Ask an Archivist: Craig Simpson, MARA Liaison Librarian

iStudent Blog

Published: November 9, 2020 by Leslie Parry

October was American Archives Month, and to celebrate I had the chance to talk to Craig Simpson, director of Special Collections & Archives at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library and liaison librarian for the Master of Archives and Records Administration  (MARA) program. As a certified archivist and SC&A director, he leads all the operations in his department, from reference services to digital projects. As the liaison to the MARA program, he curates LibGuides, creates tutorials and assists with research across disciplines.

“As a faculty librarian and as a director of my department, I try to make sure that students, particularly the first-timers, feel comfortable and understand the value of working with archival materials and rare books,” he says.

I talked with Simpson about the MARA program and the profession today, and he offered advice for aspiring archivists and insight into Special Collections at San José State University.

Fundamentals of Archiving: What Does an Archivist Do?

“I think we’re moving away from being passive stewards of collections to more active facilitators. The profession is a lot more democratic now,” Simpson says. While there is a lot of buzz about emerging trends and technologies, he reminds students to focus on the fundamentals. “You’ve got to be able to walk before you can run. It’s really vital to roll up your sleeves and get a firm grounding in the basics.”

  • Process. At the core of the profession is processing. “It’s not just a rote exercise,” Simpson clarifies. “You’re attaining physical and intellectual control over a collection. If you process that collection well, you’re making it available and easy for researchers to access.” 
  • Reference. Helping researchers access those collections is critical. “There’s an art to the reference interview,” Simpson says, explaining that archivists need to have quality conversations with researchers to get a sense of what they need. Whether those interviews are conducted in person or remotely, archivists need to be perceptive, deliberate and methodical. “Sometimes what a patron asks you isn’t really what they’re looking for,” he adds. “You have to be patient and strategic and suss these things out. I think it’s really important for students in the MARA program to realize this and to get a good grounding in it.”
  • Exhibitions. “One thing I love to have students do, in addition to reference and processing, is curate an exhibition. That’s something I do a lot and I’ve done a lot in my career. It’s a good experience to put it on your resume,” he says. You can check out some of SJSU Special Collections’ current online exhibits here, including the Art of Protest Collection, Pop-Up Books and Japanese Art Prints.

Building Skill Sets: Advice for Students

  • Get hands-on experience. “I strongly recommend, wherever you are in the MARA program, to seek out some kind of opportunity to work. That makes all the difference,” Simpson says. “It’s there you can take all the theory you have learned and see how it applies – or maybe sometimes doesn’t – to actual experiences.” While literal hands-on experience may be difficult to secure during the pandemic, Simpson encourages students to look for virtual opportunities in their areas of interest. The iSchool also offers an extensive internship database
  • Consider taking the ACA exam. “You don’t have to be a certified archivist to be a good archivist,” Simpson stresses, but the Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA) exam can help you both professionally and personally. “I found taking the test useful because it’s sort of a yardstick for me, in terms of what I know and what I’ve done. I think if students are interested in taking the test, that’s certainly a really valid reason for doing it.” The ACA pre-approved program, which is embedded in the iSchool curriculum, also helps MARA students prepare for certification. “The exam has seven different domains,” Simpson explains. “In the MARA program, they plug students into those domains and give them a good grounding, whether they choose to take the exam or not.” 
  • Be a user of collections, too. “There’s a tendency for those of us who work in archives to show off the greatest hits, the rare, high-profile stuff,” says Simpson. While he acknowledges this is valuable and exciting, he says it’s also important to engage with “the more ordinary, the more hidden” materials, especially since these often spotlight underrepresented communities. While SJSU SC&A, like many other repositories, remains closed for now, students can remotely explore thousands of collections through the Online Archive of California and ArchiveGrid.

Notable SJSU SC&A Collections

Some of the SJSU SC&A Digital Collections Simpson recommends are:

  • The Ted Sahl Archives. “Sahl was a pioneering photographer who chronicled many of the important events in the LGBTQ community in the Bay Area through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” says Simpson. The digital collection presents a curated selection of the archive’s 6,000 photographs.
  • Civil Rights and Campus Protests. Consisting of photographs, correspondence, university publications and other ephemera, this collection showcases campus activism and protest movements at SJSU (then San José State College) between 1968 and 1972.
  • Susanne B. Wilson Digital Collection. Wilson’s career in local politics and public service is highlighted in a series of publicity photographs.

Join Simpson’s MARA Event November 10th 

For more of Simpson’s insight, check out the upcoming MARA event Strategies for a Successful Search: Inside the Process of Creating and Applying for an Archivist Position, November 10 at 12 p.m. PST on Zoom.

For more on the MARA community, please visit the MARA blog, Community Profiles, Life After MARA and the MARA Alumni at Work video series