An Interview with Ryan Flahive, Archivist at the Institute of American Indian Arts

Ryan Flahive is the Archivist at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a college focused on Native American Art. He comes to this position without a background in Library and Information Science, bringing a unique and different perspective to the job than is regularly seen in the ArLiSNAP interviews. Please read about his career journey, his work, and advice for getting into the profession below!

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your current position, and how you got into the field?
I’m originally from a small farm town in Northeastern Colorado called Sterling, the youngest of nine children. My father, Frank Flahive, was dedicated to teaching the social sciences—history, government, geography, etc—at every level and spent his career fighting for teacher’s salaries through his volunteer position with the NEA. He is by far the greatest influence on my career. From an early age, my Dad and I spent countless hours at museums, libraries, cemeteries, and historic sites—reading every panel, stone, and engraving.

Fast forward to 1997—I moved to St. Charles, Missouri (just west of St. Louis) to play football and pursue a degree in History—in that order—at Lindenwood University (LU). During the course of my studies at LU, I discovered the world of anthropology, and added it as a second major. It was my anthropology advisor, Dr. Ray Scupin, who suggested I pursue a career in museums rather than a PhD in American History, which was the route my history professors preferred. After graduation from LU in 2001, I began a graduate program in history and Museum Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). The program is small; only twelve students are accepted each year. It focused on the overall management of cultural institutions—grant writing, policy development, strategic planning, curatorial basics, exhibiting planning, you name it—and rather than concluding the two-year degree with a capstone thesis, we were required to submit an exit project; something practical rather than esoteric. While other students in the cohort were interested in projects involving art conservation, exhibit development, or an education plan, I found archives. Specifically, I found the rotting archive of the St. Louis Public Service Company at the Museum of Transport in St. Louis County. Several hundred boxes were stored in a refrigerator box car at the back of the museum campus for over 25 years and documented the history of public transportation in St. Louis, c. 1870-1981 through maps, photographs, and other historic records. I couldn’t leave them to certain demise and set upon the task of preserving and arranging the materials. After nearly eighteen months of volunteer processing and preservation, I submitted the finding aid as my exit project and graduated from UMSL in May 2003. Since then I have worked in museum education in Wyoming (Ft. Caspar Museum, 2004), archives and rare book librarianship in Arizona (Sharlot Hall Museum, 2005-2009), and now as the Archivist at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico (2009-present). I am currently responsible for the historic record of our college and museum and teach museum studies courses (Basics of Archives Management and Oral Histories Research). My job, as a one-man-shop, is complicated. For some general information on the archives at IAIA, visit our webpage at https://iaia.edu/academics/library/archives/.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?
As I said above, my job at IAIA is complicated—but in a good way—so no day is typical. First and foremost, I am an educator. On any given day I might present the history of IAIA to a class or touring group, serve a variety of research patrons, grade papers, advise students, develop a syllabus, record a lecture for online delivery, or simply lend a sympathetic ear. Second, I identify as a practical historian dedicated to the development of alternative historic narratives. This part of my job entails not only helping my patrons develop these narratives through access to the archives but also through writing and publishing (Celebrating Difference: Fifty Years of Contemporary Native Arts at IAIA, 1962-2012, 2012; The Sound of Drums: A Memoir of Lloyd Kiva New, 2016). Last, but certainly not least, is my work as an archivist. By far the largest part of my job, my focus is on the overall management of the archives. I often work on policy revision and development, grant writing (never-ending), collection development, processing strategies, and digital asset & database management (http://econtent.unm.edu/cdm/insameindart, https://rmoa.unm.edu/results.php?inst=NmSfAIA). However, my day-to-day duties might include scanning and sharing photos with remote patrons, photo preservation, arrangement & description and everything in-between. As a museum professional, I have the honor and ability to work with our museum, The IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, on collaborative projects and also sit on the campus Public Art Committee. The curation of art and history exhibits and the development of important narratives within museums plays a daily role in my career.

Do you have any advice for current students and/or those on the job market?
My advise for students (who eventually become those on the job market)—for what its worth:
Be as effective as possible in as many tasks as possible. Become a good grant writer. Learn project management strategies. Continually develop your technical skills, both on the public end and the back end. In other words—don’t back yourself into a predefined box!
Get involved with professional organizations! Serve on boards, work on strategic plans, and expand your toolbox.
Can’t find a job? Volunteer! Working for free is not optimal, but maintaining your skills and professional network during tough times is a must.

What were/are some challenges for you in the library/archival field?
I have degrees in History and Museum Studies—but not a library degree. I had no formal training in archives during my college years, so I learned the primary concepts of archives management informally during my exit project and later during my first formal archivist job at Sharlot Hall Museum. In a way, the entire field was a challenge to me. Coding has always been problematic, EAD and XML in particular. Having no formal training on technical coding or database management, learning EAD in 2009-2010 using Oxygen was a major challenge.
There are several overreaching issues/challenges in the field that I try to address through my daily work. Most recently, I’ve been lecturing and writing about traditional archival access issues. Specifically, the need for archives and archivists to become proactive in the digital and visual repatriation of cultural materials to source communities and revising access policies (see my article “Repatriating History,” http://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=9030 for more information). Institutional equity is also an issue I address through professional board appointments. I try to do my part to assure that funds, both public and private, are available to small, rural institutions (including historical societies, museums, Tribal entities, and archives).

Tell us something fun about yourself! What do you do in your spare time?
Happily married for fourteen years, my wife and I have a twelve-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl. The family consumes the majority of my spare time, and rightly so. That said, I spend much of the remainder of my free time on the game of disc golf, which I’ve been playing, teaching, and organizing since 1999. Luckily, my wife and children also caught the bug. You might find me throwing discs, planning a tournament, teaching a school clinic, designing a course, overseeing the installation of a new course, or cleaning up an existing course. My passion for the game worked its way into my professional life; in 2015 I organized the funding and installation of a championship course at IAIA accompanied by a health class in disc golf—the IAIA Disc Golf Course is a fun side project. For more information, visit our webpage at https://iaia.edu/student-life/disc-golf-course/.

If you could take a trip to visit any library in the world, which would it be?
Only one? The New York City Public Library for its dynamic map collection. The Trinity College Library in Dublin for its genealogical resources and architecture. And the McHenry Library at the University of California-Santa Cruz to visit the Grateful Dead archive!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *