From letters written by Amelia Earhart to mesmerizing pastel drawings of Antarctica and a stuffed penguin named Mo, the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program (Polar Archives) at The Ohio State University has it all. The Polar Archives advances knowledge, research and learning about the world’s polar regions by collecting, preserving and making available historical records, personal papers, photographs and other forms of documentation related to polar exploration. For 25 years, Laura Kissel has been the Byrd Polar archivist, working to put these collections into the hands of students, scholars and researchers. We sat down with Laura to talk about her career, her work as an archivist and some of her favorite pieces in the Polar Archives.
Why did you become a curator?
Well, that was never the plan! I was a student employee at the Health Science Library when I was here as an undergraduate in the early 1980s. It was then I realized how much I liked library work. I managed to land a staff job working in Acquisitions at the Main Library (it’s what we called Thompson back then) when I graduated in August 1983 with a BS in Human Ecology. Then I had a couple of kids, and in early 1990, I decided to stay home with my boys. But I always intended to return to work, so in 1991 I started back at school and eventually earned my MLS from Kent State in 1996. Then I just started applying for any jobs that came open at Ohio State, whether or not I was remotely qualified. I was really gunning for a position in Acquisitions, but nothing came open during my job search. I got lucky when I was hired on contract by Dr. Rai Goerler, who was the University Archivist at that time, now retired. The job was perfect for me: part-time (so I could get the boys on and off the bus!) processing a recently received archival collection about the history of polar exploration. I did that for a couple of years. Meanwhile, as more researchers learned about the polar collections that Ohio State was actively acquiring, the reference load became too much for Rai and he started handing those questions over to me, giving me more and more experience in working with the collections that document the history of polar exploration. He also started shifting other tasks to me, like working with donors and writing grant requests. The polar curator position that I currently hold evolved from all of this. How lucky I am that I landed here when I did!
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
I really enjoy the research aspect and working with patrons. It’s exciting to help someone find something amazing in the polar collections. I work with filmmakers, authors, genealogists, scientists, students, faculty and everyone in between from all over the world.
What is your favorite item in the Polar Archives and why?
That’s a hard question! We have so many amazing items in the polar collections. But I guess if I have to choose, it would be the David Paige pastel drawings of Antarctica, drawn during Byrd’s second expedition to Antarctica from 1933 - 1935. They are truly beautiful. We hold 60 of them. You can see the Antarctica pastel drawings online here.
What is the most unique item in the Byrd Polar collection?
Again, a tough question. But if forced to choose, I would say the letter that we have from Amelia Earhart to Byrd is pretty special. In this letter she pledges money to Byrd from a cigarette ad! In the letter Amelia writes,
“Dear Commander Byrd: -
I have wondered if you know how much your help meant in connection with the Friendship’s flight to England. You not only aided with your sympathetic interest, but your technical pioneering and vision largely made success possible.
Perhaps you noticed my ‘endorsement’ of a brand of cigarettes which were carried by the men in the plane. I made this deliberately. It made possible my offering a modest contribution to your antarctic expedition, which otherwise I could not have done. I enclose the $1500 received, to help you reach the South Pole.
It would make me very happy if later I could be of any service. You are engaged in a great enterprise and it is a privilege to have even a small share in it.
(Signed) Amelia Earhart
Commander Richard E. Byrd
Biltmore Hotel, New York.
July 30th, 1928.”
How has your work impacted Ohio State's students, faculty and researchers? Are there any stories you'd like to share?
Something I am very proud of is my close working relationship with the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, particularly the education and outreach team. Together, we have hosted numerous workshops for teachers, educational events for students and public programs with wide appeal. In 2015, we curated an exhibit in the Thompson Library gallery together that commemorated the 25-year anniversary of the Polar Archives. It was an extremely interactive exhibit, and we had a number of associated programs that were well attended. The whole thing was extremely well received by faculty, staff, students and the general public.
How can people access the collections/materials in the Byrd Polar collection?
Our website can be found here. We do have some collection materials available online, such as oral histories and online exhibits. But this is only a fraction of our available collections; we encourage onsite visits to use the collection, but given that the bulk of polar researchers are not Ohio State-affiliated, local or even U.S. citizens, but are folks from other countries, we do an extensive amount of research for our patrons on their behalf.
If you could do any other job for a day, what would it be?
I have a real estate license! I love helping people achieve their real estate goals. It’s not all that different than helping researchers with their research goals, when you think about it.
What is your favorite book and why?
I loved Anne of Green Gables as a kid and am currently loving it all over again watching “Anne with an E” on Netflix.
What is your favorite Buckeye tradition?
My husband and I have season tickets to Ohio State football games and have had them for 25+ years! It’s hard to top the singing of Carmen Ohio at the end of the game with 100,000 of my closest friends. I can’t wait to do that again this year!