An interview with Alexis Pedrick
What is your role?
Director of Digital Engagement at the Science History Institute.
How did you get into the field?
I sometimes joke that I thought I made this job up because discovering it felt like I was stumbling on a secret! I didn’t know anyone who looked like me who worked in a museum, library, or archive. And though I always loved history and storytelling, this was never on my radar as an option. My career started in social justice nonprofits, but when I decided to go to graduate school, it was to study the humanities. I applied for a bunch of internships and a few jobs, intending to learn about the field, and ended up getting a full-time job at the Independence Seaport Museum. I got into the museum field and never left!
What is your favorite collection item at your institution? What’s the most surprising thing you’ve come across while working in GLAM institutions?
We have a 1687 painting called “The Alchemist’s Experiment Takes Fire.” It shows a man in a chair panicking and tilting away from an experiment that has—you guessed it—caught fire. His socks are sliding down, his workshop is a mess, and you can see his wife in the background changing the diaper of a screaming baby. The whole thing is comical and yet wholly relatable. I love it because it knocks up against this revered portrait we have of how science worked in the past. While working on my master’s in Arts and Humanities at Arcadia University, I used the Historical Society of Pennsylvania archives and found this family writing letters during the American Civil War. I expected to find references to historical events, but the unexpected—the gossip, the teasing, the arguing about politics in colorful language—was my favorite part. I want us to think of history as being done by real people—fallible people with egos and biases who are driven by their time’s social and cultural mores. Once we understand that, we won’t feel like we have to be so beholden to people and ideas that are just plain wrong.
Tell us about your experience in the library field?
It’s been wonderful, challenging, terrible, and lovely. Maybe it sounds strange, but I’ve learned a lot about how to think about the world. Being stewards of knowledge—whether it’s books, collection items, or stories—means nothing if we don’t share them. I’m glad I’m working in an era where museums are starting to question their mission, place in the world, and “neutrality.”
Please highlight any projects related to BIPOC art, history, and culture that you are working on.
Right now, we’re working on an NEH grant National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as part of its Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (SHARP) funding. The multi-platform project is called called “White Coats, Black Lives: Exploring the History and Legacy of Racism in American Science and Medicine.” It explores the history, sociology, and legacy of racism in science and related contemporary issues in health, social justice, and bioethics. The project’s centerpiece is an entire season of our podcast, Distillations, along with two long-form articles in our magazine, public lectures, and other digital engagement. It is undoubtedly the most important project I’ve gotten to work on in my career, and I’m incredibly proud.
How do you think your experience as BIPOC influences your work as a GLAM professional?
You carry yourself wherever you go, right? I know what it feels like to be isolated, to fight to have your voice heard, to build a door or find a window when none has been provided for you. I’m sure that affects my work in a million ways I recognize and probably in some ways that I don’t! One thing is for sure: I firmly believe in making certain museums and libraries are welcoming to different kinds of people, and I’m proud to have pushed for that in the places I’ve worked.
If you weren’t a librarian or archivist what would you want to be?
Funny thing, I’m not technically a librarian or an archivist! I’m the Director of Digital Engagement, so I use archives and collections to tell stories across multiple digital mediums. If I weren’t doing this, I’d want to be a librarian or archivist. I’ll also take professional Dungeons and Dragons player if that’s an option.
What do you wish more people knew about your job?
This is probably very specific to my job (I host our podcast), but I wish people knew how many hours (yes, hours!) of audio goes into producing one podcast episode. It’s really incredible, and I had no idea until I started doing this work.
If you could give advice to emerging professionals, what would it be?
Build the job you want, even if it doesn’t exist on paper. This field has many needs, and the creativity and passion you bring to it shouldn’t just sustain the field but push it in new directions.
What are you currently reading or listening to?
I am about to start the annual re-read of one of my favorite books, The All Souls Series by Deborah Harkness. The events of the first book, A Discovery of Witches, start on September 18th. It’s all the things I love: romance, history, supernatural creatures, and medieval manuscripts.
What are three things you enjoy outside of work?
My husband and I are in the middle of a bunch of home renovation projects, but I also write fan fiction and run a D&D game group with friends.
What is your personal philosophy?
When I was young, I used to hear this phrase all the time, “by hook or by crook.” Now I know it’s a pretty obscure phrase dating back to Middle English, but I grew up hearing it from all the women in my family. It basically means “by any means necessary.” So that’s something I carry with me: there is always a way.
Where would you like to go on a dream vacation?
My husband and I went to the UK before Covid but never made our way over to Scotland. It’s still on my list. I would love to sit in an old pub and have a pint.
What have you always wanted to try but never have?
I’ve always wanted to learn 3D animation. I play a ton of video games and have always found it fascinating, but I have never had the time to sit down and teach myself or take a class. It’s on my list, though!
You’re happiest when…
I’m on my deck with a good book and a glass of wine.