Athena Jackson

Athena Jackson, Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair and Head of the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, The Pennsylvania State University

Since March 2016, Athena Jackson has been the Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair and Head of the Eberly Family Special Collections Library at The Pennsylvania State University—one of a handful of university archives and special collections library/department heads of color in Association of Research Libraries-member libraries. Prior to Penn State, Athena was associate director at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library. Athena has been particularly active in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RMBS) of ACRL, and was recently elected to Vice-Chair/Chair Elect of the section.

Athena was interviewed by Petrina Jackson, Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Iowa State University.


What was your path to the profession?

I love this question because I’d like to think that I had this singularly tracked trajectory to my present, but in retrospect, it really was a combination of having a very settled ethos at an early age to honor memory and culture coupled with a strong passion for education and history as I grew into adulthood. Thus, my personal and professional paths are intertwined, and my ambitions have cemented and remained analogous to those of my formative years.  To offer as best a chronological story as I can, I would say that my professional trajectory into special collections librarianship and leadership began a little less typical than that of my peers.

Moreover, my personal background as a Mexican-American certainly has influenced and empowered my sense of contribution to the archives, manuscripts, and books I endeavor to preserve.

In the early 2000s, I began a career in management at an academic electronic publishing firm, whose humanities and social sciences databases were created by licensing unheard voices, archives, and publications to support humanities students and scholars in higher education. While there, my direct supervisor held a library degree and served as an excellent mentor; therefore, I aspired to track my career goals akin to hers: toward growing from a manager/editor to a successful executive appointment at the firm. Thus, I set forth to pursue a library degree with that leadership goal in mind. In graduate school, however, I found my true vocation while learning more about special collections and rare books, and I shifted my focus toward our field. It was then, as now, that I centered on three direct goals: democratize the scholarly record, impact learning and teaching in the academy, and diversify the field. Working at great institutions across the country (North Carolina State Archives, Louisiana State University, the University of Miami, the University of Michigan, and Penn State), I’ve been fortunate to learn many ways archives and special collections approach their collective roles for their local needs.

How has being a person of color shaped your work?

In my current position, I believe my cultural and ethnic identity has a larger impact on early-career colleagues who hope to work in leadership positions in our field. I hope in my own way that I can serve as a mentor and support succession planning such that our leadership areas of our field are as diverse as the collections we hope to bring to the academy. Thus, being a person of color shapes a lot of my work. When I think about it, I often hearken back to what that “lived experience” for professionals of color encompasses (from childhood to entering the workforce). For me, it all translates in the ways I interact with students, colleagues, and the general public such that empathy remains at the forefront of all of my interactions.

When did you know you wanted to take on a leadership position?

Given that my trajectory into this field began as a manager at an e-publishing firm along with my growing responsibilities in support of the efforts of RBMS, I believe my leadership goals were a part of my career path at the onset. Working on soft-money projects, holding curatorial and research services positions, and also participating actively in advocacy efforts for the profession collectively drove me to aspire for leadership positions. I cannot stress enough, however, that with taking on leadership roles in archives and special collections comes a bit of letting go of the activities that may have lured one to the field originally. Transforming your skills toward management and planning more than the practical and daily efforts of an archives and special collections is a balance that everyone must consider to be successful leaders for teams to do great work!

What advice do you have for archivists of color hoping to enter high-level or administrative positions?

Be you. Do you. You will bring so much to the field staying true to you. Grow your skills and expertise while still staying yourself. I cannot express this enough.

Further, I would recommend calling people “in” rather than calling them “out” – it makes (in my experience) for much more progress in the quotidian moments and longitudinal goals for our field and our collective diversity. It is no small endeavor to diversify our field and the historical record, and it requires at times for us to step into spaces of “productive discomfort” (an awesome phrase I heard last year at NDLC). Engaging in dialogues about priorities, historical practices, budget allocation, collection development, and patron services often call for a review of our commitment to inclusivity and diversity. Our colleagues of all backgrounds have roles to play in leading this important charge. And your leadership approach will be a vital part to our success. Yours may not be the same as mine, and that’s a good thing. But ultimately having a shared goal is something we all can agree upon with respect to diversity and inclusivity.

Also, find a mentor and build your network of peers. As you enter high-level or administrative positions, ask colleagues for frank feedback on your strengths and areas for improvement. Accept that we all get into situations in the workplace where we feel vulnerable or uncertain. Use these moments to sharpen your empathy, intuition, and expand your awareness. Whether you have two or twenty direct reports, remember that we are all people first: we have ambitions, down times, energetic times, and other facets that make us who we are. Learn who your colleagues are, what motivates them, and how you can nurture and develop their roles and contributions. Do your best to support their professional fulfillment and the best work will come.

Why (or why not) is participation in professional organizations like SAA important?

I have been an active member of RBMS for many years, and the network of colleagues and good friends that I’ve made has made me a better professional. I strongly believe participation in organizations like SAA, of which I hope to become a more active member, is tantamount to any archivist and/or special collections librarian. I am so honored to work with colleagues here at Penn State that are long-term SAA members. They’ve offered great insight in learning more about SAA.

Membership in these kinds of organizations allows one to garner more professional development and start to build a cohort of like-minded colleagues (and engage in healthy and needful debates) to advance one’s singular career as well as contributing holistically to the archives profession, writ large. I see it as a win-win!

 What excites you most about the future of archives and the archival profession?

I think I have one answer that can apply to both: more responsiveness buttressed by a technologically connected society and diversity of representation in our field. Many of our longest held archives across our institutions contain voices and identities that still need to be surfaced and heard; indeed, much of the historical record and social history is still awaiting discovery. In tandem, our profession has been making concerted efforts in diversifying the field, with much more work to be done on this front to be sure. As a result of this confluence, I believe the future of our field and the archives we preserve will result in broader and more systemic change in how we describe, in what we collect, and in who decides. That energizes me every day. I, for one, am doing all I can in my role to ensure that responsive collection development and community outreach illustrate such long-view ideas and inclusiveness in every aspect of my work.

What is/was your greatest lesson in leadership?

To stay in the same vein as the above question, I would underscore that my best and proudest professional moments are supporting and advocating for opportunities for the amazing colleagues I work with since becoming a leader in this field. With regard to my own professional accomplishments, I love serving on the Umbra Advisory Board, and I would also say serving on the RBMS Diversity Committee and now as Vice-chair/Chair-elect. I was (and still am!) so honored to have this professional leadership role. And, as a result, one part of my duties is to decide on the Chairperson to lead and develop the program for the 2018 RBMS Conference in New Orleans. When Petrina Jackson agreed to this role, I was thrilled: A Latina RBMS chair-elect and an African American archives and special collections leader will be administering this over half-century annual event. This is certainly something we should collectively be proud of as a community. I truly am thrilled to be a part of this upcoming event!

What advice do you have for graduate students and new archivists of color entering the profession?

Embrace all sorts of opportunities as you grow in your expertise and broaden your scope of work. Identify the professional experiences that motivate you and drive you to expand your skillset or add more expertise to your growing knowledge base.  Those will in turn aid in your decision-making for your own career trajectory.

I hope to some day meet you, learn from you, and perhaps even get to work with you. In fact, feel free to reach out to me anytime! ( I am always happy to meet new colleagues. You are the future, and I aspire to support your trajectory by making sure your place in future leadership is: secure, commonplace, and successful.

Athena with colleagues in the Eberly Family Special Collections Reading Room hanging out with the La Vie (Penn State’s yearbook). Pictured, from left: Jeff Wagner, Rachael Dryer, Athena Jackson, and Jose Guerrero.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s