contributors has differed. For the Dartmouth Vietnam Project, interviewees were asked about an event; they reflected on a moment in time at Dartmouth when the college was engulfed by the war, sharing their individual perspectives. For SpeakOut, those who will share their stories for this collection will speak about who they are. “It was not about a time period,” Birch explains, “but what it means for identity to shape experience in college or at work.”

Whether working with traditional researchers, undergraduate oral historians, or Mormon tourists, Birch embraces the opportunity to engage with users. In her position, she combines her experience in history and in archival studies to connect people with the diverse materials of the Rauner Special Collections Library, while actively working to ensure the collections grow to incorporate more stories of Dartmouth’s past to serve the community of the college.


Meet Michelle Chiles, Robinson Center Research Manager

by Bree Comeau

Having begun her professional career as a middle school teacher in Washington state, Michelle Chiles, always had a passion for outreach and supporting her community. In 2009, she moved halfway around the world when her partner was offered a job in Tasmania. It was there that her work in libraries and archives began. Michelle started working for the Australian Childhood Foundation, an organization whose focus is to help and support children who are victims of abuse, neglect and family violence. However, the part-time hours with the organization weren’t enough so Michelle looked for ways to stay busy while becoming more involved with her community. She began volunteering at the State Library & Archives of Tasmania and found her calling!  After her move back to the US, Michelle enrolled in the Library and Information Science program at Simmons College with a concentration in Archives Management.

After her graduation in 2013, Michelle worked at various institutions in and around the Boston area until landing her current position at the Robinson Research Center in 2016. Michelle is the Manager of the Research Center, a role that includes the responsibilities of head reference librarian, outreach program planner, and plenty more. The Research Center is part of the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS), and there are times when outreach initiatives require support and collaboration with other departments, which can be tricky.

A popular outreach program in collaboration with the Providence Public Library is a series of genealogy workshops called “Diggin’ Your Roots” which are offered during the Fall and Spring months. This year a new twist is being introduced to the outreach program with hopes it will garner new attendees. They are taking to the road! Each year the RIHS incorporates a theme into all the programs, and the 2018 theme is “Rest and Relaxation in Rhode Island.” According to Michelle, “the genealogy workshop series either piggy backs off that theme or we come up with another thread to tie the classes together. Since we were really struggling to find out how genealogy fit into that, we decided to make it a road trip since those are part of most people’s vacation memories! Even though Rhode Island is small, we still have many researchers comment on how tricky it is to get into the city to come to our Research Center, or our collaborator on these workshops, the Providence Public Library. So, we decided to take the workshops to them!” By taking the genealogy workshops on the road, people interested in the lessons but deterred by traveling into the city will now be able to participate closer to home.

Currently, many of the traditional users of the Research Center are genealogists, authors, faculty, college students and fellow co-workers. In addition to the new audiences reached by taking the program on the road, Michelle would love to expand the K-12 audience. Multiple offerings are geared towards schools and educators, including a digital textbook and “Field Trip Free for All” program. The “EnCompass Rhode Island History Digital Textbook” is a collaboration between the RIHS and Providence College and is geared towards educators across the state. The “Field Trip Free for All” program offers teacher-supervised visits to the Robinson Research Center, the John Brown House Museum, or the Museum of Work & Culture, at no cost. What a great way to encourage schools, educators and students to visit! The challenge is communicating these opportunities to the school communities.

Another challenge Michelle was quick to discuss involves the newest initiative “Netop Nights.” Not surprisingly, working out the kinks that come along with any new endeavor is always a big challenge. This once-a-month event allows the community to get up close to collections normally not available to them. Originally the plan was to have people preregister so that the staff could anticipate the number of guests. Unfortunately, people registered but didn’t come, while others just showed up. Since preregistration deters some people, an accurate head count in advance wasn’t possible. So, this year “Netop Nights” will not require preregistration. Michelle hopes the events will run smoothly; it’s all about trial-and-error after all.

Based on her experiences, Michelle’s best advice to aspiring archivists and librarians – get as much practice and experience with outreach and advocacy as possible! From teaching to program planning, it all helps build the skills needed to plan and manage outreach programs at your future place of work.

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Meet Christina Shutt, Director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center


by Sacha Mankins

The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center of Little Rock, Arkansas, celebrates the history and culture of Black Arkansans, with special emphasis on African-American fraternal organizations and black businesses. I recently spoke over the phone with the Cultural Center’s director, Christina Shutt, a graduate of the Simmons Dual Degree program in Library Science/Archives and History. Christina caught me up on the history of the institution, its current projects, and the many ways in which the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is a pioneer of cultural heritage outreach in the state of Arkansas.

The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is housed in a building not far from downtown Little Rock, off Interstate 630. Christina explained to me that during the period of white flight in the 1960s, this highway was put in to help suburban white families get into the city without passing through black neighborhoods. The highway divided the museum’s building, formerly home to an African-American burial insurance association, from the bulk of the black business and residential community. The building lay unused until the 1990s, when it was scheduled for demolition. Concerned members of the community successfully petitioned the state to preserve it as cultural heritage landmark instead, leading to the creation of the Cultural Center as a legislated (state-owned) museum. After a 2005 fire that destroyed the original building, the museum was rebuilt and opened to the public in 2008.

As a museum, the Cultural Center mainly serves the black community of Arkansas and those locals who want to learn more about African-American history, but it also hosts family reunions for many black families who no longer live in the state, and has received visitors from all over the globe, especially tourists from Africa. The consul-general of Hong Kong even visited for a Martin Luther King day event while staying with the state governor! Although visitors come from anywhere in the world, Christina told me that many of those who visit are people who have roots in the community, who might catch a glimpse of their own parents or grandparents in the photos on the walls.

Christina has been director of the Cultural Center for about a year and a half, and in that time the museum has become a leader in cultural heritage outreach not just for the African-American community of Little Rock, but for the cultural heritage community of Arkansas in general. The Cultural Center hosts events concerts and other artistic events at its building, and runs educational programs on the black culture of Arkansas. As you might expect, for Black History Month in February the schedule is absolutely packed, with concerts, new exhibits, lunch lectures, and a special tour schedule.

I asked Christina what projects she’s most excited about, and she told me about two in particular, #inclusiveArkansas and “Arkansas Made, Black Crafted.” Under the project #inclusiveArkansas, the museum is currently working to make their events more accessible by providing earmuffs and weighted blankets for autistic children, magnified exhibit sheets for visually impaired guests and so forth. Not only is Christina happy with the way this project is going at her museum, she also provides workshops to other cultural heritage institutions on outreach and inclusion for patrons with disabilities.

The other project Christina described to me is the Cultural Center’s effort to work with and support black business owners in the community, “Arkansas Made, Black Crafted.” Last December, the Cultural Center and AMBC hosted a fashion show put together by local designer Korto Momolu (who has appeared on Project Runway and its spinoff series, after coming in as first runner-up on the show’s fifth season). Momolu’s work is also sold in the Cultural Center’s museum store. Christina has been sharing her experiences of this form of outreach with other cultural heritage professionals at museum conferences, explaining to other museums how they can integrate local business and local artists into their museum stores.

These two projects have made the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center into one of Arkansas’s most forward-thinking cultural heritage institutions. Alongside their other day-to-day projects they are working, as many others are, to make more of their collections available online, as well as pursuing accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. Christina is clearly the kind of energetic, engaging personality a small institution needs to keep up with so many projects. If I’m ever in Little Rock, I’m definitely going to stop by for a visit.


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