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Interview with Steven Booth

Our Interview column features Steven Booth, Archivist at the Barack Obama Presidential Library, National Archives and Records Administration.

Questions by Grace Danico

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What was the path that led you to archives?

I was drawn to archives while studying music at Morehouse College. As a participant of the Mellon Librarian Recruitment Program, I had the opportunity to intern at the Atlanta University Center (AUC) Robert W. Woodruff where I learned about librarianship career opportunities. Through the program I met archivists Karen Jefferson, Andrea Jackson, and Dr. Meredith Evans. Their work documenting and preserving the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) resonated with my affinity for research and organization; and they collectively encouraged me to pursue an archival career and attend Simmons College.

You’re an active SAA member with various leadership positions including Council, former co-chair of the Awards Committee, and former co-chair of the Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable. What do you find most rewarding about participating in professional activities? What advice would you give to someone new to the profession?

For me, the greatest reward has been the relationships I’ve built with other archivists, some of whom I consider to be colleagues and friends. Being actively involved has afforded me opportunities to work with and learn from them, which are experiences that have enhanced my professional development and career. Attending annual meetings is exciting because of the people I know I’ll see there. In regards to new professionals, I think there are so many ways any archivist can become active whether it be in their community or a professional association. My advice would be to identify groups that align with your interests and see how you can contribute your skill-sets. And if an opportunity doesn’t exist, create your own.

You’re one of the co-founders and organizers of the Archivists of Metro D.C. (AMDC), a “hub and resource for area archivists and allied professionals.” What prompted the creation of this organization? What types of activities, resources, and events does AMDC partake in?

AMDC grew out of a desire that my fellow co-founder, Anu Kasarabada, and I had to use our expertise beyond our 9-5 archives gigs. Inspired by groups like Los Angeles Archivists Collective and Project RIGHT Now - Carolinas, we sought out to assist communities with preserving their history and provide opportunities for local archivists to network. Over the course of our existence, we did some amazing work! One project that I’m particularly proud of was our partnership with a local social service organization to help them create a self-sustaining archival program. Across the span of three months, roughly 20 archivists and allied professionals volunteered their time and talent to assist with arranging records, rehousing photographs, describing video recordings, and creating records management workflows.  The fruits of our labor resulted in the organization designating an office for the archives and hiring a part-time archivist to manage the collection and acquire new materials.

AMDC volunteers arranging records and rehousing photographs as part of a partnership with a local service organization to create a self-sustaining archives program

What role do you see community building organizations like AMDC and LAAC playing in the future of the archival profession?

Organizations like AMDC and LAAC are vital to the growth and visibility of the profession, especially in communities that are unfamiliar with archives and archivists.  Giving the variety of grassroots groups, I think there are so many opportunities and possibilities for us to share and convey who we are, what we do, and why we do it. But the ways in which we accomplish that has to be engaging and meaningful. If possible, I’d like to create a similar organization or get a group of archivists together to do that type of work here in Chicago.

Previously, you were based in Washington D.C. and held positions in the Presidential Materials Division at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as well as the Office of Records Management at the White House. What sparked your interest in working with presidential materials?

At Simmons I took an archival access and use course where I wrote a paper on government recordkeeping practices. It was during my research that I became interested in presidential records. Little did I know that that assignment would come in quite handy. I was able to use much of what I learned and wrote about during the application and interview process for the National Archives.

What is your personal experience with the presidential materials? Have you ever felt emotionally or intellectually connected to anything you found in the collections?

Working with presidential materials has been an interesting experience for me.  I’m constantly either learning about or reliving moments in history. At the National Archives in DC, my colleagues and I processed over 4.000 photographs from the collection of Cheney vice presidential records in response to a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request. Some of the images released to the public were of meetings held in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) at the White House on September 11th. Seeing the distress on the face of the President, Vice President, and other senior officials reminded me of my own reaction that day.  I was sitting in music class when the attacks happened and the local news announced that Chicago was a potential target.  My high school was near an airport so naturally my classmates and I thought that at any moment something could also happen to us and our loved ones. We were terrified, but I can’t imagine what it was truly like for the survivors and family and friends of the victims.

Images from meetings held in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) at the White House on September 11th.

You currently work as an Archivist for the Barack Obama Presidential Library, located in Chicago. How did you manage the simultaneous balance of your professional and personal life as you transitioned from D.C. to Chicago? How did you keep yourself organized and how does it feel to be back home?

Once I found out that I’d been hired to work for the Library, I immediately began to prepare for my own transition. I’m somewhat of a procrastinator and as a Virgo I tend to suffer from self-imposed perfectionism. Everything has to be just right. So I created a number of professional and personal to-do lists, which really helped me stay focused and organized. I even made a bucket list of things I wanted to experience in DC before I left. Much of what I had to do I was able to accomplish with little to no hassle because I gave myself plenty of time to finish projects, declutter and pack up my belongings.  I lived in DC for over seven years and while I do miss certain aspects of living there I am enjoying Chicago. This is home and I’m glad to be back.

What current projects are you working on?

Well, I just started my three-year term on SAA Council and that’s keeping me fairly busy. We’ve had a number of issues come up recently that have needed immediate attention like the 2019 annual meeting in Austin, Texas.  I’m currently also on the Program Committee for the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC), which will be held in Chicago next year.  And I’m excited to be working with my awesome colleagues from across the region to put together a dynamic and engaging program experience. Other than that I’m building community with some local archivists and artists, and taking it easy.

Who/What inspires you to do the work that you do?

I draw a lot of my inspiration from my Simmons squad: Stacie Williams, Derek Mosley, Holly Smith, Christina Thompson Shutt, Melissa Gonzales and Micha Broadnax. It’s  been wonderful to witness how we have used our common experience to develop as professionals over the years. We are all thriving in spaces and areas that we never imagined for ourselves. And we’re equally invested in and genuinely respect each other’s definition of success and what that looks like. Having that level of support inspires me to do the work that I’m doing.

It is always inspiring to meet fellow archivists of color as we make up a small demographic of the archival field. How do you see the archives field evolving, especially in relation to inclusivity and diversity? What can we do to encourage other people of color to join the field?

There’s been some progress but not nearly enough. For far too long diversity and inclusion has been solely focused on recruitment. I’d like to see more emphasis on retention because it’s often ignored. And I think that’s because institutions really don’t know how to retain build and maintain diversity in the workplace and profession. To be honest, I don’t know how or if we can get people of color to join the field. But what we can do is support the ones that are here now. And also continue to create opportunities that allow archivists and allied professionals of color to coexist.  We’re all on a path and the struggle is real. So let’s support and encourage ourselves and each other along the way.

Steven DeJuan Booth is a Chicago-bred archivist and librarian. He works for the nation's 14th presidential library. He has processed the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. housed at Boston University's Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center and The King Center.  He is a co-founder of Archivists of Metro D.C. and a member of the Society of American Archivists, the Midewest Archives Conference and Chicago Area Archivists. Follow him on Twitter @misterbooth.

Grace Danico is an archivist and freelance creative specializing in art direction, design, and illustration. She is also the Chair for the Press & Publications Subcommittee of the Los Angeles Archivists Collective. She holds an MLIS from Pratt Institute, and has worked at the American Museum of Natural History and Sesame Workshop. She currently manages a private philantropic collection. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @gogograce

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