Employee Q&A: Assistant Librarian/Archivist Chrystal Carpenter

Employee Q&A: Assistant Librarian/Archivist Chrystal Carpenter

By Alexis BlueUniversity Communications
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Chrystal Carpenter organizes and files boxes of historical materials to preserve them for future generations.
Chrystal Carpenter organizes and files boxes of historical materials to preserve them for future generations.
Chrystal Carpenter organizes and files boxes of historical materials to preserve them for future generations.
Chrystal Carpenter organizes and files boxes of historical materials to preserve them for future generations.

Chrystal Carpenter

Number of years at the UA

Manuscript and Congressional Archivist, University Libraries-Special Collections

Favorite part about working at the UA
"I really like the environment and the people."


Want to see a picture of campus when Old Main was the only building as far as the eye could see? Or find out who lived in your neighborhood in the early 1900s? The University of Arizona Libraries' Special Collections is the place to look.

Established in 1958 to house archival materials on Arizona, the Southwest and the U.S./Mexico borderlands, Special Collections now includes materials in a variety of subject areas – from rare books to photo collections to key historical documents.

Included in the Special Collections inventory are boxes of materials that, when lined up, would stretch the length of a whopping 36 football fields. Those boxes contain a wide range of non-book materials – journals, maps, posters, artwork, newspapers, loose photographs, research notes, record albums, clothing and more. 

Chrystal Carpenter, manuscript and congressional archivist, oversees acquisitions and processing of such materials, which students, faculty and community members can access freely to aid them in their personal or professional research.

She recently took a break from sifting through boxes of donations to talk with Lo Que Pasa about her work organizing and preserving the past.

How can someone access your collections?
Anyone can come into our reading room and look at any of this material at any time that we're open. ... Basically if you're here in town, you can just come in and ask and we'll bring out anything that you're interested in. If you're not in town, we'll get phone calls, e-mails. ... Then we go into the collection and, like a little detective, we kind of sift through and find (the) information that they're looking for and then either photocopy it or tell them about it.

What kinds of manuscripts are people the most interested in looking at?
All kinds of different things. Our Morris K. Udall and Stewart Udall collections are heavily utilized. Stewart was in the (U.S. president's) Cabinet, worked with JFK, and Morris had like a 30-year run (in Congress) and he ran for president, so he had a large impact nationally, so (we get) a lot of inquiries on them. Recently we've had a lot of inquiries with our vaudeville collection; we have the American Museum of Vaudeville (American Vaudeville Museum) collection that just recently came within the last year or so, and it's been heavily utilized. ... (It's) just a fabulous collection of sheet music, photographs, Charlie Chaplin's signature, just all kinds of neat materials.

Are people supervised while they look at materials?
We always have two staff members, or a staff member and a student, there (in the reading room) to facilitate and to assist. And we do have a very specific security process. We have cameras in the room, we take a photo ID to photocopy to keep records that they visited, and we don't allow other personal belongings in the room. Because of the uniqueness and the rarity of the materials, we don't want things to accidentally get shuffled in with somebody's notes and leave the premises. In general, we provide notepaper ... and we have a laptop for people to use and stuff like that.

Why do people want to access the collections?
For students, it's for classroom presentations. Faculty (often access materials) to support their research ... Then there's also family genealogy that kind of happens here. We have biographical information on people and so forth, so people will come in to trace down some of their family lineage or (information on) their home residence or their neighborhood. We'll have the information on historical aspects of different neighborhoods, so they'll come in to trace who lived in their house in the 1890s or something like that.

How far back do the collections go?
Probably the oldest thing that we have is a sheet from the Catholicon (religious dictionary), the Gutenberg Bible, but one of the neatest things (we have) that's almost just as old, we have an original Pliny the Elder's "Natural History" (from 1492). It's just a beautiful illustrated manuscript. It's one of the first typed books, but then (it's) hand illustrated with, like, gold leaf, and it's just beautiful.

Are there any special practices for handling materials?
With the rare books and so forth, we have book cradles (angled book stands that help prevent damage to the binding). And we ask that people are very careful when they open something that's, you know, from the 15th century. ... Then with manuscript collections, because they're original, oftentimes individual items within a folder ... (and) we ask that one folder comes out (of a box) and they turn page by page and put that one back to look at the next. With photographs, we ask that people use gloves because of the wax that builds up on people's fingers. Then if something is too fragile and they want it photocopied, we sometimes won't allow photocopying if it would damage the book or something like that. 

Do materials ever get torn or damaged?
I'm sure it happens. I worked here when I was a student, when I was both (an) undergrad and grad (student), and ... one of the first things I did is I went to turn a page (of newspaper) and "rip." I was like, "Oh my gosh." But I mean, some things are more fragile than others, and if you get a rip you can ultimately fix it. But I don't know of any horror stories of anything, thank goodness.    

You worked here as student before starting full time?
Yeah, I was getting my degree in anthropology. Then I was staying here to work (on my master's) with an Egyptology professor on campus, Richard Wilkinson. The people here at Special Collections were like, "Well, since you're staying here anyways, you might as well get your library degree," and I was like, "That's not a bad idea." It's really fascinating; to me it's a lot like archeaology. I mean, you're not having to dig in the ground, but you're basically "digging" through boxes, and you start to make sense of what it is and then you put it (the materials) out there for people to find. ... I was going to be an Egyptologist all the way until my first year of my master's. I was doing both library school and Near Eastern studies, and I still love Egyptology ... but I go to Egypt for fun now instead. The last trip I took was 2 1/2 years ago; I've been twice.

What's the best part of your job?
It's really rewarding because you get to help to save the historical record for future generations, and people entrust us to preserve that material and make it accessible. It's just really rewarding when somebody finds something on their family or something that they're researching for a book or whatever it may be.  

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?
It's really hard to say. One of the most interesting things we have, that I just think is really neat, is in the vaudeville collection. ... It's basically a three-piece suit that has little mother-of-pearl buttons over the entire thing. It was (worn in) a stage act where they kind of make fun of the upper class (and the way) they would dress in all this fancy stuff.

A lot of the documents you deal with are related to Arizona history. Did you know a lot about that when you started here?
Not really. I've learned quite a bit, and before this I was at the (Arizona) Historical Society; that's where I really got to learn a whole lot about Arizona history. That was my first professional job out of library school; I was their photo archivist. ... I worked at the (Arizona) State Museum for a while, too, so it's nice to have all the pieces of the Arizona history puzzle kind of in my head. I don't claim to know everything about Arizona history at all, but I know where to go to find it, which is the most important thing for a person in my job.

Do you know someone who has an interesting job at the UA? Send his or her name and contact information to lqp@email.arizona.edu for consideration for a future Employee Q&A.

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