I worked for just over a decade at a living history museum. It was my first job out of library school. Back in the day, hard as this may be to believe, I had three job offers to pick from — librarians were actually in demand. It’s unfathomable now, unfortunately, with the job market what it is. But back then, I had choices, and I chose a local museum, even though I’d had other plans. It seemed different, and interesting.

It was both of those things. It was also frustrating, and hard. There was a unique collection of people,  and a convoluted setup with a lot of cooks in charge: the Board, the Town, the staff. It was many times wonderful, many times awful, and sometimes exhausting. I have amazing memories of children enjoying our Halloween event, of bagpipes at Scottish Festival, houses being raised off their foundations and restored, festive holiday tours and events, school groups traipsing around the grounds in the sun. My library, and every painstaking step I took over that decade to organize it, fix it, make it useful and nice, with no budget and no money to spend — saving pennies to buy a table, working in the tomb-like archives day after day. My volunteers, some of them more precious to me than they could ever know. The genealogists, crazily obsessed with history. The ever-present smell of freshly-cut grass in the summer, walking around the grounds at the end of the day with my friend. The foxes, the rabbits, the deer. The best salad I ever had, one year at Quilt Show, and the day in December we stayed late during a snowstorm.

Unfortunately, I also remember the ax that hung over our necks at all times. The threat of budget cuts, of closure, of layoffs. The people who sneered at how unnecessary we were. The Board members who were unreasonable, the newly-elected politicians who found us an easy target for scoring points with taxpayers. The mean visitors at events, the bugs and the heat working at admissions at Harvest Festival, Halloween in the rain, holiday tours that were sparse, dark and depressing. Bad bosses, bad plans, bad co-workers. Watching beloved volunteers getting older and not being able to participate, and sometimes losing some of them forever. Worst of all, I remember being sent away, feeling unimportant and unvalued.

I try not to be bitter about it, but I usually fail. I still wish the museum well without me, of course, and there are some people involved now that I have a great deal of faith in. Some of them, though, I don’t. Some of them didn’t sweat those years out with us and shouldn’t get to feel proud of things they didn’t accomplish. Some of them were there and didn’t do anything to help, and don’t deserve to still be a part of something wonderful when other people were forced to leave.

The truth is, I would have left the museum by now, regardless, and moved to Long Island, so in some ways how I feel about it all is moot. I just wish I hadn’t had to go the way I did. And I wish, when I think of the museum, I could still feel a connection instead of an ache. Every book in that library and every box of archival material is there because I put it there. I picked the fabric on the chairs in the library, I set up the membership database, I ordered the microwave in the kitchen. I feel like part of me is still somewhere I don’t feel welcome anymore, and that makes for painful memories instead of good ones.

On the wall behind the main exhibit panel, all of the employees signed their names — hidden from view, but still there, documenting what we did. My co-workers and I, the volunteers I loved and I, we did a lot of the heavy lifting of making the museum what it is today. We couldn’t make it work because of conditions outside our control, not because we didn’t try hard enough, and I resent the implication that we failed when the deck was stacked against us the whole time.

What was your favorite video game? The Smithsonian wants to know.

From the Smithsonian’s web site:

The Art of Video Games is one of the first exhibitions to explore the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies. The exhibition will feature eighty games through still images and video footage. Five games will be available for visitors to play for a few minutes, to gain some feel for the interactivity—Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and World of Warcraft.

Additionally, the public is being asked to vote for their favorite games to be included, choosing from a pool of 240 proposed choices. Vote here through April 11, 2011.


Worth following: the Smithsonian Institution’s blog

I have to give an enthusiastic recommendation for the Smithsonian’s new(-ish) blog, SIRIS, for anyone with the slightly bit of curiosity about history, collections, our nation’s history or culture. From the SAA Archives & Archivists listserv:

Would you like to know more about the hidden treasures in the Smithsonian’s libraries, archives, museums, and special collections?  Read about highlights from these treasures on the newest Smithsonian blog at

Several times a week, Smithsonian staff will showcase some of their favorites from the fascinating pieces of history they discover in their daily work. We hope you will use the comments to engage in conversations with staff about these featured collections and to share your knowledge with us.

You can access the blog from the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) at or from the Collections Search Center at

Interesting stuff! I love the excerpts from the Oklahoma Indian Cook Book and the photograph of Theodore Roosevelt, seated, a few entries back: