Faculty Research: Kathy Wisser

If you speak to Kathy Wisser about her research interests, you have to know your acronyms. During our conversation she effortlessly discussed examples such as EAD (Encoded Archival Description), SNAC (The Social Networks and Ar chival Context Project), NAAC (National Archival Authorities Cooperative) and the mouthful EAC-CPF (Encoded Archival Context-Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families). At the end of our meeting, not only was I impressed by her ability to actually remember all of these acronyms, but it was also clear that Wisser's involvement in numerous projects and societies reflected a genuine respect for the archives profession and a passion for dissecting the "relationship between people and surrogates of information." As Assistant Professor and Co-directo r of the Dual Degree Archives and History Program, Wisser has managed to successfully blend her lifelong interest in American history and library science. Wisser enjoys the adventure of finding ways to process and classify data successfully.

When Wisser is not teaching, writing, conducting workshops, or assisting archival projects, she researches 19th-century social libraries. Wisser is particularly interested in The Boston Athenaeum, one of the earliest subscription libraries in the country. The Athenaeum's appeal is in its materials and cataloging practices. The historical space may be able to provide insight into topics including the evolution of cataloging, 19th-century intellectualism, and local history. The exciting thing about being drawn into a place like the Athenaeum, says Wisser, is that she is able to draw up on her own educational background as an Americanist. She is then able to use her archiving skills to discover information.

Her exploration of the Athenaeum usually takes a backseat to her various archival projects and her research that she carries out around the country. Most of her work focuses on ways to refine metadata and make sure that each resource generates information in a structured way. Her unwavering enthusiasm for her work became evident as she carefully explained to me her role in consulting projects, like SNAC or the NAAC, which aim to create one central database, in which users can find comprehensive profiles about subjects pulled from several archives. Her services usually include evaluating issues, such as cost-benefit analysis and classification. As someone with more than a decade of experience in archives and organizing infrastructures, she stressed that to confirm the highest level of quality of metadata "we [archivists, catalogers and developers] need to be honest about the imperfections of systems, and also people." If the goal is to "provide as many windows of access to information as possible," how can we create and sustain quality metadata if there is always room for error? As the crux of her research, Wisser is continually finding ways to embrace this uncertainty while striving to achieve usage standards on a national level. Accepting the limitations is difficult, but Wisser believes that it ultimately makes her a better archivist.

Since I am a future archivist, it was refreshing for me to meet someone who is frank about her struggles in the field, yet still eager to inspire interest in others. It will be years before I can reach the level of her success. However, it gives me plenty of time to work on my acronyms.

Article by Ashleigh Coren

Faculty Profile | Infolink Newsletter