This post is contributed by Ethan Heusser, a SCARC student archivist, who is graduating this week and pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry.
This moment marks the end of a full-year journey as a SCARC employee and a four-year journey as an OSU undergraduate. As I look out on the quiescence of the library quad and its summer sun from what is commonly touted as “the best view on campus,” I’m full of mixed feelings about this point of transition away from the Special Collections and Archives Research Center. One possible metric for a touchstone’s strength is the measure of both one’s professional ability to move beyond it and one’s emotional difficulty in doing so; in that sense, SCARC has proven quite strong indeed.
It’s difficult to fully encapsulate my job here, since so much of it has been based on fitting around wherever I was needed and best suited. Often this meant working with patrons directly, learning about their research goals and questions and helping them access our (sometimes daunting) collections. I also worked on a number of research/infrastructural projects, including the building of a poetry ephemera collection, the synthesis and summary of new accessions, and the assembly of a small exhibit showcasing our collection of comics and cartoons. That being said, my favorite part about my role at SCARC, personally, was the ample opportunity I experienced to write at length about topics and materials I didn’t understand in the slightest. Which meant it was up to me to learn, and almost always in a self-directed fashion. That amount of freedom is, in my experience, very rare at the undergraduate level – especially if you’re being paid for it.
Beyond my own specific job, I think what I like best about SCARC is the culture of continuing discovery. While tasks such as paging and collection management have a simple veneer, in reality everyone in the department (students included) is engaged with improving bodies of knowledge, both personal and collective. It’s an additive, cumulative, and self-sustaining process, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are, of course, practical and mercenary benefits to the work as well. Many college students seem to be ill-equipped to handle customer service; SCARC offers a safe place to learn those skills with close guidance and patience for error. For STEM students, SCARC offers a place to hone one’s attention to detail, research skills, and capacity to understand the larger contexts within which scientific discovery operates. For liberal arts students, SCARC lets you tap straight into history and see how any number of your respective fields and areas of interest have changed over time; it also gives you practice synthesizing those discoveries and communicating them effectively. For everyone else, it’s just plain rad.
To newcomers, I would encourage you to remember that some of the most significant lessons and experiences at SCARC can at times be tangential to the specific list of job requirements you agreed to. For example, the act of re-shelving can lead you down rabbit holes of time, revealing long-running trends of history, art, and culture made manifest for you as you walk among them. You could find a rare copy of one of your favorite novels while stumbling through McDonald. You could find touching letters from humble Cold War activists in Linus Pauling’s correspondence.
Being able to take advantage of those opportunities requires open eyes and ears. They are waiting for you to reach out and hold them – with clean hands and your gentlest touch.
After I graduate, next up on my docket is grad school, pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry. Many facets of my experiences as an Oregon State University undergraduate helped to prepare me for that next step; SCARC, specifically, expanded my interests beyond the written word alone to the broader category of book arts and book production. Thanks to my time here, I gradually realized that the creative experience of reading or making a book is above and beyond the words inside it; just like the work at SCARC itself, what happens after my time here can build on those same bodies of knowledge and human experience. In broader terms, I would say that my SCARC experiences affirmed that archives work can build a solid platform upon which a variety of careers and professional skills can expand.
In summary, working at SCARC means working in a field of legacies. These are the legacies of the millions of items held here, but they are also the legacies of the many students and scholars who diligently worked to build, protect, and share what is for better and for worse, simply human. Both objects and people revolve around the building of relationships – by working yourself into the weave, you become part of that legacy, building on it and making it even better for whoever comes next. It creates the privilege of a life with meaning, a life worth living – and there aren’t many privileges greater than that.