April 12, 2024

Amara Pugens’13 brings archives to life

Amara Pugens combined her love for space, history, and anthropology into a dream job as a digital archivist at the National Air and Space Museum.

Amara Pugens'13 After archival jobs in Pennsylvania and rural West Virginia, Amara Pugens moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked in the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Naval History and Heritage Command. Then the stars aligned and she landed her dream job as a digital archivist at the National Air and Space Museum, where she connects patrons with aviation and space history.

What does a normal day look like for you at the Air and Space Museum?

In archiving, you wear a lot of hats. You might have one focus, but in the end you do a bit of everything. I was hired as the digital archivist, but the basics are important, so I’ve also processed tangible material. For my first project, I got to work with pre-World War I aviation materials from U.S. pilots.

In the digital role, my day-to-day work is putting our digital material in its place. If a collection is already online, I attach it to its finding aid so researchers can see it. I often transform its format so it’s more accessible and put it into our asset management system.

What do you enjoy most about working in the museum’s archives?

I like the diversity of it — not knowing what I’m going to be doing each day. I like that there are mysteries that can be solved and shared with the public.

I have a great team. There’s such a breadth of what we do. I’m on a collections committee, and I vote on materials that come in. Every department gets to talk about it, and that pan-institutional collaboration is great. I also get to work with unsolicited materials. When someone says, “I have something in my attic that was my pilot grandfather’s from World War II; would you want that?” I’m the first point of contact.

Exhibitions or restoration departments come to see our technical manuals or drawings or blueprints to create a scale model to see if, say, a plane will fit in the elevator, or to find its bearings to hang it. We’ll have outreach or education departments coming to us too. Archives touch many parts of the museum, but we’re tucked away. It’s nice to have a little of both — talking and sharing, but also solitude.

How did your studies at Beloit prepare you for this position?

It was great how much I used the College Archives while earning my history degree, especially using diaries as primary sources. Fred [Burwell’86, archivist emeritus] let us try different things and find our interests. He made sure we were learning the archives field and feeding our passions. I knew I was going to be an archivist after taking an aptitude test. I was upset that I didn’t get spy or secret agent, but in archives and research, you do become kind of like a detective.

One year, Fred had this idea and I ran with it. He was talking about taking photos of the campus as it is today. We don’t often have documentation of how things are; we take for granted that it’s always going to be like this. While I worked [in the College Archives], he let me go on campus taking photos of the intricate pieces that make it unique. I’d go building by building and take pictures of details like windows and doors. I worked with facilities and went into the cupola of Middle College, Eaton Chapel, and the catwalk of the Smith building when it was a gymnasium. I have some photos I’m pretty proud of in the digital archives.

Amara Pugens'13 in the Eaton Chapel bell tower, researching campus history in 2013. Amara Pugens’13 in the Eaton Chapel bell tower, researching campus history in 2013.

What did you learn working with Fred?

One thing that I learned from Fred that I still use is a reference interview. Researchers come in and want to learn about something, so it’s cool to be able to ask the right questions to get to where they’re going and see that spark of excitement in them. That’s something I really like about this job — I wanted to be accessible to everyone. That’s what Fred is all about: sharing that knowledge.

My passion for diaries is thanks to Fred. In my pre-World War I project at the Air and Space Museum, there was an amazing journal where a pilot talks about these loop-de-loops that he’s learning, and all of a sudden the journal ends. He’d gotten into a crash and passed away. You’re learning about aviation, but then you realize that this is a person and you’re reading their story. As much as I love different parts of history — aviation and space — it’s the human aspect that gets me excited.


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