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Abraham Schechter

October 2016

Interview by Carolle R. Morini, a special interview in honor of National Archive Month 

Abraham Schechter at C.S. Lewis's desk in his Oxford home.

Please tell us about your background—education and careers.

My childhood years were immersed in two large cities: New York and Paris, and French is my mother tongue. Thanks to the influence of place and family, my life has always been steeped in the fine arts. My mother introduced me to drawing and calligraphy. At 15, I taught myself how to develop film and print, using old box-cameras bought at SoHo flea markets. After graduating from New York’s renowned High School of Art & Design, I packed up my cameras and drawing materials and moved to Portland to attend the Maine College of Art. After graduating from art college with a BFA in the late 1980s, rooting myself in downtown Portland, I immediately found work as a commercial photographer and photography teacher. Through the 1990s, I ascended to the level of master printer, and with a few colleagues in a custom photographic lab in Portland, we built a national reputation for our techniques, printing portfolios, books, and shows for National Geographic, Aperture, and Magnum photographers. Between these projects, I also exhibited and published my own work, while teaching on the Maine College of Art faculty for a decade.

By the late 90s, I saw the end was near for the handcrafted photo field, and I sought my second career, noticing my clients in libraries, archives, and museums were still very busy. Through those years, I created photo conservation processes. I decided to pursue archival education, grounding myself with two years of graduate-level studies in history at the University of Southern Maine, and at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. During the latter, while working at the Harvard University Archives (on some of Harvard’s photo collections), my colleagues encouraged me to visit and transfer to Simmons College. By the time I graduated with my MLS from Simmons, I had already begun teaching bookbinding and conservation (having apprenticed at Northeast Document Conservation Center) and publishing on the topic. For the past 17 years, I’ve been employed as a professional archivist and conservator in my home state of Maine—continuing to teach, present at conferences, and provide consulting services to my regional neighbors. Since late 2005, I’ve been serving as Head of Special Collections and Archivist at Portland Public Library. The Library has grown to become Maine’s most visited cultural venue.

How did you come across the Boston Athenæum?

The archival program at Simmons College comprises internships, adding practical scenarios to theoretical learning. While I was purposefully completing my practica in Maine, helping special collections departments at Bowdoin College, University of Southern Maine, Osher Map Library, and Portland Museum of Art, some of my Simmons friends were serving as interns at the Athenæum. As my graduating class was completing final projects, one of my classmates organized for about five of us to visit the Athenæum for afternoon tea and a tour. That was my first time at the Athenæum, and I was thoroughly impressed. I’ve attended many afternoon teas over the years, taking days off from work. My graduation gift to myself was to join; that was in June 1998, and I’ve been a grateful member ever since.

Why do you like being a member?

While I was a graduate student, I began cultivating an enduring love for learning and writing. The Athenæum is the perfect place to pursue a life of learning. I especially like the term self-culture as used by the author and abolitionist James Freeman Clarke, whose books are at the Athenæum. I cherish my membership, and have been making it a point to travel to Boston at least once a month so that I can enjoy the Athenæum. Over the years, I’ve made many friends here, among members and staff—also recruiting a lot of members, giving my own version of “the tour!”

Do you mind writing about the research you do when you are here?

I refer to the Boston Athenæum as my scriptorium, as it is my oasis for writing, reading, friendship, and learning. With every visit I continue to find literary treasures to sign out, especially in the basement Drum! As a writer, retreats are essential occasions for respite and creative rejuvenation. This practice began with my first of countless and continuing sojourns at Vermont’s Weston Priory. Beginning in 2011, I created my own version of a monastic retreat right on Beacon Hill. Twice a year, I stay for a week at Beacon Hill Friends House while participating in the Quaker community there, the community at the Church of the Advent, with a solid week of blissful study in the Vershbow Room at the Athenæum. It’s a life-giving immersion experience, especially with the texts I choose from the Athenæum’s great collection of inspirational writing. For each sojourn, I create a theme that I use as I navigate the catalogue to select study material. Much of what I’ve studied in the Vershbow Room has been of Quaker provenance. I like to say that in the library I’m listening to the saints of old, and on Chestnut Street the saints of now. Between these retreats, I compile my handwritten notes into electronic indices. Last year, during a week’s study, a fellow Vershbow researcher was talking about dissertation prep and wading through the density of Richard Baxter’s work. I mentioned that I had spent a week in the Vershbow studying his personal writing, and sent this fellow member my indexed notes for which she was very thankful. This is an example of how the Athenæum can bring scholars together. I believe that with inspiration we inspire others.     

Tell us about the Portland Public Library and the archive collections you work with. What is held within its collections?

Though the Portland Public Library is 150 years old, the library’s special collections area—called The Portland Room—was created in 1979. Prior to that, rare books and manuscripts had been part of the reference department. As the library’s first professional archivist, my marching orders were to develop and organize focused collections while also integrating the department into public programming. The Portland Room has become the go-to place to study city history. The program offerings I’ve created range from school group Portland history units to curated exhibits to maker spaces (bookbinding and calligraphy) to “Socrates Café” groups (something I learned to do at UMass-Boston) and currently a monthly “Journaling in the Library” group.

