Ask An Archivist: An Interview With Michelle Ganz

Join us as we celebrate American Archives Month by Asking An Archivist! Inspired by #AskAnArchivistDay, we sat down with five archivists to ask them about what they do—from “what is an archivist?” to “What’s the most creative public use you’ve seen with your collections?”—and explore daily challenges, successes, and everything in between.

Stay tuned because we’ll be sharing one full interview per week starting on #AskAnArchivistDay on October 13!

This is the title card for an interview with Michelle Ganz by COPA member Rachael Cristine Woody.

For our third installment of this mini-series, we’re excited to share a conversation with Michelle Ganz, partner to the founding of the Accessibility & Disability Section of SAA and Regent for Member Services for the Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA). Rachael Cristine Woody of the Committee on Public Awareness sat down with Ganz (virtually) for a video conversation on June 23, 2021.

Michelle Ganz has been a certified archivist for 15 years, receiving her MILS from University of Arizona. She has been a long-time activist, speaker, and leader in Disability Diversity and Inclusion within the Archival Profession. She has also held a number of Leadership roles within the SAA and was an integral partner to the founding of the Accessibility & Disability Section. In addition to working with the SAA Michelle has been involved with the ACA for over a decade and is currently the Regent for Member Services.

Video Interview


Ganz [0:00:03]Oh, my name is Michelle Ganz. I’m currently employed at the History Factory as a staff archivist, I was prior to this I was at McDonough Innovation and Lincoln Memorial University, and I’ve been an active member of SAA for about 15 years now. I’m currently the outgoing Chair of the Independent Archivist—oh sorry, the Accessibility and Disability Archivist Section, and I was a founding member of the Independent Archivist Section and past chair of Lone Arranger Section and I’ve been involved all over the place.

Woody [0:00:41] So just like a little bit involved.

Ganz [0:00:44] Yeah

Woody [0:00:45] Yes. Wonderful. Well, thank you for your service, in all of those sections, especially with the Independent Archivists and the Accessibility sections, they’re so critical, so thank you. For our first question I have, what is an archivist?

Ganz [0:01:04] So when I’m talking to people about what an archivist is, I usually start with we’re like librarians but very very specialized, and we work with documents rather than books, but we worked with both. When I’m talking to other archivists, I like to say that we are the protectors of history and the guardians of the truth. So it is important that we exist to ensure that history does not get changed, especially in the climate that we’re seeing nowadays where there’s a lot of revisionism happening archivists are critical to ensuring that the truth is, both protected and made known.

Woody [0:01:46] Those are great answers. I love, like the succinct example upfront with like a librarian but also like that current events tie in, I think is crucial so that, that’s a great answer. Thank you.

Ganz No problem.

Woody [0:02:03] Okay, question number two how and why did you become an archivist.

Ganz [0:02:10] So I came into the field, accidentally, when I was an undergrad at Ohio State University. I was applying for a job, a student worker and I thought I was getting a job at the University Library, and when I got to the interview I was like, “well this isn’t the library,” and I realized that I was at the University Archives and also well you know I’m student worker I need job easy to get to, I’ll take it. After two days working there, I looked around and I said, “You do this every day how do you, what is this job and how do I get into it?” and then Tamara Chute, who was the Assistant Archivist at the time and now she’s the Head of Archives at Ohio State, really mentored me into the field. She started getting all kinds of work that was more like what you would do as a grad student and then eventually right before I left I was actually helping with like putting together exhibits and answering reference questions, so she really kind of let me see what the field was like. And not only did I love it so much that I encouraged my best friend to ultimately go to library school. Yeah, by accident, but once I discovered it I realized that I’d been an archivist my whole life and it just came out that way.

Woody [0:03:21] I find that we tend to all have similar like origin stories for archives, “this place I landed in.” 

Ganz Good way to know if you want to be in the field or not.

Woody [0:03:35] Yes absolutely, and I also loved it, like you brought friends with you like this job is so cool you need to do it too.

Ganz [0:03:42] Oh yeah, like the second day of library school I called her I was like, go to library school right now and she’s like, I don’t know and I’m like no, no, no, right now. And now she’s the head of the cataloging department for the Columbus Public Library system.

Woody [0:03:57] Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. Awesome. Ok, third question for you, what’s the craziest thing you found in the archives?

Ganz [0:04:09] So, this is a great story. When I worked at Lincoln Memorial University we had a huge collection of Lincoln material. And we had a museum dedicated to him, and I was kept materials and you know just trying to make sense of everything and I run across this very tiny box. That’s like a shipping box and it’s still got the label and everything on it, and I opened it off, and there’s a piece of paper folded inside there, and it’s packing peanuts and I dig through it further and pull out a skull. And the piece of paper with it is a letter that was written by some fraternity members who said that they ran across Lincoln’s skull somewhere, and wanted to return it to its proper home.

