Wonderful Women Wednesday: Ellen Alers

Each week, the Archives features a woman who has been a groundbreaker at the Smithsonian, past or present, in a series titled Wonderful Women Wednesday.

Ellen Alers has been a stalwart presence at the Smithsonian Institution Archives since joining the staff in 1998. Initially a member of the Archives and Information Management (AIM) Team, Ellen has been an integral part of the Reference Team since 2000, serving as the lead reference archivist for more than a decade. Prior to pursuing a career in archives, Ellen was a museum technician at the National Museum of Natural History during the mid-1980s.

The broad scope of the Smithsonian is reflected in the Archives’ holdings, and Ellen’s experience identifying, reviewing, and gleaning information from the breadth of collections is unparalleled. This experience, coupled with her vast, keen knowledge on a broad spectrum of topics, and a methodical, dogged approach to research makes Ellen a force as a Smithsonian reference archivist. It is impossible to confirm how many inquiries Ellen may have addressed during her tenure; many inquiries are informal and not logged. Statistics show more than 27,000 responses to her credit (these statistics are restrained and a little spotty prior to 2008). My own math (questionable at best) estimates more than 10,000 hours covering the reference desk, where she received visitors, answered the telephone, managed the reading room, and paged archival collections. Ellen has assisted and guided hundreds of researchers who visit the Archives to use collections and has been acknowledged in dozens of publications. Additionally, Ellen has provided informed tours of our facility and holdings to groups, large and small and has authored more than two dozen Archives blog posts, available here

While the measurables are impressive, the work of a thoughtful reference archivist is not necessarily a quantitative craft. Intimate knowledge of archival collections can be acquired only through time and experience; there is no substitute. Ellen is always approachable, always willing to share her knowledge, and has served as a mentor to countless Smithsonian fellows, interns, volunteers, staff, and colleagues. Furthermore, Ellen is a gifted conversationist with a brazen spirit, sharp wit, and casual seriousness, which makes her a tremendous colleague and asset to the Archives.

Ellen speaks to visitors on a tour of collections in the Natural History Museum Building. She is hol

Photo by Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution

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