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Youngblood Discusses Role of Special Collections

Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas, highlights research and scholarly work across campus. Each segment features a university researcher discussing his or her work.

Matt McGowan: Welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas. My name is Matt McGowan. Today I’m talking to Joshua Youngblood, research and outreach services librarian with Special Collections at Mullins Library. Welcome Joshua.

Joshua Youngblood: Absolutely, thanks for having me.

Joshua Youngblood and rare books display

Joshua Youngblood, research and outreach services librarian at Special Collections.

MM: I want you to tell us what you do, but first can you talk about special collections?

JY: Special Collections is the rare and unique materials facility for the library. So to that end we support the research, teaching, other creative activities happening on campus, and we make sure that we have materials to do that. In one way that’s collecting primary materials. So it’s actual documentation of what’s happened, and making those available to people. So we preserve things and then we make them accessible. In some parts of our collection, that means the entire history and culture of Arkansas. So we do our part to try to preserve that, but we also support the programs and other things associated with the campus. Like where do you draw a line on J. William Fulbright’s career; we have all of his papers and so we collect in lots of different areas related to that too. So in short we’re the rare books Arkansas collection, but also archival facility for the libraries and then we also collect the University Archives.

MM: Thank you. You mentioned private or I’m sorry, primary documents. I’m not sure the general public; I know the researchers are really tuned into primary documents, especially historians. But I’m not sure the general public knows what primary documents are. Can you tell us?

JY: Sure, thank you for that reminder because I don’t really think of that as a jargony word. But it definitely is because I talk about primary sources and primary documents all the time with students. So one way to think of it is as historical evidence or source material for research that is one degree of separation from historical event or an actor. So that could be an original document or a letter written by someone, a reporter’s take on something, you know. It’s the closest you can get to the actual real thing.

MM: Thank you. Well as I mentioned earlier your title is research and research services librarian. That seems pretty straightforward, but tell us more about what you do there at Special Collections.

JY: Sure, so those are… research and outreach are two very large catch-all terms for what I do. So, and also librarian frankly, because I’m an archivist as well. I’m a researcher, I’m a faculty member here. Our library has faculty status, so research and research services librarian kind of in the most general terms. I’m managing our research services that the Special Collections offers. So we try to promote access and use of our collections and we have to have procedures in place, we have to have facilities to do that, we have a reading room we manage. As far as outreach that’s both reaching out to people on campus to promote use of the collections, that’s teaching faculty, that’s researchers, that’s graduate students, that’s undergraduate students. It’s also outreach for the university and this is my take on this, I get to put a little personal spin on my position since they gave me the title. I think outreach also means promoting the mission of the university and using what I do to do that, and what I do is I work with rare materials. So that means talk to community groups, that means promoting the university as a service institution, make sure that people know they can come use our materials, and then getting information out there.

MM: Well I was looking back over newswire stories and there have been many and I noticed that sometimes you’re listed as a curator on projects and I think most people associate that term with art or art museums. I know that sometimes libraries and art museums actually can kind of overlap in terms of services but what does it mean to curate an exhibit, as a librarian?

JY: Sure, so part of what I do as an outreach librarian and what I do to try to promote our archives is I work with a team of people in the library and there’s many of us who take part in these projects, and we try to you know meet educational missions, to promote our collections, to highlight new acquisitions. We’re always growing our collections and also to try to dovetail and work with the entire campus, as well as actually other state institutions like the Arkansas State Archives and other programs, to try to promote events or topics of interest. So that means that we’ll have exhibits that we put together on a seasonal basis for special events. We have certain times of the year where you make sure we always have something relevant and interesting to the campus community. Black History Month is a great example. We usually have something aligned with Black History Month. And so if we’re curating for an exhibit, well that means planning the exhibit. That means doing selection. So for me often times that is writing a description, it’s doing an overall statement of purpose for the exhibit. It’s coming up with learning objectives. Something I’m interested in also as a researcher is what are learning objectives for your exhibits. All special collections do exhibits, but how useful are they? Are people really getting something out of them. So it’s that part of it and then there’s the selection. So you know if you pick any topic, even if it’s highlighting a very small collection, there’s more stuff that you have that you like they can actually go into an exhibit.

MM: Well I know I’ve really enjoyed reading about Special Collections projects and actually viewing them at the library. I have my own favorites, the Fay Jones collection, of course, Ozark Folk songs. I love music, as I know you do, and especially for me the Ozark Society papers and Neil Compton’s work. I really love the Buffalo River exhibit that you put on. You’ve been involved with these projects and so many others; do you have your own favorite projects or collections, exhibits?

