This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society. In this installment, COPA member Kristi Chanda interviews Julie Rockwell, archivist and “lone arranger” from Pennsylvania’s East Broad Top Railroad.
KC: What are your responsibilities at East Broad Top Railroad?
JR: First, I’m a Lone Arranger. I was hired in April of last year to herald the East Broad Top Railroad’s new Archives and Special Collections program, and I’m pretty much heralding everything from the beginning – from scratch. I’m actually building the program. The East Broadtop Railroad National Historic landmark was in operation during its Common Carrier Era, as we call it, from its developments in 1856 to its closing in 1956. There was a little lag time in operations where it then went into tourist railroad operations, which basically stopped in 2011. The actual historic site was dormant until a new foundation, the EBT Foundation, purchased the railroad. There’s 33 miles of property that encompasses the National Historic Landmark, and they hired an archivist to tackle the inestimable amount of paper materials. bound volumes, ephemera, physical objects that encompass what we would call, either museum collections or typical organizational records and archives. I basically walked into a passenger station, which was built in 1906. In the station are 3 fireproof brick vaults, each between 950 and 1,400 cubic feet, and all of them 12 to 14 feet high. The vaults are filled with materials that have basically never been touched since the Common Carrier Era. Also, the headquarters of East Broad Top was in Philadelphia so all of those materials, when the railroad closed down, came to the Orbisonia passenger station. All of what we call the tourist excursion era, all of those documentation and recordings of office and records management stayed in the vault. We’re also starting to collect this new revitalization and restoration documentation of the railroad, which is to become a steam excursion railroad once again. I came in with an overwhelming, daunting task. I can’t thank the Johns Hopkins dual Museum Studies and Digital Curation Program, from which I graduated in December of 2020, for offering, and really preparing me for these foundational skills. I was able to take the courses in the foundations of archives, digital preservation and curation, and collections and catalog management, and really see archives from a bigger picture lens of what preservation means, and how much it takes to advocate for preservation purposes. For the EBT, I started to understand what materials we have, the conditions they are in, and what I can do to better secure and better environmentally protect the materials that are basically in a station that was built in the early twentieth century, considerations that have never been addressed before. I knew I had to build a mission statement, a scope of collections, a collections management policy, access and use policy, and all of the policies that are under that umbrella of preservation.
I also knew I needed help. I reached out to the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. I was familiar with the Conservation Center. I had attended many online seminars and was also able to meet contacts there through PA Museums and the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH).
I called my contact up, and I said guess what i’m doing, and I know that we need a third party assessment. This was the only way that we could leverage big picture funding, and to have that deeper lens into what exactly we need from a conservation and preservation professional viewpoint and perspective. The Conservation Center experts were able to meet me and various advocates on the Foundation Board, as well as their sister organization, an all volunteer organization (and both of these are non-profit), the Friends of the East Broad Top. I had these particular constituents come together, meet with Dyani Feige and her preservation team, along with the director of the Conservation Center. After a couple of months, we were able to set up the ability to have an archival preservation needs assessment conducted. The greatest thing about this is that we have incredible donors who were able to fund this assessment.
Our mission, protecting, preserving, and providing access, not only to the historic site and to the railroad, could now address this deeper lens and the beauty of what we can find in the contextual layers of all of these archival materials. This mission is something that keeps me thinking about the archives every day, every night, and gets me up every morning.
KC: How did you prioritize your collections?
JR: It was first to really get an idea of the scope of what we have. I was fortunate last summer to have an intern from one of the local colleges, and the first priority was to do a spot inventory. We were able to go into every area that we could find,what we would call archival materials,identify them by giving a general title, location, and noting the condition of the materials. Some items that need triaging would definitely be maps and drawings that the railroad operations actually need to help restore: track engines, box cars, different rolling stock, etc. Inventory pretty much took all summer and I’m actually still in the process of doing it. Almost every day I find something, and or someone has texted me that has another box of stuff on my desk. So it’s really an inestimable amount of linear feet but I’ve estimated between 3500 and 5000 ft of linear materials. The other triage that I focused on were the bound volumes. I do have bound volumes that are pretty depreciating, regarding conditions in terms of the bindings. However, all of the material inside, the documentation, is quite intact, which is fabulous. But just to make sure that they’re not handled, we have stored them separately. I did store them in bins. Unfortunately they’re not acid-free. I’m doing everything on a shoestring budget. I am doing the “good enough” practices that I know that when I reach the next level, once I get a line item, funding, and a storage facility/repository, then I will be able to go to the next levels of preservation and conservation and have the materials reviewed by a conservator. For now they’re wrapped in acid-free paper, and they’re put away.
KC: What projects are you in the process of working on and what ones have you completed?
