When I’m in an archive, I feel like a kid in the candy store. I want to learn everything, explore everywhere and discover every single piece that might have been forgotten in the crush of the collection.
In my last archival position, I worked at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center processing its enormous Forrest J Ackerman collection. More accurately, I processed part of the Forrest J Ackerman collection, as even just sorting through Forrest’s mail has been a continuous project for several years now. Forrest J Ackerman (who was an active science fiction literary agent for most of the 20th century) seemed to have kept everything he ever received in the mailbox, whether that was bills, catalogs or actual correspondence. Organizing Forrest’s mail was a like a game of Clue wrapped up in a treasure hunt: there was fan mail, there were letters from the authors he represented, there were responses from DAW or Simon & Schuster, and then suddenly something would pop up from Walt Disney or the Church of Scientology. Forrest seemed to be connected to everyone, and those connections are what I love so much about archives.
This is one of the reasons I was so eager to apply to the Anoka County Historical Society, as well as why I’m so excited to have been hired. Even from the brief time I’ve had, I can see there are connections everywhere — between artifacts, between places, between past and present, living and dead, between family, friends and neighbors. It is an amazing, overwhelming experience to see the tangible evidence of our history and our ties to one another. So many of these connections come together to build the shared history of Anoka County. They’re akin to the arches and supports of a giant cathedral, but instead building a structure, they build a community.
Without my quite realizing it, much of my professional experience has been focused on community building: I’ve worked for a small publisher that printed local novels and histories, for a nonprofit that brought literacy and writing classes to all the schools in town, and for public libraries that pulled their neighborhoods together despite staggering odds. I have studied storytelling and what makes a common narrative powerful, as well as how vital it is that we protect and share the information that surrounds us every day. In the last few years, I’ve lived in South Dakota, Iowa, New York and now Minnesota. I’ve been far from family and made friends who live all over the country. However, I don’t think the true impact of connections has ever been clearer to me than in this year.
I will always remember 2020 as the year of COVID-19, worldwide protests and a presidential election. Despite all this, I will also always remember 2020 as the year I graduated with my master’s degree, moved halfway across the country, got married and was hired by ACHS. I don’t think it’s ever been more obvious than now that our history is being written all the time — and that it’s our personal stories and our connections as people that give major events real meaning. I’m honored to be able to help bring these stories to life in the community, whether they’re the ones that were forged a hundred years ago or those that are being lived today.
Erin McBrien is the archivist/curator for the Anoka County Historical Society.