Amy Surak’s office is a scene of controlled chaos. Documents, books, artifacts cover every space in the room. Yet, it doesn’t seem like anything is really out of place. Surak is the Manhattan College archivist and has held the position for 12 years. Every day, she archives new materials from MC and other Christian Brothers schools to preserve their respective histories.
Coming to Manhattan
Surak’s first interaction with MC and the college’s archives came before she got the job as the archivist.
“I had been working on a book on the history of Covenant House.” Surak said. Covenant House was a Catholic run home for youth in Chelsea, and as part of her research Surak contacted MC.
“The foundation of covenant house grew out of Manhattan College. So as part of the research for that book I contacted people up here to get into the archives. I spoke to the library director at the time and it was very challenging to get access to the archives at the time because there was no archivist here. I remember him saying casually that they needed an archivist,” Surak said.
Flash forward to 2014 and Surak has been the college’s archivist for 12 years. In that time her job has expanded well beyond keeping MC’s history.
When Surak first arrived on campus, the archives had been housed in the fourth floor of Memorial Hall. At the time, the college was preparing the addition to the Cardinal Hayes Library and Surak’s first day included a hard hat tour of the new Mary Alice and Tom O’Malley Library where the archives came to be located.
“Basically an archives is a repository that houses materials related to a person, a place, a thing an institution,” Surak explained. “We appraise materials, we collect them, we process them, we preserve them, we organize them if necessary and then we make them available for research purposes.”
Surak collects the materials that are delivered every day to her office and decides what needs to be done with them.
“Here at the college we have nine different archives,” Surak said.
Surak collects all forms of materials and processes them to become part of the MC collection, or to be discarded if not relevant.
“All forms of recorded information. Anything from newspapers and books and manuscripts, which are chock full of information, to rare coins to photographs to film, what ever it is in a person or organization’s collection,” Surak said.
During her time as the archivist, Surak has begun collecting more than just MC materials.
“My job has expanded to become not just the archivist of the college but of the Brothers of the Christian Schools,” Surak said.
As Surak explained, when the Christian Brothers came from France they landed primarily in New York and began spreading across the country. As the institution grew they separated into districts.
“I now have the district of New York, the district of Long Island and New England, and the Midwest District,” Surak said.
“If someone was interested in telling the history of Catholic education from the Mississippi over, this would be a wonderful resource to do that,” Surak said.
A Day in the Life
With such an array of collections, Surak’s average day is centered around preparing and organizing the material.
“Every day I get about 5 boxes of material and they come in from everywhere. I came in this morning and there was one from Albany, I came in yesterday and there was one from Eatontown. The School of Arts just sent me over ten boxes the other day. So inevitably I am dealing with processing materials,” Surak said of an average day in the archives.
“An average day for me,” Surak said, “is ‘let’s choose.’” Once she has chosen what collection to work on, Surak makes sure her work study students have a project.
Surak has about 8 or 9 work study students, who are typically history majors interested in a career in archives. She also has a chemical engineer and a business major working for her.
Surak’s work study students come in around 10 a.m. every morning and she sets them up with a project. She also works with a graduate student from New York University, who works in the MC archives as part of her graduate program.
The archive student workers work primarily independently, but Surak is always there to assist. “On a normal day everybody that is working tends to operate pretty independently, just under Amy’s guidance really,” a sophomore history major Jamie Kiriakos said.
Then Surak sets to work on her project for the day. She has back logs and various collections to work on, and everyday more and more materials come into the archives. Recently, Surak received two portfolios from California which contained original photos of MC’s campus that were sent to San Francisco for an exhibit. The portfolios were found under a stairwell, where they had been since 1947.
Surak was visibly excited to receive such materials, as they are something she has never seen before and make a worth addition to the MC collection.
Not all materials are as exciting, and Surak makes determinations every day on what to keep and what to discard.
The Archives and the Future
As Surak collects these tangible materials, there is also the digital database of the college’s archives to work on. The current system that the archives uses is not conducive to the growing collections, so Surak is transferring the data onto a new system designed by archivists.
“Right now we are migrating from an old database to a new open-source sophisticated database that was created by archivist for archivists.” The migration from the old database is not easy, and Surak has backed the old data up twice to ensure it is not lost.
Surak also deals with research requests every day. She says she receives at least three a day and tries to accommodate each one. According to Surak they range in urgency, and often people are not willing to come look at the archives, but want her to find information that is somehow connected to their research. While she can easily pull related information, Surak thinks coming and searching the archives is the best way to research.
“Part of the enjoyment, the experience and the learning is that you could read something and near it could be something that leads you on a totally different trajectory that could be more exciting and certainly more invigorating,” Surak said.
Surak also has to deal with the legal issues surrounding some of the information in the archives. This includes the confidentiality and privacy laws that deal with archived material.
“Part of my job is to mitigate risk and be a gate keeper and be cognizant of the laws that govern these kinds of records.”
As she continues her work at MC, Surak is growing the collections and the archives themselves.
“I got into this [because of] that documentary, tangible aspect of archives. You’re dealing with primary source materials, this stuff hasn’t been synthesized for you,” Surak said.
Her work in the archives can be tedious but the atmosphere manages to stay positive according to Kiriakos. “I can’t even count how many times she drops what she’s working on to help out any student that’s having an issue.”
“There’s always a good vibe around the work environment as a whole and even in really stressful moments Amy always manages to keep the archives a really upbeat space,” Kiriakos said.
Surak believes the collections in the archives are a rich opportunity for researchers, students, and anyone interested in looking at the past.
“History is a series of filtered and subjective material handed down to you over time, but it’s somebody else’s opinions. Here is an opportunity to look at it yourself and determine what you think is the right thing.”
While the archives are filled with paper, books, paintings and more that might intimidate visitors, for Surak it is just another day on the job.