The following is an interview with Naja Morris, the Prints & Photographs Division’s current Archives, History and Heritage Advanced (AHHA) intern.
Melissa: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to intern in the Prints & Photographs Division?
Naja: I went to Mississippi State University as an undergraduate where I was a history major. I knew I wasn’t interested in teaching, so I wanted to explore other areas. My first time working with an archive was at the Grant Presidential Library while I was a student — I didn’t really even know the term, “archive,” before I got that job. When I was getting close to graduating I asked the people who worked there for advice about what I could do after graduating. Based on some of those conversations I decided I wanted to get a Master of Library Science (MLS) degree.
Despite COVID happening I enrolled at the University of Illinois for my MLS. Originally I was interested in teen librarianship, so I took a lot of classes related to that. But I was also interested in archives and took a basic course in that area and it ended up being a great crash course in what work in that area looks like in terms of how to organize materials.
I got some hands-on experience in archival processing when I did a practicum and worked on organizing materials related to the Black student union group’s archives. That was just me working alone. I also had a preservation job when I was in library school, where I was doing what I like to call a lot of arts and crafts because there were days where I was cutting pages, making pockets, and measuring for boxes. The other part of that job involved insect management, so I did a lot of bug collecting.
When I was getting ready to graduate I was looking for jobs and saw the AHHA position advertised in USAJOBS. I applied and hoped to get the job, and that’s a condensed version of how I got here.
Melissa: Could you tell us about the collections you’ve been working on and the projects you have undertaken during your time working here in the Prints & Photographs Division?
Naja: The main project I have been working on involves the Carl Van Vechten collection. The photographs in that collection date from 1932 to 1964. Van Vechten photographed different types of artists – lots of musicians and writers, as well as art critics, collectors, and art patrons. He’d also photograph the odd diplomat or doctor, or people from other professions. He was active during the Harlem Renaissance and even though he was white he photographed a lot of people who were part of that movement, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Ella Fitzgerald. His photos in the collection are portraits.
The second set of photos I’ve been working on, though not as much, relates to Japanese American incarceration during World War II. A lot of these photos were taken by photographers working for the U.S. government, and they show different aspects of life in the concentration camps, including work and leisure activities.
For both sets of material I’ve been adding more inclusive description. So for the catalog records for the Van Vechten photos I’ve mostly added nationality, occupation and sometimes race. I had an alphabetical list of people he photographed and I just went down the list one by one.
An example of one of the photos I worked on is a portrait of Edith Sampson, who I had researched and learned was a judge. She seemed really cool.
Another photo that I saw was of actor Anna May Wong. I was listening to a podcast this summer and she came up and sounded so interesting, so I remember looking up some of her movies at the time. And then when I was working on this project I ended up adding some descriptions to some of her photos in the Van Vechten Collection.
For the Japanese American incarceration photos I’ve been adding more detailed descriptions of the photos so that the photos are more accessible through the online catalog. I was given a spreadsheet with a list of images that had basic descriptions that might benefit from more detail.
Melissa: In a previous conversation with you, you noted that some images related to Japanese American incarceration particularly struck you. Could you share your observations with us?
Naja: Yes. So for example with the photo below of a man tending to his garden, you can’t help thinking that he was probably trying to create something like a sense of normalcy under difficult circumstances.
It seems like many of the people in these photos are trying to make the best of a bad situation, and maybe the only thing they can do is recreate something familiar from their lives before being incarcerated.
That’s what stood out to me about the below photo of a basketball game. The players and spectators are taking the time to enjoy themselves, living life the best way they can. I found this so moving because you would think it would have been much easier to get bogged down and give up hope. But in these images you can see that was not happening.
Melissa: I know Technical Services staff did a lot of preparatory work to make sure your work was varied and interesting in addition to productive. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
Naja: I was working with Kara Chittenden, a Senior Cataloger in P&P, and she really made the work interesting. She let me go back and forth between the two projects on a given day, so I didn’t feel like the work was really repetitive in any way. The work I’ve done here has been a great experience, and I’ll remember it as I move on to the next stage.
- Explore the Van Vechten Collection.
- View more photos documenting the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans from their homes and communities from LOT 10617 and LOT 2266.
- Read about the Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced internship program.