Meet the DRT Library Staff: Martha Utterback Celebrates Thirty Years at the Library
This is the sixth entry in a series of posts that share information about each member of the DRT Library’s team. In late June, assistant director Martha Utterback celebrated thirty years at the Library; below, she shares some thoughts about her work.
I passed a milestone 30th anniversary at the DRT Library this summer and was asked to write something on the occasion. I know mine is no record length of service, but it is in the senior division. I was told I have a “dream job” by one of my friends, and so it must be, as these years have provided enough gratification and challenge and, oh, yes, work, to keep me, and anyone else, busy and interested for a very long time.
And why not? Here you get to work with important historic, often remarkable, materials — get to touch them, care for them as though they were your own, and, with great pleasure, share them. There is something satisfying about being responsible for these materials and getting them in order, whether an entire collection or a single item, which you can carefully house, study, try to identify and date, and place in an appropriate and logical context, then catalog, label, and file in an orderly organization of envelopes, folders, and boxes. Because my responsibility is the image collections — the art and photographs — the pleasure is often enhanced by their individual beauty or other visual appeal.
You have almost constant opportunities to learn: every letter, email, call, and visit with a question about materials in the library or the history it holds gives you an opportunity to learn, actually demands that you do the research and learn yourself whatever it is that researcher wants to know. If you have some kind of peg of associations on which to hang all these odd bits of information, it is likely that you will come to be able to find things more quickly and help people with more material the longer you stay. You feel you are in the right place when researchers tell you how much they appreciate being able to call on you for help, and all of us in the library get to experience that kind of satisfaction.
You meet knowledgeable and interesting and admirable people. Exceptional minds do come here for research. I cannot begin to name a fraction of the people I have met in the library who have made my life richer, not only researchers but business and professional associates and colleagues on the staff and members of the DRT and donors of their own valued material. They have shown me new ways of looking at things, opened the way to new ideas, deepened or broadened my knowledge of certain subjects and introduced me to others, and given of their time to help me. Every director of the library with whom I have worked has provided original ideas and drive and energy and has had the most sincere concern for these collections. This holds true for the directors of the Alamo as well, those who have had the opportunity to become acquainted with the library and its treasures. Almost without exception, researchers at every level are passionate about their subjects and are likely to share their passion with you when you work with them, including you in that fellowship of minds that get excited about finding the precise meaning of a translated term in an old document or in pinpointing a tiny plot of land on an early map.
Although some decry the prettifying of the old battleground of the Alamo, for an employee it is undeniably nice to come to work in a park. Many years before I began working here, Maury Maverick, Jr., encouraged me to walk through the gardens of the Alamo, which he had come to do regularly. He showed me the flower beds at the time, which were lovely, but, at least in my memory, not comparable to the gardens we have today. But I was then, and remain, impressed that others go out of their way to walk through these grounds because of their beauty as well as their history, while we who work here can do so easily and daily. It is always a pleasure to hear a visitor, on entering the back gate, say something like, oh, how pretty, or oh, look!, in surprise at what they have come upon, and to feel, somehow, that they are talking about something of your own.
There is a variety of work to do. My background was most of all in museum work. For years I took care of the art collections at the Witte Museum and planned and arranged changing exhibits, wrote about them, and designed announcements and catalogs. I spent briefer periods working on museum projects for the Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the museum of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. When leaving the field after many years, I wondered if I would find a place that provided opportunities to do as many things that I liked to do. I found a welcome assortment of work in the DRT Library as well. Not long after I came, I had the chance to prepare new guides for the use of the library, design new stationery, and edit and arrange the production of a small manuscript. Later, when we celebrated the library’s 50th anniversary, I could develop the basic plan for the exhibition, work with the selection of the displays, and again design and compile a catalog.
I serve as curator of the library’s image collections, with responsibilities for preservation, arrangement, description, and access to photographs, prints, and art originals. These responsibilities include handling photograph orders for patrons, including image searches and the development of usage policies, fee schedules, and ordering systems. This in turn provides the opportunity to work with writers, photographers, professional search services, and publishers. I have also worked with fund-raising efforts for new art acquisitions and for conservation of the art collection and managed a much needed conservation project for the library’s oil paintings. I have worked towards general preservation measures for the library as a whole, including environmental controls for the vault and fire suppression systems throughout. I worked with plans for the expansion of the vault and the arrangement of the space, and planned and implemented the transfer of collections into it — now as packed with valuable material as was the original, about half its size.
I devised a new subject arrangement for the library’s picture file and its online catalog and set up systems for recording copy negatives and digital images. My hope is to have all the images cataloged and online with visual copies attached to each record for easy public access, and also to see the time when there is a gallery in connection with the library that can appropriately accommodate a display of the best of the fine art and photographs in both the library and Alamo collections to share with the public. For all the excellence of digital imagery, there is still nothing like seeing the real thing — and who should know that better than those of us who work at the Alamo. That revered historic structure provides the perspective for all the rest of our work and is a reminder of how this library began — as a collection for the Alamo.
From time to time I have served in the administrative headwaters of the library, as acting director and interim co-director, particularly in earlier years, and handled administrative and financial responsibilities. Because the practices for managing museum collections are not the same as those for processing and describing library and archival collections, I have taken workshops, seminars, and classes in records management; in managing and processing archives, manuscripts, and architectural records; in identifying and cataloging photographs and managing photograph collections; in preservation and disaster recovery; and in dealing with copyright issues and intellectual property rights. Like other staff members, I have spent many hours with rule books and cataloging manuals, and in asking questions of my experienced associates. I have a degree from Trinity University, with graduate courses at Trinity, the University of Colorado, and the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. A later course in manuscript editing from the University of Wisconsin has turned out to be surprisingly useful.
My overriding concerns these years have come to be the accurate documentation of the collections and, most of all, their preservation, safe handling, and housing. I look forward to our having the space to bring all the early oversized drawings, panoramic photographs, and rare and early maps into the protective environment of the vault; to having a cold storage unit for the film collections — negatives and positives — as the true long-term preservation copies of our images; and to having a more suitable and more protective storage for the framed works in the collection. I hope that part of the standard orientation for all library and museum staff members, and their committees as well, can someday be hands-on preservation instruction by professional conservators, so that we all can be fully prepared for the absolutely essential attention to the physical care of these rare and irreplaceable materials entrusted to us — and with which I am grateful to have the opportunity to work.