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Saving History

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Wilkes Alumni Build Careers Preserving The Past

By Rachel Luann Strayer MFA ’12

If Natalie Baur ’06 and Nicholas Zmijewski ’07 have one thing in common, it’s that history is a part of their past.

“I was always into old stuff,” says Baur, recounting trips to estate sales and antique shops with her mother growing up. She even did Civil War reenactments, though the authentic clothing held more interest for her than the battles themselves. “I liked looking at history in a creative and artistic way.”

Zmijewski also got his introduction to antiquities through a parent. “My father was an amateur photographer,” he says, “so I got drug around to coal mines, steel mills, railroad yards.” This led to Zmijewski’s own involvement in photography, and through it, his fascination with old photographs. “It’s a large part of what drew me to become an archivist.”

Both Baur and Zmijewski are proud of their roles in preserving history for future generations. Here’s a glimpse at the lives of two Wilkes graduates who turned their fascination with the past into careers for the future.

Natalie Baur ’06: Preserving Incredible Lives

At home in Mexico City where she is surrounded by historic architecture, Baur says that archival work combines her love of history, writing and cultural exploration.

When Natalie Baur first came to Wilkes, the only records she planned to keep were medical ones. “Wilkes had an excellent pharmacy program,” she says. “And my family wanted me to do something practical.”

But Baur wondered if her love for history, writing, and cultural exploration could be a career instead of a hobby. Baur switched to a history major, adding minors in English and anthropology under the guidance of professors Diane Wenger and John Hepp.

“It’s not so different from pharmacy,” Baur laughs. “I’m just cataloguing different things.”

Baur’s path has been as diverse as the history she preserves. A semester-long internship at the Howell Living History Farm in New Jersey led to a relationship that took her to Ecuador for two years, where she became fluent in Spanish. After completing a master’s degree in history from the University of Delaware and a master of library science degree from the University of Maryland, Baur was offered her first job as an archivist with the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami. Four years later, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to study digital preservation in Latin America, specifically in Mexico.

While researching in Mexico, Baur was offered a position with El Colegio de México, as their first digital preservation librarian. But it was a horseback ride through the woods that would lead to the next twist in her career.

Friends on that ride told Baur about a local man with a film archive she might find interesting. At the time, Baur had no idea that the man in question was Carlos Martínez Suárez, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who had recorded sociopolitical issues in Mexico since the 1980s. His primary collection of raw footage documented Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, also known as Subcomandante Marcos, and the Zapatista National Liberation Army’s 1994 rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. Suárez was the official cameraman of the movement, recording interviews from both sides of the conflict.

Baur approached the project with urgency. “The longer something like that sits on a hard drive, the more likely it is to break down,” she explains. She was able to acquire copies for El Colegio de México, effectively preserving the historic footage.

“That was a turning point,” she says. According to Baur, the Suárez project allowed the university to secure grants and funding for further digital preservation and storage, which can sometimes be difficult. “If the money dries up, the files might not be updated and the data could be lost,” Baur says.

While she is still a consultant on the Suárez project, Baur left her position in August to pursue another new adventure: teaching. She now works for Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía, teaching in the Master of Archival Management Program. She also designs and teaches online classes in digital preservation for Library Juice Academy. all while pursuing her master’s degree in library science from the University of Maryland.

Baur is also exploring new ways to preserve history. Recently she served on the advisory board of DocNow, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving content posted on social media. She hopes the next generation will prioritize digital preservation as well.

“It’s something I like on a personal level,” she says, “being close to people who made history or witnessed it. People who lived incredible lives.”

Nicholas Zmijewski ’07: A Personal Connection

With Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnace soaring behind him, Zmijewski says he feels a personal connection to the history he preserves.

Nicholas Zmijewski always knew he wanted a degree in history, but he had no idea where it might take him. Fortunately, he had Wilkes mentors John Hepp and Joel Berlatsky to set him on the right track.

“It was Dr. Hepp who helped me get the internship,” Zmijewski says, referring to his summer at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, Penn., after which, he was hired as a tour guide.

It was Zmijewski’s experience scanning and digitizing negatives as a staff photographer and photo editor for the school newspaper, The Beacon, that prepared him for his next career step. When the museum’s non-profit branch, Friends of the Railroad, received a grant to digitize 2,600 photographic negatives, Zmijewski was a natural fit for the job. Under the grant, he preserved closer to 7,600 negatives. Zmijewski was then hired full time.

One of his favorite experiences at the museum was finding a negative of a photo taken by his father. “I called my dad and asked him, ‘What were you doing in Philadelphia on August 3, 1966?’” His father responded, “I wasn’t in Philly that day.” Zmijewski enjoyed telling him that he had photographic evidence to prove otherwise.

Zmijewski only works sporadically with the Railroad Museum these days but he still lives in Lancaster with his wife, Allison Zell M.S. ’16, and their 9-month-old twins, Zoe and Logan. Three days a week he drives to Bethlehem, where he works for Industrial Archives and Library. The organization’s mission is to collect, organize, conserve, and preserve industrial records and to make them available for education and research to historians, scholars and the public

Some of the artifacts he’s worked with include original reports from Bethlehem Steel’s first chairman, Charles Schwab, as well building plans for a bridge he used to drive past in his hometown of Cranford, New Jersey.

“There are a lot of personal connections,” he says. “I’m doing something I would have done as a hobby anyway.”

Just like Baur, Zmijewski has diversified his experience by furthering his education and getting involved in numerous organizations. He is pursuing a master’s degree in archives and records administration from San Jose State University and is a member of the Society of American Archivists, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, and vice chair of the board of governors for ArchivesSpace. He has been published in Railroad Museum’s magazine, The Milepost, and the popular locomotive magazine Ralifan and Railroad.

Zmijewski says starting out at a small institution is valuable for someone entering the archival field. “You learn how to do everything,” he says, “and you learn how to do it on the cheap.”  He notes that technology has impacted his field, just as it has changed many others. He goes on to explain that 50 years ago, archivists were only working with paper and film. Now an archivist should expect to work with all types of digital materials as well. “There are a lot more opportunities if you know how to handle a lot of different materials.”

That personal connection comes in handy too. “You do a better job if you’re interested in what you’re doing.”

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