Meghan (Poepping) Kennedy
Year of Graduation: 2007
Graduate School: Simmons College, Boston, MA; MA in History, MSLIS in Archives Management
Current Position/Location: Archivist, American College of Surgeons - Chicago, IL
Please give a brief description of your current position.
I am responsible for managing the historical memory of the American College of Surgeons, a scientific and educational association of surgeons founded in 1913, that has over 82,000 members worldwide. My role is to collect, preserve, and provide access to records of enduring value, and engage our staff, membership and the general public in using the past to look towards the future. I spend my time providing information to our users, as well as collecting, organizing and describing records, including documents, photographs, digital files and film. I am also responsible for managing our online presence and catalog, staffing the surgical history interest group for our member surgeons, creating exhibits, and writing content on the College's history for publication.
What path did you follow to get to your current position?
I have always loved history but knew early on, that a career in teaching wasn't a good fit for me. I majored in history at CSB/SJU anyway, knowing it would, at the very least, give me great critical thinking and writing skills. I was familiar with doing archival research because of my major but making it a career didn't really register to me until a couple of years after graduation, when I realized working in an archives would be the perfect practical application of my love for history and organization. I returned to school in 2010 and completed a dual master’s program in History and Library Science. The school I chose had a concentration in Archives Management, which was a perfect fit for me.
What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career?
Being an archivist is actually more about organization, logic, and research than it is about history! As an archivist, my top priority is always the same simple principal: access. There is no point in keeping information if no one can find/see/use it. After that, it's about knowing what to keep, and having the skills to discern what is most important to the institution for which you are collecting. If someone is interested in being an archivist because they love history, I always tell them that a love of history is a great motivator, but the day-to-day of the job focuses much more on skills and tasks that eventually will help others access the information you manage. The great byproduct of this is that you end up learning a lot about the history of your specific institution and the material they collect.
What skills are important in your field?
Technical skills are important in the archives field, but by and large the most important are actually soft skills - attention to detail and critical thinking. There is nothing more important in an archive than accuracy. If you can't find something, it is useless to keep. Keeping for the sake of keeping will not further the goals of your institution - you must be able to find and use it! Being a detail-oriented person, and enjoying the details, is an absolute must for an archivist. It is my job to think about all those details, and to care about them.
What is the most satisfying/rewarding part of your position?
I manage the archives and supervise only one other employee, so my favorite part of my current position is that I get to have my hands in every aspect of archives management. I thrive in my environment because I enjoy and am skilled in the technical day-to-day of my job, but I also get to do the things that I love so much about history - dive in to research, learn something new, and write about it. The difference is that I am "doing history" for someone else and their needs or interests, but because of that I end up learning much more than I would otherwise. In terms of the service I provide, there is nothing better than helping someone find an answer to a question, especially when they were previously unaware what the archives even is, or that it had the type of information helpful to them.
As an archivist for an association, we are more business-oriented than many research or university libraries and archives. As a result, I spend a lot of time explaining why we exist, what exactly we do, the services we provide internally, and why it's important that employees give us appropriate "stuff" for permanent preservation. Having an archives at a business is less common, so some people find it difficult to wrap their brains around. The good thing is that it requires me to always have examples in my head to give to people in various departments, showing how their colleagues have used our services in the past and the output from those interactions.
What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career?
Being a history major at CSB is essentially what introduced me to archives. The best thing you can do to prepare for and understand what an archivist does is to be on the other side as a researcher. Go to an archives with a topic in mind, talk with an archivist, and see how they can help you find more about your topic. That was all set up for me as a history major, and it led me to my career. Also, study abroad! As an archivist it's rare to be passionate about a topic or time period, and then get to manage an archives that specializes in that exact topic. I have worked in four different archives - a presidential library, a large food company, a bank, and now a surgical association. I have had to be open, learn quickly, and have a genuine curiosity in literally any topic under the sun to find an institution that fits my personality and professional goals. I have always been a curious person but studying abroad opened me up to more than I could have imagined. I did the Cork, Ireland program, which was extremely independent, and that experience helps me every single day in my job. I even did a course in Europe during graduate school that introduced me to library systems in other countries. Information management can be, and is, a worldwide career!