Why Archives? A Student's Perspective

I’ll admit it - when I say I want to work in archives and museums, most people look at me like I’ve grown a second head.  I guess I should have seen that coming.  Back before I knew what I wanted to do as a career, people would give me the same look when I said I really liked history.  I think that to most people, history is a lot of dates and facts and dead people.  And hey, that’s fairly true.  But what I see in history is a lot of dates and facts and dead people that all come together to tell a really interesting story.

I’ve loved to read ever since I was a little girl.  Losing myself in a book was pretty much my favorite way to spend an afternoon.  Initially, I thought maybe I would go into the publishing world as a career, because I’d get to read all day.  Even as a kid, though, I was being pulled to history.  Given the choice, I’d always go for the historical fiction in the library at school, and soon I was realizing I was more interested in why the characters had to make the choices they did than in the characters themselves.  I wanted to know how the historical setting of the book more than the plot – the story became the history, not what the author had put down on paper.

After a while, I realized that I really liked telling that story of history, maybe even more than I liked reading about it.  I liked to show people how things used to be, and how that affected how things were later in history.  Tracing the development of places or institutions is so cool, and it can influence choices about those places or institutions that are made today.  My high school is 125 years old, and thanks to research he’s done using artifacts found around the school, one of my former teachers there can tell you exactly what a certain hall looked like when it was built.  He’s even trying to convince the school to restore it to how it once looked. 

Archives and public history isn’t the most financially lucrative field there is.  Just ask my grandfather: when I told him what I wanted to do, he looked me straight in the eye and told me to go into insurance like my aunt.  I’m okay with never becoming a millionaire, though.  I’d much rather do something I love for a living, and that’s telling the story of the past.  I know that I’ll be helping people learn about something important, and maybe the projects I work on will be helpful to someone long after I’m gone.  I’m not knocking the insurance business or anything – you’re important, too.  I just know that the archives are the place for me, and that’s a nice feeling.

- Maddie McDermott ‘15, U.S. Catholic Special Collections Intern

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