By: Diane Stirling

(315) 443-8975

Preservation librarian.  Library builder.  Internet guru. IT director. Web site developer. Living historian. Cultural preservationist. Historical interpreter. National Park ranger.

That zig-zagged array of seemingly unrelated undertakings describes the career path of School of Information Studies (iSchool) alumnus Dan Umstead, G ’90.

Once introduced at a speaking engagement as someone with a most bizarre but also most interesting career track, Umstead, of Syracuse, sees it quite differently. Those pursuits have all tied directly back to his education and training at the iSchool, he said.  

So how does an MLIS-degree graduate diversify in such a fashion? It’s quite logical; he simply has worked as a reference librarian—of one sort or another—for the past 20-plus years, Umstead acknowledged.  

Dan initially earned an undergraduate degree in speech and language pathology and audiology in Maryland. He had been working as a freelance journalist and magazine photographer for several years, and was close to completing a graduate degree in photography at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at SU, when the iSchool piqued his interest. He looked into it, and when he was offered both admission and funding, he couldn’t pass it by.

At the iSchool, he served in a John Ben Snow fellowship at the Belfer Audio Archive at SU, and in internships at Cornell University under preservation experts John Dean and Ann Kenney. He also was a graduate teaching assistant for Associate Professor Susan Bonzi, and worked with Barbara Settel in online search classes. 

After earning his master’s degree, Dan took a job as a traditional preservation librarian in Arizona. He soon transferred his skills back to Central New York. Regardless of the orientation of subsequent jobs, Umstead believes his iSchool time—from librarianship education, to cultural preservation training, to project management practice—was instrumental to his success.

“One of the best things I ever did was to sign up here as a student. It opened up so many doors. All the exciting things I’ve done over the years are a direct result of my education,” Umstead mused.

That eclectic array of “open doors” has included:  

  • Establishing an in-house general library for a Native American community
  • Creating a web site in 1994, when only 5,000 organizations were on the Internet
  • Building an online presence for a multi-tribes organization through an Apple Library of Tomorrow grant.
  • Developing physical and digital cultural archives space for the antiquities and the living histories of a tribal nation
  • Starting a living history department and operating it with five staff members and 35 volunteers for 10 years
  • Leading a living history troupe (whose members wore Revolutionary War dress, fired full-scale artillery at numerous National Park sites, held tent encampments, toted cannons to cultural celebrations, and walked with a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade)
  • Serving as a virtual consultant to the White House on its web page, in the days before most organizations were even using email routinely
  • Having espresso with the French Ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C. as part of a history project
  • Working with the press office for the Queen of England regarding a potential U.S. history initiative
  • Receiving a presidential award from the White House, an honor recognizing some 4,000 hours of personal volunteer service and 11,000 hours of department staff volunteerism
  • Being a park ranger at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome, NY, and live-interpreting early American history and hosting signature tours.

Back at the iSchool recently to address Assistant Professor of Practice Kenneth Lavender’s Summer Institute class on cultural preservation, Dan relayed his views on its various forms, and his belief that the human aspect of such work is paramount.

“Never let the technology element overtake the human element” of a project, he advised. “We can preserve all this digital stuff, but we also have to look at the culture behind it. If we lose the culture, we lose all that richness. We should be driven by the culture and have the technology support the culture and make it available to everybody.” He advised students to “take time first to chat; establish a rapport, then do the business. “It’s not the technology, it’s people first. It’s how do the people manage the technology information to enrich their own lives and their cultures. It’s too easy to get lost in the technology.”

Umstead described the cultural effervescence he has witnessed about the iSchool, and “how it has grown in prominence. It was always an important place, but I’ve see that grow since Dean Liz Liddy took the reins.  She is amazing; she has this warmth about her, yet she is such a strong individual in terms of the field.” Umstead noted that Liddy always encouraged his career pursuits and supported what may have seemed like non-traditional interests. 

While his professional relationships with the National Park Service date back a decade, Dan is enjoying his new role as a park ranger. He recently was presented a star award for exemplary work, even though he’s been on the job formally for just over six months. He is enjoying his newest role greatly. “I like being the interpreter. I like being face-to-face with people. I want to be on the field, on the ground, talking to people, and seeing it [happen] live. That’s the librarian in me,” he concluded.