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Six Secrets from Special Collections with Karla Irwin

By Su Kim Chung on June 20, 2016 5:52 PM | Permalink


Karla Irwin, 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, Karla Irwin, 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?

It is hard to choose just one, but the Maggie Mancuso Collection on Martin Scorsese’s Casino is definitely a favorite. Mancuso was a location scout for the film and the collection contains 15 boxes of photographs taken by the production’s location team in 1994. What is so remarkable is the depth of what has been captured in the Las Vegas valley. There a photographs of mid-century businesses, hotels, restaurants, and residences, some of which no longer exist. The images capture an incredible amount of interior and exterior details of these buildings – and how people lived, worked, and interacted in these spaces.  What I also like about this collection is its endless possibilities for research. Of course the collection offers a unique historical perspective, but it also opens up possibilities to study architecture, interior design, culture and filmmaking. One of our gaming fellows in 2015 was an artist named Catherine Borg and her research in the collection offers quite a unique perspective. You can read her paper about the collection and also see some images from it here.  

2. What is the one question you are most asked about your work?

I think sometimes distinctions between museums, libraries, and archives can be blurred.  Unlike general library collections, we collect non-circulating rare books and historical materials. While there is some overlap with museums, I often find myself explaining that Special Collections does not actively collect artifacts or objects. We collect documentation: physical and digital, from individuals, families, businesses, communities, etc. that are in some way important to the history, growth, and culture of Southern Nevada. In general, archives do not interpret materials for visitors as museums do. We let the historians and researchers do that. Very simply put, we collect and preserve history and make it accessible to whoever wants to learn from it. If you have ever watched a documentary or read a history book then you have benefitted from a researcher’s work in an archive.

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

I often have to pinch myself when I find myself literally holding history in my hands. I still can’t believe I have job taking care of these materials. What I find really fascinating is how we are using technology to our benefit. We now have software and digital tools to not just make the job of an archivist a little easier, but to ensure we are providing our users with more robust information. Much of my work is behind the scenes in our new collection management system called ArchivesSpace. One feature this system is helping us with is the creation of our finding aids, or collection guides. Ultimately, these guides are an important connection point between an archival collection and a user. Finding aids have come a long way—once they were only accessible as a typed physical copy, and only if you could visit an institution in person. Now finding aids can be accessible everywhere when placed online, and we are using ArchivesSpace to help us perform this function. Using technology to our advantage will help us find ways to care for our collections more effectively while increasing their exposure and accessibility for users. 

Special Collections Librarian Karla Irwin examines a historic photo album in our collections.

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

On the flip side, there are so many technological advances and they are constantly changing. Emily spoke eloquently about this subject in her Q & A as well. It can be very easy to get stuck waiting for the perfect solution. There are many archival institutions facing the issue of born-digital materials with very few clear answers on how to manage this type of material. But, the longer you wait to work out a solution, the greater of a risk you run of losing the digital content. Think of how upsetting it is if your computer crashes, or if your new laptop can no longer play an older compact disc. It happens all the time.  Think of this on a much larger scale—years and years of memories preserved on CDs and DVDs, or records of a community business stored on computer hard drives. Archives are now taking this content in, and while the theories behind how we manage these collections stay the same, the exact procedures on how to do so seems to be constantly changing. Balance is finding a way to keep moving forward while knowing you may not have the perfect solution.

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

I just finished up overseeing a collection wide survey of the archival materials in Special Collections.  A survey is a form of collection assessment and involves looking at every single archival collection we have in our stacks and recording information about it.  This includes size, material type, subject areas, dates, etc. The survey also identifies whether any conservation actions need to be addressed by our Preservation Lab. Data collected from the survey will inform many decisions in Special Collections going forward, such as which collections we should prioritize for processing and which collections still need finding aids.

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

My first stop would be go to our website and browse our collection strengths, available as subpages from the main page. The collections strengths may seem broad, but they offer a good introduction into the kind of material we have with some specific collections that may be applicable to a research topic. If you are able to narrow down a topic to some keywords you can probably identify some collections or items using the Special Collections database search box and Digital Collections web site. If all else fails, give us a call or stop by. We are here to help. Help us help you by telling us about your research topic (in as much detail as you can), dates you are focusing on, and why you are conducting this research, whether it’s for a class or just for fun.