Smithsonian Libraries and Archives recently welcomed Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty as our inaugural director. Join us as we get to know the new leader of our organization!
1.) What is your earliest memory of either libraries or archives?
I have fond memories of both libraries and archives. When I was a little, libraries played a very important role in my life and that of my family. My mother loved books and saw libraries as a treasure trove of information – and most importantly, they were free. She was a single mom. We were poor and could not afford a lot of books. I was fortunate that we owned a set of encyclopedias – quite rare for being an African American little girl growing up on the West Side of Chicago. No one else I knew had a set.
I remember my mother taking me to the Chicago Public Library to complete a school report on Benjamin Franklin, and also running around looking at books as my brother attended Black Panther meetings in one of the Library’s community rooms.
Therefore, my family saw libraries as an important benefit to us as American citizens. Later on, my mother fell on hard times, and we were homeless for about a year. We were shuffled from shelter to shelter, and from good neighbors to church members, but there were times in between when we slept at the Chicago Public Library for heat, or when the lights got turned off, or to get cool in the heat of summer. Because of this I experienced firsthand that libraries serve a lot of functions in society. I always say that libraries helped raise me.
My first memory of archives and special collections is quite different. My brush with archival research came when I was a sophomore in high school. As a Chicago Public School requirement, every high school sophomore had to enter the Chicago History Fair. Students had to present a history project using Chicago area archival collections and other primary sources. Along with my Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center partner, Leslie Casimir, we had to consult the collections of the Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago History Museum) in order to research the Aragon Ballroom. I wore gloves and they brought out big archival drawings for my project. So that was a different experience for me; I didn’t understand why I had to put on gloves, or formally check in, or show my ID. It was a completely different process than using regular materials. I also observed the reading room as beautiful, and it all felt very important and ceremonious – with “esteemed” white men pictured on the wall. I remember thinking, “Wow – this is like attending church!”
2.) Tell me about your background in your own words. What attracted you to the field of libraries and archives as a career?
The path to my career was a challenging process. My mother wanted me to be a successful Black woman which in her eyes was to have a respectful career in which I made lots of money. She wanted me to be a doctor, and then when it turned out I was no good at calculus she said, “Well, I guess you need to be a lawyer.” She never really embraced or wholly understood my library career.
However, when I was in high school and college I worked in libraries for extra money and started getting closer and closer to them. I always felt there were smart people in libraries, people who liked to read and were interested in different esoteric things like me – and then I learned about special collections. I realized from my Chicago Historical Society experience that there were curators in libraries. I eased into the profession by working odd and temporary LIS jobs, and then the jobs kept becoming more and more permanent with greater responsibilities. Working as a special collections assistant in Princeton University Library’s Rare Book and Manuscript reading room is what sealed the deal for me for library school. For a time, I did not reveal to my family what I was getting a master’s degree in.
3.) What does being the inaugural director of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives mean to you? What excites you most about leading a museum libraries and archives system?
I’m still grappling with it being real because I never thought I would find myself in this space. The job is very important to me, but what is most important to me is the staff. I want to be an advocate for the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives staff, getting them resources and achieving job satisfaction to make us a viable organization at the Smithsonian.
I want the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives to be very much in the 21st century and to be called one of the best research libraries in America and a global resource. I am in awe of all the work that has happened before me, from Director Emerita Nancy E. Gwinn and Deputy Director Emerita Mary Augusta Thomas of the (former) Smithsonian Libraries to Director Emerita Anne Van Camp of the (former separate entity) Smithsonian Institution Archives. There is a big opportunity to create something new – a new culture, new ways for people to see what is in our collections. I didn’t even know that archives used to be a separate department from libraries at the Smithsonian. I am fortunate to be here for the integration. It’s exciting to see on Twitter posts from the Archives – that the Smithsonian has archives for itself. The history of the Smithsonian Institution is fascinating.
Additionally, I am excited about the many relationships and collaborations we can continue to build, especially in our pan-Institutional role and among locations within all the Smithsonian’s museums. I previously worked for a museum library at the Whitney Museum of American Art. When people visit an art exhibit and see the paintings on the walls, sometimes they don’t think of the research that goes on behind each art piece or object. I think the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives expands on that charge, that we not only inform the work of the museum curators and researchers but also provide information globally to many different parties; our mission is paramount within the Smithsonian Institution. Every day I am amazed by a new partnership I learn of, such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library or our Adopt-a-Book Program. It’s almost like an amusement park of libraries.
4.) Why do you believe that libraries and archives are important to the Smithsonian?
We are the keepers of history for the entire organization. We have an important mission to provide resources for the research that curators, scholars, and scientists need. Every museum object has a story to tell, but that story may be documented within our archives or put into better context by our library research material. I also believe that we are called upon for a bigger, global mission to provide documentation to society. We have a lot in our collections that speaks to what it is to be America and American. I see us as playing a much bigger role more similar or parallel to the Library of Congress – on that top level. We are America’s library.
5.) Where do you foresee libraries and archives going as organizations, especially in respect to the last two years of the pandemic?
There is no doubt that the pandemic has affected everyone. I consider it to be a trauma that everyone has undergone. We thought the pandemic was going to last a few weeks and now it has been around 700 days that Smithsonian Libraries and Archives staff have not been able to be fully on-site. We are going to need to take some time to recover and reflect. There are some things we have realized during the pandemic that we will keep: we have learned how to work from home and going into continued telework means we will have more flexibility to do our jobs while also paying attention to our domestic lives. We further see the importance of digital assets and scholarship and how much that means to users who cannot visit us in person. Going forward, we will continue to ask and prioritize: how do we deliver more of our wonderful collections into the homes of people all over the world who cannot visit our libraries or our archives?
