Three Questions: Tanya Zanish-Belcher

Tanya Zanish-Belcher currently serves as Director, Special Collections and University Archivist for Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She received her B.A. (1983) in History from Ohio Wesleyan University and an M.A. (1990) in Historical and Archival Administration from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She is past President of the Midwest Archives Conference and was recently elected a member of the Council for the Society of American Archivists (2012-2015). She was named an SAA Fellow in 2011.

Tanya Zanish-Belcher

What interested you in becoming an archivist? 

I had completed a degree in History (Ohio Wesleyan) and while I loved history, I simply wasn’t sure how to apply it to a job. I started a regular Master’s degree and quite frankly, was completely bored. So, after a couple of years of taking classes and working part-time, I started interviewing people (mostly History professors) about what I should consider next. The majority said “teach,” but I just knew that was not for me. Finally, I met with the Department Chair, and he asked me if I had ever considered archives or museums. Of course, I hadn’t, as I didn’t even know if it was an option. He directed me to Wright State University and after investigating the program (and with the much-needed support of my family), I started graduate work. The moment I took my first class, I knew I was where I needed to be! So, what appealed the most about this kind of work?:

The opportunity to make order out of chaos (and I still enjoy this today)—I especially enjoy the practices of appraisal and in particular, deaccessioning

The chance to use my history skills in organizing collections, writing descriptions and giving presentations
The challenge of sharing archives with the public—not only about what I do every day—but how they can better care for their family materials too

The best part about my chosen profession is the network of colleagues I have stretching back to my days at Wright State, and the many happy memories associated with my former institutions/co-workers and professional associations. Plus, being an archivist is also part of my family life as my sister-in-law, Stacy Belcher Lee, is the University Archivist for the University of Hong Kong. We met at Wright State, and she introduced me to my future spouse, her brother. We are not allowed to talk shop at family gatherings, however!

Who has influenced you in your career?

I have had many influences and mentors through the years. The professors at Wright State did a wonderful job at integrating historical ideas and practical implementation via archives and museums, and I remember their classes fondly, particularly those taught by Dr. Charles Berry, Dr. Carl Becker, Dr. Jacob Dorn, Dr. Judith Sealander (from whom I had my first Women’s Studies course), and Dr. Patrick Nolan (who founded the WSU public history program).

My very first job was with the Alabama Department of Archives and History where nine archivists were hired in one summer. I learned so many things from my peers and the ADAH staff, and there are still inside jokes which can make me laugh. Many of my colleagues remain in Montgomery, and I try to visit every year. I have also been influenced by my many MAC and SAA colleagues and serving on the Steering Committee for the Archives Leadership Institute (ALI). ALI is a tremendous opportunity for archivists, so please consider applying:

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

Here is my personal wish list, not in any particular order:

  • I would like to see more discussion about the cultural meaning of records, not just the challenges of technology
  • I would like to see a closer relationship between archives educational programs (both in library science and public history) and our professional groups
  • I would like to see the archives profession build a culture of mentoring
  • I would like to see more resources for archival advocacy


“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.


Intern Shares: Rachel Panella

EmmysSocial Media intern Rachel Panella is a student worker in Digital Collections at the Harry Ransom Center. Rachel holds a BA from the University of Texas at Austin and is finishing her MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin School of Information.

What drew you to archives?

I had always been interested in cultural heritage institutions, and this was a large reason that I became an Art History major. At some point during my undergrad, I was looking for a volunteer position and found out about the Austin Public Library system. They had a position open at the Austin History Center and the minute I was given a tour of the stacks, I fell in love. I felt like Indiana Jones lost in a room of unknown artifacts. From there, I ended up interning at the Harry Ransom Center, and I have been there ever since. Every time I come across some new document or artifact, I instantly remember why I picked this profession.

Why did you get involved with WAR?

I have been working with archives for three years now, and as I continue with this profession, I wish to become more involved in SAA. I believe that SAA and in particular, your group provides an important outlet for new, young professionals in the field. Although a seemingly female-dominated field, WAR understands and discusses the unique issues of women in the archives.

I, myself, have been interested in fashion and costumes over the years and their function in the archive. I feel that these are unique cultural heritage materials, but are often overlooked or disregarded due to their feminine connotation. Much in the same way that the Arts and Crafts movement, a movement highly populated by women, was once disregarded by Art Historians as a lesser form of art, I believe that clothing and textiles are often overlooked as cultural documents. As an archivist, I wish to make the importance of these artifacts known.  I believe that WAR provides a nurturing outlet for this kind of thought and because of this, I wanted to help to promote WAR.

What’s your favorite memory from an SAA conference?

As a fairly new member, I have, unfortunately, not been able to attend an SAA conference yet, but I have many memories of intense jealousy towards those posting pictures from the event.