Three Questions: Danna Bell

Danna Bell has always been interested in what goes on behind the scenes, why things are the way they are and being the one who knows or knows how to find the answers. Family members would find her reading the encyclopedia if she didn’t have another book in her hands. She started working as a library aide in junior high school.

Her career plans took a detour in college when she studied Public Personnel Management and then College Student Personnel Services in graduate school. Though she aspired to become a career counselor, her first jobs after graduate school were being a dorm director and an academic counselor for academically disadvantaged students. Realizing that counseling was not the right career course, she used her career counseling skills on herself and realized that the thing she liked best about being a counselor was providing information and referrals. That realization led her to Long Island University where she received her MLS. While in library school she found a job in the Special Collections and Archives Division of SUNY Stony Brook and realized that she was meant to be an archivist. In her current job as an Educational Resource Specialist at the Library of Congress, Danna is able to practice her two favorite things: helping teachers locate primary sources they can use in classroom activities and working with archival collections.

She is a past Chair of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), a past president of the Society of American Archivists and has presented at many conferences. For her work in support of SAA and the archival profession she was named a Fellow of the Society.

What interested you in becoming an archivist?

I’ve always loved history and knowing the story behind the story. I stumbled into archives during library school and realized that I loved working with the paper, reading the stories, processing the documents and helping patrons use the collections. When I finished my MLS and returned to the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, I realized if I wanted to grow as an archival professional I needed to do some additional coursework and did some post-masters work at the Catholic University of America. When I returned to archives after some time as a reference and bibliographic instruction librarian, I realized that I loved being a solo archivist, handling all of the parts of running an archive from acquisitions to reference to administration. It forced me to stretch, grow and learn all the different aspects of archival administration. I always thought I would be a lone archivist so I find it amusing that I find myself working in the largest library in the world in the middle of a wonderful team of educators helping teachers locate primary sources to use in classroom activities.

Who has influenced you in your career?

This list could go on for pages but I’ll pick out a few. First I’ll mention Evert Volkersz and the folks in Special Collections and Archives at SUNY Stony Brook. He took a chance on a former counselor and library science student and served as my first mentor and my trainer in archives. The staff at Stony Brook also taught me the basics of preservation, of processing and of working in an academic institution.

Evert also sent me to my first MARAC conference. At another MARAC conference I met Lucious Edwards. Lucious and I met when I was in my second archival job in an organization where I was looked upon as a glorified secretary and not as a trained professional. He encouraged me to be more involved in MARAC and start presenting papers. He said it would force the leaders of the organization to see me as a professional. Through MARAC I made friends and had opportunities to present and began to improve my leadership skills.

My first mentor in SAA was Brenda Banks. Shortly after she was named my mentor she was elected president of the Society. I told her that I was willing to ask that I be assigned to another mentor but she decided to stay as my mentor and continued to mentor me for many years after our official relationship ended. Brenda helped me get involved in SAA and helped me become comfortable with SAA operations. She also encouraged me to run for my first office by saying, “I know that eventually you want to be on SAA Council. Run for Nominations and Elections so you’ll get name recognition and when you run for Council you’ll have a better chance of winning.” Who knew I would win that election, take on additional leadership opportunities and grow as a professional and as a person?

Last I have to mention my mom. She raised me to study, to work to be the best that I could be and has given me amazing advice and support. I know she has given up much to help me succeed and I am grateful that she has seen me grow as a professional and as a person. Plus she still gives great advice and support.

What is your advice for new archivists?

I think it’s easy to get the basic skills that one needs to be an archivist but I don’t think we always focus on the importance of getting those skills. As we work with so many different formats we must know how to acquire, appraise, preserve, arrange, describe and provide access to the collections in our care.

Archival graduate educational programs should make sure that students do not leave their institutions until they have these skills. Potential archival students should make sure to select programs where they not only obtain a foundation in the skills needed to be an archivist but there are opportunities to work with collections and archivists who are currently in the field as well as the professors in the classroom.

However, I think there are other skills both current and new archivists must have in order to be successful. Usually these skills are not taught in academic or professional development programs. When I was writing the plenary address I gave at the joint MARAC-NEA conference I had developed a list of skills but then found a list Donna McCrea provided in an article for The American Archivist in 2011. I love her list, appropriated it for my speech and provide it again here (starts page 6).

  1. We should be self-aware and understand our strengths and weaknesses and seek out and be open to feedback from a variety of sources. The second part of this statement is the most important part. Not only should we talk to our friends, co-workers and supervisors but also talk to those you disagree with or dislike. They may give the best advice of all.
  2. We need to look broadly at issues and problems. Archivists need to be prepared to deal with ambiguity, complexity and change. We need to look at situations from different viewpoints and come up with ideas for solutions not just complain.

I learned this particular lesson when I participated in the Library’s Leadership Development (LPD) program. The LDP participants were divided into two teams and each team was asked to build a bridge from popsicle sticks. During the course of the activity one person was asked to change teams. I volunteered.

When I got to the other team they were wrestling with the fact that the design request had changed. Then one of the glue guns was taken away. The person who was the team lead threw a bit of a temper tantrum. I can’t work like this he said. No job is like this. I stopped for a second and suddenly the lessons of the activity came to me. I said to him, yes this is like real life. We add and lose staff; we get unexpected changes and budget cuts.

  1. We need to be able to find connections between disparate ideas, reframe how people think about an issue, invite new collaborations, experiment and take risks.
  2. We should be able to create teams, delegate work, manage conflict and motivate others.
  3. We should be able to develop a rich diversity of relationships and inspire trust through integrity and competence.
  4. We should be able to gather information from a variety of different sources including observation, feedback and experience.
  5. We should be able to communicate effectively up, down or sideways. Connect with the person and know who you are talking to. Learn to be an effective advocate for yourself, your institution and your professional organizations. We can’t move forward without sharing ideas, listening, discussing issues and compromising.
  6. We need to remember wherever we are that we are educators. Whether we are giving our elevator speech, talking to a patron, teaching kindergarteners or presenting to administrators or other leaders at our organizations we are teaching people about the importance of archives and how they benefit all of us.

“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.


2 thoughts on “Three Questions: Danna Bell

  1. Pingback: Danna Bell – Archiving in Color

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