Thursday, May 30, 2019

A Conversation with Andrew McClain

Andrew McClain
Andrew McClain, our part-time archival assistant, took time from his busy schedule to talk with us about his passion for Arkansas history. He recently finished processing more than 300 historical mining maps at the State Archives to make sure the maps are preserved and made more accessible to the public. McClain has worked in state government since 2017 and is active in researching, preserving and promoting Arkansas’s culture and history. In 2018, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in Public History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. This year, while also working at the State Archives, McClain became a graduate assistant at the Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

Q: What’s your job title, and how long have you worked at the Arkansas State Archives?

A: I’m a part-time archival assistant. I started working in an extra help position at the State Archives just over two years ago.

Q: What do you do on a typical day at Archives?

A: I’m usually processing some part of our huge maps collection – which is always growing – making sure they’re searchable and stored properly. Sometimes I’m processing other papers and records collections, and I also help pick up donations from other state agencies.

Q: How did you become interested in Arkansas history or working at the Arkansas State Archives?

A: I grew up in Little Rock, and I’ve always been interested in how the city has grown over the past 200 years or so. When I first started at the Archives, it was just a temporary summer job assembling some new shelving, but they let me stick around as extra help to help move boxes around and eventually taught me how to process collections. My first collection was the J.E. Little plantation records, which are the papers of a Faulkner County farming family. Going through these documents and piecing together a family history from 100 years ago was just fascinating to me. I felt like a detective, and I had to resist the urge to put up a corkboard with pushpins and yarn, (I learned that’s mostly the researcher’s job, not the archivist’s) but I enjoyed the work so much that in spring 2018, I started to pursue my Master’s in Public History at UALR.

Q: What’s the most important or interesting thing you’ve discovered while working at Archives? Why?

A: That’s a tough one – there are so many. One little gem I stumbled across early on was in the Silvester Thacher collection: it’s the front page of the Lansing State Republican, a Michigan newspaper, from April 15, 1865, reporting the news of President Lincoln’s death. What’s interesting about the article, though, is that it mistakenly reports that William H. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, was also dead. Seward actually survived being stabbed five times in an assassination attempt that was meant to be simultaneous with Lincoln’s and lived another seven years.

Q: Why do you think the Arkansas State Archives is important for Arkansans?

A: “Public memory” is a concept we talk a lot about in our field – everyone has his or her own family stories and ideas about what our past was like, and all these individual perceptions add up to our collective public memory. The tricky thing about public memory is that it is never 100% accurate, but it still directly informs the decisions we make here in the present. The Archives exist so that Arkansans can access a clearer view of our history, especially if we know what we’re looking for. We collect all sorts of records from state agencies that may not be all that interesting to the average person, but making them accessible to the public is important because it may provide the missing piece of a story that gives us clarity about our past and informs vital decisions about our future.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: Getting to look at documents and maps that nobody has seen or paid attention to in years, and working to make them available to the public.

Q: How do you see archiving evolving in the future?

A: Well, certainly more of it will be online, and hopefully accessible to more and more people through shared databases from different institutions. Right now, you usually still need to know exactly what you’re looking for when searching online, because a lot of great materials are still sequestered in old printed finding aids. Getting them online is a lot of work, but it’s valuable work, and when it’s done, it will be easier for people to just stumble upon the little gems they’re looking for, rather than having to know exactly what they’re looking for.

Q: What do you wish people knew about Archives?

A: Plenty of our patrons already know about how the hours can just disappear when they’re looking through old newspapers on microfilm, but I think more people ought to know. It’s one of the most vivid, immersive and immediately gratifying ways to lose yourself in history and see exactly what was on people’s minds and how differently they communicated and expressed themselves just 50 or 100 years ago, and you don’t need to be researching anything specific to enjoy that.