Student Profile: Vance Lewis '23

Archives Unlock a Future Career

By Tiffany King

Imagine being among boxes of documents and artifacts that captured life as it once was years ago. Aerial photos of undeveloped land that now boasts houses, streets, and businesses, and letters that communicate the simpler times of life in Glynn County. This is where Vance Lewis found his happy place—sifting and organizing items of days long past to educate others is where he found his passion and future career as an archivist.

Lewis is a College of Coastal Georgia senior, majoring in interdisciplinary studies with a minor in history. Lewis’ wife, Skye, studied environmental science at the College and had the opportunity to gain field experience and do internships. She did an independent study on Little Cumberland Island, and presented her research at conferences. Lewis wanted a similar experience, so he approached Dr. Robert Bleil, chair of the Department of Arts and Humanities and professor of English, about internship opportunities. Lewis thought he would do an internship at a historic site or museum. Instead, Bliel suggested the Marshes of Glynn Libraries. Lewis met with Library Manager Hesper Montford of the St. Simons Island Library about what his internship would involve, and then he and got started. He never expected that an internship would lead to an interest in archiving.

“Once there, I was like ‘I love this.’ I never saw my career going in that direction,” Lewis said. “History is something that I’ve always loved. I was originally a middle school education major, but once I had that internship and spent time in the archives, I fell in love with it. This is what I want to do.”

Lewis began his internship at the library in January. His first archival project was the Glynco Naval Air Station (NAS) Collection. Glynco operated from 1942 to 1974, and was located at what is now the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and the Brunswick Golden Isles Airport, Lewis said. The military base had a library, which collected different newspapers, photos, scrapbooks, and other documents.

“The archives we have were donated from that library and included a lot of the social life on the base. There are military documents that talked about how it was constructed, how they chose that site, and more. There are also pictures in that collection that go back into the 60s and 70s. It was interesting to dive into that and see things from that time,” he said.

This past summer, Lewis was contracted to work on two more projects—the William Cecil Little Collection, and the McGarvey Family Collection. Little was an attorney in Georgia, and was named Judge of Brunswick City Court in 1945 by then Gov. Ellis Arnall. The collection includes documentation for real estate and personal property, correspondence related to cases and debt collections, business agreements, and more.

“We have different court documents, lawsuits, etc., that were really interesting to look at from the early courts. One of them was a lawsuit against the Butler Island Dairy. There was a lot of testimony about the day leading up to the accident that caused the lawsuit,” Lewis said. “Again, you’re looking straight into what they were doing and what life was like then.”

Lewis called the McGarvey Family Collection one of the cooler collections he’s been able to work with. Cormac McGarvey was born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. He lived in Savannah, then moved to Brunswick, where he lived for the rest of his life, Lewis said. McGarvey had a store downtown on Newcastle Street.

“I had just finished the Little Collection that included debt collection information. I started seeing debt collection documents with McGarvey, so he had some troubles with his finance. Through his letters, we learned that he was corresponding with debt collectors, explaining that his store had been destroyed in a hurricane in 1889. He said, ‘I had water that was up to 6 feet. Everything in my store is ruined.’ He’s negotiating with the wholesalers asking, ‘Can I pay you 50 percent of what I owe you now and we can clear the books? Once I get back on my feet, I’ll go back to my full order,’” Lewis said. “It’s interesting to see that perspective because we just had a hurricane, so it can happen again. It’s also interesting to look back at a time before named storms and radar.”

Through further research on that particular hurricane, Lewis learned that all of Downtown Brunswick was under water. For Lewis, it demonstrated not only McGarvey’s resilience, but the area’s perseverance to restore what was lost in the storm. The collection also features artifacts related to McGarvey’s daughters. One held a patent on a reverse seat cushion and the other, a poet, published a book of poems that can be found at the library.

A Collective Story

What has really stood out to Lewis about the collections is that they are all local history, and show the significance of Glynn County in Coastal Georgia.

“The overarching idea with these collections—the one’s I’ve done and others that will be done after me—is that these are collectively Brunswick’s stories,” he said. “We all hear about these great places and huge stories that are in the news and history books. It’s not very often that you get to look at the McGarveys, W.C. Little, or Glynco, which was huge in this county for 40 years.”

Lewis archived the collections in the Heritage Room, located at the Brunswick-Glynn County Library. The Heritage Room Collections holds items of special interest to researchers, genealogists, and local citizens.

“The Heritage Room is the heritage of Brunswick and Glynn County. We have genealogical records in there from everywhere. In the room where the archives are is a conference table from the Carnegies that were on Cumberland Island. I’m sitting, doing all the processing on a table that belonged to the Carnegies. You’re surrounded by the history of this area, and you start to see the significance of this place, and the leaps we’ve made,” Lewis said.

