Archiving Special Collections at SJSU with Kate Steffens
“It’s a really great team and we all really get along and complement each other’s work and you know, try and do a lot of outreach together and work on projects together. I know having been part of a group called CSU Archivists, how lucky I am to be at San José State because there are quite a few people in the system who are like the lone archivist with no student assistants and no other people helping them. So having four people feels like an army to me.”
San José, CA
Kate Steffens, ‘19 MLIS
For Kate Steffens, her best library education was as an intern in the Special Collections Reading Room at King Library.
But it wasn’t a clear path that led her there.
“I’ve worked in a lot of different industries over the years. My undergrad degree is from the University of Texas at Austin, and it’s kind of an unusual degree. It’s a bachelor of science in apparel design and textile conservation. So it was sort of a mix of both creative fashion design and preservation.”
From there, Kate has worked in and outside of her degree’s industry, for fashion designers, bakeries, bookstores, record stores and bars. It all came to a head ten years ago when Kate and her brother started scanning her father’s large collection of amateur 35 mm photographs and sharing them with the world through social media.
“Friends of my family started coming out and saying, ‘Oh, well, we have these pictures. Will you come and help us organize them?’ Then I started teaching myself about metadata and the ins and outs of digitization and working for people that I already knew, photographers and artists and people like that.”
Then, in 2017, Kate’s husband got a job in Silicon Valley moving their lives from Los Angeles up to San José, which for Kate meant finding yet another job or career path…but after her introduction to archival photography, she chose to apply for the MLIS program at San José State University to go into archives.
Archiving at SJSU
Kate’s time in the iSchool program introduced her to archiving fundamentals and standards.
She especially remembers taking courses on digital curation and working with digital files and archival processing, which also lined up with the opportunity to work at the SJSU Reading Room — so she got experience both theoretically and practically — an ideal way for any archival student to learn.
The Reading Room is located on the fifth floor of the MLK Library which has the unique position of being both an academic library and the San José Public Library — which means they serve both communities.
The Reading Room also shares space with other SJSU archives. Kate explains: “There’s the Beethoven Archive, the Steinbeck Archive, there’s us and then there’s the Public Library’s California Room, which is mostly focused on the history of San José.”
In each of these archives, the librarians answer questions from students, researchers, and visitors worldwide about their collections — both in person and online.
Kate took a break from the King Library to work for a social media curation job for a short time, but she would soon be back. When she found out that her mentor, Leilana Marshall — a NASA archivist and former Society of California Archivists president — was deciding to leave her position to focus on her other duties, leaving a vacancy in the Reading Room that Kate soon applied to fill. That role is still evolving today.
“About a year ago, I was also offered the position to be faculty liaison for the Art, Art History, and Design departments, because I have a background in art and curation — so that’s opened up some new avenues in my career in terms of what I can do as an archivist and public service provider and teacher.”
Serving as the Special Collections Librarian
The librarians at SJSU work on a hybrid schedule, with three days in-person and two at home — and work their schedules around Zoom meetings, workshops, reference and — for Kate, training students in curation and other archival skills.
For her part, Kate is grateful to have such a robust student team to help with more in-depth level processing.
“I train and teach them how to process and archival standards so we’re able to process quite a bit — we don’t have as much backlog as other institutions do, but we’re also smaller than some research libraries.”
However, their size allows the archival team to do more involved processing, making it easier for users to find what they’re looking for.
That being said, she admits that finding iSchool student assistants is a challenge since the program is remote, with very few MLIS students actually in the San José region.
“Right now, we have one criminal justice student and one history student and I think two MLIS students… But one positive from that is we’ve led students who aren’t library school students into that career. A lot of the students that are doing their undergrads in history or other majors get really excited after they learn about archiving and working in the Reading Room and public services and then they enter the MLIS program after, so very proud of that.”
Academic Library Duties and Expectations
As a liaison librarian, Kate also teaches one-off workshops on collection-based research and content on top of the general information literacy courses that she teaches in other classrooms.
