Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your current position and how you got into the field of visual resources?
My background is in studio arts and photography, and I graduated with a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. Internships in college were my first exposure to professions in museums and archives. Through these positions, I had the opportunity to merge my interest in imaging with historical collections, which introduced me to the field of visual resources. I currently work as an archives manager and production specialist at the Art Institute of Chicago in the Imaging department. Our department is responsible for the documentation of the work of the museum – from collections to exhibitions to programs, events, and portraits. My core tasks involve image editing, film archives digitization, and assisting with digital archives management. I’ve also recently begun managing our institutional still film archive collection.
What is your favorite part of your work? Can you describe any project(s) you’re currently working on?
I love working with our archival collection at work, it’s such a treasure trove of amazing images and stories. We are working to improve the physical conditions of the space and materials, and improve the discoverability of the materials. I’ve been working with a team of fantastic interns for the last year and a half to rehouse, digitize, and create metadata for our glass plate and film 8”x10” negative collection. It’s a fairly hidden resource, so the prospect of making it more visible to staff and the general public is really exciting.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
Since I’m in a dual role within the Imaging department, everyday looks different! Some days I’m helping develop standards and protocol for our photography team, or I’m working on fulfilling licensing requests. Other days I’m QCing images for publication to the web, advising on software and systems development that relates to imaging work, doing archival research for a reference request, or I’m digitizing material from our archive. There have been a lot of opportunities to fill in needed gaps with staff departures, so the work has evolved considerably since I was first hired.
What were some challenges you came across when you first started out in the field of visual resources?
One of the biggest challenges I faced was not fully understanding the role of visual resources in my work. I connected with the fields of photography, museum collections management, and archival practices to some degree, but some aspects of my work were lacking within each of these disciplines. Fortunately, I learned about this field through a former colleague at Northwestern University Library, as she was involved in VRA and discussed going to the annual conference. Visual resources helped to bring it all together: imaging, metadata, data management.
What skills do you use for your job that you didn’t learn while in school?
Since my undergraduate degree is in photography, I have needed to gain additional training in the care of physical archival materials, and the management of electronic records and metadata. Initially, I was learning through hands-on experience, but I recognized that there were limits to how much I could learn on the job. I took some Society of American Archivists (SAA) DAS courses to bolster that baseline knowledge on some of these topics, and those proved useful. More recently, I’ve completed a graduate certificate in museum collections management and care from George Washington University, and I’m working on an MLIS from San Jose State University. Though I haven’t had a direct path to this career, it has been satisfying seeking out and finding opportunities to grow, and I’m a strong supporter of lifelong learning!
Looking back, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m proud of transforming the perception of our archive at work. It was previously deemed a problem, and now it’s seen as a resource and opportunity. It took some time and effort to document what we had, survey staff to assess awareness and interest, create a basic project and plan for work, and find ways of highlighting the collection internally and externally. We had to demonstrate its value and advocate for it, and fortunately, it’s paid off.
What is one thing in the visual resources field that you think is lacking or missing?
I think there is fantastic potential for more formal training opportunities for professionals focused on imaging in this field. Most of those involved in digital capture have a photography background – often fine arts or studio – but folks haven’t necessarily had the chance to hone specific skills needed for the digitization of visual resources. A lot of this knowledge is gained on the job, which is often sufficient up to a point. Further professional development is often needed in order to dig into the details about imaging best practices and standards – FADGIand Metamorfoze, for example. It would be wonderful if there were more in-depth and sustained training programs for cultural heritage digitization, outside of conferences and workshops.
What is something that most excites you about the field of visual resources?
I dove into this field because I love the idea of being able to help connect individuals with cultural heritage materials. Only a fraction of museum or archival collections are on exhibit at any given time, and many folks don’t have the opportunity to visit these institutions. Digitizing and making images findable through metadata has the potential to open these collections up to the public. I’m excited about the opportunities for linked open data to provide further visibility and accessibility of this information.
Where else do you seek professional development opportunities other than VRA?
Fortunately, Chicago is home to a good number of libraries, archives, and museums, so there are often local workshops and conferences. This also means that there’s a wonderful community of visual resource professionals, many of whom have provided assistance when I had questions or came across challenges I needed a second opinion on. As I mentioned previously, SAA has been great for professional development, both with their webinars and in-person courses. I also subscribe to the listserv for and attend webinars organized by the Connecting to Collections Care community. These are helpful as it relates to the management of physical materials. Lyrasis has had some helpful training related to data management and digital imaging.
What other professional organizations are you a part of?
Professional organizations are invaluable, both to gain new knowledge and skills, and to connect with peers. My understanding of the field has expanded considerably as a result of the insight provided by colleagues in these organizations. They have given me a sense of where we are collectively, and what the future might hold, as well as common challenges we face. Over the last few years, I’ve become a member of SAA, Chicago Area Archivists (CAA), Midwest Archives Conference, ImageMuse, and the Society for Imaging Science and Technology (IS&T). I’m on the listservs of the Museum Computer Network (MCN).
Do you have any words of advice or wisdom for emerging professionals and students in this field?
Try to be a sponge to soak up as many new skills and as much knowledge as you can, but also learn to accept the fact that you can’t know everything. Hone your search skills, so you can find answers, and develop a solid professional network that you can reach out to.
What are some of your favorite things outside of work? What are some of your hobbies?
I have a very opinionated and entertaining kitty named Luna Catbus, who I love to spend time with. She’s an excellent study buddy, and has helped me to get through many long MLIS reading and writing sessions. When I have the time, I love to photograph environments and architecture. I also recently started bouldering, which has been a welcome change of pace from work and school. You can see some of my photography and read about professional projects at my website: shelby-silvernell.com
Connect with Shelby on LinkedIn or Instagram or 👋 meet her at VRA 2019 in Los Angeles!
Feeling a bit overwhelmed or suffering from imposter syndrome in the Visual Resources field? Sign up to be a mentee in the VRA’s Year-round Mentorship Program! Learn more: http://vraweb.org/opportunities/mentorship/ or connect with other VREPS on Slack!