Interview: Kate Blalak, Archivist

 A Q&A by Laura B. Hayden


LH: How and why did you become an archivist?

KB: It was a winding road: I started with an undergraduate degree in studio art, which influenced me to get a masters in human relations with a focus on art therapy. From there, I got a masters in library and information science. While pursuing higher education, I always worked in, and loved, libraries. I not only loved the job of librarian, but I also loved learning and researching. I had the opportunity to work with one of the best mentors of all time and an excellent leader, Dr. Jennifer Paustenbaugh, who is now the University Librarian at Brigham Young.

Archival work requires detective work, and it offers the chance to utilize scientific principles of preservation while studying history. I enjoy the work of preservation, exhibit preparation, and the hunting down of ideas with visiting researchers. Also, I am an advocate for certification and involvement with other professionals. I have joined professional organizations and continued my education. I now have both my certification from the Academy of Certified Archivists and my Digital Archives Specialist certification from the Society of American Archivists. This is important because it ensures a certain standard of excellence and keeps people working together and learning from each other, which betters the profession in general. So the real answer to why I entered this field is because I love what I do and I believe in it.


LH: How would you define your role as the archivist at the Woody Guthrie Archives?

KB: It is a multi-dimensional role. I am not only the archivist but also the assistant curator and registrar. My primary role is implementing exhibits and working with researchers, donors, collection management, and processing. I am very grateful for the help of my student interns and volunteer assistants. This job requires more than one person; I could not do it without them.


LH: What areas/collections are you responsible for? Do you have a favorite among these?

KB: I am responsible for all of the collections at the Woody Guthrie Center. Right now, we have the Woody Guthrie Collection and Special Collections transferred from the Mt. Kisco archival location in New York, and we also have several additional collections that have been accessioned in the three years I have been here. I am, of course, very fond of Woody, who I think of as the incarnated archetype of Hermes. I am equally grateful for the Phil Ochs Papers [Ochs was a folk musician and peer of Guthrie’s]; I liken Ochs to an elf from The Lord of the Rings. Every collection we have here is of value and is historically important for our community, so it’s impossible to say I value one over any other.


LH: What are your latest additions to the collection?

KB: The newest additions were provided by Patricia Dempsey, the daughter of Maxine Crissman (aka Lefty Lou), Woody’s musical partner during his time in Los Angeles in the late 1930s. These papers include many contextual documents and photographs from this time period as well as a banjo used on their radio show. Perhaps the most significant item is a correspondence, fan mail written by an anonymous listener detailing his offense at some racist presentation on the “Woody and Lefty Lou” show. Woody felt so regretful that he publicly apologized over the air and tore up the song that had offended. This pinpoints not only Woody’s awakening to his own biases but also marks the start of big changes in his life. Woody became an advocate for civil rights among other things. He became self-aware. Not every person is able to achieve this level of awareness in his or her life.


LH: Describe your typical workday. What types of tasks and projects are you involved in?

KB: There really isn’t a typical day. Some days I am working on exhibits, putting up papers, dealing with intellectual rights, writing grants, giving tours, answering reference questions, presenting, and/or assisting researchers. So there’s a lot of juggling.

The tasks themselves are multifaceted. The job requires a lot of creative thinking, organization, being able to work efficiently and quickly (because many tasks are last-minute). The job requires extreme attention to detail but enough distance to see the larger picture. What I find the most pertinent is that I need to have “people skills,” and I must be able to work with a variety of personalities.


LH: When is a researcher ready to use an archive? What advice would you give to a researcher planning a trip to the archive? What preparation is necessary? What should a researcher be prepared for during his or her visit?

KB: I almost always require that researchers have already evaluated secondary resources and have a project idea in mind. This is not to act as some kind of gatekeeper but instead to minimize damage from overuse or misuse of the items. Also, if a researcher doesn’t know what he or she is looking for, he or she will go down the “rabbit hole” and begin to become transfixed in the web of the personalities involved in our archival collections. It’s always good to have a plan, and then one can navigate the territory better.

A researcher must be prepared to have a sweater (the archives vault and research room are climate controlled; it’s cold in here!). A researcher must be prepared to take notes (since there is only one of me to process these notes, copies may not be received for a while). A researcher must be respectful of our collection materials. We are dealing not only with historical information but also artifacts and personal legacies. These are special items that are personal, so there is also a lot of emotional involvement from heirs and friends. Finally, a researcher should come prepared to take some time here. These materials are complex and must be taken in slowly. You aren’t going to find much if you only spend an hour or two. Most researchers are here a week at the minimum.


LH: Although for the most part the Woody Guthrie Archives website only makes available a listing of its collections online, a researcher must visit the archives to use the collections. Are there any plans in the future to digitize some of the collection for online access? If yes, what? If no, why not?

KB: Although we house the archives, we do not own the intellectual copyright to most of the collection materials. We have them digitized for backup purposes and to ensure access, but they will only be available in-house at the present time. I don’t see this policy changing any time in the near future.


LH: What do you think is lost in a digital experience versus one that requires a person be physically present to work with materials in an archive?

KB: This depends on how a digital format may have been altered, but, in general, the tacit information is lost. For example, small markings, drawings, fingerprints, marginalia, the feel of something, the smell of something are lost in the digitization process. Digitization is good, but a digital item cannot fully replace the real item. The benefit of digital materials is that they can provide broader access and accessibility. For instance, if a document is scanned in with Optical Character Recognition (OCR), a reader can do a keyword search to easily find the document. Also, a researcher in a faraway place might be able to access the archive without visiting it in person [if the Guthrie Center were to provide an online archive].


LH: What kinds of projects do people typically contact you about when they request access to different collections?

KB: Most of our requests come from researchers working on books or articles.


LH: What advice do you have for the researcher seeking grants or fellowships to work with the archives?

KB: My advice would be to have an original project in mind with a clear goal and to have your ideas written and communicated in an efficient and organized manner. Above all, don’t forget the magic ingredient: creativity.


LH: Is there anything you would like to add about your work in the archives or with a potential researcher in the archives?

KB: I will just add that this kind of work is important. History is a living entity, capable of adapting and changing. It’s not linear. Woody Guthrie and his message are a clear example of this. The idea of helping our fellow human beings is timeless. I hope more people will come and visit us at the Woody Guthrie Center and learn all the dimensions that compose the personality of Woody Guthrie and those he inspired.