Joan Gilder has been a volunteer with the Smithsonian Institution Archives' Preservation Team for two decades, and has worked to treat many of our collections in order to increase their lifespan and improve access. She has been an invaluable asset to the Archives since she first began, and we are thrilled to share a little more about her story.
What did you do before you began volunteering with the Smithsonian Institution Archives?
My family and I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1996 when my husband retired. Not soon after, I began volunteering with the Smithsonian Institution Behind-the-Scenes volunteer program.
For five years before coming to D.C., I worked at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Michigan in both the museum and associated library. I performed reference desk duty, circulation desk work, and became a docent for the museum. I also worked with their large slide collection, locating slides and checking them out according to policies. These were often used for educational programs for children and docents.
Before that, we lived in Pittsfield, Massachusetts for about 13 years. For a short time, I was an assistant to photographer Clemens Kalischer. Later, I volunteered and eventually worked part-time at the Berkshire Athenaeum in the Music and Arts Department where I assisted at the circulation desks and answered researchers’ questions. I also put together an exhibition highlighting a collection of ballet memorabilia, which was very well received!
We lived in Cincinnati for eight years before moving to Pittsfield. While there, I volunteered at the Cincinnati Art Museum. I bounced around several departments during my time there - Registrar, Conservation, and Visitor Services. Working with the Registrar, I cataloged Native American collections and when I moved to the Conservation department, I had the pleasure of treating many of the items I cataloged, including baskets and moccasins.
What brought you to the Smithsonian Institution Archives as a volunteer?
My son saw an article in the newspaper requesting volunteers in the Smithsonian Institution. I visited Robbie Buchanan in the Castle to speak with staff and expressed my interest in working with my hands in a creative setting. Robbie provided me with a list of volunteer opportunities, and one was with the Smithsonian Libraries, Preservation Services Department. I was interviewed by Janice Stagnitto (Ellis) and Claire Dekle, and during that initial interview, I was asked to perform the “bristol board test.” I had to demonstrate that I knew the correct direction of the grain in the board in order to make strong four-flaps, and I must have passed! I was with Smithsonian Librairies for a few short years until I transferred to the Smithsonian Institution Archives Preservation Team in 2001.
What has been your favorite part about volunteering here?
I may have answered differently twenty years ago, but in these last number of years the interaction with workmates has become as pleasing to me as the work itself remains. I am not unfamiliar with congeniality at work – having experienced libraries, museums, and non-profit agencies in several communities through the years where there has been unfailing thoughtfulness, good humor, and joy. But I have found here such unusual attentiveness that I am heartened all week by the friendliness and support of the Archives’ staff.
What collection project has been the most interesting?
The collection project that has been the most interesting to me is the first one – rehousing the files of Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887) from his time as Assistant Secretary, beginning in 1850. Professor Baird was a leading 19th century authority on the wildlife of North America and was one of the first founders of paleontology. He formed a network of young scientists – advancing their careers and instructing people all over the world.
My earliest pleasure in this project was observing handwriting, methods of folding and addressing correspondence, and the choice of papers. Youngsters, on school notepaper, asked Professor Baird to aid in their homework or speculate on a species of fish found in a backyard stream. Simple drawings accompanied some letters, detailing the feathers of a dead bird. Insects were described, Indian tools unearthed, rocks and minerals and shells discovered. On formal letterheads from academic institutions in this country and over the world, amateur and professional naturalists queried the Smithsonian Institution on matters, as they collected, identified, preserved, and exchanged specimens with one another. These things brought excitement and enrichment to their lives, and they depended on the experts at the Smithsonian to help in these efforts.
Has your impression of the Smithsonian changed since you began? What has surprised you the most?
I did not know the Smithsonian Institution well at all until moving to Arlington in 1996, and so my impressions grew with my familiarity. And since I became a volunteer very quickly after my arrival, I soon had a special interest in its well-being. The Smithsonian Institution became my go-to place.
When you are a volunteer, you hope to be assigned projects that are in some small way meaningful to you. What has surprised me is that perhaps what matters more is knowing that the job you are doing needs to be done; that it has been looking for someone to address it, other than an already busy staff. So for me, the things I do have that built-in reward.