On May 23, 2020, I’ll celebrate 15 years working at the Marion E. Wade Center as the Archivist. A good milestone for reflection. I also get asked frequently: “how did you get your job?” So I figured a blog post explaining just that wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
To fully answer the question, “how did you get your job,” we have to start in third grade when I was introduced to C.S. Lewis by a kind teacher in public school who read us The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis was my favorite author by seventh grade when I dressed up like him for a “famous figures” research project at school and learned more about his life. I wish I had a photo of me dressed as C.S. Lewis, but alas, I do not. In eighth grade I read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, followed closely by The Lord of the Rings in early high school, and was a fully-devoted Tolkien fan once I’d finished. Unlike the Lewis costume, I do have a photo of myself dressed as a hobbit from high school in a pre-Jackson films era costume! Maybe I’ll discuss more fully how I got to know Lewis and Tolkien in a separate blog post sometime. Suffice it to say, Lewis and Tolkien were favorite authors by high school, and have remained that way to this day.
My older sister entered Wheaton College when I was in sixth grade, and it didn’t take me long to discover the Wade Center existed. When I was on campus visiting her, I would make the pilgrimage to the Wade Center, camp out on the floor of the reading room in front of the glass-front book cases, and pull off volume after volume exploring a new world of resources. The archivist at the time, named Alicia, was very kind to me, and said, “back again?” as I turned up several days in a row. I’ll be the first to admit I still have a big soft spot for kids who visit the Wade and remind me of this younger version of myself. It’s important that they’re treated with kindness. Archives can be scary places to the uninitiated. I still remember the way the staircase smelled when the Wade was in Buswell Library on the second floor. Going up those stairs was the gateway to my Narnia and Middle-earth. It was sacred. It was holy. That staircase is still there and smells the same. I’ll miss it when the library eventually gets remodeled, the plans for which are already in the works.
When it came time for me to apply to colleges, Wheaton was at the top of my list. The Wade Center was there, and I wanted to be as close to it as possible. After acceptance to Wheaton, I quickly inquired about what I could do to become a student worker at the Wade. I began volunteering there in the fall of 1999 until funding came through to hire me as an official student worker later that same year. My first project: quality-checking the data entry of the Tolkien calendar collection in the Wade’s database, which at that time was ProCite. The Wade owns every Tolkien calendar back to 1973, and it was ecstasy for me to look through them and be introduced to Tolkien-inspired artists like The Brothers Hildebrandt, John Howe, and Alan Lee.
I worked at the Wade my entire college career, completing a double major in English literature and history. I traveled to England and Ireland for the first time in the summer of 2001 and walked in the steps of the Inklings, visited the graves of Lewis and Tolkien, and fell in love with Oxford. I also saw the Wade Center move from a small shop in its old home to its own building my junior year. I remember the excitement of that new space, which opened on September 8, 2001 just a few days before 9/11 changed our world.
Working in a special collections environment at the Wade made me realize I would enjoy it as a career. I had known since early high school that I wanted to be a librarian, and my love of history and books, plus the Wade work experience, steered me towards special collections and earning a Master’s degree.
I graduated from Wheaton a semester early, and worked at the Wade Center full-time somewhere in the realm between a student worker and staff member for 8 months before heading off to graduate school. I had grown very close to the Wade Center staff and counted them all as good friends. August 2003 was a bittersweet time for me as I said goodbye to many college friends, and thought I was ending my time working at the Wade Center forever. I remember a group of friends praying in a circle with me one evening in the parking lot just opposite the Wade Center asking God to bless and direct my future. I didn’t think I’d be back, and said a tearful goodbye to Wheaton.
In fall 2003 I entered the School of Information at the University of Michigan to earn my master’s degree in the Science of Information (MSI) in a 2-year program. At the time, the program offered 4 different specializations: Human-Computer Interaction; Information Economics, Management & Policy; Archives & Records Management; and Library & Information Services. They’re up to 9 specializations the last time I heard. I was torn on whether to choose ARM or LIS, but in the end picked the Archives specialization as I wanted to focus on historic records, but also took a liberal amount of library classes since special collections are a blend of both, and I remained focused on getting a job in that field.
Grad school was challenging, and the SI program focused on thinking about all information holistically, whether that meant how computers store information, how librarians help people find information, how information can be abused, or how archivists preserve information long-term. Despite the fact that this meant I had to struggle through some classes involving economics and calculus, and study the history of computers, I value everything I learned there. You can’t learn how to solve every problem you will encounter during your career when you’re in school, but you can learn about the tools you need to solve those problems, and how to think through them effectively. The Wade was always in the back of my mind too, serving as an example as I learned things in my classes, and I emailed the Wade staff often, sharing insights with them that I was learning in school, and offering tidbits on problems I knew they were trying to solve with collection access and management.
