Low Plaza

A Keeper of Columbia's Culture: An Interview with Jocelyn Wilk

By Jo Kadlecek

Archivist Jocelyn Wilk

Jocelyn Wilk, 28, has worked at the University Archives and Columbiana Library (UACL) since May 1999, and two months ago was promoted to assistant director of the UACL. That means Wilk, along with archives director Marilyn H. Pettit and two other staff members, regularly roams the site of the original architecture library in 210 Low Library where the UACL is housed. She also helps maintain and provide access to records and memorabilia relevant to the history of Columbia. The Columbia Record caught up with Wilk on the balcony bookshelf to talk with her about the work she and her colleagues do.

CR: As an archivist, you walk into history everyday. But it seems like most people in their twenties have chosen high-tech, dot.com-type careers of the future. What made you decide to immerse yourself in a vocation that concentrates on maintaining the past?

JW: I've always been drawn to books and libraries, and was always read to or taken to the library by my parents. When my sister started volunteering at our school library, I followed suit and just kept volunteering throughout high school. It became an outlet for me, something I always enjoyed, and the librarians always liked me. Then I went to college and studied history, but by my senior year, I panicked. I mean, what was I going to do with a history degree? My mom suggested I go get a master's degree in library science and I figured I could at least learn some practical skills. My history background dovetailed nicely with the archives concentration, so I decided to take that track. While in grad school, as part of my coursework, I did a number of archival internships, working in places like the American Jewish Historical Society and the Boston Symphony Orchestra archive, which provided me with positive "hands-on" experience. I was also inspired by the woman in charge of the archives program; she made me want to do this.

CR: Columbia was founded in 1754 as King's College by royal charter of King George II of England and is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York and the fifth oldest in the U.S. That must make your job at the Archives and Columbiana Library rather unique?

JW: It does, especially because we document, preserve and provide access to records, photographs and other historic materials relating to the entire history of the university. Columbia has several special collections and archives around campus; this specific collection at the UACL only contains materials pertaining to the history of the university. Additionally, we maintain the King's College Room, a museum room with items-paintings, furniture, printed works-dating back to the first days of the college in 1754. We encourage people to come and visit it on the days we are open to the public. We also have everything from old college bulletins, printed matter, directories, correspondence files from the president's office, Trustee minutes going all the way back to the 18th century, various Columbia publications, clippings, you name it. Because I've been here the longest of our staff, I guess I'm considered the reference expert, so I tend to answer lots of reference requests.

CR: With so many works, files, documents, photographs, and resources spanning so many years, you probably get a lot of questions from a lot of people, even if non-Columbians?

JW: Right. I wouldn't be surprised if I've answered nearly a thousand questions alone since I've been here. Some take a few seconds to answer, others a week. We average 120 requests a month in the form of e-mails, letters, phone calls, or walk in visitors and they come from as far away as China, Australia, Europe, or as close as the office next door. And all types of people contact us both from inside and outside the University, looking for anything from information about their grandfather who attended in 1910 to specific photographs for a documentary film, what kind of research Columbia conducted during World War II, or the history of a named professorship. Once we even had representatives from DreamWorks come research images of Columbia during a certain era to use for costume and set design for their upcoming movie, "The Time Machine."

CR: It sounds like you're a bit of a 'history detective' answering such a variety of questions. What else do you do with these materials when you get a break from the questions?

JW: It's not all just reference work. I also go through unorganized boxes and files of documents, clippings, announcements, that sort of thing and process them, deciding what's worthy of being kept, and how best to organize it for future researchers. As we organize the materials, we use basic preservation techniques, placing items in acid free file folders and boxes, copying fragile items onto acid free paper, placing others into mylar sleeves, so they'll be in a stable environment. Ultimately we create finding aids so researchers and the staff can know where things are, basic information about a specific collection and how to get at them. For instance, a colleague recently re-housed and re-organized a big, disparate collection of materials into what now comprises our 1960s and 1970s protest and activist collection. It is so much easier to use those resources now. The goal is make the information we have as accessible as possible and to make sure people know about at least some of the really cool and interesting stuff we have.

CR: Being surrounded by all of this "cool and interesting" old stuff, do you have a favorite part of the Columbiana collection?

JW: (laughs) It's a tough question because I deal with so much. But coming across the oldest materials is definitely the most interesting for me. It's very exciting to touch these old elegant dinner invitations, for example, knowing that more likely than not people have not seen or touched these in a really long time. Another gratifying part of the job is helping people find what they're looking for. We want people to use the materials and find answers to their questions. It's like a big treasure hunt.

The UACL is currently open to the public (anyone with a legitimate question) from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday, though archivists can be reached by phone (854-1338) and e-mail at all times during the work week.

Published: Feb 01, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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