There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Anne L. Foster, Yellowstone National Park Archivist

This is the first post in our new “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, which will feature examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  To launch this new series, COPA member Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Anne L. Foster, Archivist at Yellowstone National Park.

Anne Foster.resized

Photograph of Anne L. Foster. (Courtesy of Anne L. Foster).

Anne L. Foster has served as Yellowstone National Park’s Archivist since 2010. Prior to that, she was the University Archivist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Traveling Archivist for the Montana Historical Society, NHPRC Fellow in Archival Administration at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, and Assistant Archivist at the Sharlot Hall Museum in Arizona. She is a Certified Archivist (CA), Digital Archives Specialist (DAS), and holds an Masters in Library Science (MLS) from the University of Maryland.

RS: How did you get your gig?

AF: As an undergraduate history student at nearby Montana State University in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, I used to see flyers advertising an internship in the archives at Yellowstone. While I couldn’t take advantage of the program at the time (I was working three other jobs to pay for school), the fact that archives was a potential career for a history major and that someplace I loved like Yellowstone had one stuck with me. For the next fifteen years, through graduate school and several other archives jobs, I would periodically check and see Yellowstone was hiring. And then, on one random check—they were! I’d just been tenured and promoted at my academic repository, but finally, my dream job was available.  All those other jobs were probably a good thing, though, because they gave the skill set needed to step in as the first professional archivist in Yellowstone and tackle one of the largest backlogs in the National Park Service.

Processing room during our Archives Blitz grant project

Processing room during the Archives Blitz grant project (courtesy of Anne L. Foster).

RS: Tell us about your organization.

AF: The Archives is part of Yellowstone’s Heritage & Research Center (HRC), which also houses the Park’s museum collection, herbarium, and research library.  The HRC is part of the Yellowstone Center for Resources, which is tasked with managing all those things that make Yellowstone so special like the thermal features, wolves and bears, and the scientific research that guides management decisions. While we are part of the National Park Service, we are very fortunate to also have Yellowstone Forever, our philanthropic and educational partner. Yellowstone Forever actually started life in the 1930s as the Yellowstone Museum and Library Association, so our collections have long been a key part of their efforts. Most people think of Yellowstone as the place for geysers and wildlife—and we are–but the Archives is the place where we document those special features and our efforts to preserve them, which to me is something special.

HRC

Entrance to Yellowstone National Park Heritage and Research Center (Courtesy of Anne L. Foster).

RS: Describe your collections.

AF: Like many archives in the U.S., we are both an institutional repository and a collecting institution. Our institutional records are government records and we are subject to federal records laws and guidelines. There are actually two types of records within the government collection: resource management records and administrative/historical records. All national parks keep resource management records. Parks are created to manage a resource or resources and as long as that resource exists, we need to keep records pertaining to those resources to help inform future management decisions (these records are considered “permanently active” as long as the resource is active).  Unlike other national parks, however, we also retain our permanent administrative and historical records like Superintendent’s correspondence, planning documents, partnership agreements and other records that don’t pertain quite so directly to resources. For other parks, those records are sent to the National Archives. Yellowstone is fortunate to be one of the few Affiliated Archives of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). This means that the records become part of NARA’s collection, but so long as we meet their standards for preservation, security, and access, we can keep them in our location. This makes it easier for our researchers, both staff and the public, to access our history in one place.

Our third category of collection is our donated or manuscript collections. These materials range from Park visitors’ photo albums, diaries, and scrapbooks through the research of scholars and  scientists who donate their data for future comparative or longevity studies to records of businesses who have operated in the Park over its nearly 150 years. In fact, our Yellowstone Park Company (YPC) records, the main Park concessioner for the first 100 years, is our most accessed collection because it includes payroll records. The YPC hired hundreds of college kids every summer and, apparently, that summer was so memorable that the employees would spend the rest of their lives talking about their summer in Yellowstone. Now, we’re getting those employees’ kids and grandkids coming in to find out what Grandma or Grandpa really did in Yellowstone.

Archives stacks

Yellowstone National Park Heritage and Research Center Archives stacks (courtesy of Anne L. Foster).

RS: What are some challenges unique to your collections?

AF: People love Yellowstone, so much so that there isn’t much about the Park that they aren’t interested in.  This makes archival appraisal a bit challenging—the most routine things truly have the potential for historical value.  Our NARA-approved NPS records schedule, for example, classifies most supply records as temporary. Of course it does—why would one need records for equipment once that item is used up or sold? But, we get queries regularly from people who have purchased former Park vehicles (buses, boats, snowmobiles) and want to know all about their item, down to paint formulas and the names of Rangers who drove them; it’s frustrating not to be able to answer their questions. At the same time, we can’t possibly keep everything.  So, it comes down to a rigorous and often detailed appraisal process.

We can have some unique preservation challenges as well.  Some of our most interesting records are logbooks–bound books used to record eruption data, visitor comments, or deep thoughts about wilderness. But, many of the logbooks are kept in less than optimal locations during creation—backcountry cabins, rock cairns on top of mountains, or next to erupting geysers.  By the time they are filled and transferred to the archives they can be nibbled, rained upon, or even somewhat eaten away by the acidity of geyser spray. During the 1988 fires, the Park’s historian actually flew with a fire crew in a helicopter to several backcountry cabins in order to rescue the logbooks (fortunately, all of the historic cabins were saved). Today, we have a more regular transfer of the logs to help cut down on damage and make use of digital duplication in cases where the damage is significant or potentially harmful to other items.

RS: What is the favorite part of your job?

AF: The location; it is magical to go to work in Wonderland and even more extraordinary to be the keeper of the documentary record for the world’s first national park. That feeling is shared by my coworkers as well as our visitors and researchers—it makes for a lot of enthusiasm and interest in the Park’s history. Every day is different and that makes for interesting and challenging work. There’s a huge amount of variety to my day: the types of records, the archival functions, and the research questions are as varied as Yellowstone’s landscape.

Stay tuned for future posts in the “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, featuring stories on archivists working in places you might not expect. If you know of an archivist who fits this description or are yourself an archivist who fits this description, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be interviewed on ArchivesAWARE!

 

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