“The liaison uses archival materials to teach, which can be really rewarding. And a lot of the students, especially undergrads, are not really experienced using library resources. And some, when they come in, have never even been to the library before. So having them open their eyes to the possibilities and [the] really amazing collections we have that they can use for research is a great experience.”
This can mean anything from finding books with illustrations of rare plants and Japanese botanical collections for students taking Drawing courses to research collections on the Japanese American Incarceration during WWII, works on local activist movements, a range of Latino comic books, and the library’s copy of the iconic painting The Great Wave Off Kanagawa — all of which are available to students and their research projects.
While Kate’s position is not tenure-track, she says that she does tenure-track level work, like helping other librarians apply for grants for exhibits and working on reparative archiving projects.
“Reparative archiving is really interesting to me — looking at our collections and looking at the terminology that’s used and identifying outdated racist terminology, and figuring out ways to address that and then teaching the students about that because they’re all interested in anti-racism, decolonization, and things like that.”
Kate also helps archive for the Castellano Family Foundation at SJSU as a more ongoing project as pieces are donated over time.
“Every day is different. We have a pretty small team. It’s the director of the archive, the university archivist, myself, and then our digitization coordinator, and then we have the four student assistants. It’s a great team; we all get along and complement each other’s work and try to do a lot of outreach and work on projects together. I know how lucky I am to be at San José State because there are quite a few people in the system who are lone archivists with no student assistants and no other people helping them. So having four people feels like an army to me.”
Advice for the Future
From observing MLIS students in their job hunt journeys, Kate knows that working in archives often requires previous experience to get a foot in the door — even with a degree.
“My biggest recommendation would be if you’re currently in school to do an internship or get a part-time position in an archive, historical society, or museum. Any of those things will give you a huge leg up when you’re applying for your first jobs. I have a student who graduated this past summer and she had museum experience at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum here. And then she came and worked at the archive as an anthropology or archaeology major. She now works as a processing archivist at Stanford. So she got a position almost right out of school, so I know it’s possible, right?”
Even working a couple of hours a week, Kate feels, adds some relevant experience to put on a resume.
She also recommends exploring one’s interests and utilizing SJSU’s annual LIS skills report to discover different careers in the information ecosystem to discover new paths.
“There are so many careers you can do that aren’t just running a reading room or processing collections — I think exploring career options and talking to people through informational interviews [is] really great. Most people want to talk about themselves in their career, so don’t don’t hesitate to overcome your shyness and ask people, ‘What do you do? How did you get here?’”
As for Kate, she feels settled in having found her career path after a life of trying various jobs — though whether she’ll stay in the Reading Room at King Library specifically — Kate doesn’t think she and her husband will stay in San José forever.
“Our pay — and I don’t just speak for SJSU, but for the industry — is generally pretty below what is needed to live with how expensive things are now,” Kate admits. “I’m a member of the California Faculty Association Union, and this year, we’re renegotiating our contracts to try and get raises for everyone.”
Just looking at the current pay gaps between archivist roles across the United States can also be useful for students who hope to go into the field, as can negotiating for higher salaries from the beginning.
“One piece of advice that I was told recently was not to ask for a raise but to ask for an equity adjustment, and that phrasing seems to provide better results within what the administration offers. Stuff like that you’re not going to learn that as a student, right? Like no teacher is going to tell you that. My student, who is working at Stanford, is now in her first job, making more money than I am. And I’m really happy for her and proud of her, but it also speaks to the fact that there needs to be some attention paid to the need for appropriate salaries.”
Check this out!
As Kate started her archival career by helping organize her dad, Roger Steffens’ photography she has now edited three books of photography he has taken over the last 50 years.
“My most recent book as editor is called The Family Acid: California. And the first edition of that sold out, so we’re putting the second edition out with Gingko Press in Berkeley, so that should be out sometime later this year. If you’re interested in old beautiful photographs of hippies all over California, check that out.”
Kate also offers herself as a resource for anyone who wants to talk about getting into archives or anti-racist work in the industry — reach out to her at Kate.Steffens@sjsu.edu