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Six Secrets from Special Collections with Emily Lapworth

By Su Kim Chung on April 6, 2016 12:28 PM | Permalink


Emily Lapworth, Digital Special Collections Librarian - UNLV Libraries Special Collections

In our Secrets from Special Collections series, UNLV Libraries Special Collections staff members reveal a few lesser-known aspects about the archives and offer up personal insight into research and discovery, sharing answers, based on their own experiences, to six intriguing questions. Here, Emily Lapworth, Digital Special Collections Librarian, gives us a glimpse into life working among the rare treasures of the library.

1. When you first began working in Special Collections, what was the one item or collection that made your jaw drop, and why?

I began working in Special Collections on the Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project, and as part of that project we digitized about 10 different scrapbooks made by the Jewish women's group Hadassah. These scrapbooks are mainly from the 1960s and the 1970s and show a different side of Vegas history. "Old Vegas" is often thought of in terms of mobsters, showgirls, and celebrities, but at the same time that they were making the Strip famous, the women of Hadassah (many of who were married to casino executives) were establishing a sense of local community in a city that was/is mainly characterized as a tourist destination. The Hadassah scrapbooks are thoughtfully crafted and contain photographs, newspaper clippings, newsletters, and event fliers that tell the story of local women holding community events and raising money for philanthropic causes both here and in Israel. I have to admit that I also loved looking at the clothes and hairstyles of the time period, and the pictures of events- Hadassah held fundraising fashion shows and, to my surprise, lively-looking performances featuring the ladies in flapper fringe and their husbands in tutus.

2. What is the one question you are most asked about your work, or elements that fall within the scope of your job description?

I think the most difficult part of explaining my work is trying to describe all the different kinds of stuff we deal with and what we do with it. Many people think of libraries as books, and may not know what special collections and archives are. Sometimes I reference the movie National Treasure as a starting point, but collecting the history of Southern Nevada is a bit different than preserving the Declaration of Independence. (Ultimately the goals are the same though- the best way to find out about the past is to go straight to the source. Archivists make sure these sources continue to be available for many years into the future.) At UNLV we're trying to document all aspects of the region's history, plus the history of gaming. Many things we collect today were created relatively recently, and they come in lots of different formats: papers, photographic prints, negatives, slides, albums, scrapbooks, film, videotapes, audio recordings, etc. We also have to work digitally—creating, delivering, and preserving digitized versions of the physical materials in our collections, and doing the same for born digital records (files that were created on a computer.)

3. What is the most fascinating or positive aspect of your job?

All of the materials I work with are unique, so any time I am involved with arranging, describing, or digitizing these items, deciding the best way to do so, is like a puzzle. I like the challenge of figuring out how we can make sense of a disorganized box of papers so that someone will be able to easily find out what valuable information is contained in there and use it to learn or make something new (for example, a book, paper, podcast, film, art, etc.)

4. What is the most difficult aspect of your work?

The most difficult aspect of my work is technology. It seems like technology changes faster than I can learn it, and this fast pace is at odds with the fact that archives have a long-term mindset. There are so many opportunities to leverage technology to help us achieve the goal of making things available digitally for the next 50 years and beyond, and the profession is embracing these opportunities, but I still personally feel overwhelmed sometimes.

5. What are you working on right now? How will it contribute to Special Collections?

One project that I am working on right now is digitizing oral history interviews that were recorded on cassette tapes from the 1970s to about 2007. Cassette tapes can wear out from repeated use, and it is easier to provide access to these interviews digitally. I am also adding transcripts of oral history interviews to UNLV's Digital Collections, so that they are available instantly to anyone with Internet access and can be found even by a simple Google search. The interviews cover all kinds of topics related to local history, and the narrators often have fascinating life stories or anecdotes. It's an engaging and entertaining way to learn about the history of Las Vegas and the surrounding areas, and also a valuable resource for academic researchers.

6. What advice would you give students seeking to isolate a topic in Special Collections using primary source materials?

You could start by browsing UNLV Libraries Digital Collections, where we have many primary sources available online. There you can get an idea of what the strengths of our collections are (mining, showgirls, menus, etc.), what kinds of materials are available, and what might interest you. You can then use the Special Collections database and collection guides to figure out which collections are related to your topic, and finally, what materials you need to look at in person to conduct your research.