The archival process may seem quite simple, Lewis said, but it’s actually not. The first step is to assess what’s in the collection, piece by piece. For Glynco, items were submitted in the same boxes they’ve been stored in since the base closed. Lewis started with the newspapers. He carefully removed rusted staples, paper clips, and adhesive tape, which causes chemical reactions to paper. The main priority at that stage is to stabilize the collection and get artifacts to the point where they no longer degrade. Once the items are preserved and stabilized, Lewis starts to organize the collection thematically.

“Once you get to the organization part, it’s a little less time consuming, but hard in a different way,” Lewis said. “You have to step outside of yourself and say, ‘If I’m a researcher or student, and I’m doing a project on this, what is going to be the most beneficial for the person?’ You have to look at it from the perspective of someone else looking for it. From there, you’re making changes all the way until the last second.”

The artifact boxes are then numbered in pencil in case of a mistake or change to the order. Lewis’ work also included creating a finding aid. A finding aid is a document written by archivists to describe a specific collection. It’s used by researchers to help determine if the material in a collection is relevant to their research. Lewis created finding aids for all the collections he’s done. Other finding aids have been developed for the library by other student interns from the College, volunteers from the Coastal Georgia Genealogical Society, and contracted preservation consultants. When Lewis finished the Glynco collection and turned in his finding aid to Montford, she printed out the official stickers with the numbers, and left them for Lewis to put on the boxes himself.

“That’s the bow on the present! To go in and put that sticker on there. It’s so satisfying because you step back and say ‘Wow!’ There’s some emotional moments and you’re proud of it. I’m proud of all the collections,” he said.

Lewis is now a part of the library’s history, not only because of his finding aids, but a part of him is reflected in each collection. He shared that when working with a collection, the archivist brings themselves into the process. How one archivist organizes a collection is different than how another archivist would do it—it comes down to personal decisions. For Lewis, he grew up surrounded by strong women in his life. In the Glynco collection, the first series are the scrapbooks from the Glynco Officers Wives Club.

“A lot of this collection came from them and they had scrapbooks. The most important people were the women of the base while their husbands were off fighting or training,” Lewis said. “You make the archives talk with the way you’ve done the organization. Putting them first made sense to me and Hesper. It’s a nod to them and their work in the community. You allow those people who may not be alive anymore to be a part of history, and honor them, their families, and what they did.”

The Future Archivist

Lewis also works full time in the IT Department of the Southeast Georgia Health System. He truly loves working in IT at the hospital and plans to combine his love of IT and archiving by pursuing a career in digital archives. He believes that is where the future of archiving is heading. Tangible letters are now emails and pdf documents, and with that comes the need to preserve digital-born artifacts.

“When you first had word processing, there were floppy disks and different things that no one uses anymore. It’s going to get harder to look at earlier stuff, especially if you don’t have a way of viewing it. That’s something I want to look at and use the ideas and expertise I have from IT, and approach it from the aspect of trying to preserve digital documents. I’ve heard that it’s easier to preserve a 500-year-old book than it is to preserve a digital document for five years. With a book, you can insert some leaf pages and place it in a box. Digital files will deteriorate over time. The file itself loses data,” he said.

His dream job is to be a corporate archivist for companies, like Coca Cola or Delta Air Lines, who have staff historians and archivists that keep track of the company’s history and various artifacts. If he couldn’t be an archivist, Lewis can also see himself being a research librarian and working at a college library helping students with their research. Lewis’ current plans for after graduation in May are to continue working at the hospital, organizing collections for the library, and eventually attending graduate school. He credited Assistant Professor of History Dr. Hector Montford for pushing him towards public history and arranging his internship.

“I love talking about the archives. I’ve learned that I really love the public history aspect of it,” Lewis said. “I’ve learned that I would still love to teach, but it’s going to be outside of the classroom. Maybe down the line, it will look like me teaching other people how to do archives.”

Lewis commended the partnership between the College and library in giving students opportunities to help organize different collections and make them accessible to the community.

 “There’s collections that haven’t been processed, and I’m just itching to go at it,” he said. “I hope other students will be as well. Hesper would love to have more students help with the collections.”

Lewis recently had the opportunity to be among fellow archivists at the Society of Georgia Archivists annual meeting this October, held at the Jekyll Island Club Resort. He presented his research poster that focused on his work with Glynco. Lewis had a great time and talked of being in a room filled with other people who were just as—and even more—passionate about archiving and preservation.

Lewis thanked his wife, their family, and church family at Union City Church for all their support as he discovered his love for archives.