True Librarian — Interviews with UWM Libraries Staff: Abigail Nye

Abigail Nye. Photo by Christina DeSpears.

Reference and Instruction Archivist Abigail Nye loves both halves of her job—assisting scholars on what she calls their “treasure hunts” and introducing undergraduates to the Archives’ potential—and each, she notes, directly impacts UWM’s strategic goals of research excellence and student success.

Abbi joined the UWM Libraries in 2014, after working for four years as Archives and Digital Records Coordinator of the Staublitz Archives at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She earned her BA from Wheaton College and her MLIS, Archives Studies, from UWM.

Active in her profession, Abbi has given many presentations at state, regional and national library and archives conferences, with titles ranging from “Social Media Crash Course for Special Collections” to “Telling the Story of 1967-1968 in the North: Documenting Social Protest in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit.” She recently co-authored an article for The American Archivist, “Teaching the Teacher: Primary Source Instruction in North American Archives Graduate Programs” (Spring/Summer 2018, Vol. 81, No. 1, pp. 188-215).

Q: UWM has again earned top-tier research status from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. How does the Archives contribute to campus research efforts?

Abbi: I think that the materials that we offer enhance the research of everybody, from our undergraduates to our faculty. I have people tell me, “I would never have been able to write my dissertation if it hadn’t been for the Archives.”

Q: What does the Archives hold?

Abbi: As a university archives, we document the story of UWM’s growth from fledgling institution to major research university. But we also do a lot of work to document the history of Milwaukee, with a focus on some specific areas: groups that have been historically marginalized, such as the African American, LatinX, LGBT communities; social justice organizations; and of course the beer brewing industry in Milwaukee. As an Area Research Center for the Wisconsin Historical Society, we also provide access to WHS records for Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Sheboygan, Washington, and Waukesha counties. So we really offer a large breadth of records to researchers.

Q: Tell me about working with students.

Abbi: I love teaching undergrads who have never worked with primary sources before and haven’t yet learned how to approach them critically; it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to be able to work with our archivists and start to develop those skills. For many of the students, the projects they complete in the Archives are unique in their undergraduate experience in that they are contributing original research to the scholarly conversation.

Q: Can you give an example?

Abbi: Students in a gender studies seminar used materials from our collection to focus on the portrayal of women in advertising in the early twentieth century. They developed an exhibit that was shown on the first floor of the library. We posted some of their research on our Tumblr account, which generated a lot of engagement. It was fascinating to see their work about women and Milwaukee sparking really interesting conversations about the history of women in general.

Q: What about the community beyond the campus borders?

Abbi: We are always looking for ways to engage community members. We regularly host Milwaukee Public Schools students and I recently had a visit from a group of young homeschooled students learning about Milwaukee’s African-American history.  We set up displays and exhibits at various festivals around town. And we really try through social media to interact with people in the community. Because our collecting areas are focused on the Milwaukee community, I see our role as trying to preserve the memories and history of Milwaukee, and presenting that back to people in meaningful and helpful ways.

Q: Archives is in the planning and fund-raising stages of recreating itself in a new location in the library.

Abbi: Yes! The new Archives will revolutionize the experience of the user. The most important changes will be with the public service spaces: a new reading room, a new exhibits space, and most importantly a new active learning classroom, designed for students to do the kind of primary source research that we teach.

Q: What is your favorite collection?

Abbi: Right now it’s probably the papers of civil rights activist and civic leader Vel Phillips. The more I learn about her, the more I realize just what an incredible person she was. The common narrative about her is so reductive, focusing mainly on her public achievements, which are indeed remarkable. But I would love for somebody to write a biography of her that dives into who she really was as a person, and how she dealt with the very real cultural expectations of her as a woman of color, a wife, a mother, and how she still managed to be first in so many things. When I look at the photographs in our collection or the autobiography or even the tickets to the events that she presented herself at, I begin to get a well-rounded picture of who she was as a person—and such an interesting person!