PACSCL Spotlight: Amplifying BIPOC Voices in the Field

An interview with Amy Vo.

What is your role?

I am one of the Processing Archivists at Princeton University Library’s Special Collections.

How did you get into the field?

I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after I left a graduate program in literature, which I had applied for because I loved the beauty of writing and theory. But I left because teaching and instruction weren’t a good fit for me. For a while, I volunteered at a local public library, an elementary school library, and an archive. I decided that, in addition to reading and writing about books, I also liked working with books and collections themselves, and applied to library school. I often think about the field as a melding of my interests in theory and practice more generally. I was a psychology major as an undergraduate in addition to my English major, and I also loved conducting and thinking about research. 

What is your favorite collection item at your institution? What’s the most surprising thing you’ve come across while working in GLAM institutions?

I feel like I am at a point where nothing can surprise me anymore! There are some materials that I marvel at, like a chrysalis carefully tucked into a tin or a fraying piece of hair jewelry (that is, jewelry made of human hair) tucked into an envelope. And I think a lot of us can relate to receiving new collections with very accidental materials, such as sugar packets and plastic utensils, copies of teen idol magazines from the ‘80s, shoe prints on the archival material, and miscellaneous electronic equipment (so many AC adapters and data cards). 

Tell us about your experience in the library field?

When I started off in my graduate program, I worked and volunteered at many historic house museums. I think of these experiences as being very foundational to how I think about and do archival work because of the many different roles I played. I dusted and vacuumed the physical spaces; I set out traps and analyzed the insects that were caught; I cataloged collection materials and created condition reports; I surveyed collections; I gave tours to visitors; I set up and assisted with outreach events; I interacted with donors and facilitated donations; I digitized archival material. I continue to think about all these things in my archival processing, as I am assisting users in the reading room, readying material for digitization, sending materials offsite, creating and supporting projects for interns, and appraising new collections–all of it! I think I have also come to a new part of my career where I can consider teaching and instruction as something that isn’t totally out of my comfort zone.  

Please highlight any projects related to BIPOC art, history, and culture that you are working on.

Something that has been invaluable to me are the people I have met along my career path. There are projects that I am working on that I am very excited about. I get to work with the most thoughtful, generous folks I wouldn’t have otherwise met if it weren’t for a presentation I had done, a conference session, or someone who had put us in touch with one another. I am working with a colleague in California on an oral history project to record and document the experiences of the children of immigrants/refugees from Vietnam, particularly 1.5 and second generation Vietnamese Americans. We will be speaking with a few narrators, mostly people in our families and communities, but don’t intend to be geographically limited. While the war in Vietnam is an integral part of our narratives and cultural presence in the United States, we are so much more than our family’s immigration stories, and we want to capture that. I am pretty excited about it! Not only is it the first oral history project I’ve worked on, but I’m looking forward to adding more nuanced stories of my community’s experience to the archival record. I think this project, and many of the projects I am interested in, tend to be situated beyond my home institution(s) because PWIs collect in areas that are not salient to my cultural identity.

If you weren’t a librarian or archivist what would you want to be?

If I could rewind quite a ways back, I would pursue my young dreams to be an entomologist. I’ve always really delighted in the pest management parts of my work, particularly at historic house museums. I love looking at a destroyed textile, artifact, or book and thinking about what insects made their homes or meals there. When I was an intern at the Ernst Mayr Library, I remember being very excited about and enraptured by the terrarium full of hissing cockroaches in the library.

What do you wish more people knew about your job?

Is “everything” an answer? I wish more people knew what archives are! When people ask about archives, I want so much to transmit my thoughts and feelings to them. I think part of why I am more interested in teaching now is because every time I speak to students who are interested in archives, I feel like I could talk about it all day, answer their questions, and discuss so many different parts of the work. 

If you could give advice to emerging professionals, what would it be?

I have spoken about precarity, and the research that I do centers on labor practices in the field, their impact on the retention of underrepresented archivists, and the personal and institutional tolls that short-term and contract positions inflict. As much as I love the work that I do, I feel incredibly fortunate because it just as easily could not have worked out this way for me. I want students and emerging professionals to find security and safety in their careers, and what I often advise is for people to find a community who can support, empathize, and bolster you. There is a feeling of boundlessness and lightness when we are met with compassion and can meet others in the same space.

What are you currently reading or listening to?

I am not sure what to read next. Currently, I am reading Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. The last book I read was The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.

What are three things you enjoy outside of work?

My joke answer is my three cats: Bramble, Thimble, and Mina. I also really enjoy desserts, mostly thinking about and looking at them, then eating them, sometimes baking them. I think desserts could also be something that is a part of work, especially when collections contain century-old pieces of wedding cake.

Where would you like to go on a dream vacation?

My husband and I want to one day do a family trip to Vietnam with my parents, my brother, and my brother’s girlfriend. I also grew up in Indonesia and Thailand. I think about visiting the places I used to know and seeing some of the people I haven’t seen in so long. 

You’re happiest when…

I am at home napping with my cats on a sunny afternoon.