Deborra Richardson, Curator Emerita, Smithsonian Institution and Fellow, Society of American Archivists
Deborra Richardson is retired Chair and Chief Archivist for the Smithsonian American History Museum’s Archives Center. Before becoming the Archives Center’s Chair, Deborra served as its assistant chair, and head of reference, and before that as archives specialist with the Duke Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. She began work in the archival profession at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center (Howard University, Washington, DC) as a music manuscript librarian. Deborra was a member of SAA Council from 2009 to 2012 and was named an SAA Fellow in 2013. Richardson is from Huntington, Long Island, NY and currently resides in Brentwood, MD.
What led you to your career in archives?
I always loved libraries and books. I started out as a librarian’s helper in kindergarten. I backed into archives by way of music cataloguing. My cataloguing jobs were in manuscript collections. Although I did take a course in archives and manuscripts before I started working professionally, I learned most of what I know about manuscript and archives description on the job.
Can you speak to the various outreach projects you’ve led–what are the important lessons when planning and carrying out your efforts?
As a librarian, programming was my passion. I really enjoyed introducing patrons and customers to the wonders of learning that could be uncovered through the library. When I transitioned to archives and manuscripts, I became passionate about people and communities authoring their own stories. Each outreach program I created or led, somehow empowered audiences to find ways to write their own history. As time went on, I became more careful about ensuring these programs had some written evaluation, but when I started, I was merely interested in exposing audiences to information and tools that were outside of their usual pathways of learning and discovery. I wanted the audiences to have fun and a desire to come back for, or go looking for, more.
How have you explained the importance of archives to people?
I usually talk to folks about facts and truths. And I share that there are many sides of a story — consider the lion and the hunter, the first “Thanksgiving,” the Revolutionary War — the story depends on which perspective you have. Are you the lion, annoyed by the human who is stalking your prey or the hunter who is determined to feed his family despite the lion seeking his prey; are you the native Americans wondering about these new people who looked so different or are you the settlers looking for a new chance at life; are you the British citizen who wanted to remain loyal to the King or the revolutionist who wanted to be free of the taxes and tariffs of a country that had no idea of the hardships you faced. The story — History or “Her”story — depends on the story teller. And archives are important because they enhance the documentary record. However, what is recorded depends on who leaves what to be recorded, and who interprets the remnants that are left behind. So if you want history to reflect your contributions, you have to choose what is left. From my perspective, that gives your story a 50% chance of appearing in the documentary record.
What advice do you have for students and new archivists of color starting their careers in this profession?
Find something about the profession that you are passionate about and find ways to fuel that passion. Otherwise, you may find yourself where I was as a cataloguer — thinking that this work was dull and tedious. For me the difference was looking at the people and the stories and amplifying them above the usual names and dates of the “traditional” record.
Why has it been important to you to take on leadership positions in professional organization like SAA?
Mostly, I saw work that needed to be done, and stepped in when no one else seemed to be willing. In other words, I did not consciously choose to take on leadership roles, I saw opportunities to get things done that felt important to me and I decided to take advantage of those opportunities.
My involvement in SAA has given me access to like-minded individuals that look at history and community with perspectives that are similar to my own. The network and camaraderie has enabled me to share my passion about the individual stories that comprise history. I have been gratified to see others share the passion of enlightening individuals and community about the power of the documentary record and the opportunities they may have to partake in that power.
You’ve engaged in efforts to bridge the gap between SAA, ALA, and AAM, why has it been important to do so and where do you see room for improvement?
I worked in SAA, ALA, and AAM because I worked in archives, museums, and libraries. What I saw, was that in each of these professions, members were looking to preserve something — knowledge, information, artifacts. As a professional who loved to engage audiences and provide programming to empower the lay person, I saw similarities in the professions that I wanted to see enhanced. I think that later in my career, for me, it mostly revolved around funding. As I saw the need for funding rise, I sought ways to make funding requests stronger. I thought one way might be to combine the strengths of these three professions to have a stronger voice. I am one of a group who feels that cooperation among these professions can be a very good thing. Amongst us, there are differing views on how to build the cooperation or what to build it on. And, as they say, “the devil is in the details”.