University of Wisconsin–Madison

Alumni Profile: Nathan Sowry (MA’13)

Nathan has always had an interest in history and culture, and has gravitated towards positions in archives libraries, and museums. He volunteered with the Smithsonian Institution’s Anthropology Library, and later worked at the National Archives and Records Administration. Realizing he needed more education to pursue his career goals, Nathan moved to Pullman, WA and received his MA in History from Washington State University. While in Pullman, he worked in the National Park Service Archives at the Nez Perce National Historical Park, as well as in the university’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections.

Nathan graduated in 2013 and worked in several positions at the Wisconsin Historical Society while in school. He gained a great amount of knowledge and perspective from the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums class. TLAM is quite unique across the nation in its availability to library and archives students. More generally, though, Nathan also formed relationships with professors at SLIS, work supervisors at WHS, and fellow students, that have continued to influence and impact him personally and professionally.

Immediately upon graduation, Nathan accepted a position at the Smithsonian Institution back in Washington, D.C., first with the National Museum of African Art as a Photo Archivist, and more recently as the Reference Archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in History and American Indian Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

As an archivist, Nathan believes the most rewarding aspect is working with individuals and groups who utilize the archives for language revitalization research. The National Museum of the American Indian participates in collaborative language renewal and revitalization initiatives, including Recovering Voices and The National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages. These projects and others like them work to promote and preserve linguistic and cultural diversity, not just in North America or the western hemisphere, but around the world.

Issues of cultural sensitivity and proper stewardship for the archival materials in our care are of paramount importance in Nathan’s job. While this is true (or should be), for all archival collections, issues of “access for all” create challenges when they concern Native American and other indigenous materials that may have been gathered without the consent or awareness of the original owners. Walking a fine line between differing constituencies over issues of public accessibility vs. Native American intellectual property rights and culturally sensitive materials is at times difficult and challenging. What Nathan and the NMAI continually strive for, though, is respect, understanding, and collaboration between native communities and non-native researchers utilizing the collections currently in our stewardship.

Nathan’s advice for current and future SLIS students: take advantage of all that Madison offers. There are numerous ways to gain professional, real-world archives, library, and museum experience in the Madison area. Also, become friends with your fellow students. Finally, put your studies aside for a night, and enjoy the surroundings. Nathan has learned the hard way that it is pretty difficult to locate good Wisconsin beer or fried cheese curds outside of the Midwest.