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.
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?
"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 collectionsbefore we heard
the scholars' papers based on the use of primary source materials. We discussed the difficulty of
collecting the records of underserved communitiesin our case underrepresented groups of
womenbut 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.
How many people attended?
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 conferencewe
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.
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
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 serviceswhich 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.
With the advent of the Radcliffe Institute, has the situation of the library changed?
[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
issuesplays a very critical role in that part of the Institute's missionperhaps 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 attentioneverything from digital collections that we should acquire and preserve to acquisitions
of the last 60 years that need conservation treatment.
You're about to announce a major renovation of this building. What's going to happen?
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.
Where will your staff go?
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
reservations to have a seat. Processing and cataloging will go to Cronkhite.
The Schlesinger was renovated less than 20 years ago. What are the reasons for a renovation of this
magnitude at this time?
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 usednot only for our
records, but also to guide us in preservation planning.
The third reason is that we've got one of the mostif not the mostimportant 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.
The '80s renovation created a rather cellular spacewith everything accessible from every side. What
you're describing seems to be a more formal special collections library.
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
What will be the immediate benefits to your researchers?
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
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 researchersand 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 recreateto some
degreethe browsing experience for those using the book collections.
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