Longtime archivist Elizabeth Joffrion recently returned to Bellingham to accept a new position as Western Washington University's director of Heritage Resources.
A graduate of Louisiana State University, Joffrion, 51, holds master's degrees from the University of New Orleans and the University of Maryland. Over the past 23 years she has worked at The Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, served as director of the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies and been a senior program officer for the National Endowment of the Humanities.
Question: Elizabeth, what's new about your position?
Answer: With Heritage Resources, we've brought together the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western's Special Collections, and the University Archives and Records Center. I'm excited to return to Western.
Q: Can the public use Heritage Resources?
A: Absolutely, in all three of the affiliated programs. The purpose of the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies is to collect archival material that documents the history of the region, and the center also has components in public programming and publications. We'll work with community members who want to research local, regional and Western campus history.
Q: What's happening with Special Collections?
A: We're working on a special project to digitize the Western Front (campus newspaper) and to collect faculty publications and master's theses. We have a fly-fishing memorabilia collection of special interest to our region, plus a history of the campus school (which until the 1960s served school-age children for several decades). We also have a Northwest book collection, photographs that relate in detail the development of Western, and more.
Q: Can anyone donate a collection?
A: We're primarily interested in collections that reflect regional and local history, and the impact of Western on the state's higher education. I'm very interested in reaching out to the community and faculty concerning the donation of archival materials, and in collaboration with other institutions.
Q: What about preserving modern records?
A: I'm very involved in preserving what we in the archival field call "born digital" material. The roles of archivists have changed with the development of technology.
Q: How will Western's students and faculty benefit?
A: I want to get university classes involved in using our materials. When students use archives and special collections, they have an opportunity to research raw materials and interpret them in a classroom setting. For example, you're interested in the Fraser River Gold Rush (not long after the California Gold Rush) and you find a group of letters; you can tell a lot about aspects of life and death in that period.
Q: The university's own archives are more important that some might think, right?
A: They really are. They're a history of the business of the university (since the first board of directors meeting in 1895).
Archives are our cultural memory. And archives aren't old records, by any means. For example, it's important to document the social and cultural impact of 9/11.
Q: What was intriguing about growing up in Louisiana?
A: It's said that New Orleans has been the worst-run American city and the best-run Caribbean city. There have been so many influences; the French, Spanish, Germans, Irish, Italians, African-Americans, Natives, Vietnamese - just a fascinating place. My family goes back to the 1730s in what eventually became part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.