When Dr. Seuss Enterprises ceased publication and licensing of six books that contained stereotypes of people the organization deemed “hurtful and wrong” last March, the hand-wringing “cancel culture!” wailing dialed up to eleven. One thing quickly became evident: most of the nation seems to be unaware that the millions of copies of these books that already exist weren’t being rounded up and burned. We decided to contact Denver Public Library Archivist Librarian Laura Ruttum Senturia to get the scoop on how that whole thing works. And boy did we learn a lot.
French Davis: Give us the Laura Ruttum Senturia story.
Laura Ruttum Senturia: Happy to talk with you today, French! I’m a “native” Denverite and East High grad who spent most of my early professional years on the East Coast (NYC, NJ, PA). I studied International Affairs in college, did a Masters in Russian Studies, and a second Masters in Library & Information Science. Over the past 20 years I’ve worked in cultural institutions in four states, including academic libraries, a museum, a medical library, public research libraries, a branch library, and a number of different special collections and archives. Along the way, I’ve done a lot of reference and research assistance, and blogging.
One of the beautiful things about our field is that, even within the profession, there is such a broad scope of possible job titles and responsibilities. The field also includes law libraries, corporate archives, government libraries and archives, and more!
My work has ranged from Russian language acquisitions (book buying) to toddler storytime, and from presenting public history lectures to library management. Along the way, I’ve done a lot of reference and research assistance, blogging and writing, and reader’s advisory (if you liked this title, you’ll love…).
I’ve been with Denver Public Library (DPL) since 2018, and within our fantastic Western History & Genealogy department since 2019. We’re like a library within a library, with our own specialized staff. As one of two folks who straddle the Archivist and Librarian roles, I currently provide history and genealogy research services, blog and process archival collections.
“Processing” entails making rational order from the chaos of peoples’ and organizations’ papers and records, and describing them in a way that helps the researcher find what they need. The work is an art and a bit of a science, and means archivists are great at categorizing and playing Tetris.
As an aside, it’s always interesting to me how many people are surprised an advanced degree is required in our field. Our work requires some very specialized knowledge and skills, and the colleagues I’ve met over my career are some of the most esoterically-educated folks I know. I’ve worked with a specialist in mushrooms, and folks with backgrounds in music composition and musical theatre, pottery, book conservation, and filmmaking. I’ve worked with librarians who have MBAs, and with former lawyers. Our Western History and Genealogy department alone has staff whose previous roles were as a professional ballet dancer, a flight attendant, and in web design, fashion design, and hotels. Let’s just say our watercooler conversations are fascinating. And if I can help it, I am never leaving DPL.
FD: What is an archivist in general, and what’s unique to the role as it is for the DPL?
LRS: We are historians and preservationists, but our job ultimately is to get our collections in front of as many eyes and in as many hands as we can.
We’re also educators, we amplify the voices of the dead, we discover secrets, and we protect history—in all its beauty and ugliness—so that it will still be around to testify long after we are all gone.
As I previously mentioned, an archivist’s daily work usually includes processing materials created by people and organizations over the course of their lives. We handle papers, books, digital content, photos, art, A/V materials, and sometimes artifacts. A lot of this stuff shows up at the library directly from basements and attics, with evidence (and sometimes dead specimens) of the pests that favored the materials. We also see a lot of obscure old technology (reel-to-reel film, floppy discs, highly combustible negatives, even wax cylinders). I’ve processed more than my fair share of collections that were clearly dumped into boxes helter-skelter from filing cabinets, with or without the actual folders.
DPL has two departments that serve in this capacity: the Western History & Genealogy Division and the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. We collaborate on our collecting and digitization efforts, and share some staff.
The way in which this role is unique to DPL is that we’re a special collections archive, located within a public library. This means we are open to anyone who is interested in our collections, genealogy, or history—from grade schoolers to retirees, tourists, our unhoused population, academics, architects and city planners, and authors.
We welcome everyone, and we attempt to collect materials that document the lives and interests of every community. This is different from university archives or museums, which often serve a more specific audience (college students, exhibit-goers), and in some cases are more restrictive about access.
FD: There’s been plenty of buzz lately regarding Dr. Seuss’s estate’s choice to sunset production of 6 books. As an archivist, how does such a decision impact you?
LRS: The greater question about the Dr. Seuss publishing situation is how it impacts future scholarship, and our concept of our shared past. Archives and libraries don’t exist for our own sake; we exist to serve our communities.
That said, historically, archives have tended to collect the stories of white, male, heterosexual people in positions of power (politicians, businessmen, etc.). There has been a move in the past 30 or so years to also start documenting the lives of women, the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, people with disabilities, “regular folks” (read: not rich or powerful), and others. There’s a lot of ground still to cover, but the events of this past year have put an increased focus and urgency on archiving more equitably. We’re asking ourselves how to document a community or person’s story, not from where we personally stand, but from where the subject of the collection stood. We’re working on self-education and collaboration. This touches upon everything we do. We’re aiming to do a better job of representing everyone.
