Meredith Evans (PhD ’06): Preserving and sharing the country’s presidential past

December 12, 2016

After many productive years working with libraries and archives connected to institutions of higher learning, Meredith Evans (PhD ’06) stepped away from academia for a position connected to the country’s highest office. In November of 2015, Evans became Director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, Ga. She is the first African-American woman to be appointed as a presidential library director.


From left: Rosalynn Carter, Dr. Meredith Evans
and former president Jimmy Carter. 

“It’s different from any of the jobs I’ve had,” she said. “I manage an archive collection that is from President Carter’s administration through post-presidency, and then I have a full-fledged museum. This is the first job that I can directly correlate the records to a permanent exhibit, and at the same time I’m reaching out to a very diverse audience.”

Evans and her staff coordinate programming for nearly 100,000 visitors per year. Students from K-12 are a strong constituency, but the Carter Library also draws researchers from around the world, faculty and students from Atlanta’s colleges and universities, and members of the general public. “That makes my work interesting but also challenging,” Evans said.

While some aspects of the role may be new to her, Evans is no stranger to handling collections of national importance. In her role as director of the Special Collections Research Center at George Washington University, Evans acquired the National Education Association papers and negotiated funding for their preservation. As curator of printed materials at Atlanta University Center’s library, she was part of a project to process and digitize the papers and books of Martin Luther King, Jr. Evans said the project was significant not only because of the materials, but also because the AUC and Boston University collaboration was one of the first times Archivists’ Toolkit was used to create a combined finding aid among two institutions.

Evans has also long been a champion of community archives. Her dissertation focused on the recordkeeping practices of black churches in the Atlanta area. At UNC Charlotte, she helped launch an LGBTQ collection with ties to the local community, and at Washington University in St. Louis, she expanded the library’s Documenting Ferguson Project.

Improving access and preservation through digitization is another recurring theme of Evans’ career. The chance to work with the Documenting the American South (DocSouth) project, a digital publishing initiative of texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, was part of what drew her to SILS. In recent years, she has been excited to watch the evolution of strategic and ethical approaches to the curation of born-digital materials.

“What I’ve seen is the really successful collaboration among IT, librarians, archivists, and humanists–these different disciplines coming together to address and try to create solutions for the challenges in our professions,” she said. “That’s been pretty amazing.”

Through her various senior leadership positions, Evans has expanded her expertise in archives and preservation, as well as her general management and fundraising proficiencies. For the latter, she drew from the years she spent working in a corporate environment, as well as her own resolve.  

“If you tell me ‘no’ too many times, I’m just going to figure out a way that allows everyone to benefit,” she said. “That naturally led me into fundraising, which is all about relationship building and the chance to work on cool, interesting projects. Whether it’s through grant writing, organizational donors, or personal donors, you can find resources to do something fresh and new that your existing operating budget can’t support.”

Evans advises young professionals to show similar determination, no matter what restrictions they encounter at their workplaces. “Don’t let anything suppress your ideas and enthusiasm.” She also recommends developing a strong network of professionals who can provide feedback on ideas, and who can attest to the qualifications listed on your resume, so it’s more than just a piece of paper.

Friends and colleagues are one of the most enduring benefits of her time at SILS, Evans said, and she can often recognize other alumni shortly after meeting them.

“You can bump into someone from SILS and just know,” she said. “Graduates from SILS are creative thinkers. We’re not just IT people or IS people or LS people–we have an array of skillsets, but the one thing that remains true is that we are thinkers and doers, and that level of innovation lends itself to leadership. When you think about a SILS grad, you think of a leader in the profession.”

 This story was originally published in the Fall 2016 SILS newsletter.