An interview with Stephanie Call, Archivist and Manager of Digital Collections
What does an Archivist and Manager of Digital Collections do?
This title is fairly specific to AJHS-NEA and was really designed to encompass all of my responsibilities. Primarily, though, I manage the collections – I’m responsible for knowing everything about them. I track whether they are on-site or in off-site storage, if they have been processed and digitized, and now, I’m encoding finding aids for online access. For digital collections, I manage the workflow process and reference requests. I also supervise the work of the digital archive assistants, and several volunteers and interns. Periodically I write articles for American Ancestors (a publication of the New England Historic Genealogical Society) and give presentations.
How did you become interested in Archives, and what led you to your current position at AJHS?
My decision to become an archivist was a very slow, gradual and organic process. I always gravitated towards historical documents and artifacts, preferred touring historic houses and museums, and reading historical fiction (and non-fiction). A favorite book as a child was Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer. It’s a fantastic story that uses time travel as a literary device, and it was keenly disappointing to me that I couldn’t follow in Charlotte’s footsteps. As a child of the 1980s, everything seemed very cheap and plastic (probably because a lot of things were cheap and plastic), and I always appreciated the craftsmanship of similar items from earlier eras.
Being an archivist is a bit like being a time traveler. It’s easy to get lost in some collections. You begin to feel like you personally know the people whose papers you’re arranging. It’s not uncommon for me to refer to a personal collection by name only – as in, “Dewey is downstairs” – and of course I mean the boxes of Dewey Stone Papers, not that Dewey Stone himself has joined us for lunch.
As for my current position, I landed at AJHS-NEA shortly after I moved up to Boston to attend graduate school. They were looking for a couple of interns to help with their new digital project and even though I knew nothing at that point, Judi Garner, the Director of AJHS-NEA, hired me. I was interested in AJHS-NEA because I wanted to work with Jewish heritage collections. I’ve been here ever since, working my way “up the ladder” to my current position.
Were you always interested in Jewish history?
No. My mother is Jewish and my father was Episcopalian, and my brothers and I were actually christened Episcopalian. My mother loves Christmas and our house always looked like a Macy’s store window during the holiday season. I often cajoled my father into taking me to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, where every five minutes, I asked him the time. Needless to say, neither of us enjoyed that experience very much. However, I was very much aware of my mother’s family history. My great-grandparents immigrated to New Haven, Connecticut to escape the pogroms in Russia and Poland, and left behind family who were never heard from again after World War II. It wasn’t until high school, though, that I really started to pay attention to my Jewish heritage. In college I minored in Jewish Studies, specifically focusing on the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and that was when I started to seriously identify as Jewish. That being said, I only recently attended my first Passover Seder – at a Unitarian church, too. I enjoyed it. And it was really gratifying to see people of all backgrounds embracing the meaning of Passover.
Why is the preservation of archival material in general, and specifically local and regional Jewish history, so important?
We’ve seen, historically and in recent events, how one group will try to destroy another through the annihilation of their cultural history – whether that’s through libraries, museums, statues, or art. Archives are repositories of cultural memory; the contents inform the future and help understand the past. So many of us think that, because we’re not a politician or celebrity or someone with a “name” that what we do here and now isn’t important, and no one cares – but that’s not true at all. Every one of us has a point of view of events that happen and how they might impact us, our families, or our community. How we interpret that in the present, and record that interpretation, is how people in the future will be able to understand that event in context. The Boston Jewish community of the 20th century was very astute; there was an incredible impetus to not just witness history but be a part of it. I see this same attitude with Jewish communities now, so it’s vital that people collect and preserve the record of their participation.
What’s your favorite collection or item in the archive at AJHS, and why?
My favorite collection, hands down, is the Bernard Gorfinkle papers. Gorfinkle was a World War I veteran and an aide to President Wilson during the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. He understood he was living through a tremendous, world-changing event in history and did his best to capture it through letters home, diary entries, and photographs. He kept items he wasn’t supposed to keep, like his American Expeditionary Forces identification card, and we know his scrapbook is a ledger book from a French bank because he wrote an inscription inside the front cover. I always get lost in his world when I read his letters. Most of us understand that the times we live in will one day be in the history books, but most of us don’t bother to capture it in such detail from our own perspective. Bernard Gorfinkle was a lawyer and a soldier – he wasn’t famous – but he left a real gift for current and future historians.