There’s An Archivist for That! Interview with Susan Malsbury, the Director of the Estée Lauder Companies Archives


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Photograph courtesy of Susan Malsbury

This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  COPA member Rachael Woody, owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC, brings you an interview with Susan Malsbury, the Director of the Estée Lauder Companies Archives.


Susan Malsbury graduated from Earlham College with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and continued her graduate work at Pratt University, obtaining a Master’s in Library and Information Science and Archives with an Advanced Certificate in Archives in 2009.

Susan’s first archival work was volunteering at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, Maine, where she cataloged glass plate negatives from the Portland Press Herald and mariner maps. In 2007, Susan interned at the Guggenheim Museum and in the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library. Upon the completion of her internships, Susan was offered a project position at NYPL to be assistant archivist on a project to process the 1939/1940 New York World’s Fair records. Susan remained at NYPL for 12 years, becoming a Manuscripts Specialist in 2010, and the Library’s Digital Archivist in 2014. While at NYPL, Susan worked on complex audiovisual collections, such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis records, and a wide variety of hybrid collections, from publishing house records to artist papers. In 2018, Susan began working at the Estee Lauder Companies Archives as the first ever Manager of Digital Collections and became the Director in 2019.

Susan has lectured extensively on digital archives and is currently the Chair of the Society of American Archivists Electronic Records section.

RW: How did you get your gig at the Estée Lauder Companies (ELC) Archives?

I began working at the ELC Archives in 2018. I had not been actively looking for a new job, but a friend sent the job listing to me and I was intrigued. It was a Manager of Digital Collections position and the role was to build a digital archives program, support the development of a collection management system, and oversee all digitization. I had been at the New York Public Library for twelve years, most recently as Digital Archivist, where I helped build the digital archives program from a project-based approach to a programmatic model. The idea of building a program from the ground up was intriguing and I also thought it would be good to get experience at another institution, as I had spent my entire professional career at NYPL. After a year at ELC, the Director of the Archives left and, after a brief acting period, I assumed the role. It was an unexpected career move but has been an incredible experience to lead a busy corporate archive through what has been a very transformative time!

RW: Please tell us about the Estée Lauder Companies.

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Ronald Lauder, Estée Lauder, and Leonard Lauder in 1972 at the GM Building, the Company’s global headquarters since 1969. Photograph courtesy of the Estée Lauder Companies Corporate Archives.

The Estée Lauder Companies is one of the world’s leading manufacturers and marketers of prestige cosmetics. The Company was founded in 1946 by Estée Lauder and Joseph Lauder. Estée handled all product development and marketing, while Joseph oversaw finance and operations. The Estée Lauder brand launched with four main products that she sold at beauty salons around New York. The brand grew rapidly and both the Lauders’ sons eventually joined the Company, Leonard Lauder in 1958 and Ronald Lauder in 1964. The family is still very involved with the Company today, including now fourth generation family members.


The Company began creating additional brands in-house on the premise that it was better to make its own competition through separate brands that had distinct brand positioning. Aramis, a men’s fragrance and treatment brand, was launched in 1963. Clinique, the first dermatologist-created, allergy-tested and fragrance-free brand, came soon after in 1968. In 1979, Prescriptives launched as a color authority and was one of the first brands to offer custom blended foundation to match a wide variety of skin tones. The last in-house brand was Origins, founded in 1990 as the first prestige wellness brand that fused natural ingredients with science. After Origins, the Company shifted to fragrance licensing and acquiring already established companies; the first fragrance licensee was Tommy Hilfiger in 1993 and the first brand acquired was MAC Cosmetics in 1994. The Company currently owns 29 brands, including Aveda, Jo Malone London, Bobbi Brown, and Tom Ford Beauty, and is truly a global company with products sold in 150 countries and 48,000 employees worldwide.

Additionally, the Company has had a longtime focus on philanthropy through its Citizenship and Sustainability initiatives. The Breast Cancer Campaign was founded by Evelyn Lauder in 1992 to increase awareness and fund global research, education, and medical services. A little-known fact is that Evelyn Lauder co-created the iconic pink ribbon which has been adopted by breast cancer initiatives worldwide! The MAC AIDS fund was established in 1994 and has raised over $500 million dollars for AIDS organizations through the sale of the Viva Glam lipsticks.

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A portion of the Archives’ heritage exhibit. Courtesy of the Estée Lauder Companies Corporate Archives.

The Archives was founded in 1991 by Leonard Lauder with the mission to collect, preserve, and make available the rich heritage of the Company and its diverse portfolio of brands. The goal of the Archives is to be the center of research and inspiration for the Company, to drive creativity and innovation, and to foster an appreciation and understanding of the Company’s heritage and development. While the Archives started off as a packaging library from the four core brands, it has expanded to include products from all brands as well as any public facing material or material that informs the consumer experience. We also hold select corporate records and the personal papers of Estée and Joseph Lauder.

The Archives has grown significantly from its initial home – like many archives, a closet in the basement of the corporate headquarters – to a full-floor facility in midtown Manhattan. We also recently opened a second archival processing hub in Long Island City. Our main office in Manhattan contains storage for a quarter of our collection, workspace for product processing, a heritage exhibit, and an on-site digitization lab. The heritage exhibit highlights the founding of the company and four core brands by the Lauders, and showcases key products and marketing innovations. Archivists give heritage tours regularly to new employees or by special request, providing over 100 tours a year.

RW: Please describe the collections.

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Estée Lauder Crème Base Face Powder, circa 1960. Examples of product photography. Courtesy of the Estée Lauder Companies Corporate Archives.

