VREPS Member Profile: Sarah Gillis

Sarah Gillis is the Assistant Registrar for Image Management at Worcester Art Museum (WAM), a role that encompasses “image manager, photo archivist, digital asset archivist, database administrator, and copyright guru all wrapped up in one position.”

gillisSarah knew she wanted to work in museums but was not sure what path to follow to get there. As she finished up at University of Southern Maine with a B.A. in Art History, she says, “I was in a panic as to what to do next! Museum Studies? Art History?” At the time, she was working at USM’s Department of Art Image Library, first creating records in their FilemakerPro database and then moving on to digitizing. “That was where I was first introduced to the concept/definition of metadata,” she says. “I was honestly shocked when I started working at the VRC that I had this natural affinity for cataloguing and organization. There was a huge light bulb moment where I found my calling!” Noting Sarah’s understanding and enjoyment of working with metadata, her supervisor encouraged her to study archives at Simmons College; she received her M.S. in Digital Archiving/Image Management in 2012.

Although Simmons now offers a Digital Steward Certificate, there was no digital archives track when Sarah attended; instead, she created her own curriculum, finding the traditional archives program too restrictive for her career goals. “I wanted to study proper archival processes,” she says, “but also learn about digital archiving/preservation/stewardship and how the two fuse together for the future.” And although she knew she wanted to work in a museum, she says she is happy she studied library science: “They don’t teach you this stuff in Museum Studies programs if you want to work directly with a collection. There’s a lot of database work expected out of registrars nowadays, and traditional [museum studies] programs focus more on theory and ethics rather than programs and processes to follow.” She added that when she was hired at WAM, “My boss said that he needed a librarian.”

Sarah is currently working on a project with WAM’s collection of 8 x 10 glass negatives of exhibitions at the museum, dating back to 1905. “Glass negatives are my thing,” she says. “The detail is just phenomenal when you digitize them and bring them back to their glory in a new format.” The collection needs re-housing and cataloging, and Sarah wants to digitize the images and publish them in an Open Access format, “so people can experience the digitized exhibition catalog (already done) and see the show as it existed at the time.” One inventive use that Sarah is pursuing for the glass negative collection is populating the media fields in TMS for object records. Some museum objects are not easily accessible for photographing, she says, “so if someone needs images for PR or a publication, I’ll assess the analog rendition to see if it’s suitable. We’re slowly digitizing the collection, but leaning on the amazing old photos is an added perk to continually visually flesh out the collection. There are over 36,000 objects in the permanent collection.” Here is an example for the sculpture “Young Mother” by Bela L. Pratt. “The black-and-white image was a glass plate,” she says, “and the more colored one was an old print that was starting to silver-off.” By digitizing the glass plate collection, Sarah both enhances the collection record and makes people aware of the photo archive.

We switched gears a bit and talked about professional organization membership and participation, which can be expensive and daunting for emerging professionals. Sarah finds the networking aspect of membership invaluable, such as when she was able to contact Greg Reser about embedded metadata questions and received supportive and friendly response. She acknowledged that the museum field has not always been as collaborative as libraries and cited a remark from one of her Simmons professors, Martha Mahard, about LAMs [Libraries, Archives, and Museums]: The M isn’t for show. “It’s our responsibility too to make information retrievable and shareable. I’m passionate about that and try to make tiny steps to making it easier for Ms to stand up to their role.” She continued, “I like that VRA unites people in different fields—libraries, archives, and museums—who all have a common goal. I love being a member of VRA.”

Although she was unable to attend the VRA conference this year, Sarah was funded by the Kress Foundation to attend SEI last year, about which she was unequivocally enthusiastic: “It’s amazing!! It’s students, mid-career professionals, new professionals, all getting up-to-date on the best methods of visual resources. It’s five days of geek-dom.” Sarah also belongs to the New England Museum Association and values these local connections. “What I am doing as an information organization professional at an art museum is, if not unique, then not quite commonplace yet, so there are always lots of questions, and I love being able to strategize and talk it out with people.”

In light of that, we discussed the changes taking place in the VR field: “I feel that there will be more implementation of embedded metadata in workflows, and that there will be an increase in digital archivists’ roles,” she says. “I’m hopeful to see it become more dynamic in its presentation of visual information. With visual informatics, open source discovery resources such as SCALAR and linked open data, we’ll hopefully be burgeoning into a new era of visual information management and organization.” These big concepts and quickly changing roles can be daunting for students who are looking to build their skill sets and gain experience. Sarah’s advice echoes a common recommendation: “If you want to pursue a particular field of study, immerse yourself in it. Internships are the gateway to connections and other opportunities. Employers want to see the skills you have rather than what you studied.” She notes that it is particularly difficult to break into museum work: “It’s a tough gig, and you need to be dedicated to the cause you believe in to get into it.” It’s not all unpaid grunt work, though; we reminisced about how, as an intern, you get to do all the cool projects! “I miss the days of being left alone with a box of photographs. No one to bother me, just the photos to tend to. Now my phone rings constantly….”

Sarah also advocates that students go to one major conference (VRA, ARLIS, SAA, AAM) before graduating. “People notice you and they don’t forget you. Getting involved is so important. Your internship supervisor, fellow conference attendees—these will be your colleagues when you graduate.”


Marie Elia is the Processing Archivist in the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo Libraries. If you would like to participate in the profile series, please get in touch at eliam@buffalo.edu.


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