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Everything in here that isn’t a book: An interview with archivist Jae Mauthe

As plans for construction progress and programming content develops, changes are taking place on the personnel side of things at the AMB as well: introducing archivist Jae Mauthe! Jae has developed and led all aspects of large scale digitization projects with libraries at University of California, Berkeley, Northern Regional Library Facility, California Digital Library and Bancroft Library, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Johns Hopkins University, and North Carolina State University at Raleigh, as well as the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, the Biodiversity Heritage Project, and the Getty Research Institute. She brings with her to the museum an exceptional amount of experience and enthusiasm, as well as an adorable 15-month service pup, named Pinky.

So, how did you end up here?

“I got my masters degree in library and information science with a focus on archives, last June [from San Jose State University]. Right at the beginning of my program I was in a near fatal car accident and managed to finish my program while disabled; but I hadn’t been working so this is actually my first job back in a couple years.

What interested me about the job is the fact that the book as an object is disappearing. As you know my background is mostly books, rare books, antiquarian books, that sort of thing. The idea of preserving the machinery and the items that make this object is really important to me, so I believe moreover in what we’re doing here. It’s sort of my passion meets what my hearts believes in, equals the most awesome job opportunity ever. I come to work and am so happy to be here and I think about it after I’m long gone for the day. It’s the perfect job for me. And I can bring my dog.”

What exactly is an archivist generally responsible for? What will you be specifically responsible for doing here at the Museum?

“Let me start with the difference between archives and libraries. Libraries are published materials. Archives are unpublished materials, such as letters, anything from like this machine to paper samples, cover samples; everything that falls under the description of unpublished, with no Library of Congress call number. So I do original cataloging of everything because there’s obviously nothing out there like that in a database. For the places I’ve worked in the past I’ve then put [those original catalogue records] up on the online archive of California. All the information that’s put up is called a finding aid, and that allows researchers to see exactly point by point detail of what is in the containers that we have. What they call it is ‘arranging,’ and you go in, you do a survey, and you then decide how you’re going to arrange it, and then you arrange it, and then about midway through you decide you’ve done it completely wrong And it’s too late. and it’s funny because I’ve talked to archivists who have done it for like 40 years and they’re like, ‘Are you midday way there yet?’ ‘Yeah…’ ‘Are you totally doubting yourself?’ ‘Yeah.’ You have to let go of that; it happens to everybody

It’s interesting because the archivists I’ve spoken to have the same experience, where they feel like the collections speak to them, they really tell you their story as you dig deeper and deeper. I’ve worked in manuscripts mostly, where they’re people’s personal records and these people are long gone, so the records actually sort of speak to you and tell you how to organize them and put them into series. The greatest part is you’re taking these things that are completely inaccessible to researchers and you’re making them open for research, which is another thing that I really believe in, freedom of information.”

Have any stories come to light so far here?

“Not yet, I haven’t even gotten to them—I’m in policy and procedure right now.

But I think that the most challenging and rewarding part of the job so far has been that I’m building this archive; I’m not walking into a big bureaucracy of implement. The change comes from me and I’m building it the way that I see that it’ll be best served for the community. I’m working really closely with Tim, he’s teaching me a lot and pretty soon I’ll know everything there is to know about everything, you know what I mean?”

Did you know much about bookbinding before?

“No—I mean I’ve a couple of manuals from like turn of the century but yeah, no, not a whole lot.”

So where do you begin—what projects are in the works right now?

“So we’ve split it now—there’s a librarian now, Amelia, and then there’s me, the archivist. The difference between her job and mine is she’ll be pulling records off of a database and then attaching those records to a separate catalogue. What I’ll be doing is I’ll be creating what they call a ‘finding aid,’ and that gives you scope, content, biographical information. So my job is to research the item, find out as much as I can about it. The best way to remember it is ‘aboutness’; you’re describing everything there is to know about the object. So the researcher has that information and then you describe all the way down to item level in the containers so people can say ‘I need box number 52, folder number 37’.”

That’s a lot more all-encompassing than I expected!

“It’s pretty detail-oriented but it’s fun. It’s like part detective, part OCD.”

What kind of sources do you anticipate using?

“Tim is probably my number one resource on everything. You know, we’ve discussed what to put up first and what the industry’s looking for, and what people will be looking for. And even when we we’re talking about the website i was thinking what’s the voice because you’re gonna have tourists, you’re gonna have people who are visiting, people who know nothing about bookbinding, people who are letterpress people, such a conglomeration of researchers, scholars. So how you find the information is just to dig. It’s different because everything I’ve ever done has mostly been people—I’ve done manuscripts mostly—and these are objects.”

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of stories they come out with.

“Yeah, I was talking to Tim about making a map, doing a digital map, so we could trace where items are coming from and get a history, because it’s gonna be gone!

I’ve worked in books since I was sixteen—I’ve never had a job outside the books industry. I’ve been in every side of the book and this is the first time I’ve actually been in the structure of the book. And it’s so cool! It’s sort of the last place for me. You look at them differently.”

What do you do in your spare time?

“Collect books—what do you think?! It’s my total safe space. Books have always been in my life.”