Laura Schmidt '05 is an archivist at The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton.
What has been your vocational path since graduation? How did you end up where you are and what was the process of getting there? Is this what you expected to be doing?
After graduation from Wheaton with my dual majors in History and English Literature, I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan and graduated in 2005 with an MSI (Masters in the Science of Information) and a specialization in Archives and Records Management. I had wanted to be a librarian since high school, due to a love of books and being an avid reader, and when I went to grad school I shifted to the world of archives and special collections. Archival institutions are the treasure houses of documents and objects from the past. Archivists preserve everything from the Magna Carta to action figures made yesterday. The goal in archiving is to keep the stories of history alive through physical and digital records, and enable future generations to tap into those resources and learn from them. It was a perfect fit for this history major!
After getting my masters degree, I was looking for a job in special collections, since they tend to be a blend of the library and archives worlds (and have a lot of books). It was at that time that I interviewed, surprisingly enough and by God's good grace, for the position of Archivist at The Marion E. Wade Center. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have long been my favorite authors, and I worked at the Wade as a student at Wheaton College. My appreciation for history and understanding the valuable things it has to teach us, along with my love of literature and my newly-gained skills as an archivist made this an ideal position. It's been 10 years since I started at the Wade, and I have honestly loved every day of this job.
Can you share some ways that your history major has enriched your life?
When I think of history I think of perspectives, context, and origins. Everything in this world (from individual people, to nations and cultures, to acres of land) has a story. As a history major, I learned that those stories continue to have an impact on today's world, and to bring positive change you need to understand what came before. Without that context and understanding, an incautious hand with the desire to bring valuable change can instead cause a lot of devastation. We see this very vividly in our world of instantaneous and sensational information. Any soundbite of information cannot be taken solely by itself, but needs to have a fuller story behind it with multiple perspectives investigated before it can be really understood. A student of history knows this, and that it takes patience, time, and investigation to see the fullness and context of any issue. You learn a lot about humanity during that process, and all the best and worst things about human nature, which ultimately doesn't change as time goes on.
In light of your own experiences, what advice would you give to undergraduates? Do you have any advice specifically on making the most of a degree in history?
There are a lot of ways to apply a history major other than teaching (which is the common career offered to history majors). Don't forget cultural institutions like libraries, museums, and archives. And don't forget that history is all around us. If you're in corporate environment, or a nonprofit, or an academic career, local or abroad, everything - EVERYTHING has a history and a story to tell. It is understanding these stories that helps to guide the future in any context you find yourself. You will be seen as the memory-keeper, and the one who brings a wise word to the issues of the day when you know the history of where you are and how the whole picture fits together. As a society, we can't afford to lose that perspective.
If you have gone on to graduate work, can you suggest some tangible connections between your history major and your graduate studies?
Mine are pretty obvious! In a masters program learning how to preserve and make historical records and information accessible, it was invaluable to have a historical background and understand how these pieces of stories fit together. Along with that, having an interest in historical things gave me a natural curiosity and desire to research and learn about the records I was preserving. That perspective helps me, in turn, make them available to the researchers of today and those in the future. It also gave me a passion to help these stories be heard. You have a real sense as an archivist that without your aid, the voices in these records will be lost to the future. That is a fantastic, humbling, and exciting challenge.