Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of people at the Harry Ransom Center.
Joan Sibley has filled a variety of roles during her 25 years at the Ransom Center. Now, as Senior Archivist, she is responsible for the completion of retrospective conversion cataloging of manuscript collections, grant writing, and management of grant projects. She recently spent time working with Liz Gushee on Project REVEAL and has just completed a year-long project with fellow archivist Daniela Lozano to create online access to the J. Frank Dobie papers. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in Library Science from The University of Alabama.
How has your role changed since you first came to the Ransom Center?
Oh, a lot! Cataloging at the Ransom Center was shifting from item-level description in a manual card catalog to collection-level description in automated finding aids when I started work here in 1990 as an archivist. My first assignment was the papers of Gloria Swanson in the film collection, a big archive of about 650 boxes that took me two years to complete. In addition to cataloging a number of collections over the years, I also became a supervisor, administrator, and grant-writer, shifting to Senior Archivist in 2009 in order to spend more time working hands-on with the manuscript collections and get more finding aids online.
Do you have a favorite collection that you have worked with?
I couldn’t choose just one. Every collection that I’ve gotten the chance to work with has been fascinating in its own way—some more so than others, and some more surprising than others. I’ve had the great fortune of working with so many different collections over the years, which is really my favorite part about working here at the Ransom Center. You get the opportunity to learn something new all the time.
Can you tell me about your educational background and how that led you to a career here?
After completing a Bachelor’s in English at the University of Alabama, I worked in commercial insurance for several years, then went back for graduate school in Library Science at Alabama. I was really more interested in pursuing rare books at the time but became passionate about archives after working in the special collections library at Alabama.
What do you like doing in your free time?
Working as I frequently do with literary manuscripts, I really love to read, but I also love animals. My backyard in southwest Austin has become a sort of sanctuary, attracting tons of birds and squirrels with the occasional raccoon, possum, or even armadillo wandering in for food or water.
Have you read any great books lately?
I tend to read a lot of biography and also enjoy historical fiction. When we started work on the J. Frank Dobie papers last year—supported by a TexTreasures grant funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Texas State Library and Archives Commission—I started reading Dobie biographies and also read some of Dobie’s books. As for historical fiction, archives to me are a method of time travel—getting a feeling for the particular time period that a person lived in and what their life must have been like. For example, when I worked on our Pforzheimer collection of early English manuscripts, I learned that it contained a huge extra-illustrated Biography of Sir Walter Raleigh. The printed biography of Raleigh is “illustrated” with 69 manuscripts, including letters by Sir Walter Raleigh and Elizabeth I, along with 500 prints, engravings, and paintings. In connection with that, I found a wonderful piece of historical fiction by Louis Bayard called The School of Night. It’s a contemporary tale of someone on the trail of a Raleigh manuscript, with a historical subplot involving the English scientist Thomas Harriot, who traveled with Raleigh to the New World. It was a great story.
Do you have a dream vacation spot?
I’m really hoping to get to England in a year or two so I can see where some of our manuscripts originally came from and where the authors lived.