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ASU archivist named SAA Fellow


August 20, 2008

In the mid-1980s, Rob Spindler, now ASU’s archivist, was planning to enter a doctoral program in history with his sights on becoming a college professor.

But things were bleak for Ph.D. students in history at that time – too many students and not enough jobs – so he decided, while interning at the MIT Museum, to become an archivist.

“I realized in my work there that you could build a career working with archival materials,” he says. “So I chose to leave the doctoral program.”

Throughout his career as an archivist, Spindler has been active in the Society of American Archivists on the local, regional and national levels, and for his service in cataloging standards development and records, he has just been named a Fellow of SAA.

He was honored Aug. 29 during SAA’s 72nd annual meeting in San Francisco.

After changing his career path, Spindler earned a master of science degree in library and information science from Simmons College, and came to the ASU Library in 1988 as curator of manuscripts.

His early archival jobs convinced him he had made the right choice.

As an intern at Polaroid, he discovered a shoebox full – about 125 – of transparencies by Ansel Adams. “Adams was testing a new Polaroid film for Edwin Land, called Type Type 55P/N which makes positive transparencies,” says Spindler. “We authenticated the slides by the A.A. initials written on images of Adams’ piano.”

The next stop was the Peabody Museum of Salem, Mass., where he worked with archival collections pertaining to maritime history and naval architecture and ethnology.

At the Peabody, he came across a green sea chest in the basement, and, curious, opened it. “There was a pile of packaged papers, each package tied with a red ribbon. The papers came from the Ship Rajah, which was the first American vessel to sail to Sumatra and return with a cargo of pepper, in 1799."

“Ink crumbled and fell off the ship master’s letters, cargo manifests and sketchbooks as Spindler unwrapped them, perhaps the first time they had been touched since about 1830s."

Other materials at the museum documented shipwrecks, piracy and insurance claims from hundreds of voyages across the globe.

“That job got me hooked on archives, and I only got through 20 percent of the collection,” he says.

Spindler came to ASU to learn about using technology to describe large 20th century collections, but what he eventually discovered is that the major problem facing archivists is managing 21st century electronic materials.

“How do you preserve President Crow’s blog, or a wiki, for example?” Spindler asks.

Not only is the issue how to save them, but how to make sure they are available for future generations to utilize.

One problem is what Spindler calls “creeping corruption.”

As software makers produce update after update of programs such as Microsoft Word, text and formatting errors creep in as the versions are translated from one to another.

For example, the Charles Keating collection, which was given to Archives several years ago, contains 106 optical disks, which include attorney’s notes in the case, Spindler says. “We tested 12 of the disks and they all failed.”

No one has yet figured out how to read them, so a significant part of the Keating material is, essentially, unavailable because of changing technology.

And it’s not just archival material that is impacted.

“Managing electronic information is of the most complex and important challenges in higher education today," says Spindler.

"Virtually every program and planning decision — from student information systems and online courses, to Web-based manuals and recruitment, to expansion of research efforts — involves creating and managing electronic records.”

With a fascination for rummaging through archival materials and arranging them, one would think Spindler would be a natural garage-sale addict.

He does like to poke around, but he does his poking online, and as a blues singer and guitarist, he’s most likely looking to buy or sell equipment.

“I like to look at old musical instruments on eBay,” he says.