Wednesday, January 9, 2013

An Interview with Meagan and Laura, Preservation Professionals

Meagan Baco is a Historic Preservation advocate currently working in Washington, D.C. Laura Burghardt is an archaeologist working at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Since graduating from the College of Charleston and Clemson University, the two have started, a website dedicated to Historic Preservation jobs and emerging professionals. Through a complicated linkup involving Skype, smartphones and Google Hangout, we were able to sit down one night and have a surprisingly audible conversation about their work and interests.

Aaron: I’m speaking with Meagan Baco and Laura Burghardt, and we’re talking about Historic Preservation, archaeology, and the internet. Good evening to both of you!

Meagan and Laura: Good evening!

Aaron: Let me start out by saying thank you both for agreeing to talk with me tonight. Can both of you tell me a bit about yourselves and your entry into Historic Preservation?

Meagan Baco: I guess I'll start. I was always interested in Historic Preservation, and before I went to [graduate] school I had a degree in “Urban Planning lite,” as I like to call it; an environmental design program. So then I went and I got my Master’s and met Laura. She had this great system of finding jobs and she used to send me jobs sometimes. So we decided to be entrepreneurial and see what we could figure out. We knew that the internet was obviously very important; none of our friends had a portfolio website, so we made our own portfolio website on iWeb and got our own domain names. And that was really the start.

Laura Burghardt: I think it was also a lot of frustration with the only available preservation job website being Preserve Net and Preservation Directory, which post really rarely and usually they’re jobs for people with a lot of experience. To find entry-level jobs, you had to check so many different websites; museum job sites and architecture. They were all in different places and it took a lot of work to get all of them together. To my mind, that was one of the biggest advantages to making our website, was that people could go to one space to find all of these jobs that are relevant and not just preservation jobs but jobs that are related enough to preservation so that if you had a background or interest you would be interested in those jobs.

Aaron: You mentioned that you had a system for finding jobs. Can you tell me a little about that?

Laura: I sought out websites that might post preservation-related jobs.

Meagan: Like state websites or SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) websites. Once we found a place that had a job post, Laura bookmarked it.

Laura: At this point, I have more than 100 websites that I go to; I open them all in tabs. I go through all the new jobs that they’ve posted and look through each one to see if it’s relevant, if people who are interested in preservation would be interested in it. That’s how we find new jobs to put them in one place for people to find.

Meagan: So it’s not so much of a system as a lot of work! Laura usually does that over the weekend, because of work. So Laura will give me a pretty long list of jobs, and I will enter them into the back-end of our website and set an expiration date. So on a daily basis I’ll go through, check the expiration date, and post things that are going to expire in the next couple of days. It’s really the boring stuff that we do. I post like 5 or 7 every other day, and answer all the emails. I get every preservation newsletter I can sign up for, and I check those for opportunities and jobs. And then if I see something on Facebook or I get an e-newsletter about an awesome project, or a project that needs help, or a project that’s completed, I ask them to submit a blog, and so I manage the weekly blog. We’ve been doing that since last October, and it’s really one of my favorite parts of the job, and I think it’s really starting to come into its own. And we like that; we don’t want to be just a jobs board.  This next group of website improvements that we’re trying to raise money for we’re going to try to communicate what your projects are, trying to connect people nationwide who are doing interesting projects, or who need help, etc. Trying to connect people, to make it more of a hub than just a jobs board.

Aaron: How did both of you get drawn into Historic Preservation? What made you decide that you wanted to go into this field in the first place?

Laura: People ask me this a lot! I really don’t have a good answer, other than that I was so interested in the past; I used to play pioneer with my sister. That’s how I got interested in it. I think the reason I went more into Historic Preservation instead of History is that I like the historic aspects of conservation, and working on buildings.

Meagan: Laura, didn’t you know what school you wanted to go to before you went to it?

Laura: Yeah, when I was in high school I already knew that I wanted to get a Master’s in Historic Preservation. I flew through undergrad; I was so, so excited to get to Charleston.

