Petrina Jackson, Head of Special Collections and University Archives, Iowa State University.
Petrina Jackson is currently the Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Iowa State University. She has served as Head of Instruction and Outreach and Co-Manager of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. Additionally, she was the Senior Assistant Archivist for the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University. Ms. Jackson holds a MLIS with an archives concentration from the University of Pittsburgh. She has served on numerous SAA committees including the Appointments Committee, as the chair of the Mosaic Scholarship Committee, and as the Annual Meeting Program chair. Ms. Jackson served as chair of the AAC’s Harold T. Pinkett Award Committee, co-chair of the section, and newsletter editor. She is also a member of ALA, Midwest Conference Archives (MAC), Iowa Historical Records Adversary Board, and the Consortium of Iowa Archivists.
Petrina Jackson was interviewed for Archiving in Color by Angel Diaz.
How did you get interested in archives and libraries?
Archives – It’s a second profession for me. When I finished graduate school in English from Iowa State University, I went directly to becoming an English professor at a community college, and I did that for about seven years. I learned a lot from that position—a lot about education, and about preparing students to be students, and I learned a lot about writing. The other thing I learned is that I thought I might die if I kept grading so many papers all the time, it took over my life. We had a minimum of five courses per semester and it was intense.
The one thing I really liked, that I really appreciated about community colleges, is that I used to hang out in the library all of the time and hang out with the librarians. I thought they were so cool.
I knew that I wanted to change careers and I knew that I had to be more calculated than I was when I fell into English. I needed to be more intentional than that. I went to a career counselor and took a career placement test and one thing that came up was a librarian.
So I started conducting all these different informational interviews with different librarians. I also found this book in the career section of the library, Alternative Careers for Librarians and I said, “Oh, let me look at that.” One of the profiles was for a college archivist and I read that and thought, “that’s it, that what I want to do.” The profile was on the Simmons College Archivist who at the time was Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, and she is now the Harvard University Archivist. I reached out to her and asked for an informational interview and she obliged and that’s basically what started the whole thing.
Do you think that having been a teacher/professor before is what also drew you to positions in a university setting where you were doing instruction, as in your previous position as Head of Instruction and Outreach at the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Collections Library?
I think I am a teacher a heart, and also I love outreach and advocacy, like building programs and bringing people in. Those were things that it became clear that I liked to do.
Even now as Head of Special Collections and University Archives, I still think, “Who do we need to reach out to? Who do we need to bring into the fold? And particularly groups that have not been historically included?”
We have an outreach archivist, Rachel Seale, and she’s great. I discuss with her things that I think we should target and she takes the ball and runs with it. If I have an idea, I’ll give it to her, and she’ll create it. I’m not on the ground, you know, working on the nuts and bolts of the planning, but I do get to shape some of the vision of it.
As the Head of Special Collections and University Archives at (ISU) for almost two years now, what has been the focus of your work?
The first year and half, besides familiarizing myself with the institution and the new staff, has been looking at the organization chart and looking at what we need as an organization, and advocating to get positions in order to fulfill those needs. When I got here, I think it was three years that the Head position had been gone. I think that’s hard for the staff. It’s kind of like things were on ice for a while, so when I came in, I had to evaluate each function and do a reboot. I had to evaluate where we wanted to be stronger and advocate to get more staff. It was a small department. If we’re an institution of well over 30,000 students, and we’re a complex organization, then we need more people to properly fulfill our mission as part of this university. My dean and the leadership of this library have been very supportive.
What led you to take on a leadership role?
I love the instruction and outreach as I was doing at my previous institution but they started going through a major reorganization. And to be honest, it was very disruptive. Their vision for what the library was supposed to look like, including Special Collections and Archives, was out of alignment with my core values. [The reorganization] didn’t honor people’s expertise and didn’t recognize differences in how we work. When that happened, I began to speak about the changes and how it would impact us and how it would be damaging for special collections. So that spurred on an advocacy role which later led to me becoming a co-manager of the department because our head had moved on to another institution. It just dawned on me, if you’re not at the table, you are not going to get fed. That’s when I knew I could never go back to a situation where I don’t have some kind of say, leverage, power to make change. To advocate on a higher level. Your needs can get ignored if you’re not there at the decision-making level.
Were there any support systems that helped you when you were in graduate school or as you developed in this profession?
No matter where I have been in my life, be it school or a new job, I have always found people to be supportive and help me.
I’m not a person who has had a lot of friends, but I’ve had just a few tried and true friends who have helped me along the way, that have supported me and I’m still close friends with. And also my family, but with my career we don’t really talk about that much. I think my parents are still like, what do you do? I’ve always had a support system of peers.
I’ve had mentors when I was an undergraduate, who were in places of power. If that was much more available and accessible, like a mentor relationship to help you through all the nuances and how to strategize—be it negotiating a salary or any other sticky situations, it would help people navigate through their careers better. They know people. I think that’s a difficult thing for people from marginalized communities because if you don’t have that network established, it’s hard to even know about or go up to an administrative position or get in a traditional leadership position. I believe that everyone can lead where they are, but to get in to a place of power in order to really attempt to make change, it really is about who you know, and we don’t know all those people.
When did you start getting involved in the Society of American Archivists?
I started getting involved immediately after I graduated from library school at Pitt because I was a Pinkett Award winner. You get complimentary registration and everything, so that was very pivotal to have right after school. To have all that, it starts molding you professionally. I was part of the [Archivists and Archives of Color] Roundtable right away. And once you start getting a little bit active on whatever committee, once your name gets out there, people starting asking you to join this or that committee. So you get pulled in right away and become a part of it. I have been to every SAA meeting since 2002 except for one. SAA has been really helpful to me, career-wise, and particularly in networking. Also [it is helpful] in building professional networks that can be helpful in your own professional work or your institution’s work, and coming together for ideas in order to propel the profession as a whole.
Where should someone get started if they’re just coming into SAA?
I would say for folks that are new to explore SAA’s Mentoring Program. But also to go to Sections [meetings] that not only have your professional niche but also affinity interests, or that address your personal identity. And when you go there, to not be afraid to talk to people or to introduce yourself. Particularly in the ethnic section meetings, there’s always time for Q&A and in discussion, introduce yourself and say, “Hey I’m new, this is my first time here, it’s a little intimidating. I’d love to get to meet you all. Please introduce yourself to me.” Just kind of put yourself out there because when you do that, people will come and seek you out and help you. They want to pull you in.
Thinking about either the Archivists and Archives of Color Section, or the profession as a whole, what would you like to see happen?
In the profession, what I’d love to have happen is, of course, increase diversity. Not only the people that do the work, but also in leadership positions. But that’s not enough, it really needs to be inclusion. A lot of disruption in particular ways of doing things that needs to happen. These systems need to be disrupted because you can fill an organization with people of color, with people from marginalized communities, and if it’s still upholding a system that’s been constructed years ago that privileges a certain people or a certain way of thinking or doing things—that’s not really changing anything. It looks on the outside like things are changing. But if the systems are still intact, that’s not making it just for everyone. That’s not real change. That’s the step that needs to happen.
To simply uphold the current status quo, that’s not good or healthy. It privileges the people in power.