I also had some great hands-on student work experiences in the Special Collections department of Hatcher Graduate Library, and as an archival assistant in processing and reference work at the Bentley Historical Library. What my classes taught me in theory, I learned about in practice at these jobs and via mentors. SI also hooked their grad students up with amazing spring break work experiences, and I spent my spring break of 2004 in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library organizing beat poetry fragments while sitting 3 feet away from Charles Dickens’s writing desk.
Throughout grad school, Tolkien continued to be part of my life. In fall 2003 my paper was selected to present at Tolkien’s 111st birthday party thrown by the American Tolkien Society in Frankenmuth, MI. That was my first experience giving a professional paper on Tolkien. I also attended my first Mythcon, which was magically held in Ann Arbor in the summer of 2004. How did the fates align that perfectly?! I presented my ATS paper again in that venue, and was thrilled to meet many scholars I’d only known before by their names from books I admired.
In October 2004, another big Tolkien event occurred: the 50th Anniversary celebration of The Lord of the Rings, held in Milwaukee, WI at Marquette University. Marquette is the owner of the original manuscripts for Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I’d been there once before when the Wade’s director, Chris Mitchell, took me for a visit during college. I reserved my spot at the conference, bought a plane ticket, and remember thinking as I was boarding the plane: “so my love of Tolkien has me hopping on planes now!” Although I went to the conference on my own, I met a lovely group of ladies there who befriended and adopted me. Tolkien fans are often very kind people! I also sat in awe listening to stimulating lectures by some of the best Tolkien scholars in the world, leaving with a glow that would last for weeks.
TO WADE OR NOT TO WADE?
Another big event occurred that same fall of 2004: the Wade Center’s current archivist had left the position, and they were looking to hire. Now you may well think to yourself (knowing how things turned out) that my applying for this position was a no-brainer, but it was a little more complex than that. For one thing, I was not due to graduate until spring 2005. Could the Wade wait that long? For another thing, I had said my goodbyes to Wheaton, and assumed I was done there. Was going back really the best decision for my career and my future, or simply the comfortable and easy (or dare I say lazy) decision to make?
The Wade did invite me to apply, and I spent some time soul-searching. The story of how I did this has been retold to others many times. I remembered from a college philosophy course (thank you, liberal arts), how Descartes had thrown everything he knew out and started from scratch to form his philosophical foundation, thus eventually coming up with “I think, therefore I am.” I did the same, throwing all assumptions away, and asked myself: “Laura, if you could work in any special collections repository in the world, where would it be?” I considered my background in history and English literature. If forced to choose between them, which way would I go? Literature. OK. Who is your favorite author, Laura? *pause* um, Tolkien. Alright then, which Tolkien special collections exist in the world? There are three: the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Marquette University in Milwaukee, and … the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. What would you like best about working at a Tolkien special collections, Laura? “I would love it if I could freely share how I see faith connected with Tolkien and how his works impact me as a Christian.” Well, which of those three institutions fit that wish best, as a Protestant evangelical, mind you? Wheaton…
And there I was, back again. Just as Chesterton relates in Orthodoxy setting sail to what he thinks is a far, strange, new country, coming ashore to discover he is once again in his homeland. And I had needed every ounce of my graduate school experience and training in order to be qualified for the position. The application process for the Wade Center was bathed in prayer, on both sides, and it became clear after a while that God was leading me back there. And could the Wade wait for me to graduate? It turns out they could, despite the hardship it caused the staff there to wait for me, bless them. I still remember funny things like turning up for my interview and being asked: “is it OK to give the applicant a big hug?” My cab to take me back to the airport was also late / lost at the end of the interview, and Chris ran down the street in his loafers to flag it down on my behalf. And Marj Mead’s comment once I was hired, that when the Wade needed an archivist it turned out they’d “grown their own.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. I state plainly in the tone of Charlotte Bronte that “Reader, I did indeed find my dream job.” For the past 15 years I couldn’t have imagined myself in a more delightful environment, not only doing the archival work that I was trained to do, but loving the materials I work with each day with every fiber of my being, and taking great personal delight in seeing those materials come to life as they’re used by others. That’s the greatest reward, knowing that the work that goes into preserving and caring for these collections today will keep their wisdom accessible for future generations. They’re fragile time capsules with a legacy that it’s my job to care for at this stage in the journey, and that is a responsibility I take very seriously with a mixture of both humility and delight.
And the Wade, in turn, graciously puts up with this goofball who sometimes wears a Gandalf hat at the archivist desk or comes to work wearing elf ears, still delights in stories with a child-like reverence, and is always ready for a theme party.
I could not be more grateful, and look forward to what the future brings.