Meagan: Laura’s exceptionally organized and plans ahead better than a lot of people do. In high school she was already thinking about grad school. It probably does come from whenever, in your childhood when you figure it out; it took me a lot longer. When I was a teenager I was into the environment and environmental sciences and that’s what I wanted to go to school for. But I didn’t really want to go into science, so I was going to go to school for either geology or geography. Geology is a lot of memorization, and geography is already settled. So, not much to do there! I ended up going to school for urban planning and realized that my favorite places were all historic places. So, that’s how I got involved. I took a year off between undergrad and grad, and my brother was living in Charleston so I looked up “Historic Preservation Charleston.” He said I would love it there. I applied to the College at Charleston and Clemson University Joint Program, and I went to school.

Aaron: Why would you say historic preservation is important?

Meagan: Well, there’s just so much in historic preservation. You can technically say what Laura does is historic archaeology, which I would say is almost historic preservation. Where she works, with the Park Service, she’s literally digging up new history to explore. Or you could be an architectural historian, doing more in the research library. You could be a preservation specialist; rebuilding or redeveloping a building. Or you could be a preservation advocate, which is what I am. I research, aggregate and promote historic preservation and related projects – all to make historic places, official or not, more appreciated, and better used. All of those things are quests for knowledge and education; it’s learning something new, it’s sharing it, and it’s exploring and investigating the importance of our lives, and other people’s lives. I think that not too many things are permanent, and I think that even fewer of them are of importance. To me studying how we used to live, and the craftsmanship… there’s importance to that. Someone laid that brick, someone designed that building. It’s just kind of amazing how disrespectful we are to a building that shows any sign of age.

Laura: That’s why I think that archaeology and historic preservation are so related. They deal with things that people left behind, and even though the people are gone, these are the things that are left; the archaeology and the buildings.

Aaron: It’s kind of a question of time periods, isn’t it? One of you deals with the older stuff, the stuff that’s been abandoned for some time, and the other deals with structures that were constructed more recently, that are still livable, by modern standards.

Meagan: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yeah! Laura digs up the buildings and I try to make sure they don’t become those ruins!

Aaron: Can you describe a typical day managing your website?

Meagan: It’s a system where Laura looks up the jobs and I get the email and I input them all. And then I post them every day as they are set to expire. And then I go through my newsletters. What’s different about our website from other sites is that we don’t post everything. Preserve-Net probably posts everything that gets submitted to them; so does Preservation Directory. What we provide is a lens that says this is a job you’re probably qualified for, that seems interesting, and hopefully you’re getting compensated for. I try not to post a lot of volunteer positions. I post a lot of things that are events and professional development and webinars so people can develop their own career while they’re looking for work. I think that’s a situation that a lot of people are in. That’s the daily of the website, and we keep track of all of our expenses; we’re a business. We have to do the taxes; that’s a learning experience. We’re a registered LLC (Limited Liability Company), that’s a pain!

Aaron: And you’re both collaborating on this even though one of you is in, I believe, Buffalo, New York, and the other is in Texas?

Meagan: Laura’s in Texas and I’m in Washington D.C. now. Actually, the website never existed when we lived in the same place.

Aaron: What is it like collaborating over the web like that?

Meagan: Laura and I know each other pretty well, and we’ve been running it for a while. I’d say it’s pretty easy. If, one week, someone’s really busy and isn’t going to get to it… text each other. Call each other.

Aaron: At this point you’ve gotten past the trial period!

Meagan: Yeah, things are actually looking up. I think we’ve gotten the site to the point where it’s attractive to businesses and school to put some attention into it, in ads and sponsored narratives and things like that. It’s always going to be free. But we also do career consultation service; we’ve helped over 50 people with that, and that’s something we both enjoy doing. But we don’t want to keep making money on the unemployed. But they’re usually in school, and $75 in the great scheme of things is usually just a great night out. But we’d like to get some more partnerships that bring in money so that we can filter that back into improvements to the website. We don’t make any money on the website.

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Due to the huge amount of information that Meagan and Laura were able to provide me with, part 1 ends here. Come back next week to read part 2. If you can't wait that long, please voice your displeasure in the space below. It won't make any difference in the long run, but you'll feel better.


HistPres. Web. 9 Jan. 2013.

PreserveNet. Web. 9. Jan. 2013.

1 comment:

  1. This turned out great, Aaron! Thanks for the opportunity to speak with you and for sharing our insights. We are proud to be part of the restoration economy! -Meagan