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Interview: Megan Sniffin-Marinoff

Megan Sniffin-Marinoff is librarian and deputy director of Radcliffe's Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America-the nation's largest specialized library on women's history. She has an undergraduate degree in journalism from Boston University, as well as a master's in history and a certificate in the management of archives from New York University. Most recently, she was head of Archives and Special Collections at MIT. For almost 20 years, Sniffin-Marinoff was affiliated with Simmons College, initially as archivist, but ultimately teaching full time and directing the archives management program in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. She was interviewed for Library Notes on October 28.

LN
The Schlesinger observed its 60th anniversary with two conferences. [See Conference Summaries.] The first was "Currents in Collecting," which was about the challenges faced in acquiring materials from underrepresented populations. The second was "Gender, Race, and Rights in African-American Women's History," which presented new scholarship on the confluence of race and gender. How does each conference reflect the library and its role?

MSM
"Currents in Collecting" was a pre-conference for the library, archival, and manuscript communities. We convened a panel of specialists who are concerned with improving the documentation of minority communities. We invited them to join us in a conversation about building collections—before we heard the scholars' papers based on the use of primary source materials. We discussed the difficulty of collecting the records of underserved communities—in our case underrepresented groups of women—but underrepresented communities in general and across the United States. Generally, we were talking about materials created within the last 20-odd years, including not only print but also film, video, photographic material, and electronic records. Even if we're documenting a grassroots organization we now need to discuss preservation of electronic records since a lot of these groups communicate with each other now via listservs, e-mail.

LN
How many people attended?

MSM
About 150 at the pre-conference. Half of them were librarians and friends of the libraries. It was a national group. We had people attend from as far away as Los Angeles.

For "Gender, Race, and Rights in African-American Women's History"—the scholarly conference—we had 450 people. Some of the nation's most prominent scholars of African-American women's history presented their work and discussed the ways that the study of women's history overall has been shaped by the conjunction of gender and race. The participants ranged from Gerda Lerner, who is one of the founding mothers of women's history, to Deborah Gray White, the author of Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Antebellum South. A number of the papers were based on sources from the Schlesinger, and all of the presentations related to African-American women in one way or another.

LN
Nancy Cott is the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger and a professor of history in FAS. You're the deputy director and librarian. Can you talk about how you work together?

MSM
Nancy's role is first and foremost to provide intellectual direction and context for what we do. She asks why we're collecting what we're collecting and brings to the table her sense of where the scholarship is headed. I oversee the professional activities of our four departments: curatorial, administrative, public services, and collections services—which for us is book cataloging and manuscript processing. Nancy and I have the same goal, which is to make sure the library remains the best of its kind.

LN
With the advent of the Radcliffe Institute, has the situation of the library changed?

MSM
[Radcliffe Dean] Drew Faust often says that the Institute has two supporting pillars: the fellowship program and the library. The library helps to support the Institute's commitment to gender issues—plays a very critical role in that part of the Institute's mission—perhaps more so than it did even for the mission of the college.

It's clear that we're a priority. We've been working with the Institute's advancement people and we've been quite above board about our funding needs. We're now defining more precisely what needs attention—everything from digital collections that we should acquire and preserve to acquisitions of the last 60 years that need conservation treatment.

LN
You're about to announce a major renovation of this building. What's going to happen?

MSM
In November, we'll start slowly moving some of our collections to the Harvard Depository. The exceptions will be graphic materials, some periodicals, and the Radcliffe Archives. In January we will close for about three weeks to move the bulk. By February, 90 to 95% of the collections will be at the Depository and will stay there for about nine months.

LN
Where will your staff go?

MSM
We're dividing the staff between [the] Cronkhite [Graduate Center at 6 Ash Street] and Agassiz [House in Radcliffe Yard]. We're setting up reference operations in Agassiz that will be open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday during this time period. We will be providing all of the reference services that we do under normal circumstances, but compressing everything into a three-day week because of logistical issues and space constraints. We're going to require that researchers call ahead. There won't be very much here to look at if they just show up unannounced! People will need to call and make reservations to have a seat. Processing and cataloging will go to Cronkhite.

LN
The Schlesinger was renovated less than 20 years ago. What are the reasons for a renovation of this magnitude at this time?

MSM
There are three major reasons. The first is climate control, which was really not able to be addressed thoroughly during the last renovation. The second is security. From the start the library had open stacks, but we're discovering that our material today is considered much more valuable than it was before, and we want to keep statistics on which books and collections are used—not only for our records, but also to guide us in preservation planning.

The third reason is that we've got one of the most—if not the most—important collections of women's materials in the country, and when you come into the building, you don't get a sense of the scope or magnitude of our holdings. So we're trying, through a reworking of the spaces, especially public spaces, to create a feeling in the facility that says, "women are important and here are their stories." We're improving the exhibition area for the general public, and we're recreating to a degree the beautiful two-story reading room that used to be part of the original library at Radcliffe.

LN
The '80s renovation created a rather cellular space—with everything accessible from every side. What you're describing seems to be a more formal special collections library.

MSM
I hope it's more like a next-generation special collections library. What we're doing in this renovation is in some respects acknowledging the accomplishments and the maturing of the library over the last 20 years.

LN
What will be the immediate benefits to your researchers?

MSM
The building will be much more comfortable to work in, will have the proper size tables and lighting and outlets. We'll offer wireless connectivity.

And, we will be able to provide an improved level of service delivery. A great deal of the thinking that went into the renovated spaces reflects the ways in which we've benefited from project funding such as the Library Digital Initiative, for example. LDI support has allowed us to mark up our finding aids for the manuscript collections and to get them on the web. With the finding aids increasingly accessible, it is more obvious to researchers what it is they want to use from the collections in advance of a trip to the library. This is making us rethink our system for retrieving and supplying collections for researchers—and I think the new arrangement will work a lot better in the reconfigured space. We are also in the process of coming up with some imaginative ways to recreate—to some degree—the browsing experience for those using the book collections.

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Last modified on Monday, November 17, 2003.