Archives also have a commitment to open and easily-accessible information, and to preserve history without inserting our own bias. One of my library school professors used to joke that a good librarian has “no political opinions, no religion, and absolutely no morals whatsoever.” Obviously, that’s impossible, but what she meant stands: we should not let any personal beliefs or biases get in the way of our work. Another favorite edict shared widely in our field is that “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”
My opinion as an archivist is that we have a duty to collect and preserve offensive and controversial things, no matter their origin or angle. We have a responsibility to the future to capture the full spectrum of experience and human thought. We can’t continue to grow and “do better” as a society, if we don’t have a reference point for who we were and are now.
If we had a copy in our archives of any of the Seuss books being discussed so hotly, of course we would keep them. We also keep things like hate mail received by political activists, and materials related to the KKK. These things happened, they’re history, and they serve an educational role.
FD: Does the DPL have an official stance regarding the Dr. Seuss “controversy?”
LRS: We do! Like most public libraries, Denver Public Library follows American Library Association’s (ALA) Freedom to Read principles.
Our library does not plan to pull any Dr. Seuss books from the collection. Libraries across the country are having conversations around how to balance our core values of intellectual freedom, with the harmful stereotypes depicted in many children’s classics. DPL will continue to purchase and promote diverse collections, while finding ways to help parents read and discuss books with their children with a critical eye as part of our efforts to challenge inequity.
Our library’s regular protocol for removing materials is based on lack of circulation, accuracy of information, and physical condition.
FD: How has technology evolved since you started your career until now?
LRS: I was thinking about this while catching up on American Gods last night (no spoilers, I promise). At one point in history, flint stone tools represented the hot new technology! Stone age archivists, had there been any, would’ve been figuring out how to preserve them.
We are responsible for figuring out how to document and save content created with every new technology that comes along. When I started, most of my work involved paper-based materials, and most of it still does, but we receive donations on all kinds of media that we work to extract and preserve. Archivists are preserving things from old video games, to the web and social media platforms, including things like documenting social media posts surrounding the events in the Capitol on January 6th. Our field will be there for the next thing to come, too.
Technology has allowed us better tools for tracking the data in and about our collections. Instead of using accession ledgers, for example, we now use content management tools.
As far as the role of sharing our collections, social media has greatly expanded our reach. Through our platforms (FB, IG, Twitter, YouTube) we are able to share Colorado stories and digital photos with anyone who is interested. We also have an extensive online collection that’s a great tool for researchers (and fun to browse!).
FD: What are some of the things people might be surprised about when it comes to being an archivist?
LRS: The popular assumptions about archivists, just as about librarians, are often outdated or just plain wrong. We’re not Gollum guarding our precious documents in a “dusty archives,” and we’re not professional shushers. It’s also not likely that “everything will be digitized” in your or my lifetime.
We prefer to think of ourselves as defenders of history and democracy, info detectives, and partners who will move mountains to figure out how to serve our researchers. With every decision we make regarding our collections and services, we first assess how it will impact our user community.
As an example: during the library’s COVID-19 closure, we’ve continued to offer phone and email reference services, and virtual reference appointments. I was helping genealogists and property history researchers from my home, with my preschooler screeching in the background (thankfully, our users are an understanding bunch). We’ve pivoted from being research advisors to actually doing many of our patrons’ research work for them, sending them copious scans of collection documents at no charge. We really miss seeing them all in person.
Also, we get a lot of papercuts.
FD: Okay, now tell us about the secret collections in the vaults and some of the sweet stuff you’ve been able to examine.
LRS: What’s the password? Just kidding.
We have some great manuscript collections related to the conservation movement, amazing historic photos, papers of activists and rabble-rousers, and a broad and useful map collection.
I love our Denver assessor’s records that allow you to search the history and ownership of Denver homes and buildings. Similarly, I love the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps that show, block by block, what buildings were in existence during particular eras (Denver’s begin in 1887). The maps are huge, heavy, leatherbound volumes with colorful illustrations….and there are also digital versions.
As far as practical utility: these maps are how I figured out why we keep digging up bricks in one corner of my garden.
I also really enjoy the amazing collection from Denver African American photographer, Burnis McCloud. His full collection primarily spans the 1940s to 1970s, and beautifully captures the lives of Denver’s African American community. The collection documents daily life and special events, and includes a broad scope of subjects, from children to businesspeople, even debutantes!
We also hold the archives of the now-extinct Rocky Mountain News (the oldest CO newspaper, published from 1859-2009). The collection contains the newspaper’s own internal clipping files, and their photo morgue.
My favorite items are our double elephant folio volumes of Audubon’s Birds of America. You’ll find the images here, but you can’t beat seeing them in person. At least one of the species—the Carolina Parakeet—is now extinct. Audubon wanted to represent all of the birds at life size, so the volumes are just about 40 inches tall (that’s more than 3 feet, people!). It takes two staffers to turn a page without tearing the paper.
FD: Where should we send people with more questions about the DPL archives?
LRS: I hope we hear from some of your readers with burning questions!
Send them to:
WHG website: history.denverlibrary.org
WHG digital collection: digital.denverlibrary.org
WHG blogs: history.denverlibrary.org/news