Behind the Scenes: Building Layers of Expertise

Below is an interview with Aliza Leventhal, Assistant Section Head for Technical Services in the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.

Aliza pointing out the view of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building's dome from her office. Photo by Melissa Lindberg, 2019.

Aliza points out the view of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building’s dome from her office. Photo by Melissa Lindberg, 2019.

Melissa: You have now been at the Library of Congress for about 6 months – a relatively short period of time but hopefully enough to reflect on your experiences so far! Before we get into your role here at the Library, can you fill us in on your background?

Aliza: Like many people here, I have an MLIS. I was enrolled in a dual degree program at Simmons, where I also earned an MA in history. The last place I worked before coming to the Library of Congress was Sasaki, an interdisciplinary design firm, as a corporate archivist. I was responsible for supporting knowledge management and the long-term preservation of the firm’s project records. My main focus at Sasaki was both to raise awareness and gain practitioners’ buy-in to help me save their project records as the project wrapped up, and to use those project records to facilitate the development of shared institutional knowledge.

I tried to convince people of the value of long-term preservation of architectural records, emphasizing the possibility for return on investment. For example, I could see from records that Sasaki had worked on ecological projects back in the 1960s, and we could point to and learn from that work.

Melissa: Speaking of design projects that go back decades, you mentioned that you’ve got a few favorites in our collection. Can you tell us about one of them and what about it resonates with you?

Aliza: I mentioned Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition drawing because it simultaneously shows the simplicity and nuance of what the memorial is intended to offer. Looking at this submission board, you see the richness of depth represented by colorful pastel crayons, as well as the gradients in the section and plan – reinforcing that communicating the design intent of a built space requires multiple points of access.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Constitution Avenue and Henry Bacon Drive, N.W., Washington, D.C. Competition drawing. Drawing by Maya Ying Lin, between 1980 and 1981. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.07040

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Constitution Avenue and Henry Bacon Drive, N.W., Washington, D.C. Competition drawing. Drawing by Maya Ying Lin, between 1980 and 1981. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.07040

Melissa: While you’re at it would you like to highlight another couple of images that have struck you during your time in P&P?

Aliza: There are so many great posters in our collection, and I’m still learning about them all. I appreciate how their vivid imagery emphasizes the strong textual messages of each.

The “Be Kind to Books Club” is one I’m proud to be part of.

<em>Be kind to books club Are you a member?</em> Poster by Arlington Gregg, between 1936 and 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.31267

Be kind to books club Are you a member? Poster by Arlington Gregg, between 1936 and 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.31267

This poster is a strong and clear message that knowledge and books cannot be destroyed by hate and ignorance.

<em>Books are weapons in the war of ideas.</em> Poster by S. Broder, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g04267

Books are weapons in the war of ideas. Poster by S. Broder, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g04267

Melissa: Before you came to the Library of Congress you had experience working with some of our colleagues on developing strategies for managing born-digital design records – can you elaborate?

Aliza: Yes. At my first Society of American Archivists conference the topic of born-digital design records was brought up as an unaddressed issue by the Architectural Records Roundtable (now Design Records Section), so I volunteered to be a chair of the CAD/BIM (Computer-Aided Design/Building Information Modeling) Task Force, to begin to address the complexity of managing and preserving born-digital architectural and design records. The CAD/BIM Task Force has been renamed the Digital Design Records Task Force.

At the Imaging Science & Technology (IS&T) Archiving Conference I connected with Kit Arrington, Digital Library Specialist here in the Prints & Photographs Division, and we had stayed in touch. I helped organize a symposium at the Library of Congress called “Designing the Future Landscape: Digital Architecture, Design and Engineering Assets” in 2017, where archivists, design record creators and technologists gathered to talk about how and what to preserve and how to provide access to born-digital design records for the future.

Melissa: Can you explain how your previous experience has helped you in your role at the Library of Congress?

Aliza: In my current role I’m responsible for a mix of project planning, collection maintenance issues, and training and managing some staff members. Having previously been a “lone arranger” I am comfortable shifting my attention between disparate activities, as well as keeping in mind the overall goal of promoting visual literacy, which at P&P now pushes me beyond design records and into the broad spectrum of visual materials the Division collects. For example, materials in the Victor Lundy collection range from sketches during his time in WWII, as seen below, to highlights from his significant architectural career.

<em>Sea-plane hangar wrecked by Germans at Cherbourg.</em> Drawing by Victor Lundy, 1944. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.24251

Sea-plane hangar wrecked by Germans at Cherbourg. Drawing by Victor Lundy, 1944. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.24251

My favorite word is palimpsest: because everything is the product of layers building upon layers, we are the byproduct of our experiences. The palimpsest is also present in how we interpret and understand the visual materials before us. For instance, you can see the evolution of different kinds of media and formats, and with each development new considerations arise for preservation and access of collection material. It is also reflected in our collection’s content, such as this Carol M. Highsmith photograph of a storm drain mural. Many of the murals Highsmith has documented in cities around the country have already disappeared, which emphasizes how important her work is. They are either fading away, being covered up, or possibly being intentionally removed.

<em>Many American cities and businesses sponsor elaborate artistic and historic murals to depict life in their communities and Vancouver, Washington, has some of these, but also dozens of smaller murals in a most unusual place, atop storm drains on Main Street.</em> Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2018. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.51132

Many American cities and businesses sponsor elaborate artistic and historic murals to depict life in their communities and Vancouver, Washington, has some of these, but also dozens of smaller murals in a most unusual place, atop storm drains on Main Street. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2018. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.51132

No matter the material or media type, as archivists we still think through the same questions of how best to approach describing, storing and preserving each collection we work on here in the Prints & Photographs Division, all with the goal of improving access to the public.

As I am settling into this new role, and enjoying being part of a team of thoughtful, capable, and enthusiastic professionals, I think a lot about how to make sure I set people up for success – how to give them the support they need and how to help create a positive dynamic for the team. And also how to support innovation while prioritizing maintenance of our basic functions.

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