Ask An Archivist: An Interview With Terry Baxter

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 Terry Baxter by COPA member Rachael Cristine Woody.

For our fifth and final installment of this mini-series, we’re excited to share a conversation with Terry Baxter, archivist for the Multnomah County Records Management and Archives Program and the incoming Vice President/President-Elect for the Society of American Archivists. Rachael Cristine Woody of the Committee on Public Awareness sat down with Baxter (virtually) for a video conversation in 2021.

Terry Baxter has been an archivist for 33 years, the last 20 with the Multnomah County Records Management and Archives Program. Terry is a member of and has served in a variety of leadership positions in Northwest Archivists, Society of American Archivists, Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums, Archives Leadership Institute, and The Academy of Certified Archivists. He has presented and written on tattoos as personal archives, documenting domestic terrorists, archives as tools of power structures, diversity and inclusion in the human record, community based archives, archives of state-sponsored surveillance, and a variety of other topics. Terry is a proud Local 88 member and a proud public servant. He lives in Cully with his wife and brother-in-law and is frequently visited by ten kids and 5 grandkids.

Video Interview


Baxter [0:00:03] My name is Terry Baxter I’m the Archivist for Multnomah County Archives, which is in Portland, Oregon, and the Oregon Country Fair which is in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve been an archivist in various settings since 1985. And in service desk, I’ve done quite a few different things with SAA and Northwest ArchivistS particularly, archival service. Been in SAA — I’ve chaired the Diversity Committee I’ve been SAA Council, on the nominations committee, and then, surprisingly, the incoming, Vice President for the organization. So, that’s kind of my service in a nutshell.

Woody [0:00:49] That is quite a bit of service and not a surprise at all that you are now going to be Vice President, which, Congratulations.

Baxter [0:00:55] Thanks.

Woody [0:00:56] So my first question for you is the question we frequently get as archivists, and that’s what is an archivist, but also, why did you become an archivist and how did you become an archivist?

Baxter [0:01:10] Well, let’s get back to what is an archivist. I’ll start with how I became an archivist and that’s if you may have heard this story before because I, this is a question that does get asked a lot, so if you have, bear with me, but I always start with saying I got in for the money, which is an insider joke because nobody gets into archives for the money, but I really did because I was in college at the time working on my bachelor’s degree in history, and I also was raising a family, carrying, 18 hours in school and working 40 to 50 hours managing an Arby’s.

And so, as you can imagine that was, well I was young, I could, it wasn’t that big of a deal but, you know, it was a lot to do at one time and this Oregon State Archives, not the university that State of Oregon archives posted a student worker job that paid about what I made managing the Arby’s but for only 25 hours a week. And so it’s kind of a no-brainer. So yeah, I’m gonna go I’m gonna go work in the archives and save some time. 

Right. And so I did and started out. Started out kind of, in, you know kind of the, of the artifact area of archives so the very first collection I was doing some kind of like preliminary re-foldering type stuff you know one you give the students, and I was the Whitman Massacre trial documents, which was fascinating to me on, on the face of things, but, you know, started to lead towards some other, you know processing type jobs and working, working with the various documents and then I got assigned to do a very large cataloging basically project with the territory on provisional government records of Oregon, which again was. These are old and cool documents you know so, so I kind of thought, well if I get my degree I can actually do this work that pays pretty well and it was really still about the money, you know, as it was a good paying steady job with government benefits. So when a job opened up in the summertime, on a three-year records management project. I applied and got the job. 

And so I started working on that. And then things really changed, and this kind of will segue into what an archivist is in a lot of ways because I don’t believe an archivist is someone who just writes a bunch of stuff about a bunch of documents and, you know puts that together. My boss was given the opportunity to go to a thing called Camp hip, which was the as a long name. And then, the Institute for Advanced Archival Administration or something like that. And it was a mid supposedly a mid-career archivist bonding, learning about electronic records, learning about, you know management techniques, a lot of ways is a precursor to things like the Archives Leadership Institute and that was cohort-based and designed to give skills, techniques, and kind of like connections to folks. And my boss said I don’t want to go to this, what do you want to go on is that sounds interesting, it’s in Pittsburgh, why not give it a whirl and see, see what it’s all about. And I did. 

And it was really fascinating to see a bunch of folks much further along in their careers than I was thinking about archives in a different way thinking about archives as a means to an end so you can use archives for a lot of different stuff and you could use them, you know, for regular stuff, regular research, you can use them for entertainment, but you can use them to make change and I think that was really something I hadn’t thought about at all. Up to that point. And once I started to think about things in that way and conceptualize archives and archivists as changemakers, and as you know, people that could do active work you know not just sitting in an office processing records or, you know, working with ivory tower researchers but that everyday regular problems could be solved. People with just stuff they need to get done, you can help them get that stuff done. And that really turns a switch in my head, and I saw what an archivist is a facilitator, a connector, someone who is out there actively trying to make their community, broader communities, individuals lives better. And so, so once I saw that through that glass then I was hoping it became something I just wanted to do the rest of my life.

Woody [0:06:04] I love that answer. That’s, I didn’t, I don’t think I’ve heard the story about the really was the money, first of all, that was very amusing, but I love the archivist being facilitators connectors, helping to reveal some of those truths.

Okay, next question for you is what is your favorite item In the archives or the most curious or mysterious item in the archives that you found?

Baxter [0:06:32] Hmm. Yeah, those are always, they’re interesting questions, because, you know, it’s like, which of your children are the favorite, the one that’s in front of you right now, right? 