6.) What is the most notable item you have seen in your archival work?
I will talk about my collective experience, as I cannot pick a favorite. Being able to see the papers of someone you have admired your entire life is incredible. When I was in graduate school at Simmons University, I got to work at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Working with Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.’s diaries and actually touching letters from John F. Kennedy was a moving experience. I worked with the Henry James papers when I was at Harvard University, and the Bancroft copy of the Gettysburg Address while at Cornell University. I handled the F. Scott Fitzgerald papers when I was at Princeton University and during my lunch break, I would call up the collection just to read the letters he wrote to his daughter.
Another emotional moment was when I was at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. I got to go to James Baldwin’s sister’s house to appraise his collection and I was thinking, “Oh my goodness, these are the papers of James Baldwin and I’m touching them and I even get to see his doodles.” It’s documentation that a person’s life existed and that this memory, these words, this documentation is going to continue on for years, for generations – long after I am gone.
7.) Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?
I have a lot of mentors and think everyone should have more than one. It is just like your friends: you have some you call for fun and others you go to for more serious questions. It is the same way with mentors. I have had peer mentors who were on the same level professionally, but we like to be a sounding board for one another. I had mentors when I was an early-career librarian who helped guide me through the profession.
My best mentor, Mark A. Greene, passed away in 2017. Along with Dennis Meissner, he is the creator of MPLP: “More Product, Less Process.” That was a huge movement in archives. Mark always embraced my path as who I am. Sometimes you get mentors who try to mold and shape you into who they are. He never did that with me, and he somehow knew that I would be an administrator one day when I didn’t know that myself. Mark still inspires me.
Jeannette Bastian is another great mentor. She was one of my professors at Simmons University who taught me about collective memory in archives and bringing out marginalized voices in the collections we take care of. I am inspired by Dorothy Berry, digital collections program manager at Harvard University’s Houghton Library and years my junior, who is doing incredible, innovative work with archives. Wesley Chenault, director of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University, is another; there are just so many inspiring people and stories out there!
8.) What energizes you outside of work?
I collect antiques – mainly a lot of African antiques. I like things that are handmade by artisans. Just over the weekend I picked up a handmade basket. I like wood; there’s something so organic about it. I collect a lot of wood bowls, baskets, and masks.
9.) What is your favorite travel spot and why?
One of the things I am trying to work on is traveling more for pleasure. I have tended to always travel for business, so if I was attending a professional conference somewhere, that would also be my vacation destination. I teach at California Rare Book School at UCLA, so Los Angeles is a place I would visit regularly.
I am trying to work on going somewhere without there having to be a conference attached. A lot of this comes down to money, too – I never really had the money just to take a vacation, but when I did it was always Vermont. I would go to Vermont because of the woodturners and glass blowers that live in the state. There are many antique shops and inimitable craftsmen in Vermont. London is on my bucket list; I have been to Ireland and had a great time. Though I want to do more personal traveling, I know that wherever I end up, I am always going to go to a library or an archive.
10.) What is one food you cannot resist?
Sushi! In college, my minor was Japanese. I joined a Japanese culture club for those who loved everything Japanese. They introduced me to sushi, and I have been hooked ever since. I eat octopus, squid, eel, and sea urchin – the hardcore stuff, not just the rolls! I also love avocados. I am a sucker for French fries and anything made with potatoes in general – baked or mashed. I also love pasta. But sushi is the one thing I must have at least once a week.
11.) Do you have a motto or personal mantra?
I have a new one every year. Some have come from my mother and are very old-school, like “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” which was said by President Theodore Roosevelt. At the same time, my mother would always say, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” When I was a child I would think, “Of course you can have your cake and then eat it, so what do you mean?” I figured out later that, quite literally, if you eat it, then you don’t have your cake anymore. So it’s just these running cliches that go on in my head. “Know who your friends are” – that kind of thing.
12.) What do you like to read? Any favorite books?
I am just going to be truthful here: I like magazines and journals. I don’t read fiction; I haven’t been into fiction since I was a lot younger, reading Beverly Cleary and authors like that. As I get older, I really like periodicals and I subscribe to several foreign magazines, in subjects such as art and architecture. I especially love art magazines in particular – I get a magazine that’s about ceramics, and one about woodturning. So that’s what I enjoy reading, and I know people don’t talk about that a lot, but I’ve never been one who is reading the latest on The New York Times bestseller list. I love bookstores – especially independent ones – and I always go in to look at the periodicals, like Vogue magazines from Japan. I also read library science or museum studies related books. I’m reading one by Jeannette Bastian, Decolonizing the Caribbean Record: An Archives Reader. I will read specific chapters of books and reflect, and then pick them up again later for another chapter – even after a year.
13.) Which Smithsonian museum are you most drawn to?
My favorite two Smithsonian museums are right across from each other – the National Museum of Asian Art and the National Museum of African Art – due to my interests in Japan and both African and Asian art. I also like the National Museum of the American Indian, and just recently briefly visited the National Museum of Natural History for the first time.
I look forward to visiting the National Air and Space Museum. When I have been in DC in the past, I had a limited amount of time. The Smithsonian is so vast that I would always want to visit the African and Asian art museums, and run over to the National Museum of African American History and Culture once it in opened in 2016. You could easily spend two days in any one of the Smithsonian’s museums.