THERE’S AN ARCHIVIST FOR THAT! INTERVIEW WITH JENN PARENT, REFERENCE ARCHIVIST, THE MUSEUM OF FLIGHT

This is the latest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect. In this entry, Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Anna Trammell brings you an interview with Jenn Parent, Reference Archivist at the Museum of Flight. 

[Reference archivist Jenn Parent in front of mural by Henry at T

Jenn Parent, Reference Archivist at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA

How did you get your job?

I came to archives and The Museum of Flight as my second profession, having spent well over a decade working as a bookstore manager. I loved helping people find books but at the same time I always felt limited in how I could help people. So, I went back to school to get my Masters in Library and Information Science with the goal of becoming a special collections librarian or an archivist. I did two internships at The Museum of Flight during grad school (one in the library, one in the archives), and due to the positive internship experiences I had, I added the organization to my “watch list” for jobs. About a month or so before graduation I saw an opening for a part-time Processing Archivist and applied. I got that job and started in July 2017. Then, in late December 2017, I was promoted to Reference Archivist, and I’ve been doing that since.

[Group portrait of Pan Am flight attendants]

Group portrait of Pan Am flight attendants, circa 1960s-1970s || The Denise (Babcock) Schmidt Pan Am Flight Attendant Collection/The Museum of Flight

Tell us about your organization.

The Museum of Flight is the largest private non-profit air and space museum in the world. Contrary to popular thought, we are not part of Boeing and never have been (although we enjoy a good relationship with Boeing!). With over 150 air and spacecraft, dozens of exhibits and experiences, and all kinds of programming and educational offerings The Museum of Flight (TMOF) is devoted to the preservation and sharing of aviation and aerospace history and technology. 

I work as part of the Collections team, which includes the Harl V. Brackin Library, The Museum of Flight Archives, and our small object collection. As the Reference Archivist, my main job is (you probably guessed it!) to answer reference inquiries, which are mostly related to photo requests and general research/reference. If an inquiry requires in-depth curatorial knowledge, it gets assigned to our Curators. On average, I personally handle 30 to 40 reference inquiries per month. We get requests from all over the world and our researchers vary, from students of all ages to authors to model makers to aircraft restorers and more. 

When I have time, I also still process and catalog archival collections because I love processing. It adds to my knowledge of the collection so I can better assist researchers, but also I just love making collections accessible for folks to use! In addition, I contribute to outreach efforts, such as participating in our monthly “Coffee with the Curator” (a themed presentation with materials on display from the library, archives, and objects), writing articles, leading Library & Archives tours and/or giving presentations about the Archives, and contributing to our team’s Instagram (shameless plug for @tmofcollections)! And of course, I help with “other duties, as assigned.”

[African-American Rosies with Boeing B-29 Superfortress]

African-American “Rosies” with Boeing B-29 Superfortress || Credit: The Museum of Flight Collection

Describe your collections.

The Museum’s collection contains over 25,000 small objects (classified as anything smaller than an aircraft), over 90,000 books and periodicals, over 18,000 aircraft manuals and technical reports, and nearly 5,000 cubic feet of archival materials. 

Our archival collections contain materials that document the entire evolution of manned flight, from the Wright Brothers to modern jet travel to space exploration. We have an estimated four million images, including photographic prints, film and glass plate negatives, slides, and transparencies. Our paper-based materials include maps, charts, drawings, blueprints, log books and diaries, manuscripts, research and technical documentation, correspondence and philately, and airline ephemera such as tickets, timetables, brochures, and luggage tags. 

What’s really awesome is that we’re becoming more publicly accessible, which is fantastic! We’re always open to the public via the Dahlberg Research Center. You do not need to be a Museum member or pay admission to visit us but we do recommend/prefer an appointment! But we can also be accessed via our Digital Collections, which went live December 2017 and currently has over 6,500 digital images and 100+ oral histories with more content being added on a regular basis. And in April of this year (2019), we also launched our public research portal, where folks can browse finding aids from our collection. We add to it weekly, and it currently has just shy of 300 collections, which is about 10% of our collection. We also encourage folks to reach out and ask if they don’t see something online, as these are just fragments of our collection!

[Convair (Theodore P. Hall) 118 Convaircar]

Convair (Theodore P. Hall) 118 Convaircar || Credit: The Peter M. Bowers Collection/The Museum of Flight

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

I don’t have an aviation or aerospace background so describing the technical aspect of many of the aircraft collections can be a bit daunting. Luckily, our Curators are great at helping me understand things so I can correctly explain it in a finding aid or to a researcher.

I’d also say our building is a bit wonky. It was originally meant to be a hazmat storage facility but was never used in that manner that we know of (at least I haven’t grown a tail yet). The building has very thick concrete walls and floor and a very thin aluminum roof, so in the event of an explosion, the roof would be forced up and (in theory) the walls and floor would withstand the blast, leaving only the roof to replace. Additionally the floors are very slick and slightly sloped (in case spills needed to be hosed into the also-present drains that happen to have gaps the exact width of a library cart wheel). This makes adding shelving quite a chore, as you can imagine. 

JennStacks

Jenn Parent at work at the Museum of Flight

What is your favorite part of your job?

 That’s a tough call. I really like continuously learning and encountering material that sparks an interest or moment of “Wow!” (so many rabbit holes to go down – like did you know Goodyear made a plane out of rubber? Look it up – the Inflatoplane!). I also enjoy that my days can be quite varied based on what I’m up to that day. From answering a photo request about the Aero Spacelines Super Guppy to giving a tour to students or from making “frankenfolders” to house oversize materials to helping relocate a missile in our storage area, it’s never dull. 

But I think my real favorite is simple – being able to successfully guide a researcher and help fulfill their information need, especially when they reach out to me with what they may think is a long shot. I recently had a researcher ask me if it was fun being both useful and magical. A resounding yes!

 

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