So, but I would say I, one of my absolute favorite to my to myself personally, and it’s not, it’s not particularly important, but it’s to me, it’s really kind of fun in it. It’s kind of one of those, what could be kind of story. So I am in Oregon in 1964. Actually, in ’63, they started planning for it. A commission was set up and it was we have, we have a set of records, I believe the City of Portland has a set of records. So I think both institutions were, you know, kind of was one of those multi-jurisdictional organizations, but it was the Delta Recreation Commission.

And it was set up to investigate and propose a bond measure to set up a dual-use Major League Baseball and NFL Stadium in Delta Park. And being an NFL guy, like I really fit into the NFL of all sports, I think that’s the one I kind of follow the most. It was really fascinating to me to see how close this came not really close, it was close up to get on the bond measure. But it was voted down pretty handily, I think by about 15%. But it was a commission that was just set up to they went through and the minutes are there. And the pictures It was kind of this weird, dome almost spacecraft-y, the looking thing and it was really, we have the postcards that they sent out to show what it would be like and it was modeled after some of the really innovative dual-use stadiums at the time. So it was set up to have like a retract, I believe it had a retractable roof and was going to be you know, set up in a way that you could do both of these things and attract two major league teams and baseball is had a pretty long history in Portland with triple-A teams like the Portland Beavers, but football has really never been a thing here.

So those you know, the records were just cool to me, they, you know, they have all this stuff in the election stuff the way it was voted down. So sad. And then they just kind of sat there. Most of the time I’ve been I’ve been at the county archives for 24 years, 23 years now. And they’ve only been used a couple times, with the exception of just the actual picture used for an exhibit. But the guy that did the research was researching sports, and we’re in Portland, specifically Portland, Oregon. And his conclusion was that the failure of the Delta Dome was both good and also it was Portland-y in the sense that I don’t know if you’ve been to Delta Park but Delta Park now has soccer stadiums, it’s got baseball fields, softball fields, tracks, and all this stuff and he said, “the fact that we don’t have an observational sports set up in Delta Park but we have a participatory sport set up in Delta part is really a lot more Portland-y and it’s also probably better for the community.”

And I hadn’t thought about it that way but that’s absolutely true. I do like to play sports too so I can see where that makes a lot more sense to have something where people are you know getting off their asses now actually running out there and playing as opposed to you know, just watching sports either in the stadium or on TV so yeah, so it kind of worked out so that’s, that’s a collection that’s kind of near and dear to my heart. I had not heard that before but your description that’s so Portland-y does seem accurate.

Woody [0:10:01] Alright, Terry one last question for you, and that is what’s the best or most creative public use of the collections you’ve seen?

Baxter [0:10:11] Well, I will. There are several answers to this but I’m going to give you the one that I think is the most important. And we got in a collection, maybe. I’m gonna say probably 10 years ago that said, I could give you exactly the answer if I looked it up I think it’s about 10 years ago, and it was a collection called the Regional Drug Initiative. And this was a really multi-jurisdictional group with the reason we have the records is because the district attorney led the group, but it was the sheriff’s office, city of Portland Police Bureau, FBI, anybody that might have kind of an intersection with the nascent war on drugs because that’s really what this was. This was the governmental layout for how to how to proceed with the war on drugs.

And so, again, a collection that just sat there for a long time but getting to your ideas about how research, and you know outreach and reference might be a little different nowadays. I knew a guy who was interested in this stuff because he’d done work with—he’d done work on a couple of side projects in town and I knew he had some interest in this, in this area so I said, Hey, come on out. Come out, check this new collection out and see what it is. It wasn’t processed yet but I knew generally what was in it and I knew, you know, what he was interested in. He started plowing through it and he found some stuff for his project. 

And then he left without, you know. It wasn’t a really big deal until he came back about a year later. And he said I am doing research on drug houses. And I said, well I don’t know anything about drugs. So, well, that’s what I called and evidently, a family member had had a house that had been called the drug house and that was his vernacular for a drug house, and you know so I was still trying to make the connection here what was going on. And finally, I got down to the point that his relative’s house had been seized as a drug house and I said, are you talking about civil forfeiture? He says I don’t know let’s look it up and so he started looking up some of the laws he says, that’s totally it. 

And so all of a sudden this collection that had been used kind of for this little purpose ballooned, and he started doing quite a bit of research in the use of civil forfeiture in the war on drugs in Portland to dismantle urban neighborhoods, so that they could then be revitalized, or, you know, whatever term you want to use for that some people might have other terms for it but, but that was a term used, but he then proceeded to do quite a bit of research in that to kind of show. Whole neighborhoods, not just his relative’s house but whole neighborhoods interest in what was going on with gentrification and some of the other, some of the other issues that Portland faces on a regular basis, and how that can be traced back to Multnomah County’s active and direct participation in the fake war on drugs, which is really a war on Black folks, you know, I mean, Black and Brown folks, and, you know, it just fascinating to me how two things in this really fascinate me one is that the records are just sitting there I mean, you know, this is like a blueprint for what, what everybody has said was so horrible and happened, this is a blueprint for it I mean, nobody was hiding anything. This was just right there. 

But the other thing is how just a really small descriptive element, makes the difference between whether people can find this stuff or not. If I had just said, up, drug house, don’t know what it means, keep on moving. Then this collection would have just sat there, but by kind of teasing out what was really what a drug house really was what, what, what could it mean in government-ese really made the connection successful so the research worked, and worked for somebody who may not be familiar, number one with archives terminology but also government terminology.

So that was a really fascinating and good public use of some of our records.

Woody [0:14:19] Yeah, that is one of the best examples I think I’ve heard that is such a great story. Thank you for sharing that. And I love that it came full circle to archivists being connectors, which is what we started with. Wonderful. Well, Terry, those were all of my official questions. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us before you go?

Baxter [0:14:44] I don’t know. I like meeting archivists so if you see me walking around or something I’m always happy to buy someone a beer, or hang out, chat, whatever.

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