Three Questions: Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Trudy PetersonBorn in Iowa, Trudy Huskamp Peterson is an archival consultant and certified archivist. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa. She spent twenty-four years with the U.S. National Archives, including more than two years as Acting Archivist of the United States. After retiring from the U.S. government, she was the founding Executive Director of the Open Society Archives in Budapest, Hungary, and then the director of Archives and Records Management for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She is a past president of the International Conference of the Round Table on Archives (1993-1995) and the Society of American Archivists (1990-1991) and is currently the chair of the International Council on Archives’ Human Rights Working Group and chaired the ICA working group on a standard for access to archives. She consulted with the truth commissions in South Africa and Honduras, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and worked for over three years with the police archives in Guatemala, training the staff in archival processes. Among her many publications are Final Acts: A Guide to Preserving the Records of Truth Commissions, a study of the records of twenty truth commissions, Temporary Courts, Permanent Records, a study of the records of five temporary international criminal courts, and “Securing Police Archives,” containing advice on managing records of police forces from former repressive regimes. The complete resume is available at Trudy@trudypeterson.com

What interested you in becoming an archivist?

I needed a job. I had never been in an archives.

When I was an undergraduate I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, so when I graduated I went to law school. I hated it, but I couldn’t quit until I found a job. At Christmas I went to a Christmas party in Sioux City, Iowa, with my boyfriend (now my husband). I was telling a woman at the party about my predicament, and she asked what I had majored in. I said, “Oh, it’s worthless. I have a double major in history and English.” She said, “The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library is looking for someone to research and write captions for museum exhibits, and they want history and English. Why don’t you apply?” I thought that sounded wonderful—particularly since my boyfriend was going to law school in a town near the Library—and she said she would telephone me with the telephone number to call to get an appointment.

I called and got an interview. I was hired on the spot on trust fund money, then I took the Civil Service exam (there was one at the time) and was converted to a regular government employee.

My luck was that from the first day I just loved working in an archives. The idea that someone would pay me to read someone else’s mail was a revelation. I stumbled into a profession that has given me an extraordinary life.

I never went back to law school, but I soon started coursework for a Ph.D. in U.S. history. I saw that many of the senior positions in the National Archives were held by men with Ph.D.s, and I decided that I needed that credential, too, because then if in the future I was discriminated against, I would know I had done everything I could to make myself eligible for promotion. And having the degree gave me confidence to move in any professional or academic circle I chose, and in my later career it has been an asset in opening doors to work around the world.

What advice do you have for new archivists?

Love it or leave it. I love archival work, but it is not for everyone and there’s no shame in admitting that it is not for you. You aren’t going to get rich as an archivist, so you have to find richness in the satisfaction you get from the work.  If you don’t like if, find another way to live a fulfilled life.

Look beyond today: beyond your current job, beyond your institution, beyond your country. Global culture is real, and its waves pass over us all. Join the International Council on Archives (ICA), either as an institution or an individual, or at least subscribe to the ICA listserv (to join, go to ica-l-request@mailman.srv.ualberta.ca). Become familiar with the Universal Declaration on Archives, the ICA Code of Ethics, the ICA Principles of Access to Archives and the various description standards, all of which are on the ICA website (http://www.ica.org/). By being a part of the international archival community, you will learn so much and meet such interesting people that your life will never be the same: it will be enriched.

Get the credentials you need. As I wrote above, I wanted a Ph.D. as a credential, and I was part of the movement to create the Certified Archivist program. Both are important, and for any archivist that looks forward to job mobility (especially if that new job is not in a college or university) I think the C.A. designation is important. Many employers know they need someone to manage their records but don’t know what an archivist needs to know, and the C.A. tells them that this person knows the basics. Personally, I wouldn’t be without it.

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

  1. Recognize history as the fundamental basis for the field. I worry that we are too excessively technical. I believe the heart of the work of an archivist is (1) deciding what to save and what to throw away, which we call appraisal, and (2) telling others what we hold, which we call description. I believe that it is essential to have a background in history—a knowledge of what kind of information is important to understand the past–in order to make good appraisal judgments. While many fact-based inquiries can be answered without recourse to much more than lists of files or items or by the use of search engines, the scholarly inquiry, the interpretive research, needs to know context and content of the records and that requires competent description of the records. The “multiplier effect” of the scholarly enterprise is important; that scholarly work eventually is reflected in textbooks for schools that in turn inform the next generation of citizens. We need to make sure we support both scholars and the general public with the best appraisal and description we can provide.
  1. Integrate concern for human rights into all parts of archival activity. Archival training should include a module based on human rights legislation and practice. Appraisal should always consider whether the records in question could protect human rights or would support a claim that rights have been violated. Archival description should indicate whether the records contain information that would be useful to exercise a claim of human rights, to assist in the identification of perpetrators of human rights violations, to permit the identification of the employment history of persons, to clarify the events that led to the violation of human rights, to help resolve the fate of missing persons, or to enable individuals to seek compensation for past violations of human rights. For a larger discussion of these points, see ICA’s draft “Basic Principles on the Role of Archivists in Support of Human Rights,” http://www.ica.org/15999/news-and-events/basic-principles-on-the-role-of-archivists-in-support-of-human-rights-give-your-opinion.html

 

“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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