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Idaho National Laboratory and Two ISU Alumni Establish an Archive

January 17, 2023
Elisabeth Curtis

Two woman and a man smile for the camera.

A history degree is only good for someone who wants to go into teaching, right? Three archivists working at Idaho National Laboratory are proving that myth wrong. 

Christa White and Alana Haack, working with their supervisor and mentor, Certified Archivist Austin Schulz, are doing important historical work in creating an archives program to capture the history of Idaho National Laboratory.

White got her undergraduate degree in political science and international studies from Idaho State University in 2019, and a master’s degree in history at ISU in 2021. She is a Provisional Certified Archivist. Haack graduated in 2020 with a bachelor's degree in history, emphasis in museum studies, from ISU. She is working on her master’s degree in archival sciences and records administration through San Jose State University. She will take the archival certification test when she finishes her master’s degree.

Together these two ISU history alumni work with Schulz, who began developing an official archive for INL in 2019. Previously he worked in the Oregon State archives and taught archival science at Western Oregon University. 

“There’s a big misconception when people get history degrees that the only path you can get is in teaching,” Haack says. 

Currently Haack and White work for Idaho National Laboratory’s Cultural Resources Management Office. They  provide access to INL employees who use records for their job. Another part of their role is to help educate the public that this resource is available to the community too. 

The three-person team works to preserve, catalog, and provide access to archival records and institutional objects. They say there’s already been interest from researchers, past employees and members of the public in using the INL Archives and Special Collections. Anyone interested in the history of INL, employees, and local communities will benefit from the work of the INL Archives and Special Collections.

“INL has been a big part of nuclear development in the US,” Schulz says. “For most of the history of INL it’s been a mystery to many in the local communities. Most people don't know what goes on out here or some of the important discoveries made here that impact their daily life.”

Haack hopes that the work they do will help make INL less mysterious to the public: “Once word gets out that we do have public facing archives and an accessible repository, it will hopefully become the first point of contact for research about INL.”

The team is excited by the prospect of increasing public awareness of and access to the archival records and institutional objects of the INL Archives and Special Collections, both online and in-person research.

Dr. Sarah Robey, Assistant Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at ISU specializes in Twentieth-Century US History, the History of Science and Technology, and the History of Energy. 

“As a historian, I rely on records from the past, what we call primary sources. But accessing primary sources is much more complicated than you would initially think,” Robey says. “Many records don't survive the passage of time, if they ever existed at all. Before a historian can ever lay eyes on records from the past, they have to be cataloged, managed, organized, and preserved. That's why archivists and librarians are so central to the work that historians do! Historians may explain the past, but we can't do that without the work of historical professionals like Alana and Christa.”

Schulz discovered archives while in college. After he found out about archives he enjoyed doing research in them. 

 “In a lot of ways it’s like going down a rabbit hole of discovery,” he says. “You don’t know what you’ll find until you process and inventory everything.”

“History lends itself to archival work,” White says. She also says she appreciates how archives as a profession are dedicated to social justice issues. 

“A lot of work is put into how we can make archives welcoming to diverse people and document marginalized communities,” White says. “There’s consensus in the archives community that this is important and we can play a big role.”

Haack agrees: “Some of the cool stuff I'm excited to highlight is the inclusivity that’s a part of INL, the diversity of employment. I love seeing archival photographs of underrepresented groups such as female engineers and chemists and I love that we are working to make those items more well known and accessible to the public.”

Schulz says that there are a lot of different places, including large businesses like Nike, that have archivists.  Most archivists work in academic or government archives, and most hold a degree in either library science or history (Walch et al, 364). 

Robey says, “I often tell students that historians can be found in the unlikeliest of places, and having History Department alumni employed at INL is a really great example of that. Every organization, community, and agency has a history, so even those places that we immediately think of as the domain of engineers and scientists have a need for historians.”

“There’s a lot of moving pieces in setting up an archive,” Schulz says. 

He says White and Haack are learning and contributions to the archives include problem solving, document repair skills, digitization processes, digital preservation on photos/documents, accessioning (how to bring records into a collection and organize them), making inventories and finding-aids. The end goal is being able to provide quality access to these items. 

Robey says, “History graduates have incredible research and communication skills, which is evident in how many of our alumni find jobs that involve making sense of complex topics and translating them into useful information, for everyone from policymakers, to organizational directors, to the general public.”

The team has already had experience helping members of the public.

They were contacted through the Museum of Idaho by a member of the Chamber of Commerce who had been contacted by a man who had been in a parade for INL decades ago and was looking for information about it. It just happened that Haack had been processing some of the contractor newsletters and remembered seeing something about the parade. They were able to get a picture of him in the parade that he could show his grandkids. This was good timing, and once things are processed they will be searchable and available to the public. 

“There is value to the community,” White says. “A lot of people know someone or have family who have worked on the site.”

In addition to creating the archive and making it accessible to the public, the team has other outreach goals in mind including partnering with museums and contributing to exhibits, social media outreach, and school outreach.

“There are a lot of goals we have for this program,  a lot of possibilities,” Schulz says. 

Recently Schulz and White gave a presentation on the INL archives to 9th graders from Madison Middle School in Rexburg. They showed the students items from the institutional objects collection, including a stereoscopic archival photograph of the Advanced Test Reactor core, taken circa the 1960s.

Schulz says that the 9th graders were engaged. He hopes that when students are given the opportunity to look at records and items of the past from the archive, that it will cause them to wonder, what else can I find?

“When you ask kids what a library is they can tell you,” Schulz says. “When you ask them what an archive is, they have no clue. Our goal is to change that, as representatives and leaders at a National Laboratory.

He wants to help introduce the value of archives to students at a young age so that they have a better understanding of how archival records are used, including use in students' own primary source research. 

“Hopefully we can get some of those students to understand what an archive is and  introduce them to how cool it is,” Schulz says. “Maybe they’ll write their own history books.” 

According to Schulz, “Idaho National Laboratory is a fantastic place to work. The people we work with here, the management, are super supportive. I wake up and look forward to going to work. It’s an opportunity to make a positive impact on the world. I take it seriously and enjoy what I get to do.”


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