Interview with Brenda Gunn

Brenda Gunn, Director of Research and Collections at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, Austin. Brenda joined the Briscoe Center in 1999 as Head of Archives and Manuscripts, became Assistant Director for Research and Collections in 2005, and Associate Director for the Division in 2007. She earned an MLIS with an emphasis in Archival Enterprise from the University of Texas at Austin in 1995 and became a certified archivist in 1996. She also received an MA in English and BA in History from The University of Texas at Tyler.

Brenda Gunn

Brenda Gunn

Quick Overview:
I began my tenure at the Briscoe Center in October 1999 as the Head of Archives and Manuscripts. Several years later, I became the Assistant Director for Research and Collections which broadened the scope of my responsibilities to include Public Services, the Texas Collection rare book library, Audio Visual Archives, and Digital Archives. Before arriving at UT Austin, I worked at the State Bar of Texas as an Assistant Archivist (where I did not archive drinks, just in case there’s any question about that).

Where were you born?
I was born in the northeast Texas town of Tyler, nicknamed the Rose Capital of the World, though Portland, Oregon may challenge us on that!

What was your professional training?
I studied archival enterprise with David B. Gracy II at the University of Texas’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science. While in graduate school, I worked at the local state agency where I started their photograph archives program.

What was your very first job?
During the summers of my high school years, I worked in the gift shop at the Tyler Municipal Rose Garden, where I sold many a bag of rose scented potpourri.  My first professional job after graduation was with an Austin-based semiconductor firm called SEMATECH. I was one of the company’s records and archives analysts. I worked with a great group of information professionals and learned more about collaboration and working on teams at that job than I learned about archives, really. I value that experience greatly because I have used those collaborative skills every day since then.

What would your dream job be?
I don’t have just one. I would like to be the page turner for the Book of Kells. I’d like to process Oliver Sacks journals (wherever they might be). I’d love to go into elementary schools and talk to kids about archives. I’ve done it once using an 1850’s era slave broker’s business card from our Southern History collections, and the kid’s engagement with that document was fantastic. I’d love to work with fabulous collections and wonderful people. Oh wait, my dream came true right where I am…

How did your partnership with IPI begin?
In 2000, the Briscoe Center became part of the first phase of the Preservation Environment Monitoring Field Trial. We received the equipment and software through the grant and participated in providing feedback to IPI through that program. I was happy to be the contact for that trial and I like knowing that our participation played a little part in an important research project for archives, libraries, and museums. I also attended the 2010 Austin workshop on the Sustainable Preservation Practices for Managing Storage Environments. And I haven’t stopped thinking about HVAC systems since!

Why does the preservation of museum and library collections matter to you?
For those kids who really understood an aspect of slavery when holding the evidence of its existence. For the undergraduates who enter the archives for the first time, engage with the past, and leave with a better understanding of their place in the world. For the individuals who find their personal history in our collections, and are changed by the experience. For the people who currently give no thought to the value and importance of library, museum, and archival collections, but who may have an epiphany. For these reasons and many others, I work to preserve collections.

What is your favorite work of art or your favorite artist?
I will always linger with the Impressionists. And I do love El Greco!  I also love architecture and one day look forward to experiencing art at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.

What other hobbies or significant interests do you have?
I’m currently pursuing a PhD in History at UT. So, my hobbies and outside interests have winnowed down to coursework and writing papers. My family and I love to zip line and go rappelling down canyons beside waterfalls (yes, that’s very specific). So, we try to get outdoors as often as we can. Even in the Texas summers.

What book or books would you like to have with you if you were marooned on a desert island?
I’d take the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. I think that would keep me occupied until someone happens along.

What is your most treasured possession?
Letters from my grandparents sent to me while I was in college. I miss them, and these bring them closer.

What is your greatest indulgence?
Trips to Costa Rica. See above interest in zip lining and adventure!

What is the most surprising thing to you about IPI?
I’ve always admired how rooted in science and research IPI. This really shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but my professional interactions have been mostly within humanities-based arenas. I’ve learned a great deal from James Reilly and company, and there should be no surprise in that. They are all great teachers and champions for preservation, and they help us to be better as well.