Each brand has its own collection, and there are three additional collections for corporate records, the Lauder Family, and the Breast Cancer Company. The collections are broken into two main categories: packaged goods (products and packaging) and archival material (everything else). Currently, the Archives contain 75,000 products, 8,000 linear feet of archival material, 20,000 audiovisual items, and over 60 terabytes of born-digital files.

Products and packaging consist of fragrances, color cosmetics, skincare, home goods like room sprays and candles, and even ingestibles (Aveda’s Comforting Tea and Origins’ Peace of Mind gumballs). Our earliest products are from the 1950s and our latest products are ones that have not yet hit the markets. As the Archives receives two copies of each new product from every brand, we’re expanding by two to five boxes of products each week, depending on the season. We currently have an in-house digitization lab where products are photographed according to museum standards; a color chart is used to ensure 100% color accuracy of packaging and makeup shade.

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Clinique Supplementary Lashes, 1971. Examples of product photography. Courtesy of the Estée Lauder Companies Corporate Archives.

The archival material consists of creative material, collateral, advertisements, education and marketing material, and files related to the Company’s many philanthropic endeavors, much of this increasingly arriving in born-digital form. Additionally, the Archives contains a good deal of special formats like garments, awards, and counter displays. One of my favorite recent acquisitions is the corset that RuPaul wore in the iconic Viva Glam ad! The vast audiovisual assets consist of commercials, tutorials, fashion shows, and media appearances.  We have historically received transfers of material when an office moves or is redesigned or an employee retires. In the future, we plan to develop regular transfer schedules so that we are assured we are getting all material identified as having archival value.

The Archives also runs an Oral History Program, overseen by Marion Jaye, the Company’s first archivist. Marion has conducted 48 interviews with longtime employees, collecting valuable institutional knowledge and stories that truly bring the Company’s heritage to life.

RW: What were some challenges unique to the collections?

One of the biggest challenges is the sheer variety of material types which require separate processes for accessioning, description, conservation, digitization, and access. Two factors that have helped manage these complex collectives are the development of a new collection management system and moving towards a staffing model that encourages expertise by material type.

The Archives uses customized versions of Collective Access for our CMS and our front-end archival portal, allowing users to access our catalog and select digital assets through a beautiful internal website. It was a true team effort to develop cataloging schemas that worked for all the material types in our collection while at the same time ensuring that our controlled vocabulary would be understandable to our user base. The former Director, Adrianna Slaughter, wrote a wonderfully thorough article about this process that everyone should go read! Having a customized system allows us to catalog fields specific to products and packaging, audiovisual, physical archival items, and born-digital files in separate modules that work synergistically in the same system. Collection management fields allow us to track an object’s provenance, and – for physical material – the condition, collection use, and availability and quality of digital derivatives.

We also have a large amount of legacy data in spreadsheets and files from past digitization projects on hard drives. Over the last year and a half, I have been vetting the quality of the metadata and standardizing legacy metadata so that it can be imported into the CMS. The audiovisual spreadsheets were an excellent candidate for this treatment; following my audit and remediation, we now have over 6,500 catalog records that can now be reconciled with a physical audiovisual object and/or a digital derivative, and then pushed to our front-end website for viewing by our users.

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Audiovisual catalog record with media player on the front-end website. Courtesy of the Estée Lauder Companies Corporate Archives.

Another challenge is that, as a corporate archive, we can never close a collection for research. Processing projects require an additional level of strategic planning to ensure that material remains accessible to our users. Sometimes this can create unexpected opportunities to advocate for the Archives. Archivist Laura Donovan recently finished processing the MAC Cosmetics collection and has hosted research appointments at our Long Island City processing hub. These users have loved seeing a processing project in action, and a visit really drove home the scope of our archival work. It is one thing to describe the size of a collection, and quite another to walk into a room where all record cartons are on full display, neatly labeled and arranged on shelves.

RW: What is your favorite part of the job?

I have a few favorites, but the biggest is that I work for a Company that truly values its heritage and thus the Archives. You can see this firsthand in this fun video when the Estée Lauder brand had their spokesmodel, Karlie Kloss, intern at the Archives for a day. There’s often a challenging tendency in archives to have to constantly justify your existence; but at ELC, we are given the resources we need to focus on archival processing, provide reference services, host tours, and support special initiatives. These special initiatives include supporting media opportunities, creating educational programming for employees, and co-curating pop-up and permanent exhibits. No two days are ever the same and that makes the work tremendously exciting. It’s also exciting to see brands use the Archives for product development. Archivist Chelsea Payne, who oversees most reference requests, has seen an increase in brands requesting to see examples of refillable cosmetics as the Company seeks to make more sustainable packaging.

Personally, building out the front-end archival website has been an incredible project to work on and one of my proudest professional accomplishments thus far. The site will launch to ELC employees in June after a two-year development project that began last fall. I have learned a tremendous amount, from application development to designing an archives system for users who may be new to archival research. We decided to forgo the traditional bio/history note and instead created a chronology feature where chronology events were categorized by the following fields: Business, Events, People, Products, Regions, Events, and Philanthropy. Users will be able to select multiple categories and export those results to a PDF or an Excel file which provides more value to our users than a narrative history. I was also able to harness what I learned at NYPL to build out functionality to provide access to born-digital material directly through our site, including automatically capturing original files names as a metadata field.

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An example of a collection’s page. Courtesy of the Estée Lauder Companies Corporate Archives.

This past winter, I ran two user testing phases and have been meeting with stakeholders across the company to demo the site and highlight points of collaboration. Unexpectedly, these meetings have provided wonderful opportunities to build visibility and highlight the Archives work. I previously mentioned that the Archives is in a transformative time. When our site goes live, it will provide all our employees worldwide with access to the Archives, previously only available to New York City-based employees. It is an exciting time to make a truly global archive for a global company.

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