An Interview with Jessica Richardson Smith, Museum Anthropologist and Research Services Librarian at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Jessica Richardson Smith is the Research Services Librarian at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. She pursued three majors—Anthropology, Latin and Greek, and Geology for her Indiana University BA degree from the College of Arts and Sciences. While at Indiana, she used the museum practicum course in the Department of Anthropology to gain a range of experiences working in the Midwest Archaeological Laboratory. That work resulted in a published paper—Tools of the Trade: Chipped Lithic Assemblages from the Hovey Lake (12Po10) and Ries-Hasting (12Po590) Archaeological Sites, Posey County, Indiana (with Cheryl Ann Munson, Meredith B. McCabe and Dean J. Reed). She earned a master’s degree from the Department of Anthropology at the George Washington University and leads the Wymer’s DC project.
Jason Baird Jackson (JJ): Before we circle back and discuss your experiences at Indiana University and George Washington University, I’d love to begin by finding out about the mission of the Historical Society of Washington and your role there. What are your core responsibilities as a Research Service Librarian?
Jessica Richardson Smith (JRS): Sure! The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. is a 122-year old educational and research institution that collects and shares the history of Washington, D.C., emphasizing the local community over the federal city. We are a team of seven who strive to produce diverse public programming and exhibitions, as well as public access to our collections. That’s where I come in as the Research Services Librarian. The core of the Historical Society is our research library which houses over 100,000 photographs, over 800 manuscript collections, and hundreds of maps, prints, and objects—all on D.C. history.
My day-to-day duties consist of working with researchers in our library to help them find the information they need. Whether they are writing a scholarly article or just bought a house and want to learn about its history and their new neighborhood, my job is to help facilitate their needs with what our library can offer. Another facet of my job is to know what the other repositories in the city have. If the Historical Society doesn’t have some piece of information, I want to know where I can direct them.
I love my job—I never do the same thing twice and each day I am learning more and more about this city, our collections, and our members. On any given day, I may meet members of our community and learn about their projects and passions, research a topic in our collection for a researcher working remotely, or help troubleshoot a long-shot research query that someone submits based on a decades-old memory. Every day is something new and every day is something interesting. The best part is when I can apply what I learn one day to a question we get the following week. That’s great. It makes you feel like you are making real headway into learning the complex history of a city like D.C.
Also, because we are a small institution with a big mission, my colleagues and I are expected to wear many hats. In addition to my librarian duties, I also participate in shaping our public programming and exhibitions; I conduct photo research for our publications; I digitize material and tackle rights assessment questions; and I track our library statistics. Each of these things are being juggled on a day-to-day basis, which can be demanding but also very fulfilling.
JJ: It sounds like you are in a sweet-spot in terms of scale. Your institution is big enough to be doing important, interesting work but small enough that you have not gotten trapped in a specialist silo in which you do only one task over and over again.
Washington is such an incredible place for museums, libraries, and archives. What is it like to work in a small-but-old museum/library in a city of large-but-old museums/libraries? Do you feel connected with GLAM (Gallery, Library, Archives, and Museums) professionals around the city or, like many of our colleagues elsewhere, do the day-to-day demands of the job keep you from connecting to colleagues around the city?
JRS: I can’t speak for what it is like at other institutions, but I think we do a good job of collaborating with our fellow institutions in the city, particularly those with a local focus. The D.C. Public Library, National Archives, Library of Congress, National Building Museum, the newest Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture—these are all institutions we work alongside and collaborate with in order to forward our mission of preserving local D.C. history.
As the Research Services Librarian, my daily duties are often intra-institution focused but I regularly refer our library patrons to other institutions around the city when we don’t have particular resources. While this means I don’t personally interact on a daily basis with my GLAM colleagues, there is mutual awareness of our work through referrals. At the Historical Society, our main collaboration with our GLAM colleagues is through joint public programming, from conference plenaries to archival fairs, workshops, exhibitions, etc.
JJ: I am especially glad to hear that you have not only pathways to connect with colleagues, but that your institution is well-situated enough to support, and to see the value in, outreach, research dissemination, and professional development activities like those you have just mentioned. One of my reasons for being interested in your connectedness to the cultural institutions of DC is that you were trained at the MA level there, at George Washington University. That institution has a unique advantage in that it trains students in a city with so many public collections and so many collections-oriented professionals. Before we turn to your undergraduate experiences at Indiana, could you describe your graduate studies? What did you study? What role did hands-on work play in your career? Read more