JR: Most important for me, I think as a Lone Arranger, is to know that there can be someone there to assist. I have 2 volunteers from the Friends, one is Scarlett Wirt. She worked with collections with the National Park Service, and she has organizational record experience. We also have, who we call the primary EBT scholar and historian, Dr. Lee Rainey, who knows everything you could imagine about the East Broad Top Railroad. They have been what we call our worker bees. The new archives task force appointed the 3 of us to work together closely. We have met almost every Tuesday on Zoom since last August, after I completed my initial report. We are building the program together. We are still developing policy and procedures. We know we can’t move forward unless we have many policies and procedures in place. Having the mission statement, having our goals and a strategic plan for at least the first 2 years, and then moving into the access and use policy, the scope of collections and all of those that will fall under environmental conditions is a priority. The second component of that is my experience with digital curation and what I learned in school and applying this knowledge for the born digital records that are coming out of the Foundation, which is very important. We’re understanding that many grants will really want you to already have a collection online and public access in place. We don’t have an accessible reading room and we haven’t formally processed collections yet. Also, looking at the next step of digitization is making sure we have the right hardware and digital storage. We just purchased our computer workstation. So, making sure that all of my digital content is going to be safe, secure, and that the integrity of the digital objects and data are going to be in long-term, sustainable condition is a priority. Then there’s the digitization policy and making sure that the selected collections are doable, and that there’s a balance between that selection and also of what the public would like to see. For example, I just documented the workflow of how to protect a map with mylar and that might seem very simple to many of us who are experienced in archives, but when I’m bringing on volunteers and interns, I want them to learn the right way. So it’s building all of these different layers, so we can actually, yes, scan our first small collection, which was a donation that we received last year and actually take it through the entire archival processing methodology, from the appraisal, the arrangement, the description, and then finally producing a finding aid, plus having the collections digitized and then accessible online. I’m kind of doing everything, well, all at once.
KC: What are some of the obstacles you have encountered and how did you overcome them?
JR: Last summer, Sammy, my intern, and I mostly worked on the second floor of the passenger station, and we would have a designated space for one day, but maybe that space would have to change. So we’d have to move our work for the day to another area.
We would have maps splayed out to try to conduct our inventory on these small little tables.
We didn’t have a space to call ours. I basically said that I don’t know what else I can do unless I have a designated space, that is, for the archives. I need tables to lay out materials, and I need shelves to at least start putting bins of materials on so they’re kept off the floor, and also to create my computer workstation. Having that space and advocating for that space was really critical, and having the necessary, organizational support from the management.
The other challenge to overcome is having people believe in the archives. Unfortunately, creating a formal archive was not, at first, a priority. I imagine the conversation starting with, “Oh, by the way, what are we going to do with all of these paper materials?” Many inherently understood the value of them, but they didn’t necessarily see the bigger picture of hiring someone to actually do that type of work. So I think that the biggest challenge right now is that I’m funded by donations, and I’m only funded part-time. Advocating for my role as the archivist is kind of like singing for my supper, and that can be very exhausting. There’s a balance between showing them what we can do, and I say “we,” because I think that we have a community of passionate people that are working for the EBT and I’m the leader heralding the archives work, but also helping the public understand that they need to support the archives. Together, through the organization and the public, there’s more advocacy coming from all points of the spectrum. The public desires to see the materials. The Foundation and the Friends need to make sure that the archives continue with their organizational legacies and with their mission statements, which align with ours – to protect, preserve, and provide this access, and also allows for me to continue doing this work. Or, it just falls apart. So it’s a balance of doing the work and advocating for the work.
KC: What goals do you have moving forward?
JR: My goal is to just keep doing the work strategically and carefully. I’ve been really mindful and open to understanding my limitations. I think the Foundation knows my general manager has been really happy to find someone who is adaptable and flexible, and not perhaps expected in a more established archives. I guess you could say that I understand that there’s limited resources. When you see where we started from last April to what we see now, we’ve done a heck of a lot to have a formal preservation needs assessment report in our hands, to have a great space where I can work, a designated space assigned in January specifically for the archives, to have the funding to keep me going for at least this year, having Sammy return after he graduates this spring as an assistant, and also to have another college intern work on a specific project funded by a grant. We applied for a grant from the National Railroad Historical Society for our maps and drawings project so we can purchase a wide format scanner, and actually start processing the inestimable amount of these materials. With hopefully getting this first grant, we hope we can garner more funding. We can advocate for more permanent funding also make sure that we have our T’s crossed and our I’s dotted to to leverage grant funding and become more prepared to be competitive. I think that the goal is just to keep doing the work and know that it’s time-consuming, it’s tedious, but I can’t imagine doing anything else right now,
KC: What lessons have you learned and what tools/skills have you developed as a result of your experience?
JR: More leadership skills in the archives and trusting that it’s not what I’m always physically doing, but mentally knowing what work needs to be done. I credit a lot of this understanding from the Society of American Archivists (SAA). This will be my third year that I’ve been a member, and I feel that the organization’s inclusivity to archivists at all stages of the field is encouraging. I don’t necessarily like using the word ‘emerging’ because I think we all start from somewhere, and we build upon all of the different experiences that we have at different times in our careers. We’re always ‘emerging’. This is my fourth career, so I come from a long history of project management, being a director in the theater, teaching culinary arts and teaching American history. I come to this work from different perspectives and different career sets and skill sets, which makes me believe that archivists can have many talents and many different roadmaps to lead them to this point. I think that SAA has really connected me with amazing archivists that are mentors. I can even learn something from them just by following them on Twitter. Also really understanding that resources are out there. Especially for all archivists is to understand that we’re all in this together. There are different SAA section groups such as Preservation, Lone Arrangers, Collections Management, and Museum Archives, and you know somebody is gonna be in that group who will be very willing to talk to you and answer a question and provide you with additional resources. So I think that it’s knowing how to network, knowing how to ask the right questions, and not being afraid to ask those questions. For example, reaching out to the Conservation Center was an epiphany that I had in the middle of the night. I’m so glad that I trusted my instincts to know that I can’t do this alone, and if I have to be a Lone Arranger, then at least I’m gonna have a posse behind me to help lead me on.