The funny thing about this being, it was clearly a medical dummy because it had the spots where you wire everything together and it had numbers on it. And, and second of all, Lincoln skull is with the rest of his body under six feet in concrete in Indiana, and so it was just it was hilarious that these drunken guys had gone through so much effort to, to do this and so really the curator actually argued back and forth on whether we should keep or not because, clearly it’s not part of the collection, but it was so funny and they put so much effort into it and I was like, this is a testament to what people are willing to do when they realize that archives exist. So, hands down funniest thing ever.

Woody [0:05:36] That’s a good one I have definitely heard of, like, obviously you know human remains have ended up in some archives, but to have a non human remain. I mean, bless those frat boys. They tried right.

Ganz [0:05:55] And it was a great joke. I mean it’s still making me laugh today and it’s been 10 years. The grossest thing that I found, though, are those hair samples, and those pictures of dead babies and thinking for a while, those are just horrible.

Woody [0:06:11] Oh yeah, yes I think those, those and creepy dolls are for me. 

Ganz Yeah, especially the dolls with the eyes open and close.

Woody [0:06:25] Perfect. Well, those are our official questions. Is there anything else you wanted to share with us?

Ganz [0:06:34] So a thing that I’ve been talking about a lot recently is how we have access to more information than ever but people are less aware of how to you know discover factual information how to verify the information you’re getting is correct. And one of the things that I think archivists some tend to push off onto librarians is this whole idea of information literacy. And in the last three or four years I’m seeing archivists take a more, more, front and center stand them in and you know finding ways to teach our patrons, or people who are just interested in archival collections, what information literacy is, and I’m really glad to see us taking more of a leadership role in it as opposed to just punting it off to our librarian friends.

Woody [0:07:25] Yes, I’m so glad you brought that up, that is definitely something that, you know, critical thinking research skills, You know, information literacy skills all of those are, have always been important, but, you know, bringing them into the fold officially and being better at that would be a good step for us.

Ganz [0:07:43] Definitely, and I’m not seeing more people doing it organically, which makes me feel like, you know, it just couldn’t be par for the course given a number a couple years which, which I’m glad for. Oh, another thing I’m seeing a lot of is that because of COVID, we have discovered that we can offer archival services in a whole host of ways that we never thought of. Two years ago, and it’s also made it really great for recruiters because we’ve discovered that we can work from home, and accommodations can be made for people so all of a sudden we’ve gone from, I’m sorry we can’t do that. I know you have a disability, like the rule state that we have to do it this way and all of a sudden we’re saying, Well you know we can be a little bit more flexible in that what works for you and it’s making archival work a lot better for a lot of us. So, so that has been awesome to see and my hope is, is that we’re not going to just go back from the status quo. As we move back into the “normal” things and most institutions seem to be doing a really good job of folding those policies from COVID Just right into the new policies as we move forward so I’m glad to see that.

Woody [0:08:51] Yes, absolutely. In fact, follow up question for you, especially knowing your leadership in the Accessibility Section, what can we do as a profession and as colleagues to help make sure that we are moving those things forward and keeping people accountable?

Ganz [0:09:09] What I’m encouraging people to do is, is multi-level so if you’re in a position of leadership, absolutely lean hard on the fact that we have statistics to prove that we were just as, as productive if not more productive, last year than we were in years past, and if you’re just an employee. We’re not a lot so like when you’re, when we’re in meetings where we’re talking about, you know, well as we transition back to the office you know we’re gonna do this that and the other thing, pipe up with a question, you know, will we be able to continue to do this hybrid work-from-home-work-from-the-office situation which works really great for people with kids, for people who live with their parents, you know, a whole host of reasons for wall night. You want to make that easier to do and I’ve found that if you’re in a, you know, an HR meeting and you’re already talking about asking that question, is a really great way to get people go, you know, we haven’t thought about that, but maybe we should. 

And I’ve also noticed that people are using this as an opportunity to push back on things like parental leave, like we redid our whole policy here based on what was happening during COVID and the realization that we could take this opportunity to make things better for everybody on our staff, not just pregnant people so that was nice thing too is that we actually folded paternal leave into this, and adoption leave, And, you know, taking into consideration all the ways that families are made up, and making sure that we’re giving people the space that they need for that, and I really loved how one company, especially approached it in terms of language, so that nobody felt like it was you know that traditional, you know, heterosexual, family, family set-up, we really made sure to make everyone feel included and I loved that I was just so thrilled that they did it.

Woody [0:11:01] Yeah, that is great news. I love how you phrased it in terms of thinking about this last year and of course the hardships for a lot of people, but having taken the opportunity at least in the learnings from this last year to make things better for everybody moving forward.

Ganz [0:11:17] Exactly. And I know that that’s been, it hasn’t been uniform across the field, like I had hoped, but a fair number of repositories are using this as a way to take those giant steps forward that we usually tell people to try to avoid because I know when I’m counseling people on how to make things more diverse and inclusive, I tell them it’s not a giant leap, it’s 1000 Little steps, but in this case, it’s the opportunity to actually take a giant step, when everyone is comfortable with, you know, everything on a dime still so glad to see that people are taking advantage of that.

Woody [0:11:53] Yes, absolutely.

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