Three Questions: Ellen Swain

Since 1999, Ellen Swain has served as Archivist for Student Life and Culture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she administers the Student Life and Culture Archival Program, an archives dedicated to documenting student experience nationally and at the University of Illinois. Prior to this position, she was project archivist/assistant archivist (1996-99) at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) national archives in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. She holds a BA from Earlham College, an MA in American history from Indiana University and a MS in Information Science from Illinois. Ellen is a former president of the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC) (2011-2013) and is an SAA Fellow (2013).

What interested you in becoming an archivist?

I became hooked on the power of primary sources in college through a faculty-student collaborative research project centered on an 1840s Quaker abolitionist community in central Indiana. After several weeks’ work, our professor took the five of us to the area where our subjects had lived a century and a half before. Connecting the primary sources (land records, meeting files, tax books) to the physical landscape where our subjects called home was transforming. These folks were living, breathing people whose lives we were excavating. I went on to graduate school in history and worked at the state’s historical society as a student assistant. The longer I worked with archives, the more it became clear that making accessible and promoting these important historical materials was the right path for me.

Who has influenced you in your career?

So many people have had an impact on me. Earlham archivist Tom Hamm (the history professor mentioned above) is an extremely important mentor and friend. Maynard Brichford, Archivist Emeritus at Illinois, hired me as a graduate assistant back in 1994 and has encouraged and supported me through the years, most recently by making the journey to MAC’s fortieth anniversary celebration in 2012. I have a great deal of respect for his work in building the Illinois archives from scratch. Elisabeth Wittman, my first boss at the ELCA archives got me involved in MAC and SAA and introduced me to colleagues and friends at meetings. Bill Maher also provided advice and support during my tenure process.

I am inspired by Dina Kellems’s social media programming at Indiana; Anke Voss’s outreach methods for documenting community life in Champaign, Illinois; Tamar Chute’s management abilities at OSU; Doug Boyd’s celebrated work in oral history; and Noraleen Young’s promotion of archives in the fraternal community. Tanya Zanish-Belcher’s leadership skills are truly enviable and she has been an important mentor as well. There are so many….

What contributed to your success?

I’m not sure how one measures success or when one feels s/he is successful. There are so many things I need to accomplish and many I need to do better. I think having the support of good people is a key ingredient and certainly I have been blessed with colleagues at Illinois and beyond who are talented and dedicated and have pushed me to be a better archivist.

“Three Questions” is an ongoing series of interviews with women who are leaders in the profession.  The interviews, limited to three questions, will highlight women in the field who have made an impact, whether through their role in management, mentoring, research, or other leadership capacity.  This series of interviews responds to WAR member’s interest in promoting women in leadership roles, as identified in WAR’s survey of its membership in August 2013.  WAR welcomes suggestions for future interviewees – please contact us with your ideas.


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