JY: Well, the short answer is no, I don’t. Because there’s a much longer answer to explain that. I don’t have a favorite because there’s just so much stuff that I get to work with all the time. Everything you just named I could put on list of favorites. As you mentioned, yeah, we have a lot of interesting stuff and I have a lot of interests, and so a really fun part of my job is seeing how not just my interests, but also just kind of cultural and historical areas of interest for the state as a whole or the region, really intersect. And so I love intersectional collections; things that I can look at in lots of different ways. Partly I like that just because it’s fascinating no matter which way you look at it, it’s fascinating. But also selfishly as someone who has to teach and get students interested, it gives me lots of ways to spin something. Whether it’s an exhibit, whether it’s a talk that I’m giving, whether it’s hosting a class and offering research opportunities, taking complex or nuanced collections that are making them reflect in different ways. There’s a lot of fun for me.

MM: The Buffalo River exhibit that you built years ago, so many wonderful documents in that exhibit but one I had to ask; I did ask you about that day specifically, was a map and I’ve actually printed it out here for you to take a look at tell us a little bit about. This is a wonderful example of a primary document found in one of your great exhibits. So tell us a little bit about this document.

JY: So this map we’ve included in a digital exhibit which is 40/50/100, which came out after the physical exhibit, and just to give credit where credit’s due is a team approach to do these things. Janet Parshead of Special Collections at the time, Tim Nutt, Kat Wallach, several people put that exhibit together. And that said we had to reflect a lot of things, we had to take from a lot of different collections, so the map that you’re interested in is, it’s a map from Ken Smith, Kenneth L. Smith. Ken Smith was one of those unspoken heroes on the ground doing a lot of work and this map I just love. It’s actually one of four iterations of a similar map because it’s all the different aspects of a Lost River Valley. But to get an area like that added to a national park is very, very tricky. National parks whether it’s Yosemite or Yellowstone or it’s Buffalo National River or it’s Grand Canyon, buttress up against or butt up against private lands. There’s different interests, there’s commercial interests, and it takes a lot of planning and execution and work to get that done. This map shows; it’s a hand-made map for one thing. It’s an absolutely beautiful handmade map that’s all charted out. It’s written with the legend, all the notations, the key is all handwritten. It’s been hand-drawn but very, very precisely hand-drawn by Ken Smith. It shows topography, it shows waterways, but then very interesting, it shows this overlay of land and then different interests. And then in the lower right-hand corner is part one, the keys actually, the descriptive area where it says this is in Newton County, this was Lost Valley; or it’s actually called the Clark Creek watershed. It says confidential in red pen or pencil.

MM: Why does it say that?

Lost Valley map

Ken Smith’s hand-drawn map of Lost Valley (Clark Creek watershed). Image courtesy of Special Collections.

JY: It says this is confidential because this is a planning document. Because the Ozark Society,

Ken Smith on the ground doing this work, they were deciding which people they could approach, the people they could work with, who is not going to talk to them about private property. So which one of these things were they going to go after? What were their targets?

Because this was not part of the national park. The national park wasn’t even there yet. This document actually comes from 1958, so this is right at the founding of the Ozark Society and as

they’re picking their battles essentially, they are deciding who they can go after. They know that the Clark Creek watershed has to be part of the national park. Frankly astonishing how lucid this map is. You look at this and you know exactly what it’s talking about. And this is a handmade thing, charted out, but then it’s also a battle plan, its strategic which is so cool. Looking at this map, how these are the people were going to talk, these are the people not ready for us to do it, this is area we have to get, this is an area that we might not be able to get but we need to try. Yeah, I spoke to Ken Smith recently, and as a side note, another fascinating thing about this particular map and also the work we do in Special Collections; he’s a living, breathing guy and we’re still working on his collection.

MM: He’s still out there building trails.

JY: He’s out there on the trails, still doing this work every day, and we’re actually growing his collection all the time. He’s donated to us. This map actually comes from his personal collection and there are copies of it in the Ozark Society records. I get asked all the time what my favorite documents are; my favorite things in Special Collections and there’s certain books I love and there’s certain letters that are, they’re just so fascinating to me. But this map is one of those ones that just shows all these different threads, all these different motivations, all these different stories and then again all these different opportunities for researchers and students.

MM: Well, thank you for talking about that specifically and everything that you do at Special Collections and Special Collections itself, and thanks for your time today.

JY: Thank you very much, Matt.

MM: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts go to KUAF.com or researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.

About The Author

A former newspaper reporter, Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246, or dmcgowa@uark.edu.

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