Alongside processing, conserving, and digitizing existing collections has been accessioning more documentary archival material to continue enriching Portland’s story. Within this are such gems as city maps, prints, newspapers dating back to the 1780s, manuscripts, photographs, printed books from various presses in Portland, and the archives of Children’s Theatre of Maine, which began in 1924 and is the oldest running American children’s theatrical company. 

Do you have any favorite items?

Among my favorites is my current labor-of-love: in late 2009, I rescued 70 years (1936–2005) of newspaper photo negatives (camera originals) from the sub-basement of the former newspaper building, right before it was gutted. Arranging the collection took nearly three years, during which I examined more than a million images. The descriptive work is well in progress, with assistance from faithful volunteers, as I construct the finding aid and begin thematic digitization work. I find this a wonderful collection, not just because of the rescue story, but because I recognize the locations, and I’m enjoying a unique learning experience about Portland through the twentieth century. Streets, bygone buildings, community institutions, people, events, and even the physical film attest to the history of photography. I even saw myself in the 1980s! The collection is not yet available to the public, as it is deep in the process, but it will be a tremendous resource in the future.

What advice would you give to training or early career archivists, historians, and librarians who are hoping to secure permanent, full-time work at an archive or library?

I may not have the best advice, considering that I also look for good career advice, as my own career continues to be fluid and open-ended. What I can confidently advise is that you get a handle on playing multiple positions. If you’re doing a lot of scanning and metadata creation, learn to work with patrons in a reference librarian’s role, learn to create catalogue records, try leading a reading group, present a topic at a conference. Listen to those who use libraries, and stand in their shoes. Cultivate your narrative writing skills. Remember that leadership and communication rise and fall together. The library/archives field is competitive and narrowing, with many more graduates than there are jobs. We do well to network with each other, supporting each other.      

What excites and inspires you about archives?

As a reader of archives and manuscripts, it is an extraordinary privilege to hold and read an author’s primary documents. In 2013, I received a C. S. Lewis Foundation fellowship to study Lewis’s manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, Oxford—and to live in his house, The Kilns, during Trinity Term. Reading all of Lewis’s handwritten notebooks, essays, letters, drawings—and even his lesson plans—was a great honor. Among these studies, I read his handwritten original Screwtape Letters, reading through his crossed-out sections, and making note of his changes. He had beautiful and clear handwriting, and I could detect when he stopped to re-ink his dip pen. By reading his own handwriting on paper I felt like I could hear his words.

As a curator of archives, the tandem mission to preserve and make available is something I think about every day. Archivists are among those whose discoveries can be extended to the public. We are organizing material into discernable units of information. Many times, I’ve had to turn woeful messes of paper in boxes and piles of bags into hierarchical entities, through painstaking processing. But it’s worthwhile, especially as I think of the researchers who will be making discoveries themselves. As an archivist working with documentation as well as with the public, I often serve as memory for others; that is a very serious yet gratifying role. When I conserve books, I also think of their future readers. We use what we call best practices, because we view our temporal stewardship as serving the long term.

Do you have any personal archives/collections of your own?

Considering that I’m essentially a lifelong photographer, my own collections of negatives, slides, proofs, and prints constitute an archive of my own. Alongside the photographs, I’ve been a regular journal writer since 1994, and have saved all my journals and chapbooks. The Athenæum continues to be a favorite journaling perch, and is written about in countless entries. I’ve also been a blogger for ten years, and maintain a digital archive of all my essays and photo illustrations.                                                                                                          

cover: Basic Book Repair Methods by Abraham Schecter

Can you also include a list of links to the blogs and/or websites you contribute to, and other writings you have?

Writing is my adventure with words and observations; journaling and essay writing have been my primary formats thus far. Along with the Oxford/Lewis Scholar in Residence fellowship in 2013, I was also writer in residence at the Dylan Thomas birthplace and home in Swansea, Wales. There I was able to participate in writing events, as well as experience the places and steps of my most loved poet. Every year, in Portland, I read his Child’s Christmas in Wales to audiences, and have been doing this for a dozen years. I am the world’s only resident of both C. S. Lewis’s and Dylan Thomas’s homes. 

  1. In 2006 I began La Vie Graphite, which is my continuing collection of illustrated essays. I do all the writing and photography.
  2. Within these essays is “archives of the soul,” a term I coined, as I believe each of us have an inner archive.
  3. Essays from my Oxford fellowship.
  4. Essays from one of the sojourns in Wales, which includes my residency at Dylan Thomas’s home.
  5. The City Has Ghost Streets is my series of historic essays about bygone Portland streets.
  6. As a working archivist and conservator, I write these for the Portland Public Library’s blog, called The Life of the Library.
  7. Flickr image albums, which include conservation projects and instructional programming.
 

Other works, in print, include Basic Book Repair Methods (1999, currently in its third printing), Guy Gannett Foundation Archives (2000), Silent Type: A Retrotech Journal (volume 1, 2009; volume 2, 2010). I was a featured author in Spiritual Journey (Princeton, 2010 and 2012).