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Beacon Street Diary blog

Archivist Jessica Steytler's journey from junk drawers to rare documents

Outwardly, the Congregational Library & Archives looks much as it did fifteen years ago — with the card catalog lining the front hall, the reading room preserved, the portraits of the ministers looking down sternly. Archivist Jessica Steytler knows better. The Congregational Library & Archives has changed dramatically since Jessica arrived in 2000. "Technology has really been booming. We have these tools that didn't exist twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. In some ways, my job has morphed quite a bit," she says. "But I still answer reference questions, I still process collections. Those are the pillars of my job."

Archiving was a natural fit for Jessica. "I got into the archive field because I wanted to use my history degree, and I didn't want to teach. I liked libraries, and it was always very clear I had an organizational mind. I was the one to sort out the colored pencils, or I was the one to clean up the junk drawer, or shelve all of my father's CDs."

When Jessica finished her MS in Library Science at Simmons, it was hard for archivists to find work in Boston. "It was a tight job market in Boston. I had multiple part-time jobs out of school, and I had very little experience." Dr. Harold "Hal" Worthley, the Librarian from 1977 to 2004, gave Jessica her first full-time job as an archivist. "Hal was known to give new archivists a shot." Jessica jumped right in, processing collections, staffing the reference desk, and even working on the old website. "Hal retired after I had been here for four years, so I thought I should stick around for continuity's sake. And things just kept getting interesting."

Since Peggy Bendroth became the executive director, and more archivists joined the staff, Jessica has felt a great sense of forward momentum in the institution. She's especially grateful that the CLA embraces technology. "We've really always had a lot of support. There's not resistance towards trying something just because it's new." The next new tool? A web-based information management system called ArchivesSpace, funded by a grant from the H.W. Wilson Foundation. "I'm excited to use ArchivesSpace," Jessica says. "It's a powerful tool, and it's really important to our industry. And it's very new. We are on the cutting edge. We're right there."

The new database will bring the Congregational Library & Archives up to the industry standard, and make the archivists more efficient. It will also help CLA patrons get exactly the information they need. Different people want to know different things about our collection, says Jessica. "ArchivesSpace will help us serve everyone better."

But technology has not eliminated the need for traditional ways of helping researchers and historians. "I still like talking to people," says Jessica. She greets visitors from the reference desk, and assists visiting researchers. She works with other visitors to the CLA. "I really enjoyed talking to Eva Grizzard from the Northeast Document Conservation Center, who came here for a preservation assessment a few weeks ago." The preservation assessment was funded by a federal grant the library received this year.

Jessica also brings her deep preservation and organizational knowledge to the wider Congregational community. "I talk to churches a lot. I help them understand how to take care of their archives." Jessica gives churches the skills they need to preserve their records, and shows them how to organize their materials. "That educational facet of my work is always very fulfilling."

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