By Mary Alice Hartsock
It’s the stuff that interests her. The peculiar gadget that comes to life through a yellowed photograph. The brittle handwritten letter bearing the signature of a historical icon she has long admired. With a plethora of long-forgotten documents and artifacts at her white-gloved fingertips, the Academy’s Brooke Dolan Archivist, Jennifer Vess, is the guardian of facts and fables, portraits and pursuits. For her, archives are evidence of the past—the beginnings of the stories we tell.
Vess always has been passionate about sharing narratives from the past. Formally trained as a historian, she began her career volunteering and working as a docent at various museums and historical sites. Eventually she decided to enroll in a graduate program in museum studies and history. She believed this program would provide the perfect training for a career as a tour guide and museum educator.
Then there was a class in collections care and internships in collections management and archives, and her focus dramatically shifted to the items stored behind the scenes.
“Working with objects—I get to touch the stuff,” she says. “I often do it with gloves, but still. I get to hold and encounter the things that are history.”
Handling age-old clothing, instruments, illustrations, letters, specimens, and other artifacts stored in the Academy Archives transforms Vess from organization obsessed records manager to enthralling educator. When she’s not preparing materials for a library exhibit case, sharing her work with members, or guiding contributors through the maze of boxes she maintains behind the scenes, she’s helping scientists find materials essential to their research.
Some Archives visitors know exactly what they’re looking for, while others are hoping to identify new archival materials that will enhance their research. With her wide-ranging interests in history, science, and technology, Vess is more than willing to dig for information. Her effort saves time for researchers and often enriches their work.
While scanning through an index during one intense search, Vess stumbled upon a familiar name—but one that seemed to have no business being in the archives of the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere. At age 8 Vess had become fascinated with the American Civil War, and through the next decade her interests narrowed to women’s involvement in Civil War medicine. Imagine her surprise when she spotted the name of Dorothea Dix, a 19th-century American activist and superintendent of nurses during the Civil War.
Most archivists are not satisfied with unanswered questions, and Vess is no different. She set out to find a letter Dix wrote so that she could figure out why correspondence from this famous nurse and reformer was part of the Academy’s collection.
The letter in hand, Vess felt a “visceral connection to the past.” Here, Vess draws out Dix’s relationship with science at the Academy and describes how a fascination with botany merged with Dix’s notable career.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 Edition of Academy Frontiers.