Melissa Kunz was recently promoted to director of McFarlin Library’s Special Collections & University Archives, and it is not difficult to discern why she is deserving of the title. Her passion and commitment to the preservation of historical artifacts and the dissemination of historical knowledge are the values that The University of Tulsa seeks to uphold. Read more below about Kunz’s duties, her favorite artifacts and what led to her latest career milestone.
Q: Congratulations on being appointed director of Special Collections & University Archives! Can you discuss what kind of duties are assigned to special collections directors? What kind of training have you undergone?
A: The director of Special Collections & University Archives is responsible for everything in the department! I oversee our staff and graduate student workers, choose new materials to add to the collections, collaborate with faculty members on projects and class visits, give tours to prospective students and parents, and make sure that our storage areas are the right temperature and humidity levels, among many, many other things.
I have a master’s degree in library and information studies from the University of Oklahoma and have worked in TU Special Collections for the past eight years. My time as a Special Collections librarian was a great source of training because I was responsible for such a wide range of daily tasks that inform what I do now. The most important experience I had during that time was training multiple generations of graduate students on how to work in an archive — not just because we’ve been able to grow future archivists and museum experts, but teaching others really streamlined and honed my understanding of our department’s functions. We have a very large archive, and it takes everyone working as a team to keep things running smoothly.
Q: You’ve been with McFarlin since 2015. What did you do prior to joining the TU family? What led up to your decision to work in Special Collections?
A: While in library school, I worked as a graduate assistant at the OU-Tulsa Schusterman Library and as an intern with the Woody Guthrie Center, where I got to craft an exhibit about one of the few live recordings of a Woody Guthrie concert. The recording was found in a closet many decades later, and after significant cleanup by audio engineers, won a Grammy for Best Historical Album.
I earned my law degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2011 and planned to become a law librarian! With that internship and through some networking, I came into archives work, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to work with our absolute world-class collections ever since. My favorite thing about working with collections is getting to know an author through their papers and correspondence. You learn a lot about their private life and inner thoughts, and that translates to how you understand and organize the materials for researchers and readers.
Q: What is your favorite item in the collection right now?
A: It’s so hard to choose, and I think it changes daily, if not hourly! We have almost 1,000 collections in our holdings, so it seems like I’m always finding something new and interesting. Lately, I’ve been sharing with visitors a framed scrap of wallpaper from the box where Abraham Lincoln was sitting in Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated. It’s an incredible piece of history and really demonstrates the care and value that previous librarians and our supportive donors have put into building our distinctive collections through the years.
Q: Are there any collections that you hope to see The University of Tulsa acquire?
A: We’ve been offered several very exciting additions to the collections lately. One of them is a set of letters from author Sir V.S. Naipaul to one of his mistresses, Margaret Murray. TU Special Collections purchased his life archive in 1993, several years before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Adding that correspondence would be a fantastic way to enrich a set of papers that’s important both to TU’s scholarly initiatives and our outreach to the international research community.
Q: Is it stressful to be in constant contact with fragile and rare items? If so, how do you overcome it?
A: Librarians and archivists learn to be mindful and careful about our rare books and manuscripts pretty quickly! When you’re charged with caring for priceless objects like one of Picasso’s lithographs, a letter written by Walt Whitman or a first edition of Ulysses, all of which we have in Special Collections, it becomes second nature to treat every object in the collections with an abundance of caution. Everything we do, from selective new purchases, to repair work and making the materials available to researchers is with an eye toward making sure the collections will be in good condition for years to come.
Q: Are there any changes or improvements you would like to implement as the director? What about future projects or programs?
A: We’re currently integrating a new software platform that will be ready to launch this summer called Aeon. This will work with our existing archival database to let researchers request items with the click of a button, manage their Reading Room visits, and aggregate anonymized data about how our collections are used. That last point is critical because having specific data can provide some insight into the topics or people that bring scholars and patrons from around the world into our archives. That information will help supplement the decision-making process about what we should invest in and add to Special Collections.
Down the road, I’d like to start an annual contest to reward students who produce research using Special Collections materials. We’ve enjoyed a great relationship with the Graduate College as we’ve trained students in handling archival materials, but I’d like to see us expand further into encouraging students to use primary resources early in their careers.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
A: I grow orchids on a competitive level, and I love to cross-stitch famous works of art! Right now, I’m working on Starry Night Over the Rhone by Van Gogh.