Students Put History Skills to Work at Memphis Public Library

two students with a professor standing near public access records
(l-r) Maddie Kellas ’18, Wayne Dowdy of the Memphis Public Library, and Brad Bierdz ’18 

Over the summer, two Rhodes History majors were involved in preserving a largely hidden part of Memphis history.

Archival Studies Summer Fellows Brad Bierdz ’18 and Maddie Kellas ’18 worked at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library alongside the staff of the Memphis and Shelby County Room where much of the history of the Memphis region is housed.

Bierdz and Kellas were instrumental in helping catalog the newly-donated Vincent Astor Collection, which documents the unique history of the LGBT community in the Mid-South. It is the library’s first significant collection on this topic.

Astor, a 1975 Rhodes graduate, is a local historian, author, actor, and activist. “The Astor Collection contains primary sources that chronicle the history of the LGBT community in Memphis from the 1960s to the present,” says Wayne Dowdy, senior manager of the central library’s history department. “The primary sources include letters, event posters and flyers, newspaper clippings, pamphlets and photographs related to Astor’s activities as a leader in the gay and lesbian community.”

Now in its sixth year, the Department of History Archival Studies Summer Fellowships are paid experiences designed for students interested in pursuing careers in libraries and archives. Students spend several weeks working full-time in the library where they receive hands-on training in archival processing and document digitization.

“My major responsibility was to see to the various collections that were to be processed and documented with finding aids,” notes Bierdz. “I digitized documents and objects, creating an online database that could further the library’s mission for the democratization of information in greater Mid-South.”

“Prior to my participation in this fellowship, I was completely unaware of how information was made available to the public,” says Kellas. “This fellowship has taught me not to take education or resources for granted, something that I was guilty of doing in the past. I learned to appreciate and value the information that we have access to.”

The fellowship also is part of a new concentration in public history offered by the Rhodes Department of History. The concentration provides students with training in museum studies, library and archival studies, and historic preservation. Students in this program are well-suited to pursue graduate training and careers in the growing field of public history. “In addition to increasing the number of collections available for researchers, the archival studies fellowship provides us with the opportunity to pass on our knowledge of archival theory and practice to another generation,” says Dowdy.

“We are extremely proud of our relationship with the Memphis public library,” adds Prof. Jeffrey Jackson, history chair and director of the new concentration. “Wayne Dowdy and his staff have helped deepen the skills of so many of our students. Everyone who does an internship at the library is really transformed by the experience.”

Bierdz, who completed an internship at the Shelby County Archive last spring, will put his archival skills to work during the fall semester as an intern with the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center. He will begin cataloging the organization’s largely unprocessed archive.