Three Questions: Kathleen D. Roe

Kathleen D. Roe is the Director of Archives and Records Management at the New York State Archives and is the current vice-president of SAA. She has been professionally involved in leadership in a range of SAA groups, including the Government Affairs Working Group, the Committee on Education and Professional Development, the Description Section, and the Committee on Archival Information Exchange. She has served as an instructor for the Georgia Archives Institute, the Historical Black Colleges and University Archives Institute, the Archives Leadership Institute, and has both conducted  workshops/seminars and written on topics from arrangement and description to archival advocacy. She is the author of the Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts volume in the SAA Fundamentals series. Kathleen holds an M.A. in history from Michigan State University, and an M.L.S. in archival administration from Wayne State University. She is the mother of an astonishing 21 year old actress, wife of a much-enduring librarian husband, and overindulges in books, yarn and coffee.

What interested you in becoming an archivist? Kathleen D. Roe

My attraction to archives as a profession is firmly rooted in the opportunity it provides to connect with “authentic” voices of people and experiences. I’ve always been attracted to diaries, letters, autobiographies because they provide the unique perspective of an individual without the “interpretation” or barriers provided by someone else telling me what that person said, thought, or meant.  And archival records include many people and groups whose voices have never been part of the historical conversation—despite much great work in women’s history, there are many of our minority majority group who are still unheard. One of the reasons I am particularly passionate about working with state government records is because it provides a route by which some of us who would not have been the educated, literate element of society in the past still can make our existence known. Granted it may not be in our own words, but through a census, petitions we signed, a map showing our home, or records of our encounters with prisons, schools or poorhouses, the amazing, diverse, and varied voices of all of us emerge. When I stand in the stacks of my employing institution, the New York State Archives, I know that around me is the greatest collection of New Yorkers assembled anywhere—and their lives, experiences, and interactions for me are an endless source of interest, amazement and inspiration that we can all share.

All the archival work I do, however intertwined it may be with technology, processes and procedures, is ultimately to bring those voices forward so that they can inform an incredible range of purposes from proving individual rights to molding public policy or providing the evidence for historical interpretation.

What do you see as the challenges for women interested in management/leadership roles?

While there have been many steps forward for women in management and leadership roles in archives as in other professions, they have been hard-won, and can easily slip backward. I’m surprised to have been told by some women in recent years that they “don’t want to be called a feminist” or that they feel there is no longer a need to be adamant on behalf of women’s rights and equality. There is an “unstated undercurrent” of anti-feminism that can lead us to the mistaken idea that the struggle is over, or to think we should follow someone else’s male-centric interpretation of what leadership looks like. In the desire to achieve, to manage, to lead as women, we need to remember Janis Joplin’s words: “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.” There is price to be paid for not compromising though. I’ve never experienced a single role in management or leadership where at some point I have been talked down to, been chided for being “too emotional” for expressing a strongly held belief, or my favorite as a woman with gray hair, to still be referred to as a “girl.” We need to mentor, support and encourage each other in continuing to define for ourselves what leadership looks like to us, what works for each of us. We can ignore the challenges or become bitter because of them—or we can push on toward the change we need to see for women in this profession. We all know “Well behaved women seldom make history”—nor do they make true archival leaders.

What changes would you like to see happen in the field?

One of the things I most would love to see is that we talk more about the value of archives in clear, compelling ways that resonate with “regular” people. We need to demonstrate how archives are not just “interesting stuff from the past” but are essential evidence for a myriad of purposes. Often when people talk about the value of archives, they stress the informational content—new facts revealed, lost letters recovered, important documents that bring out the “ooh and ahh” response. And you’ll hear me again and again over the next year talk about this (yes, I’ve got an “agenda”)—we need to talk about WHY the information in archives is important, how people use it, and what the outcomes are of using  records. Here are some examples of how we can explain why archives are essential evidence, why they are valuable to our society, and why they deserve support and wide use: Nine miners harbored in a closed shaft after an explosion, and are alive today because the rescuers used archival maps to find that closed shaft; a teacher uses a manumission record as the tangible evidence to help students explore the ideas of slavery and freedom; biologists use historic maps to identify potential sites for reforestation of the American chestnut; a 70 year old woman uses court records to locate her siblings who were adopted out to different families after the death of their parents. That’s why archives matter. At meetings, we talk actively and energetically about EAD, twitter, electronic records, processes and technical complexities of all kinds. That’s fine and needs to be done. But let’s not forget why we do all those professional practices anyway—because archives change lives, affect public policy, support legal actions, and ensure the rights of people. It’s the reason archives exist.  It’s time to talk about it.

“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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