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 Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Danielle Nowak, the Digital Assets Librarian at the Morton Arboretum in the Sterling Morton Library in Lisle, Illinois.
Danielle Nowak graduated from Purdue University Calumet with a Bachelor’s Degree in History in 2015, followed by a Master’s of Library Science Degree from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in 2017.
After graduating with her MLS, Danielle worked as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Prairie State College and the University of St. Francis before landing her permanent gig at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.
How did you get your gig?
I began working at The Morton Arboretum in late 2017 as the Access Services Librarian. Before earning my MLS I had interned and worked in various library settings and knew that I ultimately wanted to end up in a position where I would be working with archival collections. However, the challenging job market did not allow me to do that right away. As an undergraduate and graduate student I worked full-time as a manager at Panera Bread, while also picking up library and archival internships and jobs on top of that. Between school and working multiple jobs at the same time, I essentially worked 7 days a week for six years. Despite the trials and tribulations I went through in getting to this point, I never took my eyes off my end goal of getting a full-time archives job.
When I saw the opening for the Access Services Librarian role at The Morton Arboretum it was pretty much love at first sight. As someone that loves the outdoors, nature, history, and libraries, I was super excited to see that a position like this even existed. I applied in July-August, had my first and second interviews in September-October and then was hired in December. My original position as the Access Services Librarian had a term limit of two years. Close to the end of those two years, the Digital Assets Librarian position opened up and I applied for it and accepted the position.
Tell us about your organization.
Founded in 1922 by Joy Morton (founder of the Morton Salt Company), The Morton Arboretum is a 1,700 acre tree museum that is located in Lisle, Illinois. On these 1,700 acres are 222,000 live plants, representing nearly 4,300 taxa from around the world. The Arboretum conducts scientific research on tree and health improvement, collects and displays trees for study and enjoyment, offers educational programming for adults and children, and presents nature-related activities year round for people of all ages and interests.
The grounds are also home to a Visitor Center, Children’s Garden, Maze Garden, miles of hiking trails, a Herbarium, Plant Clinic, and the amazing Sterling Morton Library.
The Sterling Morton Library was opened in 1963 in memory of Sterling Morton, Joy Morton’s son. Interestingly, the library building itself was designed by the Chicago architect, Harry Weese, as an addition to The Arboretum’s Administration Building.
To add to the library’s uniqueness, the May T. Watts Reading Garden is attached to the library. The Reading Garden was constructed as a permanent monument to May Theilgaard Watts, a renowned American naturalist, author, poet, and educator. The Reading Garden makes for an exceptional place for quiet study or work.
Describe your collections.
At the Sterling Morton Library we aim to collect resources that will assist our staff and members in supporting The Arboretum’s mission and work. In addition to our archival collections, we also have circulating, e-book, journal, artwork, nursery catalog, landscape plans, and rare book collections.
My work is primarily focused on our archival collections – both physical and digital.
The Library houses the institutional archives of The Morton Arboretum. These materials include documents and photographs that detail and describe The Arboretum’s development, past, and present; institutional and staff publications; photographs of plants taken on Arboretum grounds; photographs and documents pertaining to ex-situ plant collecting trips; and an assortment of other materials that help document The Arboretum’s existence and impact.
The Library also houses and collects materials related to the Morton Family. With The Arboretum’s centennial approaching in 2022, digitizing the materials from the Collection of Morton Family Materials has become one of our priorities in the library. Right now, myself and a team of dedicated library volunteers are working to digitize and catalog our collection of Morton family correspondence, transcribe handwritten letters from said collection, and ultimately make the collection as accessible as possible.
Our fastest growing collections are our digital photograph collections, the largest being the Arboretum Image Bank, Collection of John Hagstrom Photographs, and the Living Collections Departmental Photographs. The Arboretum Image Bank is a series within The Morton Arboretum Records (our institutional collection) and contains photographs taken primarily by Arboretum staff of events at The Arboretum, work taking place at The Arboretum or off-site, and other Arboretum exhibitions and programming. We have contributors from our marketing, interpretation, and living collections departments transferring images on a regular basis.
Our other two largest digital photograph collections are related to plants and trees. Our Living Collections Departmental Photographs collection contains photographs of plants and trees that have been taken by an Arboretum staff member and an Arboretum volunteer. In these photographs, the two photographers aimed to capture images of woody plants around the Arboretum and Midwest. In addition to photographing just the entire plant, they also focused on taking pictures of specific parts of the plant or tree.
Our other collection of plant and tree photographs is the Collection of John Hagstrom Images. John Hagstrom is a long-time Arboretum volunteer that set out to photograph every type of plant at the Arboretum, each of its part, and in each season. While the project is still in progress, so far, John has donated over 10,000 images that we are actively incorporating into our digital collections.
What are some challenges unique to your collections?
I would say one of the biggest challenges that is unique to our collections is having a good grasp on plant names and naming conventions. Oftentimes, plants will have multiple common names or their name will have changed over time. Since plant photographs make up a huge part of our digital collections and we have searchers with varying plant knowledge, it is imperative that we are able to incorporate multiple names into our plant name’s keyword and also keep our naming convention consistent. Additionally, prior to being hired at the Arboretum, I did not have a strong background in botany. So, there has been a bit of a learning curve when it comes to plant names and parts, but I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about them and seeing myself become more knowledgeable on the topic.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is the people I get to work with and assist. Because our collections encompass so many different topics (local history, botany, institutional records, etc.) I am always getting a variety of questions and tasks that keep me on my toes. I appreciate this because it helps facilitate an environment of learning that really helps me thrive.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to be interviewed for ArchivesAWARE!