Archivist Spotlight: Randall C. Jimerson
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
I'd like to take a moment to say some very nice things about a very nice man who taught me all about the wonder and social responsibilities of archives and archivists and who is the unofficial godfather of this website.
A couple weeks ago, the archives of Western Washington University, in conjunction with the WWU history department, hosted a retirement party for Rand Jimerson. Though he was helped by guest lecturers and professors along the way, the Archives and Records Management program at Western has been his and his alone for many years. Rand is the archives program, which is why it will no longer exist now that he's retired. It's a bittersweet moment as a former student of Rand's and the program. On the one hand, Rand is finally taking his much earned retirement after decades of service to students and the archival community. On the other hand, no more archives department at Western. I say that as someone who benefited immensely from the program and who may not have become an archivist had it not existed when it did.
But this isn't a lament, it's a celebration of Rand's accomplishments as a mentor, teacher, and leader! When I entered the history department's graduate program in 2008, I was one of the few students who'd had Rand as a teacher when I was an undergrad. I remember it very distinctly because Rand is an extremely forgiving lecturer when it comes to students being smartasses. Shocker, right? Me, a smartass? The class was about the Civil War and Reconstruction, which are Rand's specialties. He became an archivist through his study of the Civil War and, in many ways, his calls for activism, transparency, and accountability stems from those studies as well as his family's involvement during the Civil Rights Movement.
But I digress.
The most important story to come out of the Civil War and Reconstruction class was the reference some friends and I made about Robert E. Lee's letters to the Confederate HQ about the need for shoes and the fact that Gettysburg was supposedly (not really) a battle waged because of its proximity to a shoe factory. The battlecry of "SHOES!!" was to be heard across the class and eventually social media for the rest of our days. As always, Rand took our extrapolation of historical events with an easy smile, a slight chuckle, and probably an internal groan. A couple years later and I was far more mature at the wizened age of 24.
Being a student of the history department and the archives program was a strange world to navigate. Those in the archives program were sometimes looked at with a disdainful side-eye as if to tell us, "You're not really studying History." Because what says "inclusion" and "community" more than an academic purity contest? What those naysayers didn't understand was how Rand connected our introduction to academic thinking to archival principles that I utilize to this day. My education as a burgeoning archivist was equally divided between the lofty philosophies of past archival thinkers and the cold, hard reality of the day-to-day workings of an archival institution. But through it all, Rand's particular brand of archives and social justice remained the central theme of our studies.
I don't think I'd be the archivist I am today without Rand Jimerson. I remember throughout my two and a half years as a graduate student struggling with the dearth of archival writing in the modern era. At the time, it seemed like everything that could be said had been said and other articles were just retreading or reevaluating older works and models. Social media was just beginning to make the impact it has now of real-time documentation and previously closed avenues of access and outreach. There was an excitement in the air of being within the archival community because of all of the potential social media presented as well as the overwhelming amount of data collected and utilized by people and companies with less than altruistic intentions. With Rand as the anchor point, archives and social justice became the brass ring of academic study and achievement. From what I remember, out of the seven students in my co-hort, only one or two didn't incorporate social justice into their graduate thesis.
Outside of university, Rand has always been available to chat and offer advice when needed. He's an extremely open and generous person who wants nothing more than for his students to succeed. The first Society of American Archivists conference I went to, with two of my best friends in the program and real life, was overwhelming, to be sure, but Rand went out of his way to introduce us to his colleagues and made sure to check in with us as the conference progressed. Several years in and now it feels far less intimidating to go to the conferences as I've gotten more experience under my belt, but I always make sure to check in with Rand and catch up. Even if it's only a brief conversation in the conference hotel between sessions or at dinner with the WWU alumni, I always make time for Rand.
And yes, like I said at the beginning, Rand is the unofficial godfather of POP Archives. It was in his presidential address to the Society of American Archivists that Rand referenced Star Wars - Episode II: The Clone Wars and it was the first time I'd really seen anyone make a pop culture reference regarding archives. Again, the landscape of archival writing was small in comparison to other schools of thought. The only other article I could think of was one where the author outlined various written works of fiction that featured archivists and evaluated them based on a specified criteria. Other than that, I couldn't rightly recall anything else that referred to archives outside of academia except for Leith Johnson's "Archives in the Movies" presentation at the annual conference. So, when I started seriously thinking about putting together a website about archives and pop culture, it was Rand's words that helped solidify the concept.
I sincerely wish Rand all the best in his retirement. It is deserved and earned and I plan on giving him the biggest hug in Austin this year! I couldn't have asked for a better archival mentor and friend. And I will fight anyone who has a bad thing to say about him that isn't accurately sourced and cited in a peer reviewed article!