This is the latest post in our new series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of the individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of the archivist in society.
In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Sami Norling interviews Valerie A. Metzler, independent Archivist/Historian. On hearing from Valerie that she believes herself to be the first full-time private practice archivist in the U.S., we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about her career, and to feature Valerie as an Archival Innovator!
SN: Valerie, could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your path into the archives profession?
VM: I was halfway through college as a psychology major when I realized that, while the subject was interesting, I thought I might not like it as a career. I looked at what courses I liked best—English and History—and chose the latter and thought I might work in a museum. This was 1974 and I barely knew the word “archives.” But, when an internship at the State Archives of Pennsylvania became available my senior year, I hopped the train three days a week and worked there as a 3-credit course. I loved it!
My first job in the field was as an archives technician at the U. S. Army Military History Institute (MHI, now USAHEC, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center). In this role, I worked with personal papers and oral history interviews of members of the Army and their families from Revolutionary War to the present. Because MHI was a public repository, I helped researchers from around the world. During this time, I maintained memberships in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) and SAA. After taking courses in paper and photo conservation, I then became the in-house conservator at MHI.
After seven years at MHI I sought to expand my expertise and went to MARAC and SAA conferences to make connections for jobs. The position I ended up in certainly fit the bill in providing new experiences to expand my knowledge of the field—it was a brand new archives with a well equipped in-house conservation lab, and a business archives. I wanted something different—and I got it!
After starting my new job, I missed the interaction with the public more than I realized I would, and I missed working with personal papers. The good news was that by living in Chicago, I had the benefit of joining the Chicago Area Archivists and the Chicago Area Conservation Group and by doing so, networked with professionals far more than were present back home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
SN: Was there a specific project, event, or other development in your career or the archives profession that inspired you to strike out on your own as an independent archivist? What were the steps that you took early on to establish your independent practice?
VM: It was the networking in the Chicago area that led me to start my own business. I kept hearing about families, historical societies, and businesses large and small who wanted to preserve their history. And, while there were several employed archivists who moonlighted as consultants, they could never devote the time and hands-on assistance that these projects needed and still keep their day jobs. I decided to enter into full-time private practice as a freelance archivist, not just a consultant. I did do consulting work, but the majority of my work was (and remains) the hands-on establishment of archives and training of staff to maintain the archives after I have gone.
Early on, I realized that to remain completely independent, I should never devote full time to one project, i.e. instead of being a contract archivist always chasing the next gig, I took on any jobs that came my way and staggered my days or even hours among my various clients. That has remained my operating procedure these 34 years in private practice. Neither did I limit my work to just archives. Since 1985, I have also conducted oral history interviews and edited them and have done a variety of historical research for clients, including genealogy. I also teach in lecture and workshop settings.
One significant early step in establishing myself as an independent archivist was to find a name for my business. I never liked the “Metzler Associates” model, especially when you knew it was only one person! And, I wanted a name that clearly stated what the business was rather than some contrived invention. I figured that most folks were unfamiliar with the specifics of what an archivist does, so I had better not confuse them with a cutesy name. So, I followed the “Valere Metzler, Attorney-at-Law” model and came up with Valerie Metzler, Archivist/Historian (VMAH).
SN: Having worked as an independent archivist since 1985, you must have had the opportunity to contribute to some pretty interesting projects, and worked with a variety of archival materials and collections. What have been some of your favorite projects?
VM: My favorite projects are those which include all three aspects of my work. A good example of that is when a family business asks me to establish their archives, conduct oral histories with founders, and research their family history. Without naming the 500 clients of VMAH over these years, my favorites are those which take me into subject area new to me. Also, I love to travel, so the ones that take me far afield–especially to other countries–are definitely on the top of my list.
SN: The Committee on Public Awareness was formed in 2014 to assist SAA Council and SAA members in promoting the value of archives and archivists to a variety of communities and the broader public–something that the field as a whole has struggled with for some time. As an independent archivist, have you ever struggled in communicating this value to potential clients or project partners?
VM: I would have to say that I have not struggled much in communicating the value, since I can only think of two potential clients who contacted me in 34 years who did not move on to hire me. Sadly, to my knowledge, those two never did get an archives started.
SN: Do you have any tips, or have you developed an elevator speech to communicate the value of your skills as a professional archivist?
VM: I have not perfected an elevator speech but always give the person who asks what I do (followed by the inevitable variations of, “What??”) all of my attention and answer to the questions they pose. Also, this point is not exactly about my skills, personally, but I always urge folks to consider public repositories over keeping historically valuable items in their own homes where they may be lost to fire or the whims of future generations.
SN: Is there anything else that you’d like archivists and archival students to know, or tips that you’d like to share about building a career as an independent archivist?
VM: Join all of the professional member associations that you can afford and attend their conferences—and volunteer for positions within those organizations.
Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE? Send us your suggestions at email@example.com!