Cristina Fontánez Rodríguez, Virginia Thoren and Institute Archivist, came to Pratt in August of 2019 as Pratt’s first permanent, full-time Archivist. It’s been an eventful first year (#2020), but Cristina took some time out of her busy schedule to tell us a bit about herself and reflect on her first year working at the Pratt Institute Archives.
Cristina in the Archives.
Why did you decide to pursue a career as an archivist and where did you work before you came to Pratt?
I wound up in this field sort of by chance. I don’t have a related degree as other archivists do (I have a bachelor’s in Geography) and I had never worked in an Archive. I was a couple of years out of college and decided I wanted to be a librarian. I didn’t really know what that entailed, I just thought it would be nice to work in a library and knew I needed a degree to be a librarian, so I applied to the CUNY Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Out of curiosity I took an archives course and realized I was actually, personally interested in the class readings and discussions. I’d always been a good student but I was never really passionate about any particular subject. So for me, this meant that I had found what I wanted to do. From there I pursued the archives track and certificate in Archives and Preservation of Cultural materials in addition to the MLS, started my first internship at the NYU Poly Archives, and have been working with archival collections ever since.
Before coming to Pratt, I was awarded a National Digital Stewardship Residency for Art Information (NDSR Art) at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) Decker Library, where I developed a project to collect, preserve and provide access to master’s thesis work. It was an interesting project for me to take on because rather than it being a straight-forward digital preservation initiative, the project turned out to be about the concept of art and design theses as primarily non-textual works and the issues that arise when treating them as you would humanities theses, for example. My job was to figure out what exactly each program meant by “thesis” and what was important for Decker Library to collect in order to properly represent the work of graduate art and design students. I wrote a report on my findings, which I hope will help other special collections librarians and archivists working with digital art and design assets.
What is your favorite fun fact about Pratt that you have learned from working in the archives?
I didn’t know about Pratt’s beginnings before I started working here. Pratt is well-known as an Art and Design school but in reality, Pratt started as a trade school where students could obtain affordable and practical education in applied arts and sciences. It’s my favorite thing to talk about during instruction sessions and presentations because it’s a bit of Pratt's history that is unknown to most students and faculty. Additionally, this means that our collections are full of materials about teaching and learning trades such as dressmaking, leather and tanning, cookery and professional housework, machinery, building trades, etc. When we talk about higher education, we generally don’t focus on applied arts and sciences, so it has been very interesting for me to learn about the lives of the students, especially women, who pursued these types of careers in the early 20th century.
Left: Plumbing Course Manual, Undated, Records of the School of Engineering, Pratt Institute Archives. Right: Students in Trade Millinery Course, circa 1900s, Pratt Institute Archives Photograph Collection.
Tell us about some projects and initiatives you worked on in your first year.
An issue that is prevalent in academic institutional archives (archives that collect records about the institution itself) is that the records focus on the administration and, in some cases, important faculty. But, a big part of what makes a university is the student body. Where are those stories? Our Archives has some materials about student groups and activities, such as the Black Student Union, the Pratt Play Shop, or the Prattler. Still, that’s not enough to represent the student experience at Pratt, especially the experience of marginalized students. So, I’ve been working with student groups to collect and describe their materials. It’s very important to me that they have a say in how their materials are described. Not only do they know themselves best, but it's also essential to work with the people you’re trying to include in the historical record in order to avoid further erasures and misrepresentations. So far we’ve worked with students from the Prattonia, Prattler, BSU, Black Alumni of Pratt, Latinx Student Alliance, and Queer Pratt.
Screen grab of Instagram post from the Black Student Union requesting submissions for the Archives. Posted on August 1st, 2020.
I’ve also been working with a strategic initiative called Preserving Activism Beyond and Between Pratt’s Gates. The project is focused on exploring Pratt’s relationship to the social movements that shaped the school and community from the time of its founding to the present through interdisciplinary coursework, independent research, and oral histories. Faculty from Art and Design Education, Historic Preservation, and Interior Design, along with the Archives, are currently working on exploring and documenting the history of student activism at Pratt with the help of two research fellows, Amber Colón and Anisha Kar.
Left: "The Poor People's March" flyer, May 1968. Pratt Institute Archives Vertical Files Collection. Right: Pratt Students Against War meeting agenda, March 21st, 1972. Pratt Institute Archives Vertical Files Collection.
What are your goals for the archive?
My general goal is two-fold: for people to know that we’re here and for them to feel comfortable visiting us and using our collections. We have rich and varied collections that are available for students, faculty, staff, and the general public to use, but we have a problem that is very common in Archives -- people don’t know we exist. Additionally, archives have developed a reputation for themselves as exclusive spaces devoted to “serious” research. This reputation has created an atmosphere that can be intimidating for potential researchers, particularly students and those who have seen themselves excluded from the historical record. I strive to not only bring awareness of our collections but also to do my best to facilitate access to a diverse audience.
Prattonia 2020 class visiting the Archives during the Fall 2019 semester.
I’ve been working to bring more awareness to the archives by collaborating with Pratt folks outside of the library and inviting classes to come into the archives, physically and virtually, to talk about our collections and make students feel welcome and encouraged to work with us. When students visit us, they are encouraged to touch the materials (wash your hands first!) and critically analyze what they’re looking at. The Special Collections and Archives team has also been working together to bring more of our collections online. As our digital collections grow, so will their reach and accessibility for those that cannot visit in person.
In addition to our collections, we have staff that can advise students on properly caring for their personal archives. ‘Archiving’ is very much in vogue right now, especially in the art world, and I hope the Pratt community takes advantage of our knowledge in order to engage with archives in a sustainable and, most importantly, ethical way.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact your work?
The first couple of months were really tough because our collections are mostly physical and I lost all access to them. That meant that I couldn’t answer most of the research questions we were getting and that I spent most of my time doing the less glamorous (but crucial) parts of the job like writing policies. Now I’m able to go back into the Archives and it’s been great to regain access to the materials. We’re open to Pratt researchers but we mostly do everything virtually. Our A/V technician, Armen Petrosyan, created a two-camera setup for instruction that allows me to show archives materials while speaking to students. It’s like having my very own cooking show! Answering reference questions has also become a much more involved task. I’ve always been the kind of archivist that will do quite a bit of research for the patron. It’s how I learn about our collections and Pratt’s history. But now that they can’t come in at all, I’m having to work with my graduate assistants to dig deeper into the collections in order to find the specific information they’re looking for. It’s one of my favorite parts of being an archivist but is certainly very time-consuming.
Virtual instruction for 'Made in NYC' and 'Contextualizing Fashion' courses during the Fall 2020 semester. Pictured: (left) Budget fashion show booklet, 1932. Records of the School of Art and Design, Pratt Institute Archives; (right) Christian Dior personalized hand-painted silk scarf, late 1940s. Virginia Thoren Collection, Pratt Institute Libraries Special Collections.
If you could make one change to the archives what would it be?
I’d love a reading room! I also literally work in the Archives. That is, I work in the same room as the collections live. This is great because all the papers, photographs, and artifacts are at my fingertips. On the other hand, I’d love to open the shades once in a while and have some plants but I can’t do that because direct sunlight, pests, and 130-year old artifacts don’t mix.
Cristina working in the Archives. August 2020.
What is your favorite thing about working at Pratt?
I have a lot of ideas on how to make the archives (both the space and our collections) more inclusive and open to social justice-oriented projects. People who have tried to do this at other institutions know this is an uphill battle that requires lots of institutional buy-in. Fortunately, at Pratt, I have the support of the Libraries as well as the school to do this kind of work. On a less important level… having a relaxed dress-code has been an unexpected source of joy.